Sunday, March 27, 2022

Facing History

As the son of German refugees who left their homeland thanks to Hitler, I approach the subject of Germany in the immediate post World War II period with trepidation. Though l like much about Germany and their products (I drive a BMW) still I have this fear of learning too much.

Yet I am now listening to “Aftermath” an English translation audiobook by the former editor of the Berlin Times, Harald Jähner. It looks at the difficult time after the War when the German people had to come to grips with their past. I recommend the book although the material is not easy.

Millions of German soldiers and civilians died in World War II. Cities were reduced to the rubble as we are beginning to see in Ukraine. In his book Jähner describes conditions in post-War Germany conditions where as many as six plus unrelated people had to share a small apartment. Women and children left behind sometimes did not even recognize their husbands and fathers when they returned. Even women whose husbands survived often felt that the men abandoned them. How to face this, when together with the hardships there was shame at losing.

As history museums the world over are interpreters of the past, the book inspired me to look at how those in Germany deal with the post war period. It is particularly difficult for them as many if not most Germans have ties to the old world as well as a conscience which will not allow them to forget. Two new museums have been established specifically to face the issues caused by the Third Reich.

In 2015 a new museum opened in Munich, called the “Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism”. Years ago we were reminded that the beautiful city was the birthplace of Naziism when we dined in a restaurant which we learned was Hitler’s favorite. The location of the new institution is fraught with memories and blame as it is at the same address as the former Brown House, the building that served as Nazi Party headquarters from 1930 through the end of World War II. It was here that Hitler planned the Holocaust. The modern design of the building was an intentional demonstration of the city’s and Germany’s break with the past, yet inside is evidence of the horrible truth of that past. There have been many who objected to being reminded including a group Neo-Nazis who staged a protest at the museum’s inauguration.


Last summer A new museum opened in Berlin called, “The Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion and Reconciliation” thirteen years after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government gave the go ahead for its creation. There was much debate but Merkel prevailed saying it “fills a gap in our coming to terms with history.”


According to EuroNews Between 1944 and 1950, some 14 million Germans fled or were ejected from today's Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia, escaping the Soviets or pushed by the Allies. When they returned, their former homes had disappeared in the rubble. The new Berlin museum paves a way to help Germans trace family histories and the evils that had been perpetrated in their name. The exhibits are all items that people took with them as they fled. An example of which is a girl's leather pouch marked with her old address Adolf Hitler Strasse 36 in Fraustadt, now the Polish town of Wschowa: It is displayed in a case near a well-thumbed Hebrew dictionary.

Both of these new history museums take on broad themes. The Munich Documentation Center examines the history of the city before, during and after WWII, and also attempts to tackle the ongoing topics of exclusion, racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination. Berlin’s Center for Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation, in the words of museum DirectorGundula Bavendamm, addresses “forced migration as a phenomenon of modern Europe”. Today’s news reports estimating 3.5 million refugees from the Ukraine provide yet another tragic example.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Artists Help Ukraine

I don’t believe any of us can, or should, get away from the subject of Ukraine.

I have been reading more about how artists are reacting and trying to do something to protest the war and help the Ukrainians.

Tom Booth

After World War II a member of the French Resistance became a film maker whose nom de guerre was Jean-Pierre Melville. Four years after V-E day he made a film called “Le Silence de la mer”. In the film a German Officer billeted in a French home and an admirer of the city who had enjoyed the famous sights such as Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, meets with his superiors who inform him that the Nazi plans are not just to destroy the might of France but its spirit as well. What better way than to destroy the monuments and art that people come from around the world to see.

As I have mentioned in an earlier Missive the Ukrainians are doing what they can to shelter the art and artifacts in their museums, but it seems inevitable that much will be damaged or worse, destroyed. Keeping all of this in mind, cultural heritage professionals – librarians, archivists, researchers, and programmers are working to preserve digitally, Ukrainian civilization before Russia can destroy it. They end with a plea, ‘You can still help by submitting URLs” of sites containing Ukrainian Cultural content. They can also use help from those who speak Ukrainian or Russian.

Needless to say, Ukrainians are speaking out through their art. An artist by the name of Yuliana who is both a photographer and painter created what she called “the indestructible spirit of Ukraine”. She told a reporter from NPR that the woman’s body may appear to be cracked but the Ukrainian flag shined beneath the gaps. There are many such stories showing the incredible spirit of and belief in their country.


The most dramatic story I read was that a Ukrainian artist, Volo Bevza, travelled from his home in Berlin, to Kyiv last month for an opening of his exhibition at the WT Foundation, a museum set up by American collector Walter Tamke. It was to open February 24 but never did and Bevza ended up in the middle of a war zone. He had travelled with his girlfriend Victoria Pidust, a photographer, and her younger brother Mark. For safety’s sake they headed to the city of Lviv which was father west but did not leave Ukraine as one might expect. Instead, they started to make the jagged Czech Hedgehogs which are being made to stop the rolling tanks. They have not been invented for this war but were first used at the Czech-German border during World War II. Now the artists have been raising funds for both defense and humanitarian aid by asking for contributions from artists, dealers and collectors from their homes in Germany. Victoria Pidust recorded the activity.

Czech Hedgehogs

Artists the world over, including in Russia, are demonstrating in the streets in support of Ukraine. What might surprise you is the report from the Great Falls Tribune of Helena, Montana that a local artist is donating the proceeds of her work to help Ukraine. Svitlana immigrated from the Ukraine to the States in 2017 after her marriage. She is working from the Mountain Sage Art Gallery selling her hand painted scarves, jewelry, and watercolors to buy food, clothing and medicine for the people and refugees in her native city of Poltava. She started a website selling the concept, come buy my art to help the people of Ukraine. She plans to donate 80% and keep 20% to cover the tax liability for her sales. In the first week she had $4,000 to contribute to the people of Poltava. She has put one caveat on her contributions, that is her donations not be used to acquire weapons but to take care of the people.

I picked the story above because I would not have associated the situation in Ukraine with the formerly wild west state of Montana whose motto "Oro y Plata", Spanish for "Gold and Silver", harkens back to when mining ruled the state. But much of the worlds’, artists, galleries and auction houses are selling art in the fight for right. From what we have read and seen from Ukraine they could adopt New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live Free or Die”!

To end on a lighter note Sarah Rose Sharp announced in Hyperallergic, “National Mustard Museum Banishes Russian Mustards” The Middleton Wisconsin museum announced that the Russian mustards would return “once the invasion of Ukraine is over and Russia recognizes and respects the sovereign nation of Ukraine”. Here in a parody of Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”.

Persistence of Mustard

Sunday, March 13, 2022

An Economic Art Surprise

With foreshadowing long before the battles in the Ukraine began and the news getting worse and worse everyone has been concerned about the effects on the economy of every country.

As you know, my interests have always been related to the arts so I was wondering what effect the current situation would have on the art market. No companies were more concerned than the auction houses.

There are a plethora of auction houses in the world but the ones that get the most press are multinational companies and in particular Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with Phillips not that far behind in England. Needless to say, there was plenty of anxiety about the major sales taking place last week during London’s recent auction week.

Phillips had a couple of big strikes against it since it is owned by two Russians through their luxury conglomerate Mercury Group. Their CEO, Stephen Brooks, spent quite a number of days on the phone assuring owners, consigners and representatives that that the owners, Leonid Fridlyand and Leonid Strunin, were not the subjects of sanctions and had no connections with those who did. Finally, Phillips agreed to donate their commissions on the entire March 3rd evening sale to the Ukraine Red Cross which in the end yielded $7.7 million dollars in proceeds. Sometimes what starts out badly ends up for the good.

There were other reasons for concern. Within the EU there are laws in many countries that require businesses to identify the ultimate beneficiaries of limited liability companies, trusts and private foundations to protect against money laundering and, in this case, to check on sanctioned individuals. At the same time some of the oligarchs were ready to dump their art for cash. Suffice it to say there were many hurdles to surmount. Some fabulous works of art came on to the auction block and they did just fine, proving that so far the art market is very robust.

Phillips ended their sale of Contemporary and Modern art with a total of $40 million. In spite of the last-minute withdrawal of 5 lots, 95% of the lots actually sold. There were a few third-party guarantees, meaning that there were individuals who would pay X if the bidding fell below that figure. While established artists brought good prices even better than the estimates, the most active bidding was for the up-and-coming contemporary artists. A 2016 abstract composition based on Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” by British Artist Cecily Brown and titled “When Time Ran Out” came in just over its high estimate to sell for a bit over $4 million.

Sotheby’s highlight at their evening sale on March 2 was René Magritte’s “L’Empire des Lumières”. Estimated at over $60 million it brought $79,422,000 including Sotheby’s commission.

Everyone at Christies had to be holding their breath for their March 1st evening sale. It was their first auction with their new Shanghai gallery, live streamed from London and mainland China and incorporating Hong Kong and New York. This was a sale of 20th and 21st century works of art. The bottom line … it worked. However, it did have some showstoppers to whet the appetite. A restituted Frans Marc of 1913 called “The Foxes” brought $57 million which was more than double the artist’s former record price.

I must say I am a sucker for the artist Lucien Freud and Christies had one I loved in the same sale,“Girl with Closed Eyes”, (1986-87) It sold for just under $20 million.

Even in this time of geopolitical crisis art seems to be retaining its value.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Art & War

Even though our troops are not involved the war between Russia and Ukraine seems close to home probably because we have thought of Russia as the rival if not the enemy of the U.S. for most of our lives. Now war could reach our shores if not by violence then by the newest weapon, cyber-attacks, not to mention the fact that last week Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert.

What I have not thought about that much is how do you protect art from the indiscriminate bombing and mortar shells? Of course, I should have remembered the devastation of art collections and historical monuments in Iraq and Afghanistan not to mention World War II.

Statistics show that there are 5,000 museums in the Ukraine as opposed to 35,000 in the U.S. Of course, these are not all art museums but still the number represents a whole lot of art including archeological objects. Of course, the safety of art comes second to the safety of people but without the art and artifacts a nation loses its history. Erasing the concept of Ukrainian culture may be the intent as Russia attempts to take over a country that at one time was part of its empire and make it part of Russia again.

The Russians already burned down a museum in the province of Kyiv which housed the work of an internationally recognized Ukrainian folk artist, Maria Pryimachenko (1919-1997) and 25 of her paintings were destroyed. Upon seeing an exhibition of her work in Paris Picasso is said to have commented, ““I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.”

What to do particularly when you are concerned for your family, friends, and staff? The director of the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War said that in “a great feat” the staff had moved the most important pieces to a “safe location”… and where might that be? I presume bomb shelters are for people not art.

Of course, the Ukrainians are trying to secure their museums and the Odessa Art Museum has put up barbed wire around the museum which might stop looters but won’t do much against a direct attack or bombing. To mitigate the latter, art has been moved to the safest place within the walls of the museum, the basement. The Lviv Municipal Art Center near the Polish border took a different direction: it has opened its doors to those fleeing the war zone to offer “a place of temporary respite for displaced people and for all those who require psychological calm.”

The art world is reacting. The Royal Opera House in London has cancelled the Bolshoi Ballet appearance this season. Artists are withdrawing works of art lent for Russian exhibitions. One curator has demanded that an exhibition he organized be closed immediately but, in the maelstrom, international loans are held hostage until ways can be found to return them.

Can Ukraine’s patrimony of treasures, which includes Scythian gold, be transported out of the country for safe keeping? This, of course, would be one solution. In spite of the imminent danger the law must still be obeyed and to move art over the border one must get government permission. At least one museum that had applied to do so as tensions rose had still not received a government release when the invasion began. Here is a pectoral, ca. mid 4th century, from Tovsta Mohyla, Ukraine.

Patty Gerstenblith, professor at DePaul University and director of its Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law, recently urged the Western art market to self-police against the illegal trade of looted Ukrainian artworks and archaeological artifacts. Easier said than done, if the art trade had adhered to that admonition during and after WWII there would be few fewer claims today for the art looted by the Nazis.

Communication with the outside world is difficult but museum staff have been able to do so on social media. Eventually, when it is all over, we will learn what art has been preserved and how it was done, but for now all we can do is pray the brave museum directors and curators of Ukraine survive and succeed in their mission.