2011年5月30日 星期一

“Degenerate Art” Survivors

Art’s Survivors of Hitler’s War

BERLIN — The past still thrusts itself back into the headlines here, occasionally as an unexploded bomb turning up somewhere. Now it has reappeared as art.

John MacDougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Marg Moll’s “Dancer,” from around 1930, is one of the found works in the “Degenerate Art” show at the Neues Museum in Berlin.



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“A Likeness of the Actress Anni Mewes,” by Edwin Scharff, is among the pieces found this year during excavations in Berlin.

Neues Museum, Berlin

“Hagar” by Karl Kanppe. From left: the original bronze; the condition when discovered; and as it appears now, cleaned and on display at Berlin’s Neues Museum.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

“Head,” by Otto Freundlich, is one of 11 pieces of art that were initially thought to be of ancient origin.

In January workers digging for a new subway station near City Hall unearthed a bronze bust of a woman, rusted, filthy and almost unrecognizable. It tumbled off the shovel of their front-loader.

Researchers learned the bust was a portrait by Edwin Scharff, a nearly forgotten German modernist, from around 1920. It seemed anomalous until August, when more sculpture emerged nearby: “Standing Girl” by Otto Baum, “Dancer” by Marg Moll and the remains of a head by Otto Freundlich. Excavators also rescued another fragment, a different head, belonging to Emy Roeder’s “Pregnant Woman.” October produced yet a further batch.

The 11 sculptures proved to be survivors of Hitler’s campaign against what the Nazis notoriously called “degenerate art.” Several works, records showed, were seized from German museums in the 1930s, paraded in the fateful “Degenerate Art” show, and in a couple of cases also exploited for a 1941 Nazi film, an anti-Semitic comedy lambasting modern art. They were last known to have been stored in the depot of the Reichspropagandaministerium, which organized the “Degenerate” show.

Then the sculptures vanished.

How they ended up underground near City Hall is still a mystery; it seems to involve an Oskar Schindler-like hero. Meanwhile a modest exhibition of the discoveries has been organized and recently opened at the Neues Museum, Berlin’s archaeological collection, the perfect site for these works.

Like the sculptures, the museum lately rose, all these years later, from the ruins of war. In the architect David Chipperfield’s ingenious, Humpty Dumpty-like reconstruction of the building, it has become a popular palimpsest of German history, bearing witness, via the evidence of the damage done to it, to a violence that not even time and several generations have been able to erase.

I can hardly express how moving this little show is, unexpectedly so. Its effect ends up being all out of proportion to the objects discovered, which are, in strictly aesthetic terms, fine but not remarkable. They are works of quasi-Cubism or Expressionism, mostly not much more than a foot high, several newly cleaned but still scarred, inspiring the obvious human analogy.

The poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan came up, in a different context, with the metaphor of bottles tossed into the ocean “at the shoreline of the heart,” now finally washed ashore. They’re like the dead, these sculptures, ever coming back to us, radiant ghosts.

In a country that for decades has been profoundly diligent at disclosing its own crimes and framing them in the context of history, it makes sense that the exhibition was installed to share a courtyard with Assyrian friezes from a long-ago regime that made an art of totalitarian rule and with an ancient frieze describing the eruption of Vesuvius, which preserved priceless objects, buried in the ash, that have found sanctuary in institutions like the Neues Museum.

Archeologists have so far determined that the recovered works must have come from 50 Königstrasse, across the street from City Hall. The building belonged to a Jewish woman, Edith Steinitz; several Jewish lawyers are listed as her tenants in 1939, but their names disappear from the record by 1942, when the house became property of the Reich. Among its subsequent occupants, German investigators now believe, the likeliest candidate to have hidden the art was Erhard Oewerdieck, a tax lawyer and escrow agent.

Oewerdieck is not widely known, but he is remembered at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. In 1939, he and his wife gave money to a Jewish family to escape to Shanghai. He also hid an employee, Martin Lange, in his apartment. In 1941 he helped the historian Eugen Täubler and his wife flee to America, preserving part of Täubler’s library. And he stood by Wolfgang Abendroth too, a leftist and Nazi opponent, by writing him a job recommendation when that risked his own life.

The current theory is that when fire from Allied air raids in 1944 consumed 50 Königstrasse, the contents of Oewerdieck’s office fell through the floor, and then the building collapsed on top. Tests are being done on ash from the site for remains of incinerated paintings and wood sculptures. How the lost art came into Oewerdieck’s possession in the first place still isn’t clear.

But at least it’s now back on view. Scharff’s bust, of an actress named Anni Mewes, brings to mind Egyptian works in the Neues Museum. Karl Knappe’s “Hagar,” a bronze from 1923, twisted like knotted rope, has been left with its green patina of rust and rubble, making it almost impossible to decipher, save as evidence of its fate. On the other hand, Freundlich’s “Head,” from 1925, a work made of glazed terra cotta, gnarled like an old olive tree, loses little of its power for being broken. The Nazis seized the Freundlich from a museum in Hamburg in 1937, then six years later, in France, seized the artist and sent him to Majdanek, the concentration camp in Poland, where he was murdered on the day he arrived.

Across the street from the Neues Museum contemporary galleries showcase the sort of work the Nazis hoped to eradicate but that instead give Berlin its current identity as a capital of cool. This is a city that resembles the young masses who gravitate here: forever in a state of becoming, wary, unsure and unresolved, generally broke, but optimistic about the future, with the difference that Germany can’t escape its past.

Farther down the block the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s Hitler exhibition, today’s version of a “Degenerate” show, means to warn viewers about succumbing to what present German law declares morally reprehensible. How could any decent German have ever been taken in? the show asks.

That happens to be the question the Nazis’ “Degenerate” show posed about modern art. Many more Germans visited that exhibition than the concurrent one of approved German art. Maybe Oewerdieck was among those who went to the modern show and saw these sculptures in it. In any case, today’s Germany has salvaged them and has organized this display. Redemption sometimes comes late and in small measures.

2011年5月29日 星期日

The Pietà Behind the Couch

Pieta It. ):痛苦之母雕像;必哀大(音譯):描繪聖母瑪利亞緊抱耶穌屍體之像,最出名者有米開朗基羅( Michelangelo )十字架下的痛苦聖母雕像,現存羅馬聖伯鐸大殿。原字為義大利文,意為母子之情。

The Pietà Behind the Couch

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times; Courtesy of Martin Kober

Many scholars believe that the Pietà created by Michelangelo for Vittoria Colonna is a drawing, right, now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. But Antonio Forcellino, a Michelangelo expert, believes the artist gave Colonna a painting: the one owned by Martin Kober, left.

IN 1885, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art was young and New York was home to much new wealth but only a few old masters, the museum showcased a painting on loan from Europe that created a minor stir.




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Antonio Forcellino, a Michelangelo expert.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

A closer view of the Pietà.

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What do you make of Martin Kober's Pietà and the debate over whether or not the painting is a Michelangelo?

It was a small wood-panel Pietà depicting an earthy-looking Virgin Mary holding her dead son, assisted by two muscular angels, a tableau widely acknowledged to have been created by Michelangelo, though the Met’s catalog went only as far as saying that the painting had been attributed to him by its owner.

That owner was a German baroness who had sent the painting to America in the hopes of selling it. But it never found a buyer and eventually passed into the hands of acquaintances, members of an upper-middle-class Rochester family who hung it for many years above a fireplace, referring to it with great affection — but little direct evidence — as “the Mike.” After it tumbled from its perch while being dusted one day in the 1970s, the painting was moved from the mantel to a safe spot behind the couch, where it effectively disappeared from awareness, both scholarly and otherwise.

The kind of work the family believed it to be — an easel painting by Michelangelo — is among the most elusive treasures in Renaissance art. Michelangelo probably made only a handful, is not known to have signed any, and broad consensus has formed around the attribution of only one, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Tonawanda, N.Y., a faded mill town north of Buffalo, might be the last place on earth scholars would begin the hunt for another. But over the last decade, thanks almost entirely to the stubborn crusading of a retired fighter pilot there named Martin Kober, who inherited the Pietà, the painting has re-emerged as the main character in a compelling art-historical mystery.

It is the subject of “The Lost Michelangelos,” a book just published in English by a respected Italian conservator, Antonio Forcellino, who has specialized in Michelangelo works and is convinced the painting is authentic. It has undergone its first thorough cleaning and an infrared examination of its underdrawing, which one Renaissance scholar, Kristina Herrmann Fiore, a curator at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, said is conceivably by the hand of Michelangelo. And in the next few weeks it will be taken to Rome, where the Rome Foundation, a philanthropy that supports scientific, medical and art initiatives, has agreed to pay to conserve the painting and to include it, along with the questions surrounding it, in an exhibition called “Rome in the Renaissance, from Michelangelo to Vasari,” opening Oct. 25 at the foundation’s museum.

For Mr. Kober and Mr. Forcellino the painting’s transformation from family keepsake to object of historical scrutiny is as much a story about the intransigence of the art establishment and the gaps in its tradition-bound methods for considering authentication claims as it is about the ultimate fate of the painting itself. Curators at the Met and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, without seeing the painting firsthand, have turned Mr. Kober away.

Other experts have been point blank in their assessment. “It is a copy of a Michelangelo composition,” said Alexander Nagel, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts who has written about the artist’s late Pietàs.

Mr. Forcellino, who acknowledges that he runs a risk of professional embarrassment by championing the painting, said he decided to write a book about it in part “to start a debate on the mechanisms of subject specialization, which often undermine rather than foster an expansion of knowledge.”

Mr. Kober — who has amassed an extensive body of documents related to the painting, hired forensic specialists, built an impressive Renaissance art library, hectored and cajoled dozens of curators and experts and tracked the painting almost town by town through Italy and Croatia — is more straightforward, and humble, about the years he spent fighting to get anyone to pay attention to his painting.

“I didn’t expect anyone to take what I was saying on faith,” he said recently, in his modest brick-and-siding-covered home in Tonawanda, overlooking part of what was once the Erie Canal. “I know I’m a nobody in this world. I just wanted someone to look at what I’d found and maybe get a couple of Ph.D. students to take it on as a project, people who would know what they were doing. But I couldn’t even get that far.”

The Evidence

For all his talk of the art establishment’s aversion to outsiders, Mr. Forcellino nearly dismissed Mr. Kober’s claims too. Then he took a look at an e-mailed attachment of an infrared image showing the painting’s underdrawing and agreed to travel from Italy to see the work himself.

From a family of stonemasons, Mr. Forcellino is mostly known for his sculptural conservation work. He had a lead role in the restoration of Michelangelo’s “Moses” in Rome and the Piccolomini altar in the cathedral of Siena, which includes four Michelangelo figures. In 2005 he published a biography of Michelangelo and as a result has fielded more than his share of claims of unbelievable discoveries.

“It is astonishing how many people convince themselves they own a Michelangelo or a Raphael, inherited from some old aunt or picked up from a dealer in the ill-founded belief that some dealers, even antiques dealers, have less of an eye than they do,” he writes in his book about Mr. Kober’s painting.

But he also knew of the several letters that make it plain, he says, that Michelangelo had created a painting like Mr. Kober’s. One was a letter to Michelangelo from his close friend the poet and noblewoman Vittoria Colonna, acknowledging his gift to her of a Pietà, a token of their mutual membership in a group of Roman Catholic reformers who became known as the spirituali. In the letter, Colonna wrote that she found the figure of Jesus to be “perfectly painted.”

For years scholars, beginning with Vasari, the father of Renaissance biography, have interpreted the wording in the letter as referring to a drawing, not a painting, some asserting that the word “depinto” — or painted — carried a broader meaning during the Renaissance. Despite Vasari’s many well-documented factual errors and fictional flourishes his accounts have long carried an almost biblical weight, and the main body of Michelangelo research about the existence of easel paintings has followed Vasari’s lead.

But a letter from 1546 solidified Mr. Forcellino’s belief that Colonna was referring to a painting, not a drawing. The letter from the cardinal of Mantua, Ercole Gonzaga, to another cardinal discusses whether Gonzaga should accept the gift of a Pietà, which Mr. Forcellino identifies as the same one owned by Colonna. In the letter Gonzaga, who appears never to have received the Pietà, refers to it as a “quadro,” or painting.

The letters and other documents leave what Mr. Forcellino says is a substantial trail for the painting from Colonna to an English cardinal, Reginald Pole, a cousin of Henry VIII and another member of the spirituali, who appears to have taken it with him as a devotional object when he attended the Council of Trent, the 16th-century Catholic ecumenical conclave that began the Counter-Reformation.

The trail grows murkier afterward, but Mr. Forcellino cites circumstantial evidence in arguing that, after Pole’s death, the painting ended up with the Archbishop of Ragusa — now Dubrovnik, Croatia.

One of the eureka moments Mr. Forcellino cites in his book involves a dark-red wax seal on the back of the painting’s spruce panel, whose origins had never been identified by Mr. Kober’s family. The seal had lost much of its shape, but a low-tech detective’s trick by Mr. Forcellino — making a rubbing with a piece of paper and pencil — revealed a crest with three stars, which he was later able to identify as that of the family of Fabio Tempestivo, who served as archbishop of Ragusa until 1616. At his death Tempestivo’s estate was sold off to pay his debts, and many of the possessions went to a wealthy Italian family, which held it for many generations.

The line between that family and Mr. Kober’s is clear in a number of documents from the mid-19th century through the 20th century that mark previous efforts to have the painting validated as a Michelangelo. One in 1865 involved Hermann Grimm, a revered scholar of the Renaissance, who wrote that he had seen the Ragusa Pietà and thought it could well be by the master’s hand.

William E. Wallace, one of the foremost American experts on Michelangelo, who examined the painting in 2005, said there is at least enough evidence to merit a more extensive examination. “I have no doubt whatsoever that we’re dealing with a 16th-century object, and something with a very close connection to Michelangelo and his circle,” said Mr. Wallace, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

But Mr. Wallace also knows the pace of Michelangelo attribution claims is relentless (on average two a year for the last century, he once calculated), almost all quickly dispatched. And even if more compelling evidence emerges, he said, the Kober painting’s attribution could remain in limbo for decades, if not much longer. “The weight of consensus moves very slowly,” he said, “and building it takes a very long time.”

The Establishment

Despite advances in forensic science and computer-assisted examinations of disputed works of art, the tradition of connoisseurship — the individual “eye,” a scholar’s ability to identify the real thing based on years of looking — continues to hold great sway. Museum credibility and auction prices often rest on the word of a relatively small number of experts who can say that a painting with a spotty paper trail is authentic, based only on their close examination.

The tradition, an art in itself, has by and large served the art world well. But history is littered with instances in which the certainty of the establishment — based on extensive knowledge, gut instinct, wishful thinking or, in the worst cases, greed — has turned out to be embarrassingly unstable. Misattributions languish for decades, often longer. A generation of art historians flips the attributions made by its predecessors, making or unmaking fortunes and reputations.

At one time more than 600 paintings were attributed to Rembrandt, a number that has been cut in half by Dutch scholars since the late 1960s. Two years ago a Goya that had hung for more than half a century at the Prado was determined not to be by Goya, a conclusion many casual observers had reached long before. In many cases mountains of art scholarship are found to rest on erroneous assumptions or evidence, but the mountain proves almost impossible to move.

Such glaring mistakes have fueled another longstanding tradition: distrust of the art establishment, much of it class based, by those outside the establishment’s tight circle. And it has long elevated examples of discoveries made outside that circle into near-heroic tales, like that of the painting that hung for 60 years, all but ignored, in a Jesuit’s residence in Dublin that was found to be a Caravaggio.

In that case, told in Jonathan Harr’s 2005 best seller “The Lost Painting,” a restorer with scholarly ambitions, like Mr. Forcellino, not a curator or art historian, saw the painting, argued that its attribution to a follower of Caravaggio was wrong, and the notion was confirmed through historical research by two graduate students. The painting had been bought by a pediatrician in the 1920s for less than $1,000. It is now on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland and said to be worth tens of millions of dollars.

Mr. Forcellino, a talkative, persuasive presence, has traveled a rougher road trying to convince scholars about the Kober painting. In April 2010 he met with Keith Christiansen, the Met’s chairman of European paintings, but the meeting lasted just a few minutes, as he recalls.

The previous June Mr. Christiansen had announced that another painting the museum had taken in to restore appeared to be the first easel painting ever made by Michelangelo. He predicted that the attribution might elicit disagreement, and it did (and continues to), in part because the Met made no move to acquire the painting, which was bought by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

Now, fresh from that experience, Mr. Christiansen was being offered a role in the restoration of another proposed Michelangelo, one that had been stored behind a couch upstate.

The museum turned down the painting as a conservation project. Mr. Christiansen, who said he does not recall his meeting with Mr. Forcellino, declined to comment.

The Met is not alone in harboring serious doubts about the Kober painting. Michael Cole, an expert on the Italian Renaissance who teaches at Columbia University, said he believes Vasari’s account that the Pietà in Vittoria Colonna’s letter is a drawing, not a painting. And while he has seen only a photograph of Mr. Kober’s painting, he said that some of the anatomy was too awkward to be by Michelangelo. More likely, he said, it is one of the many copies, both painted and drawn, of Michelangelo’s Pietà composition that were made in the 16th century.

“To me the painting in the photo does not look good enough to be a Michelangelo,” he said.

Ms. Herrmann Fiore, of the Borghese Gallery, who said she is willing to entertain the view that Michelangelo did the underdrawing, is also of the view that some proportions in the finished painting seem off and are likely the work of someone else.

Mr. Forcellino acknowledged that honest disagreements can occur as people try to untangle the histories of paintings hundreds of years old with precious little documentation to go on. But he said he believes institutional bias has worked against close consideration of the Pietà, in part because it has surfaced in an unlikely place and has so unlikely a champion as Mr. Kober.

“This is not an art history book,” Mr. Forcellino said of his account of the painting. “It is a book about prejudice in this world.”

The Owner

“It’s been a few months since I’ve seen it,” Mr. Kober, 54, said, smiling nervously one rainy morning inside his house, which sits behind a shopping center.

His painting used to hang in the dining room of the home, where he has lived since he retired and began following his father’s advice finally to figure out once and for all whether “the Mike” really is what the family has long imagined.

For the last several months, though, Mr. Kober has kept the painting in a bank vault. Earlier that morning he had taken it out and driven it home. After putting on a pair of white gloves, he opened the black valise made to carry the panel and carefully loosened the protective paper around it. He set an easel that Mr. Forcellino had made for him on his dining room table, with a kitchen towel to cushion it, and then propped the painting on the easel, opening the blinds and throwing back the curtain so that the morning light could play on its surface.

“I was worried I might open up the case and see mold growing on it or something,” Mr. Kober said. “But it looks just fine.”

“I’ve been looking at it for too long now, decades,” he continued. “I know every inch of it, so it’s hard to be objective. But I can’t sit here with it in front of me and figure out how anybody could think it’s an inferior copy.

“Look at it.”

2011年5月6日 星期五

William-Adolphe Bouguereau

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    William-Adolphe Bouguereau (November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905) was a French academic painter. William Bouguereau was a traditionalist whose realistic ...