Feature

The Nazi cache: A victory for art, and posterity

An 80-year-old man in Munich had for decades been sitting on a $1 billion horde of art assembled by his Nazi-collaborator father.

Tear up your old art-history books, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian (U.K.). The recent revelation that an 80-year-old man in Munich had for decades been sitting on a $1 billion horde of art assembled by his Nazi-collaborator father proves that at least one crucial passage of art’s previous century was “radically misunderstood.” Clearly, the Nazis didn’t burn all the modern art they could get their hands on. Hildebrand Gurlitt, the collector who amassed the 1,400-work cache, may have been seeking merely to enrich himself 70 years ago when he claimed that his collection had been destroyed during the Allied bombing of Dresden. But the fact that he was able to then leave his son works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Otto Dix, and numerous other giants of modern art raises the possibility that a whole network of Nazi sympathizers have been sustained by selling off such hordes all this time. What’s more, there may have been more style than substance to Hitler’s campaign against the so-called degenerate art of the modernists.

For now, the Gurlitt stash represents “the kind of mystery that the public loves far more than the public loves art,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Years will pass before German authorities sort out which works were obtained legitimately and which were stolen by the Nazis from Jewish families or state museums. So far we don’t even know if Gurlitt was a villain or a hero when he squirreled these works away, said Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times. Still, “what matters in the long run is only that they made it.” Above all else, Hitler was trying to annihilate art’s ambition to speak the deepest truths, and in at least some instances he failed to stop the art he hated from speaking to future generations. His lies are dead; “the bigger truth will out.”

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