One reason I love traveling to Europe is to visit world-class art museums located throughout Europe.  Well, I wasn't always an art fanatic.  In 2002, I went to the Van Gogh-Gauguin exhibition at the Art Institute in Chicago, and that started me on a new found appreciation of the masterpieces of the French Impressionists: Monet, CĂ©zanne, Sisley, Pissarro, and Morisot. Plus, I fell in love with the work of Vincent van Gogh. I am captivated by the vibrant colors and heavy brushstrokes that van Gogh used in creating his works while in the south of France. Visits to more local art exhibitions and the beginning of my European travels together with extensive reading augmented my curiosity and fascination with an increasing variety of art movements throughout history other than the French Impressionists. I discovered the Post-Impressionism of Manet and Seurat; the vivid colors of Gabriele MĂĽnter, Ernst Kirchner and other German Expressionist painters; the pulsating colors in Bonnard's and Vuillard's Nabi paintings, the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and the sculptured radiance of Bernini and Michelangelo. Most recently my art interest has turned to the brilliant portraiture of Frans Hals, Hans Memling and other Flemish Primitive painters and the Dutch Masters work of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

To be an art enthusiast you need to be an art historian. Now, everyone was taught in school about the World War II history of Adolf Hitler, Herman Göring and the atrocities they caused in the Holocaust. But are you also aware of the extensive pilfering and destruction of some of the world's art treasures caused by the German Third Reich leaders?

During the early years of Nazi rule, the term degenerate art came into use. Hitler felt the nation's taste in art should mirror his own personal taste in art; classic art should influence German art.  New genres of modern art emerging in Germany such as Cubism and Expressionism were deemed to be contaminated by the Jewish influence although few of these artists were actually Jewish. Hitler, with his idea of omnipotent rule, took it upon himself to decide what was acceptable art and what art was detrimental to the Third Reich. Thus, any unsuitable art was termed as Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art and destroyed, burned; thousands of paintings. Artists were forbidden to sell, exhibit their works or even paint in the privacy of their own homes. It was not just paintings that were destroyed. Anything unfavorable to the Third Reich was eliminated. Books were burned. If a person showed favoritism to the degenerate art, they were replaced in their job by someone who had the same beliefs as the Nazis leaders. Some artists committed suicide, their lives meaningless because they could not produce the art they loved nor teach it. Many artists were forced to flee Germany as they were seen as a threat to the new Third Reich.

This destruction was taken to an even greater level when a commission was formed to see that no modern or degenerate art remained in German museums. Thousands of works of art were seized and destroyed including works by the German artists Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann and Ernst Kirchner, and even the non-German painters Picasso, Matisse and van Gogh. 

Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) by Vincent van Gogh at Musée d'Orsay

There is a terrific book by Cynthia Saltzman titled Portrait of Dr. Gachet which tells the story of this famous painting by van Gogh (he made several versions of this painting; the one at the left is the one at MusĂ©e d'Orsay) which was considered degenerate art by the Nazis and follows its provenance through the 20th century.

In a propaganda move, the Nazis put the seized works on display at an exhibition titled the Entartete Kunst exhibit; they wanted to push the citizens of Germany into their way of thinking: the revulsion of this modern art and how it was detrimental to the Aryan life.  The irony of this seizure of the degenerate art was that after the exhibition many of the forbidden art works were taken by Nazi leaders for their own personal collections.

Michelangelo's Madonna in Bruges

Nazi leaders felt it was their right to add to their personal collections with not just these degenerate pieces of art, but also with some of the world's most famous works of art. Fortunately, in the late 1930s, curators of many of the Europe's renowned museums felt that war was inevitable when Hitler came to power.  Many museums took the initiative of hiding much of their collections from the Nazis in specially designed bunkers.  But not all art was safe from the Nazis.  In whatever country they took control, the Nazis seized all sorts of cultural items. The seizure was planned in a very organized manner. A entire Nazi department was set up just to determine the most important works to confiscate. Some pieces were earmarked for Hitler's FĂĽhrermuseum, some for Hermann Göring's personal collection, and other items were used for barter.  World famous paintings and religious works of art such as Vermeer's The Astronomer; Self Portrait by Rembrandt, Michelangelo's The Bruges Madonna; and Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece were considered war booty to the Nazis.  It is estimated the Nazi regime confiscated hundreds of thousands of pieces of art.  Hermann Göring amassed a personal collection of over 2,000 items for himself.  The fantastic book by Lynn Nicholas titled The Rape of Europa chronicles this entire story.
As the war began turning in favor of the Allies in 1944, the Nazis began to hide this war booty in unusual places such as salt mines and hidden caves which offered the appropriate air conditions for the fragile paintings and protection from the Allied bombs. Eventually, artworks were found in over 1,000 different places. To protect famous European monuments from destruction during the final months of the war, the Allies put together a special commission called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA). Made up of men and women who in civilian life worked or were experts in art and architecture, the MFAA's job was to travel to once Nazi-occupied countries to access the bomb damage to famous monuments such as the MusĂ©e du Louvre and to find the confiscated works of art stolen by the Nazis and to return them to their rightful owners. Unfortunately the MFAA also had to protect these stolen works of art from being stolen again by certain Allied forces. When simple signs to keep out didn't work, the MFAA resorted to fooling potential thieves by making them believe unexploded mines remained where the art works were hidden. Overall, over 700,000 items were returned to their original individual owners or museums; however, that number represents only 80% of the items the Nazis pilfered during the war. Two excellent books by Robert Edsel, Rescuing Da Vinci and The Monuments Mentell the story of the Allied forces and the MFAA's tireless hunt. I have read all four books mentioned in this blog post. I would be interested to know if you have read any of the four books listed and what you thought of them.

This blog post isn't really related to planning your trip to Europe, but if you are going to Europe and are planning to visit Europe's world-renown art museums, realize the astonishing recent history of the works of art hanging in front of you.

Thank you for visiting,

A Great Europe Trip Planner

Photos were taken by me during my trips to Paris and Brugge.

No comments:

Post a Comment