Arts & Culture

Can We Learn Anything From Exhibits of Nazi-Stolen Art?

The Israel Museum, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a fantastic collection of art, has a well-deserved reputation for hosting world-renowned art exhibits. Particularly in the realm of Jewish art — that is, art created by members of the … Read More

By / May 5, 2008

The Israel Museum, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a fantastic collection of art, has a well-deserved reputation for hosting world-renowned art exhibits. Particularly in the realm of Jewish art — that is, art created by members of the Jewish community — the Israel Museum most often provides a vibrant, honest experience. However, its two most recent exhibits, "Looking for Owners: Custody, Research, and Restitution of Art Stolen in France during World War II" and "Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust," leave much to be desired.

"Looking for Owners" features pieces that the Nazis looted specifically from French Jewish communities during the Holocaust, while "Orphaned Art" features works of art looted from other European Jewish communities that were discovered in various hiding places by the Allies after the war. The art in both exhibits was collected by various organizations, professors, and graduate students who did years upon years of research in order to determine the owners of each piece and their countries of origin. An effort to return the uncovered pieces to families with legitimate ownership claims would have been an important endeavor, but instead, the entire project served as means of creating various exhibits to simply display the artwork.

Both exhibits consist of largely unrelated pieces of work that were simply owned (not created) by well-to-do Jews before the war. This alone does not establish a cultural contribution to the world of art by the Jewish community, nor do the works themselves tell us much about the lives of this portion of the Jewish community (upper-class European Jews). Instead, they merely serve as a rather mundane display of the wealth of their owners. The majority of the paintings displayed were either portraits of well-known families, such as the Rothschilds, or mediocre oil paintings of all things gold, shiny, and generally superfluous.

There are still many significant cultural contributions from pre-war Jewish communities that have yet to be salvaged from the remnants of the Holocaust. A people that, since WWII, has established a state and arguably redefined communal resilience, warrants the exhibition of more than a mere display of what was taken from them.