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Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker

May 19, 2009

I finally made it to the Jewish Museum to see the Jacques Goudstikker exhibit (on the second floor). While I wouldn’t recommend going without knowing at least some background of the  Nazi looting and Goudstikker’s story, the exhibit was very moving in that it demonstrated how hard it is to reassemble the art that was scattered all over Europe during WWII. The paintings themselves weren’t as remarkable as the story behind them and the description of the significant efforts made to restore them to their rightful owners. What is so interesting is, that even though Goudstikker left behind a notebook with meticulous entries on each work of art he owned, it is still hard to track down the paintings today for many reasons. One of the reasons that was more surprising to me was that Goudstikker had misattributed some paintings since the use of work shops and apprentices etc. was widely practiced during the 15th through 17th centuries among European painters and what Goudstikker may have thought to be a painting by a master could be attributed only to an apprentice or lesser known artist today. The process of identifying a painting as a Goudstikker gallery original can take  years and include painstaking analysis of each crack on the painting’s surface, matching with photographs from the 1940’s and detailed research into provenance.  In addition, of the 1,400 paintings in his gallery at the time of his death, only 200 have  been reclaimed and many more haven’t been seen since the war. All this work leads me to wonder – is reassembling the collection really worth it? On the one hand, emotionally and symbolically, I can understand the significance of restoring the collection to its rightful heirs, however, we also have to accept the mass destruction and chaos that is inevitable in war time and the tragic consequences that follow. Another politically sensitive subject of destruction and restitution in the Cultural Revolution comes to mind. While it wasn’t genocide, the Cultural Revolution targeted very specific members of society, including religious people, and destroyed much of what they owned. Unfortunately, no one is trying to reconstruct the houses and art collections that were destroyed then, and in fact the booming development in China is in the process of destroying what little cultural heritage that was left.  

The exhibit was very moving for me since I am in the middle of reading, “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” and it really made the book come alive. My favorite painting was Salomon van Ruysdael’s “Ferry on a River” which was so beautiful in person.

 

Ferry on a River by Salomon van Ruisdael (1649) Oil on canvas, 101.5 x 134.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Ferry on a River by Salomon van Ruisdael (1649) Oil on canvas, 101.5 x 134.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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