“The day capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is forced to recognize that its supply of raw material will not be endless, is the day when change will come. If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.
The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination — an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but who may really be the guides to our future.”
(The image that illustrates this post was found in Flick; it’s a “Pachamama” refers to “Mother Earth” and is central to many indigenous cultures across South America.)
The Rape of Europa tells the epic story of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe’s art treasures during the Third Reich and the Second World War.
In a journey through seven countries, the film takes the audience into the violent whirlwind of fanaticism, greed, and warfare that threatened to wipe out the artistic heritage of Europe. For twelve long years, the Nazis looted and destroyed art on a scale unprecedented in history. But young art professionals as well as ordinary heroes, from truck drivers to department store clerks, fought back with an extraordinary effort to safeguard, rescue and return the millions of lost, hidden and stolen treasures.
The Rape of Europa begins and ends with the story of artist Gustav Klimt’s famed Gold Portrait, stolen from Viennese Jews in 1938 and now the most expensive painting ever sold.
Today, more than sixty years later, the legacy of this tragic history continues to play out as families of looted collectors recover major works of art, conservators repair battle damage, and nations fight over the fate of ill-gotten spoils of war.
Joan Allen narrates this breathtaking chronicle about the battle over the very survival of centuries of western culture.
According to U.S. estimates, the Nazis stole one-fifth of all the known artworks in Europe. While the Allies returned most of the displaced art in the decade following the war, much of the loot is still missing. Tragically, unique masterpieces were destroyed and lost to posterity forever. Other works of art – the last, forgotten victims of the war – survived but remain unidentified, traceable only with costly and difficult investigation.
By the mid-fifties the initial, massive restitution effort by the Allies had lost its priority and momentum to the pressures of the Cold War. Hundreds of works of art, their owners unidentified, still lay in government storerooms across Europe, or remained in the hands of unscrupulous dealers who waited for years before disguising their origins and feeding them slowly into the market.
But this long quiet period is over. The end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives of Eastern Europe revealed that many works believed lost had survived. The commemorations marking the end of World War II and the development of Holocaust scholarship also led to the re-examination and declassification of forgotten records, inspiring those who had long since despaired of finding their lost possessions to search again. Instrumental in bringing worldwide attention to this long-neglected story was the 1995 publication of The Rape of Europa, Lynn H. Nicholas’s landmark book on which the film is based.
The documentary film by Actual Films builds on her scholarship by incorporating the latest historical research, examining the legal and political problems presented by contemporary restitution claims, and assessing the lingering effects of this massive cultural displacement, an aspect of the war that still haunts us today.
The revival of interest in the subject of looting and restitution has had dramatic results. American museums from Seattle / Washington to Raleigh / North Carolina have had to explain how stolen paintings ended up in their collections after the war. In France, a catalogue of unclaimed art held by the national museums and ignored for years is now available online. Other nations, feeling the pressure, have also revisited the often unjust decisions made by their governments after the war concerning ownership of looted art. Perhaps most notable is the case of the five paintings by Gustav Klimt, long held by the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, that were awarded in 2006 by a panel of Austrian judges to Maria Altmann, the 90-year-old Los Angeles niece of a Viennese Jew from whom the paintings were stolen in 1938. She subsequently sold the pictures, one of them- the famed Gold Portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer – to Ronald Lauder for a record $135 million.
Pillage and looting during warfare are not, of course, activities that originated with World War II. Even before the epics of Homer, human history recorded the time-honored tradition of victors seizing plunder from the vanquished. But the massive scale, the unprecedented bureaucratic organization and the legalistic rationalizations offered by the Nazis set their accomplishments apart. Not hundreds or thousands, but millions of visual objects were bought and sold, confiscated and transported around the continent of Europe.
Just as the Nazis sought to impose their race-based morality onto the diverse population of Europe, they also sought to redraw the cultural face of Europe by rearranging or destroying its great artworks. Even in the upheavals of war the Nazi leaders devoted precious time and energy to the gathering of works of art. They carried out multiple operations with cross purposes. While Alfred Rosenberg’s propaganda unit (ERR) appropriated artworks that would buttress the Party’s racist ideology and pilfered the great Jewish collections of Europe, Hitler employed distinguished art historians and corrupt dealers to steal masterpieces that would confer prestige and symbolic legitimacy on the German nation.
However diverse, these operations were all linked by an underlying, racist effort by the Nazis to use the expropriation and destruction of cultural property as a means to dehumanize their victims. The Holocaust has become a symbol of the dark side of humanity, and we have spent decades trying to understand what it means to live knowing that average people are capable of complicity in such a horror. The history of what happened to Europe’s great art during and after the Second World War provides an important new lens through which to examine these seemingly imponderable themes.
In contrast to the wholesale looting of Hitler and the Nazis, the western Allies worked to mitigate the tragic, inevitable toll exacted on art and historic cities during their invasion of Italy, France and Germany. Central to this history is the unprecedented mission of the Monuments Men, mostly American art historians and museum curators who, drafted into military service, mounted a miraculous effort to protect monuments and recover millions of pieces of displaced art.
Moving back and forth in time, the film links investigations into looted art back to their wartime origins, tracing the remarkable journeys of individual masterpieces from wartime confiscation to present-day recovery by the families of the original owners. The Rape of Europa offers a privileged entry into the exclusive circles of the contemporary art trade and explores the little-known legacy of World War II that lured many post-war collectors and dealers into a Faustian bargain that continues to present day.
We live at a time when the common cultural heritage of humanity continues to be vulnerable to the threats of ideologues and the assaults of armed conflict, from the wanton destruction by Serbs of centuries-old mosques in Bosnia and Kosovo to the televised demolition by the Taliban of the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan and the rampant looting that accompanied the American invasion of Iraq. The Rape of Europa is an emotional witness to the destruction wrought on culture and art by fanaticism, greed, and warfare. But it is also a hopeful film that demonstrates how it is possible for humanity to protect the integrity of cultural property in armed conflicts.
* * * * *
Perspective on the film by Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa
My interest in the issue of art looting began quite by chance in 1980 when I saw the obituary of a Louvre curator, Rose Valland, in the Herald Tribune. It said, among other things, that she had been a Resistance heroine and responsible for saving and recovering thousands of works of art both during and after World War II. I was living in Brussels at the time, without any particular commitments, and my curiosity having been aroused, I decided to look into just what had happened to all the works of art in Europe during the war. Despite the fact that I had long been involved in the American museum world, I had never given any thought to the issue, and apparently no one else had either, at least not for a long time.
I started slowly, in Brussels, asking people at the museums there what they had done during the war. As the story slowly emerged, all the Europeans were astonished at my ignorance and kept directing me to people who, by the late 1970’s, held high positions in US museums. And so it was, that upon my return to Washington in 1984, that I began the real work. As it turned out, no one had ever asked any of the “monuments men”, as those who dealt with the rescue of European art treasures during the war are called, about their work. I was very lucky. Since I had worked in museums for years, I did know many of them, and without exception, they were delighted to share their memories, letters, and photos with me.
These personal papers were just the beginning. At the National Gallery of Art, I found the day to day correspondence of the Presidential commission set up to deal with art looting. The National Archives was another revelation: here were not only all the Allied records and photographs of damage, recovery and restitution, but tons of German documents recording the looting of Hitler and his cronies. It is hard to describe how exciting it was to find the files containing the actual correspondence related to this activity, often annotated by Hitler and Goering themselves.
I soon realized that the amazing exploits of the Monuments Men – and I include those from all nations including Germany who protected works of art, could not be understood without considerable analysis of Nazi thinking and policy. For example – the items that the Nazi collectors bartered and sold as opposed to those they confiscated and bought could only be explained by their theories on the degeneracy of races and cultures which were exemplified by the purges of their own museums before the war.
I was also well along with my book before the issue of what had NOT been recovered even occurred to me. Although vast amounts of movable art had been returned at the end of the war, thousands of items remained unaccounted for and tracking them down and reuniting them with their original owners has become a hot topic. Politics and world events have made an enormous difference to the development of this research–most especially the demise of the Soviet Union, the opening up of Eastern Europe and the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, with its reexamination of what had been done in the first years of peace–much of which, when revisited, did not seem quite right. As things thought lost forever came to light, families and governments began to look back at dusty records and memory was revived. All this was further fuelled by the gigantic increases in the values of many of the missing objects, with the result that many a lost work has been identified and returned its proper place.
The history of looting is not just about objects. It is a story full of personal tragedy and loss, of bittersweet recovery of the fragments of vanished cultures and lives. The combination of devastating destruction and the most beautiful objects of civilization is very powerful and is made even more so by the visual medium of film. I was quite overwhelmed by actually seeing images of the stories I knew so well. With great sensitivity the filmmakers of The Rape of Europa have added new dimensions and brought this whole history to life in an unforgettable and exciting manner.
“Perhaps there is nothing which offers to the eye and the mind a more complete and more sorrowful representation of the world than the sea. In the first place, it is a picture of force in its wildest and most unconquerable form; it is a display, a luxury of power, of which nothing else can give an idea; and it lives, moves, tosses, everlastingly without aim. Sometimes we might say that the sea is animated, that it palpitates and breathes, that it is an immense heart, whose powerful and tumultuous heaving we see; but what makes us despair here is that all this effort, this ardent life, is spent to no purpose. This heart of the world beats without hope; from all this rocking, all this collision of the waves, there results only a little foam stripped off by the wind.
I remember that, sitting on the beach once, I watched the serried waves rolling towards me. They came without interruption from the expanse of the sea, roaring and white. Behind the one dying at my feet I noticed another; and further behind that one, another; and further still, another and another – a multitude. At last, as far as I could see, the whole horizon seemed to rise and roll on towards me. There was a reservoir of infinite, inexhaustible forces there. How deeply I felt the impotency of man to arrest the effort of that whole ocean in movement! A dike might break one of these waves; it could break hundreds and thousands of them; but would not the immense and indefatigable ocean gain the victory?
The ocean neither works nor produces; it moves. It does not give life; it contains it, or rather it gives and takes it with the same indifference. It is the grand, eternal cradle rocking its creatures. If we look down into its fathoms, we see its swarming life. There is not one of its drops of water which does not hold living creatures, and all fight one another, persecute one another, avoid and devour one another… The ocean itself gives us the spectacle of a war, a struggle without truce… And yet this tempest of the water is but the continuation, the consequence, of the tempest of the air; is it not the shudder of the winds which communicates itself to the sea?
There is nothing which is not carried away by the whirlpool of cosmic existence. Earth itself, man, human intelligence, nothing can offer us anything fixed to which it would be possible to hold on – all these are swept away in slower, but not less irresistible, undulations…
* * * * *
Let us imagine a ship in a storm, rising and falling by a series of curves… If at one moment of the passage the descending curve bears the ship down, and she does not rise again, it would be a sign that she is sinking deeper and deeper, and beginning to founder. Even so is it with life, tossed about on waves of pleasure and of pain: if one marks these undulations with lines, and if the line of pain lengthens more than the other, it means that we are going down. Life, in order to exist, needs to be a perpetual victory of pleasure over pain.”
JEAN-MARIE GUYAU (1854-1888),
French philosopher and poet,
Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction.
Originally published in 1884. Quoted from the English translation,
by Gertrude Kapteyn. London, 1898. Chapter I. Pgs. 42 – 35.
Download e-book in French or English.
“La Mer”, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
ADAM THE FIRST
by Heinrich Heine
You sent me, with flaming sword,
your guard from the heavenly city,
and chased me out of Paradise
neither with right nor pity.
I’ll take my wife and we’ll move on,
to other lands be ranging;
but that I ate from the wisdom tree
is now beyond your changing.
You cannot change my knowing of
your pettiness and blunders,
no matter how you try to bluff
us men by death and thunders.
O God! How pitiful is this
decision of ejection!
How worthy of heaven’s governor!
How brilliant his perfection!
Your Garden of Eden, your Paradise,
I’ll never miss a minute;
that was no real paradise,
with a tree forbidden in it.
I ask full freedom as my right,
for freedom’s banner has risen!
The slightest limitation would turn
your Eden to hell and to prison.
* * * * *
Oh, forget those holy fables,
sanctimonious allegories –
try to answer those damned questions
without telling silly stories.
Why must just men bear the crosses,
stumbling wretchedly and bleeding,
while the bad man, high on horseback,
is victoriously succeeding?
Why so? Could the reason be that
God Almighty has restrictions?
Or that He Himself does mischief?
Ah, what sordid contradictions!
These are our eternal questions
till they stuff, when we lie pallid,
earth clods down our mouths by handfuls –
do you think such answer valid?
* * * * *
I am not lured by Eden’s fields,
the promised land in Paradise.
No fairer women there than those
on whom on earth I laid my eyes.
No angel with the finest wings
could substitute there for my wife.
Sitting on clouds and singing psalms
is not my dream of afterlife…”
“Emiliano Zapata, a champion of agrarian reform and a key protagonist in the Mexican Revolution, here leads a band of peasant rebels armed with makeshift weapons, including farming tools. With the bridle of a majestic white horse in his hand, Zapata stands triumphantly beside the dead body of a hacienda owner. Though Mexican and U.S. newspapers regularly vilified the revolutionary leader as a treacherous bandit, Rivera immortalized Zapata as a hero and glorified the victory of the Revolution in an image of violent but just vengeance.”- MOMA
Liberation of the Peon (1931)
“In Liberation of the Peon, Rivera developed a harrowing narrative of corporal punishment. A laborer, beaten and left to die, is cut down from a post by sympathetic revolutionary soldiers, who tend to his broken body. Peonage—a system of indentured servitude established by Spanish colonizers, under which natives were forced to work the land—persisted in Mexico into the 20th century. The mural offers the injustice of earlier social and economic conditions as a rationale for the Mexican Revolution.” – MOMA
“Set on a sugar plantation, this portable mural introduces the tensions over labor, race, and economic inequity that simmered in Mexico after the Revolution. In the foreground, an Indian woman, with the traditional braids and white clothes of a peasant, cuts papayas from a tree while her children collect the fruit in reed baskets. Behind them, dark-skinned men with bowed heads gather bunches of sugar cane. A foreman, with distinctly lighter skin and hair, watches over them on horseback, and in the background a pale hacendado(wealthy landowner) languishes in a hammock. In this panel, Rivera adapted Marxist ideas about class struggle—an understanding of history born in industrialized Europe—to the context of Mexico, a primarily agrarian country until after World War II.” – MOMA
Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita (1931)
“Rivera spent the tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) painting and traveling abroad in Europe. Upon returning to his native country in 1921, he exalted indigenous Mexican people and traditions, making them a central subject of his work. As he later recalled, “My homecoming aroused an aesthetic rejoicing in me which is impossible to describe. Everywhere I saw a potential masterpiece—in the crowds, the markets, the festivals, the marching battalions, the workers in the workshops, the fields—in every shining face, every radiant child.” This painting, depicting a flower festival held on Good Friday in a town then called Santa Anita, was included in a solo exhibition of Rivera’s work at MoMA in 1931. Only the second artist (after Henri Matisse) to receive this honor, Rivera was, at the time, an international celebrity: the New York Sun hailed him as “the most talked about artist on this side of the Atlantic.” – MOMA
The Arsenal (1928)
“Almost all of Rivera’s art told a story, many of which depicted Mexican society, the Mexican Revolution, or reflected his own personal social and political beliefs, and in The Arsenal is no different. The woman on the right side of this painting in Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer and revolutionary political activist, who is holding ammunition for Julio Antonio Mella, a founder of the internationalized Cuban communist party. Vittorio Vidale, an Italian-born Stalinist sympathizer, stands behind them in a black hat. The figures in this painting are an illustration of Rivera’s transferring his political beliefs onto canvas. He was an active member of the Mexican communist party, and was friends with Leon Trotsky, who lived with him for seven months. ” – Wikipaintings
“In Frozen Assets, Rivera coupled his appreciation for New York’s distinctive vertical architecture with a potent critique of the city’s economic inequities. The panel’s upper register features a dramatic sequence of largely recognizable skyscrapers, most completed within a few years of Rivera’s arrival in New York. In the middle section, a steel-and-glass shed serves as a shelter for rows of sleeping men, pointing to the dispossessed labor that made such extraordinary growth possible during a period of economic turmoil. Below, a bank’s waiting room accommodates a guard, a clerk, and a trio of figures eager to inspect their mounting assets in the vault beyond. Rivera’s jarring vision of the city—in which the masses trudge to work, the homeless are warehoused, and the wealthy squirrel away their money—struck a chord in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression.” – Wikipaintings
Man at the Crossroads (1933-34)
“Rivera stirred up controversy yet again when he was commissioned to create Man at the Crossroads for the Rockefeller Center in 1933. He was chosen to complete a mural on the first floor of the Rockefeller Center, with the theme of man at the crossroads, looking to the hope of a new and better future. The original work included pictures of women drinking alcohol, cells depicting sexually transmitted diseases, Leon Trotsky and a portrait of Lenin, which upset Rockefeller, who commissioned the work. He demanded that the face of Lenin be changed, but Rivera refused. Rockefeller immediately paid for the work, dismissed Rivera, and covered the mural. Rivera, who was determined to have his mural shown, re-created it at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and renamed the piece Man, Controller of the Universe. The original Man at the Crossroad in the Rockefeller Center was smashed and hauled away in 1934.” – Wikipaintings
“In The Uprising, a woman with a baby at her hip and a working man fend off an attack by a uniformed soldier. Behind them, a riotous crowd clashes with more soldiers, who force demonstrators to the ground. The location is unclear, though the figures’ skin tone implies that the scene is set in Mexico or another Latin American country. In the early 1930s, an era of widespread labor unrest, images of the violent repression of strikes would have resonated with both U.S. and Latin American audiences. The battle here stands as a potent symbol of universal class struggle.” – MOMA
Indian Warrior (1931)
“Of all the panels Rivera made for The Museum of Modern Art, Indian Warrior reaches back farthest into Mexican history, to the Spanish Conquest of the early 16th century. An Aztec warrior wearing the costume of a jaguar stabs an armored conquistador in the throat with a stone knife. The Spaniard’s steel blade—an emblem of European claims to superiority—lies broken nearby. Jaguar knights, members of an elite Aztec military order, were known for their fighting prowess; according to legend, their terrifying costumes enabled them to possess the power of the animal in battle. The panel’s jarring vision of righteous violence offered a Mesoamerican precedent for Mexico’s recent revolution, as well as its continuing struggles.” – MOMA