Thursday, 12 June 2014

German task force reveals history of lost Matisse

Femme Assise / The Sitting Woman.
Source: The Art Newspaper

The German task force investigating the provenance of potentially Nazi-looted paintings has concluded that one of them, Femme Assise by Henri Matisse, painted in 1921, was originally owned by art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Rosenberg's granddaughter, the French journalist Anne Sinclair, has made a claim on the painting, saying the Nazis stole it from her family.

I received the task force's German press release this morning and will summarise the gist in a few bullet points, see below. The paintings were part of a stash discovered in the flat of the late Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitt had inherited the paintings from his father, Hildebrand, art dealer to the Nazis. In the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis seized thousands of art works from Jewish families through forced sales or direct confiscation - the biggest art theft in history. They also confiscated modernist art works from museums as the style was deemed "degenerate". 

Paul Rosenberg with Matisse's "Odalisque" in 1937

Paul Rosenberg was a friend of Matisse and an early champion of his work. He fled the Nazis in 1940, leaving France for Spain and then New York, but had to leave behind 162 paintings. A year later, the Nazis confiscated the entire collection. Gurlitt senior, it seems, was charged with selling some of the confiscated paintings on behalf of the Nazis, but kept some for himself. (Again, this seems to be the gist - I don't fact-check blog posts as thoroughly as I fact-check my other pieces, so apologies in advance for any inaccuracies). As the press release explains, the task force couldn't fully clarify how Femme Assise ended up in Gurlitt's hands.

Gurlitt junior came across as a tragic figure rather than a scheming villain. He lived a secluded, lonely life. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he said that he talked to his paintings every night, and that their confiscation had hurt him more than the death of his sister. Before he died, he declared that he would abide by the groundbreaking Washington Principles on the restitution of Nazi-looted art. Legally, he did not have to do this - the paintings were his, as the claims had expired under German law. Morally, it was of course the right decision, and set an important precedent for other private owners.

It's interesting that the task force sees Gurlitt's decision as binding for his own heirs, and also, that so many open questions remain regarding the work itself. You'd think it would be quite easy to seamlessly construct a famous painting's history from 1921 to 2014, less than a century. The fact that it's difficult shows just how many hidden stories are still there to be uncovered.

Here's what the task force said about investigating the history of Femme Assise (my translation, quick and dirty). I thought it might be interesting for people trying to track down their family's lost art:

- Research was difficult and complex, particularly clarifying the work's identity. There was mismatching data on the size of the work, as well as gaps in the timeline of the provenance.

- Investigators had to do extensive research in German, French and US archives, as well historical sources provided by the claimants.

- Not all questions regarding the work's history could be answered

- But overall, they concluded it was from the collection of Paul Rosenberg

- This expertise will be used as the basis for the decision regarding restitution of the work to Paul Rosenberg's heirs.

- Just before his death, Cornelius Gurlitt declared he would abide by the Washington Agreement (legally he didn't have to do this as any claims had expired under German law).

Quote from the head of the task force:

"Even if we could not document with absolute certainty how Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired the work, the task force has reached the conclusion that the work constitutes Nazi-looted art from the collection of Paul Rosenberg."

- Task force says a fair and just solution should be found "in the spirit of the Washington Agreement".

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

On not reading reviews

Dear readers,

I'm trying out a new review-reading strategy. It involves not reading any reviews.

The main reason is that I found Love and Other Wars incredibly hard to write.

It was a great privilege to interview former conscientious objectors, read letters and diaries in archives all over London and spend time with Quakers to learn about their pacifist beliefs. But at the end of my research I felt rather crushed by the sadness of it all: so many lives wasted, so many people killed along with their hopes and plans.

At the Imperial War Museum, I read the letters from a young RAF pilot to his parents and saw him mature from wide-eyed teenager (off to Rhodesia!! First solo flight! Elephants! Fifteen exclamation marks per page!!!) all the way to calm, unflappable RAF ace. When I reached the bottom of the box, after the last letter, there was nothing but a telegram to his parents: We regret to inform you...  

In the University College London archives, I leafed through old copies of the student newspaper. There, between an ad for a lecture by an eminent birth-control expert and a witty spat over a work of modern art in the cafeteria, was an appeal for British sponsors to help a Jewish student leave Berlin. What was the outcome of this desperate bet on the kindness of strangers? Did he make it out?

And so on. Every day brought a new encounter with some brave, optimistic, life-loving person who had been born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. It seemed pointless to turn away and invent a story about fictional characters when all these true and important stories of real people were still untold.

In the end, a good friend reminded me that a novelist's task is to write a novel. Which I did. Since the writing part of the job is now finally done, since there is nothing I could have done differently about this particular book, and since the people whose judgement I am most curious (and perhaps most worried) about are dead, it's probably best to let others get on with the reading and reviewing part, and not interfere. Having said that, I am very grateful to have you as my readers and do hope you enjoy the book.

Best wishes


Monday, 2 June 2014

World's best book-staircase (with tiger)

Seen at the Hackney Pirates, an excellent organisation in East London that aims to make reading, writing and learning in general more fun. I've been volunteering for them for a while so I'm completely biased, but still, their new book-staircase is just amazing. I'm trying to find out the names of the artists who made it - all their work is stunning, they made an excellent pirate-themed fake book-case with a secret door as well.

When I first volunteered with the Hackney Pirates, they were running a summer school for local children on a rooftop in Dalston. I then followed them through a series of unconventional classrooms: a room with a chicken coop just outside the window (gawk gawk gawwwwk), an empty building transformed into a pirates' ship, a make-shift beach shack next to a kebab shop with incredibly supportive owners who let the Pirates hold volunteer meetings in the shop. This year they've finally got a permanent ship, a building on Dalston high street complete with a shop, a cafe and a lovely educational space. And a book-staircase.

Instead of the rooftop summer school, there are now daily afternoon sessions. During the first half of the session, children do their homework or read a book; during the second half, they work on a creative project. Each child is paired with a volunteer to help and encourage them. It's a very simple formula and it works. I've seen so many young Pirates gain confidence, improve their reading and develop a new enthusiasm for learning over the years. I used to be quite a cynic about these things so it's been a good learning experience for me as well. If you're interested in becoming a volunteer, just visit their website and sign up for a training session. See you on the rainbow-coloured steps!