Paintings looted by the Nazis from the collection of Jacques Goudstikker
“RECLAIMED” IS AN HISTORIC EXHIBITION that celebrates the partial recovery of artworks confiscated by the Nazis from Jacques Goudstikker, the preeminent Amsterdam dealer in the 1920s and 30s. It also provides a frame for understanding both the intricacies of locating scattered items and the legal battles involved in restitution. Equally significant, this representative sample of a spectacular collection is a window into one man’s influence on the art market between the two world wars. Opening at the Bruce Museum now, it will travel to the Jewish Museum in 2009.
Sensitive to the worsening situation for Dutch Jewry, Goudstikker began making provisions to evacuate his family to the United States in November, 1939. On May 13, 1940, three days after the German army invaded Holland, he gathered up his wife and son, abandoned his collection, and boarded a cargo ship to Dover. Walking the deck at night, he accidentally fell to his death on the very boat that was to take him to safety.
Two weeks later, Reichsmarschall Herman Göring arrived at the door of the J. Goudstikker Antiques and Art Gallery. In one of the largest thefts from a single collector, Göring plundered the nearly 1,400 works forcibly left behind. The catalog states it in stark terms: “The same reputation that had brought museum directors and collectors to the gallery before the war now drew Göring the ‘art lover,’ .… He was intent on obtaining for his private collection at Karinhall the paintings that would be left after Hitler selected the ones he wanted …” Göring confiscated roughly 800 of the most valuable paintings and antiquities for himself.
After the war, the Allies returned to the Netherlands those paintings recovered from the Goudstikker estate with the understanding that they would be restored to the original owners. They were not; instead, they was absorbed into the national collection. A languishing claim process was successfully revived ten years ago by Dutch journalist Peter den Hollander who had access to crucial evidence: the inventory notebook Jacques had with him when he died.
Two years ago the Dutch government reversed its earlier hostility toward family claims and restored some 200 Old Master paintings to the Goudstikker heirs. The bulk of the collection has not been located but is assumed dispersed around the world in museums and private collections.
While attention to the family story has been growing since 2006, less notice has been given to Goudstikker’s influence as a dealer and tastemaker. Specializing in northern Baroque art, he included in his wide-ranging inventory early Italian, German and Netherlandish painting; Renaissance works; 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting, French and Italian Rococo; and 19th century French and northern European art.
He served the leading collectors of his day, Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza among them. Many paintings sold by Goudstikker have since entered prestigious museums in Holland, London, Madrid, Chicago, San Diego , Washington, and New York. His eye for distinction across a spectrum of schools and periods is evident in the approximately 35 paintings selected for exhibition.
Jan Mostaert’s “Landscape with an Episode from the Discovery of America.” (c. 1520-40) is famed as the earliest painted representation of the New World. Naked figures, some carrying long bows, run from armed invaders in European military dress. A delightful example of the exaggerations of early 16th-century naturalism, the rocky landscape is a formal invention that appears strikingly modern. Twisted mountains and pained trees, conceptual conceits most likely derived from Joachim Patiner (d. 1524), could easily be assigned to Thomas Hart Benton.
The specific location and anecdote depicted are art historical conundrums. Is this an incident in Cortes’s conquest of Mexico? Coronado advancing on a Zuni village? Or Columbus landing on Goanin? Why are the natives lightskinned, some bearded instead of clean shaven? (Since actual natives had been transported back to Europe, Mostaert could have depicted them accurately if he wished.) Only one thing is clear: the vision of a pastoral Arcadia under assault by civilization is a Western fantasy with deep roots.
Daniel Vosmaer’s dramatic “View of Delft” (1663) was painted just as cityscape was becoming an independent genre. A panorama of Delft surveyed at a dashing angle and from within a darkened loggia, is an illusion of topographical accuracy. The painting is a radiant composite of existing structures and sites reorganized to maximize spatial effects, not quite a capriccio but headed there. The skewed perspective of a checkered floor in the floorground is no bar to the graphic beauty of the composition.
|Still Life with Flowers in a Vase, c1650-75, Hieronymus Galle
A late 17th-century floral still life by Hieronymus Galle illustrates the modus operandi of flower specialists. Peonies, snowballs, roses, carnations and morning glories cluster around a sprig from a citrus tree. Since they bloom at different times, they could not have been grouped in real life. The composition was imaginatively arranged from individual flower studies created at different times of the year.
Audiences will recognize the origins of Max Beckmann’s early (c.1917) figure compositions in “St. Maurice and His Companions of the Theban Legion” (1515-20) by the unnamed but distinctive South German Master. The cult of St. Maurice was popular at the time and widely represented, most notably by Hans Baldung Grien and Matthias Grünwald. Here are the same densely packed figures, exaggerated gestures, asymmetrical facial expressions, shallow pictorial space, colorful patterning, and inexorable clarity for which Beckmann found a modern use.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fine catalogue that explains the tactics perfected by the Nazi to legalize their thefts; and it follows the steps and roadblocks to material restitution. At the same time, it memorializes the members of the Goudstikker family who died in the Holocaust: 14 of them at Auschwitz, one at Buchenwald, one at Sobibor, another of tuberculosis after liberation.
How does one talk about art in the face of such deaths? No amount of returned assets rids the future of the urge to systematic slaughter. Despite the richness and depth of the work on display, the exhibition’s greatest value lies in its reminder of the unintelligibility of evil.
“Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker” at the Bruce Museum (One Museum Drive, Greenwich CT, 203-869-6786).
This review appeared first in The New York Sun on May 15, 2008.
Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey