Art’s Survivors of Hitler’s War
Published: November 30, 2010
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
Neues Museum, Berlin
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.