Mapping the recovery of works of art looted by the Nazis

Almost eight decades since the end of World War II, art looted by the Nazis from the homes of Jewish collectors and others persecuted under the Third Reich continues to be recovered. “Rue Saint-Honoré, in the afternoon. Rainfall ‘(1897), for example, is currently in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid, but was forcibly sold by Lilly Cassirer to the Nazis in 1939 to obtain exit visas for her family in the United Kingdom. The case is now in the Supreme Court of the United States because although the family had attempted to return the painting since 1948, the museum maintained that it was unaware that it had been looted during its acquisition. While paintings like the Pissarro have changed hands since the end of WWII through dealers, galleries, and collections, their return to families may face these decades-long legal hurdles.

In the Mapping Provenance: Navigating the Narratives of Nazi-Looted Artworks project, students at the Pratt Institute examine case studies, including the Pissarro and other works, and use provenance data to breathe new life into those stories. . Led by Associate Professor Chris Alen Sula, the project is part of the Advanced Certificate in Digital Humanities offered by the School of Information. Each year, students are invited to design a project that will examine how data can inform humanities issues.

“This course builds on the fundamental knowledge of digital humanities acquired during the first semester of the certificate and invites students to work together to design and produce a digital project,” said Sula. “Collaborative work is a hallmark of the field, and students in this course gain hands-on experience in project design, research, digital tools, and dissemination of their work.”

Projects from previous years included a exploration of indigenous peoples, settler colonialism and plants in North America; a study of the circulation of the term “fake news” following the 2016 presidential election; And one review of “oversight”, practice of oversight mechanisms oversight. Each is selected on the basis of students’ ideas for the semester, their work taking into account how information professionals can support digital humanities research by combining technology and investigation of topics and issues of interest. news. As in years past, the project culminates with a public website that will serve as a resource for this research.

“When I submitted a proposal for our project this semester, the art plundered by the Nazis jumped out at me as a project that could have an impact by educating about how restitution efforts are still going on and the complications that surround them, ”said Emma Boisitz. , MSLIS ’22. “Especially when examining lost works of art or works of art that have already been lost, our current historical knowledge and the survival of materials and data are the result of a series of fortunate circumstances. There is so much that gets lost and it’s not always recognizable until you start to dive deeper into the data.

Voyage of “Eternos caminhantes” by Lasar Segall (1919), which was confiscated as “degenerate art”, as part of the Mapping Provenance project

The Mapping Provenance site will include maps tracking which works of art have been looted as well as tracking the organization and exhibition of what the Nazi Party considered “degenerate art”. With the famous 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich which was staged to reflect the moral decline of society through artistic movements like abstraction, Mapping Provenance shows other exhibitions across Germany which propagate this intolerance, often featuring works of art seized.

“This raised many questions about how provenance data was shared with the public, both by the Nazis but also in museums and exhibits today,” said Miranda Siler, MA History of Art and Design ’22; MSLIS ’22. “The decision to share or obscure this information is definitely a political one.” Siler focused his research on “Eternos caminhantes (The Eternal Wanderers)”, a 1919 painting by Lasar Segall whose work was confiscated in German museums and included in “degenerate art” exhibitions.

Lasar Segall,

Lasar Segall, “Eternos caminhantes” (1919) (via Wikimedia)

“When I took art history theories and methods as an undergraduate, I felt that provenance information was primarily useful for those who wanted to buy and sell art. art, ”said Siler. “I now have a more holistic view with much of my work centered on the idea that the meaning of a work of art or an image can change and mutate over time, ownership and provenance. being a factor in this transformation. “

One of the challenges for the students was to show the many ways art was looted under the Nazi regime, whether in the forced sales of Jewish families fleeing the country or art that was confiscated by institutions. and government committees. Another case study in Mapping Provenance is “Justitia” (1857) by Carl Spitzweg which belonged to Leo and Else Bendel. In their preparations to leave Germany, they sold the painting to a Munich gallery in 1937.

Carl Spitzweg,

Carl Spitzweg, “Justitia” (1857), oil on canvas (via Wikimedia)

Leo was eventually arrested and died in Buchenwald while his wife survived, but she was unable to recover their art collection or receive compensation. Using archives in Germany and the United States and examining information from auction houses such as the stickers on the back of the painting from various exhibitions and owners, Nicoletta Romano, MSLIS ’22, traced her route through salt mines outside of Austria where it was hidden from the Allies and later settled in the office of the German President until it was finally returned to the heirs in 2019.

Romano said this project “revealed the complexity of provenance information and research, particularly in trying to map locations and dates where gaps or uncertainties may exist. Tracing the journeys of these works has led me to reflect on the many stories interwoven between these objects and the people associated with them.

As for the Pissarro, not all the mapped works have been returned. The process of restitution to heirs remains complex, as laws vary from country to country and the statute of limitations has often long passed. In creating Mapping Provenance, students visualize these complicated paths of looted works of art, take available material on ownership, location, methods of acquisition and other details, often from written accounts, and the transform into structured metadata to make it more accessible to researchers.

“One thing that has arisen during this project is learning to be flexible with research questions and to be able to adapt to what you have in front of you,” Boisitz said. “A lot of provenance research has not yet taken place or is underway and the data needed to perform a large-scale analysis is not yet available. We were still able to do case-by-case analyzes for multiple owners and artworks, but our focus turned to evaluating tools for future narrative provenance mapping opportunities and advocacy for it. improved provenance metadata standards and sharing of provenance metadata.

If this metadata were applied to many of these works, it could answer questions about geographic displacement and transfer of ownership that were previously difficult to answer with data often scattered and available only in disparate forms. Craig Nielsen, MSLIS ’22, noted that the project had prompted him “to consider new ways of incorporating timeline mapping and visualization tools into my typical LIS research.”

As the ownership of looted artwork continues to be contested, having access to these artifacts accounts is important for families and researchers who salvage what has been taken. For students, it is also a way to connect to a story that moves away but persists in its impact on the world.


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Margarita B. Bittner