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.

Here Be A Dragon

Architecture is a funny old game. Even with high-powered machinery, computer-aided drafting, and the like, projects sometimes drag on for quite a long period of time, and never completely come to fruition.  The same was certainly true of the work of some of the greatest architects of the past, who sometimes had to abandon what they had started due to lack of funds, politics, or the like.

The great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was no exception. Even casual students of his work are familiar with his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, still under construction nearly a century after his death, but other projects by the great master never quite got completed either. One example is the Park Güell, a housing development he designed in the NE corner of the city; or the Colonia Güell, a company town located outside of Barcelona. What both of these projects have in common was their sponsorship by Gaudí’s greatest patron, Count Eusebi Güell.

Gaudí did manage to finish Güell’s mansion in downtown Barcelona, the Palau Güell, located off the Ramblas in the former Chinese Quarter.  However like many 19th century Barcelona industrialists, Güell wanted a weekend and holiday retreat that was outside the city center, which would afford him and his family more space, fresh air, and tranquil surroundings. The same phenomenon was occurring in major cities all over the world, from London to New York to Tokyo, where business leaders would purchase or build such retreats in towns and villages not too far from the cities in which they worked, so that they could be reached in a few hours by coach, train or the like.

Güell’s decision to have his summer house in the Les Corts district near Pedralbes, which was then well outside the city, was one imitated by many of his Barcelona contemporaries. However none of the grand mansions which popped up in the neighborhood in the 19th and 20th centuries had anything quite like the unusual gatehouses known today as the “Pavellons Güell”. They were just part of a colossal scheme by the Catalan architect and his patron to create what would have been a fantasyland, complete with remodeling the existing house to look like a Moorish Revival palace, surrounded by vast gardens, and featuring several ornate entrance gates, all encompassed by decorative walls.

Unfortunately, Gaudí never got to redesign the house. It was later presented to and transformed into the Palau Reial de Pedralbes by the Spanish Royal Family. They themselves hardly used it (although General Franco did) and today King Felipe VI prefers to stay in the less-grand Palauet Albéniz overlooking the sea, when he is in town. The pavilions were given to the University of Barcelona, with public access strictly limited to guided tours on specific weekends during the year.

After languishing in limbo for some time – what do you do with stables and gatehouses no longer attached to an estate? – as a result of a deal between the city and the university, for the past few months Barcelona has been working to restore the buildings, in order to make them accessible to the paying public. The city plans to invest close to $1 million in bringing the pavilions back to their former appearance.  For a fee, the plan is allowing the public to visit these previously almost-inaccessible works of the great architect, and to make their surrounding gardens, also partially laid out by Gaudí, more accessible.  The hope is to make the pavilions available for things such as concerts, lectures, community events, and the like. Imagine having your wedding reception or anniversary dinner catered in one of these buildings!

True these may rank, in terms of size, among the smallest of Gaudí’s completed buildings.  However, it is wonderful to see new life being breathed back into these fantastical structures, after so many years of benign neglect. While their original purpose may have vanished long ago, their extraordinary design continues to fascinate us today, more than 125 years after the magnificent gate pictured below first swung open to receive visitors.

Dragon Gate

Colors Into Battle

Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today.  We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.

Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country.  I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House.  With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do.  After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.

Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”.  This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats.  However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November.  All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.

It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated.  Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were.  They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them.  Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.

Detail of "Follow the Flag" U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917) Library of Congress, Washington DC

Detail of “Follow the Flag” U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917)
Library of Congress, Washington DC