What Hitler’s painting collection tells us about our ideas of art

16 paintings in the Czech Republic have been confirmed as being from the art collection of Adolf Hitler. The paintings were moved to the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) to avoid damage during Allied attacks.

Seven are currently on display in the convent where Jiri Kuchar (an author and, it seems, amateur art detective) had identified them. According to The Telegraph, “Kuchar found seven more that Hitler had once owned at the northern Czech chateau of Zakupy, and one each at the Military History Institute in Prague and the Faculty of Law of Charles University in Prague.”

For a little context, here is the snippet from that Telegraph article which talks more about Hitler’s art collection which you should read if you’re interested in the whys and wherefores:

As a former artist, Hitler was an art lover and collector. Countless paintings, many done by major European painters, were seized by the Nazis during the Second World War.

At one point, Hitler’s private collection, known as the “Linz Collection,” included almost 5,000 works, and the Nazis had once planned to create a museum for them in Linz, Austria.

[…]

During the occupation, it is believed that the 16 works were part of Hitler’s collection of more than 70 pieces of contemporary German art that the Third Reich stored at a monastery in the southern Czech town of Vyssi Brod, together with larger collections of valuable paintings stolen from Jewish families in Europe.

Christian Fuhrmeister of the German institute said Vyssi Brod was one of the depots where such seized art works were relocated to prevent damage caused by Allied air forces.

After the war, valuable paintings possessed by the Nazis were confiscated by the U.S. Army and taken to the Munich Central Collection Point in an effort to return them to their original owners. Many less valuable works were left behind after the 1945 liberation of Czechoslovakia and ended up scattered across the country.

Fourteen of the 16 works that Kuchar has identified as former Hitler possessions are now owned by the Czech National Institute for the Protection and Conservation of Monuments and Sites, and it doesn’t plan to sell them or put them on public display.

“They will remain in the depositary,” said Ivana Chovancova, an official at the institute.

I guess the question here is what this discovery actually tells us about our ideas of art.

Well, art experts from the Zentralinstitut fur Kunstgeschichte in Munich apparently described the identification as “interesting” but said that the collection itself is of “low value”. That pretty much tells you what you need to know for an art market perspective. A painting’s ownership and lineage can be important to its perceived value because it provides historical interest and context as well as lending the object the attraction (or taint) of celebrity. The paintings themselves are still of relatively low value – minor or not particularly accomplished works by names that don’t capture auction interest.

So why is the discovery so interesting and why is the historical value so at odds with the market value?

To my mind it’s because Hitler’s regime and the atrocities for which it is responsible are still utterly incomprehensible to us. Over 70 years later we are still try to find the key to understanding (and perhaps preventing) another WWII, another Holocaust. If we can just know what was going on in the mind of this vegetarian, former artist then maybe we can find some answers…

That’s the allure of art. The creative side of the self has a reputation for providing a window into that person’s mind. Art is an expression of something within. We (for the most part) create what we are interested in and abandon what we are not, and we collect and protect works that we value. It’s a very flawed, or at least romanticised, view of art but a popular one. And so it’s not hard to see that by knowing what Hitler collected and valued we think we can learn something about the man’s psyche.

You can see a glimmer of this in an article by Matthew Day: “Among the works of art is a massive painting entitled Memories of Stalingrad. Depicting wounded German soldiers sheltering in a trench as battle rages around them, the work of art is believed to be one of Hitler’s favourites despite the catastrophic defeat inflicted on his armies at Stalingrad by Soviet forces.”

The author’s curiosity as to why Hitler would collect a fairly dramatic depiction of an event which recalls his own disastrous failure on the battlefield is palpable.

But regardless of whether the paintings can or cannot tell us anything about Hitler’s inner workings (I haven’t seen enough of them to even begin to form an opinion worth offering on that count), there is the more practical problem posed by the discover of their former ownership – that of what to do with the now-tainted collection.

All but two of the paintings are now owned by the Czech National Institute for the Protection and Conservation of Monuments and Sites, which “doesn’t plan to sell them or put them on public display.”

Without talking directly to the Institute about their reasons for keeping the paintings confined to the depository I am merely speculating, but I suspect it is to do with not knowing how to handle or digest the idea of enjoying something that one of the most monstrous figures of the 20th century enjoyed – of sharing an emotional connection with Adolf Hitler.

>> For more about the relationship between Nazism and art, you can read: Arno Breker: Hitler’s favourite sculptor

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