Selective Engagement: The Politics Of Art Restitution

Chances are that even if you do not have much of an interest in the art world, you’re aware of the ongoing question of the restitution of stolen or recovered works of art. Stories about the descendants of the Nazis’ victims suing to reclaim their family’s property come up in the news from time to time, and are often featured in media. The recent film “Woman In Gold” with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, for example, is based on the true story of how a portrait by the Austrian Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt, stolen during World War II, was finally reclaimed by the niece of the murdered sitter.

Now it appears that Germany is beginning to dip its toe into the politically and diplomatically dangerous issue of art stolen during the Cold War. The Art Newspaper is reporting that the German government will study art looted by the Stasi, i.e., the East German secret police, over the course of a three-day operation that took place in January 1962. As the article points out, this was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to art theft not only on the part of fellow Germans, many of whom are still alive, but also on the part of exterior actors such as the Soviet Union. It would not be a surprise if restitution and compensation claims began to explode in number at the conclusion of the study.

While it is good to see communists getting what they deserve, albeit too late to make much of a difference, the problem with this kind of effort is that it is highly selective. Works of art have been carried off as booty, or secretly made their way into the possession of others, on a regular basis throughout Western history. Sometimes no one is quite sure exactly how a particular object ended up where it has, decades or centuries later, other than recognizing that it is not where it is supposed to be. An example which is of personal importance to me involves the now-dismembered altarpiece of St. George, which is currently split between the Art Institute of Chicago, the Louvre, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Bernat Martorell (c. 1400-1452) was one the most important Catalan artists of the Middle Ages. In around 1434, art historians believe that he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the newly-constructed Chapel of St. George in the Palace of the Generalitat, the seat of the executive branch of the Catalan government. The altarpiece would have been in keeping with the Chapel’s numerous visual references to St. George, including both interior and exterior sculptures, as well as the solid silver metalwork decorating the altar itself.

The top panel of the altarpiece, which is now in Philadelphia, features a Madonna and Child surrounded by personifications of the Cardinal Virtues. Underneath it, the main panel shows St. George in his legendary battle with the dragon; this painting, which is shown below, is now in the Art Institute of Chicago. On the sides, the foldable “wings” of the altarpiece display scenes from the life and martyrdom of St. George, and have been in the possession of the Louvre for some time. Below the main panel there would have been at least one predella, which is a kind of long and narrow painting that typically runs along the bottom of the altarpiece to act almost as a base, however the whereabouts of this panel or panels are now unknown.

When you visit the Chapel today, which the public is permitted to do once a year, where the Martorell altarpiece used to be there is now a Flemish Renaissance tapestry, which has nothing whatsoever to do with St. George. It is likely that Martorell’s altarpiece was hacked into pieces during the Napoleonic Wars, when many artistic and cultural treasures were carted away or simply destroyed. Such a fate was not at all unusual: the famous Monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona, for example, was almost completely destroyed by Napoleon’s troops, twice, and never fully recovered its former grandeur.

Thus, the issue of restitution is not so much a question about morality or the passage of time, but rather that of political will. In the case of the Elgin Marbles or the Bust of Nefertiti for example, there are disputes over whether they were properly obtained from the appropriate authorities at the time they entered their respective museums, often led by vociferous individuals (such as Mrs. George Clooney.) And yet the same voices speaking out in favor of the return of these objects usually say nothing about the return of pieces which were unquestionably stolen, without even the pretense of a sale or treaty.

Certainly the effort to track down, and potentially restore, lost works of art to their rightful owners, particularly those who suffered so greatly under communism, is a good thing. The fact that these losses occurred comparatively recently means there is a greater chance of success in such an effort. Unfortunately, no such effort will be made on behalf of the churches, monasteries, and chapels whose contents were looted to fill the palaces, mansions, and museums of those possessing more greed than grace.

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