MoMA’s Problematic Provenances: A troubling history of acquiring works seized by the Nazis and sold to support the German war effort
November 20, 2011
The artwork that confronts visitors approaching the sculpture garden from the ticket desk of New York’s Museum of Modern Art is Auguste Rodin’s massive bronze sculpture of Honoré de Balzac. It was cast in 1954, and a year later, on May 3, 1955, at a ceremony in the museum’s sculpture garden, it was presented to MoMA by the “friends of Curt Valentin,” a New York art dealer who had died of a heart attack the previous year while traveling in Italy. Valentin had been one of the most influential dealers of modern art in the world, and 130 of his friends had joined together to buy the Balzac and donate it to the museum as a gift in his memory.
Alfred H. Barr Jr., MoMA’s founding director, was a longtime friend of Valentin’s and had had many business dealings with him. He told the museum’s patrons that day that he was “deeply grateful” and “greatly touched” by the gift of the Rodin and the honor it bestowed on the museum to be “the custodian of this memorial to Curt Valentin.” He said that MoMA, more than any other museum, was “indebted” to Valentin.
That MoMA would prominently display a monumental Rodin sculpture is hardly surprising. Far more intriguing, though, is the question of why MoMA would pay such an enormous public tribute to this controversial art dealer.
Curt Valentin, who was Jewish, fled Nazi Germany in 1937 and moved to New York, where—with authorization from the Third Reich, according to a November 14, 1936, letter from the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts—he opened a gallery, first on West 46th Street and two years later, as his fortunes improved, on West 57th Street, to sell what the Nazis considered “degenerate art.” Valentin funneled the proceeds of the art sales back to Germany, which needed foreign currency to support its war economy. He was one in a group of Jewish art dealers in Germany and Austria who were allowed safe passage to New York in order to sell confiscated artworks and send the foreign currency they garnered back to the Third Reich. According to Stephanie Barron, senior curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and organizer of the landmark 1991–92 exhibition “‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” records kept by the propaganda ministry in Berlin prove that many works were sold to Valentin so that he could resell them abroad.
Museum officials such as Barr at MoMA and Hilla Rebay at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (precursor of the Guggenheim Museum) bought artworks from Valentin, usually at below market prices, by German artists such as George Grosz and Paul Klee that were confiscated or stolen by the Nazis before and during World War II. Those works are still in the permanent collections of both MoMA and the Guggenheim.
New York attorney Raymond J. Dowd, a partner in the firm Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller, and Jonathan Petropoulos, chair of the history department at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, and author of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, contend that artwork stolen by the Nazis before and during World War II passed through Valentin’s Manhattan art gallery and ended up in MoMA’s permanent collection without compensation being paid to the artists or to the collectors from whom it had been stolen.
On behalf of two heirs of the artist George Grosz—Martin Grosz, his son, and Lilian Grosz, the wife of his late son Peter—Dowd sued MoMA in federal court in the Southern District of New York, in May 2009, to compel the museum to return to the heirs three works by Grosz in the museum’s collection: two paintings, The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse (1927) and Self-Portrait with a Model (1928), and a watercolor, Republican Automatons (1920). In response to Dowd’s suit, the museum claimed that it had proper title to all of the disputed works.
In January 2010, Judge Colleen McMahon tossed out the Grosz lawsuit on the grounds that the three-year statute of limitations for making the claim against MoMA had run its course. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld that decision. Dowd petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, but this past October the high court turned it down.
Dowd contends that the courts ruled in MoMA’s favor on a technicality—the statute of limitations—and failed to examine the underlying evidence…
The Bible of King James: First printed 400 years ago, it molded the English language, No other book has given more to the English-speaking world.
November 20, 2011
Rome Wager stands in front of the rodeo chutes on a small ranch just outside the Navajo Reservation in Waterflow, New Mexico. He is surrounded by a group of young cowboys here for midweek practice. With a big silver buckle at his waist and a long mustache that rolls down on each side of his mouth like the curving ends of a pair of banisters, Wager holds up a Bible in his left hand. The young men take their hats off to balance them on their knees. “My stories always begin a little different,” Brother Rome says to them as they crouch in the dust of the yard, “but the Lord always provides the punctuation.”
Wager, a Baptist preacher now, is a former bull-riding and saddle-bronc pro, “with more bone breaks in my body than you’ve got bones in yours.” He’s part Dutch, part Seneca on his father’s side, Lakota on his mother’s, married to a full-blood Jicarilla Apache.
He tells them about his wild career. He was raised on a ranch in South Dakota; he fought and was beaten up, shot, and stabbed. He wrestled and boxed, he won prizes and started drinking. “I was a saphead drunk.”
But this cowboy life was empty. He was looking for meaning, and one day in the drunk tank in a jail in Montana, he found himself reading the pages of the Bible. “I looked at that book in jail, and I saw then that He’d established me a house in heaven … He came into my heart.”
The heads around the preacher go down, and the words he whispers, which the rodeo riders listen to in such earnestness, are not from the American West: They are from England, translated 400 years ago by a team of black-gowned clergymen who would have been as much at home in this world of swells and saddles, pearl-button shirts and big-fringed chaps as one of these cowboys on a Milanese catwalk. “Second Corinthians 5. ‘Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.’”
Here is the miracle of the King James Bible in action. Words from a doubly alien culture, not an original text but a translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, made centuries ago and thousands of miles away, arrive in a dusty corner of the New World and sound as they were meant to—majestic but intimate, the voice of the universe somehow heard in the innermost part of the ear.
You don’t have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents’ eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death’s door or at our wits’ end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one’s teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.
The extraordinary global career of this book, of which more copies have been made than of any other book in the language, began in March 1603. After a long reign as Queen of England, Elizabeth I finally died. This was the moment her cousin and heir, the Scottish King James VI, had been waiting for. Scotland was one of the poorest kingdoms in Europe, with a weak and feeble crown. England by comparison was civilized, fertile, and rich. When James heard that he was at last going to inherit the throne of England, it was said that he was like “a poor man … now arrived at the Land of Promise.”
In the course of the 16th century, England had undergone something of a yo-yo Reformation, veering from one reign to the next between Protestant and anti-Protestant regimes, never quite settling into either camp. The result was that England had two competing versions of the Holy Scriptures. The Geneva Bible, published in 1560 by a small team of Scots and English Calvinists in Geneva, drew on the pioneering translation by William Tyndale, martyred for his heresy in 1536. It was loved by Puritans but was anti-royal in its many marginal notes, repeatedly suggesting that whenever a king dared to rule, he was behaving like a tyrant. King James loved the Geneva for its scholarship but hated its anti-royal tone. Set against it, the Elizabethan church had produced the Bishops’ Bible, rather quickly translated by a dozen or so bishops in 1568, with a large image of the Queen herself on the title page. There was no doubt that this Bible was pro-royal. The problem was that no one used it. Geneva’s grounded form of language (“Cast thy bread upon the waters”) was abandoned by the bishops in favor of obscure pomposity: They translated that phrase as “Lay thy bread upon wette faces.” Surviving copies of the Geneva Bible are often greasy with use. Pages of the Bishops’ Bible are usually as pristine as on the day they were printed.
This was the divided inheritance King James wanted to mend, and a new Bible would do it. Ground rules were established by 1604: no contentious notes in the margins; no language inaccessible to common people; a true and accurate text, driven by an unforgivingly exacting level of scholarship. To bring this about, the King gathered an enormous translation committee: some 54 scholars, divided into all shades of opinion, from Puritan to the highest of High Churchmen. Six subcommittees were then each asked to translate a different section of the Bible.
Although the translators were chosen for their expertise in the ancient languages (none more brilliant than Lancelot Andrewes, dean of Westminster), many of them had already enjoyed a rich and varied experience of life. One, John Layfield, had gone to fight the Spanish in Puerto Rico, an adventure that left him captivated by the untrammeled beauty of the Caribbean; another, George Abbot, was the author of a best-selling guide to the world; one, Hadrian à Saravia, was half Flemish, half Spanish; several had traveled throughout Europe; others were Arab scholars; and two, William Bedwell and Henry Savile, a courtier-scholar known as “a magazine of learning,” were expert mathematicians. There was an alcoholic called Richard “Dutch” Thomson, a brilliant Latinist with the reputation of being “a debosh’d drunken English-Dutchman.” Among the distinguished churchmen was a sad cuckold, John Overall, dean of St. Paul’s, whose friends claimed that he spent so much of his life speaking Latin that he had almost forgotten how to speak English…
November 20, 2011
THE debate about the state of film criticism has settled—or calcified—into two camps: traditional print critics claim the Internet has replaced expertise with amateurs, fanboys, and obscurantists. Web enthusiasts counter that we’re in a new golden age of film criticism and accuse the traditionalists of jealousy, resentment, and Ludditism. In other words: idealization of the past versus idealization of the present; resolution via what Pauline Kael once referred to as “saphead objectivity.” Screw that.
Each side’s view may be equally rosy, but that doesn’t mean each can make an equal claim. I’ve been a film critic on and off for twenty-five years and have been lucky enough to take part in the tail end of the best era of print film criticism and the beginning of the Internet, when it seemed like the Web would be the new delivery system for the kind of writing that was starting to be imperiled in print. My experience tells me that not only was film criticism in better shape in the print era, but good work stood a greater chance of making an impact. Only a fool would say that there’s not good work being done on the Internet. But the nature of the medium, the way it has reshaped journalism and public discourse, makes it harder for that work to matter. In its contribution to the ongoing disposability of our cultural, political, and social life, in encouraging the cultural segregation that currently disfigures democracy, the Internet has to bear a great deal of responsibility for the present derangement of American life.
Publicly, film critics for established online publications will say that the Web has given a new home to film criticism. Off the record, many of those same critics will tell you their jobs depend on securing advertiser-pleasing hits by lavishing coverage on the worst of what’s out there, especially the superhero and fantasy movies. Editors hope to attract hits by feeding into a movie’s prerelease hoopla. What a critic actually thinks about the movie is often drowned in the ongoing publicity deluge. If a publication’s critic declines to join in the publicist-generated excitement over The Green Lantern or the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, the editor can always find a writer, usually a young one looking to get a byline, to whip up the mindless sort of “Five Great Superhero Movies” list that guarantees traffic. Editors then point to the number of hits generated by this as proof that what the readers really want is coverage of the big movies—whether or not there’s been coverage of anything else to choose from. All this deprives critics of one of the main functions of their job: to alert readers to different kinds of work. And because maintaining advertising dollars depends on keeping the clicks coming, it’s easy for even good editors to make their publication a tool of the studio publicists.
Journalists—and journalism students—are drilled in the necessity of finding a story’s hook, the thing that will justify its being written now. But relevance, a.k.a. buzz, can’t trump the basic question: is this story good and does it deserve to be told? There was no hook when James Agee wrote his Life Magazine piece on forgotten silent-film comedians, the piece that brought Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd back into the public’s consciousness. Passion—and William Shawn’s trust of the writers he hired—was the motivating factor in Kenneth Tynan’s now-revered New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks. What we have today is the likes of the Daily News, which, a few years back, refused to let a movie critic review an acclaimed film about anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl because, in the editor’s words, the story was a “downer.”
Bloggers and the writers who turn out well-crafted pieces on their own Web sites are free to write what they want. The best of them, such as Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule or Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun or Farran Nehme Smith at The Self-Styled Siren, give public voice to the way movies function as private obsession. Their film knowledge is broad and deep, but they wear that knowledge lightly. They understand that the true appreciation of any art begins in pleasure (and not in the “work” of watching movies). To read them is to read people grounded in the sensual response to movies, in what the presence or look of a certain star, or the way a shot is lit stirs in them. Reading these writers, I often feel that I’m in the presence of people dedicated to the notion of collective cultural memory in an era when instant obsolescence is the rule.
HAVING THE freedom to write about exactly what you want requires enormous discipline. For every Internet writer who fashions his or pieces, who gives each time to sink in and reverberate, there are dozens more who remind me of what Pauline Kael wrote about Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence: “Nothing she does is memorable, because she does so much.”
When a site’s goal is to satisfy the great sucking maw of the Internet with a constant feed of new items, sourced or unsourced, nothing is around long enough to make an impact. When perpetual turnover is the norm, the shallow, silly, and irrelevant rule. The blog Indiewire finished up its 2011 movie preview with a runt-of-the litter roundup called, “The Leftover Question Marks of 2011: Can These Films Possibly Be Any Good?” (The obvious answer is that no one knows until they’ve been screened and critics have done the work of watching and writing about them, but reflection is so twentieth century.) One gem about the upcoming adaptation of Bel Ami stood out: “We’ve heard good things about the short story [sic] where [sic] this film draws its inspiration, but to us, right now this is just a film where a hot young thing romances Kristen Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman and Christina Ricci, while prooooobably pining for the one that got away. Would be nice to be wrong.” What would be nicer would be if the writer (or some editor . . . one?) knew enough to note that the short story is actually a novel by Guy de Maupassant. We can’t know if Bel Ami is any good until we see it, but nothing in that description would lead you to think there’s any reason to consider a Maupassant adaptation any differently than you would an upholstered bodice ripper.
There’s nothing new about this. The ranks of film critics were full of silly asses in the print days. What is new is that there is currently no must-read critic, no Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris whose opinion can kick off a conversation or an argument.
Part of the problem is the thing often cited to prove the strength of film criticism: the sheer number of people online who are doing it. But to use this as evidence of a new golden age is simply to play a new version of equating how good a movie is with its box-office receipts. There are too many critics writing too many pieces. And even the ones who have reacted against the shallowness of the current conversation, the ones who turn out long, detailed considerations of films have found a way to make themselves close to irrelevant. You can understand why a young critic would want to show off what he (and it’s almost always a “he”) knows. That’s part of a how a young critic gets noticed. But too many Web critics affect a donnish air ludicrously beyond their years. Whatever movies are for them—objects for analysis or gnostic contemplation—they don’t sound as if they’re any fun, and they don’t communicate to readers that movies, even difficult or unusual movies, can be a pleasure. A lot of the time they don’t communicate to readers at all…
November 20, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.