The professor and the art thief: a brief history

After the lights dimmed, the first slides the lecturer projected on the screen were of two watercolor paintings. The colors were earthy, mostly browns and muted reds; the forms organic, showing a building in ruins, its original shape no longer detectable. These were not bad pieces — though it’s no surprise that the talent behind them never manifested itself in great works.

Yet their creator did have a profound impact on the art world: The paintings were done by Adolf Hitler, who eventually looted enough fine art to rival the collections of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Professor S. Lane Faison told the story of Hitler’s trophy art collection to a near-full lecture hall on Western Carolina University’s Cullowhee campus last month. At age 92, Prof. Faison had a lot to share about art history.

As for Hitler’s mark on the subject, Faison had firsthand experience.

The professor’s introduction to the art world, was — perhaps like Hitler’s — initially innocent. While on a family trip to Europe in 1924, an adult friend invited Faison to spend some time in Paris. It was at Chartres, the great Gothic cathedral, that Faison was, in his own words, “hit hard by the power of art, without even knowing what it was.” That moment was transformative, and Faison returned to the States determined to study art history. His graduate work put him in contact with museum directors who, at the beginning of World War II, realized that the impending war would be a terrible danger to European artwork. Under Gen. Eisenhower’s orders, directives were sent out warning troops where museums, cathedrals and the like were located, so that these important structures might be spared in the bombing.

After the war, Faison became involved with the OSS Art Looting lnvestigations, which took place from 1945 to 1946. His outfit was sent to Munich, where the stolen art first had been stored, and then to the Austrian salt mines — where it was sent in 1944, when it became clear that Munich would fall to the Allies — to recover the majority of the stolen works. Much of his research involved long discussions with those involved in the looting process. Two key figures were Hermann Goering, Hitler’s main collector (and one-time right-hand man), and Rose Valland, a French curator who acted as an informer.

Certainly Goering was the less cooperative interviewee. Faison, who spent an entire summer talking to Goering, found him to be something other than a pleasant individual. He noted that Goering, when interrogated at length, would suddenly “forget” the English language and lapse into German. However, Goering was the most knowledgeable of the Nazi “collectors,” when it came to art: He had a large personal cache of works long before Hitler began his looting campaign, thus making for an ideal partnership. With Goering’s help, Hitler hoped to establish an unrivaled collection for the Nazi party. (In 1938, Hitler appointed a Chief Confiscator to oversee the appropriation of chosen works.)

However, due to the secret work of individuals such as Valland, that collection was successfully tracked during the looting and relocation. Once they had taken France, the Nazis made a few French workers stay on and help catalog the art. Valland kept detailed lists of what works were procured and shipped out of Paris — where the operation was headquartered — and where each piece of reallocated art was sent. Her photographic memory allowed her to remember all she documented: When she had an opportunity to slip away in the evening, she would report everything she had listed that day.

Valland’s efforts made it possible for Faison and others working with the Looting Investigation to recover the stolen items.

Although Valland was connected with the Louvre, it’s important to note that the looted French artwork did not come from there. In fact, the Louvre was emptied by the French before the war, in an effort to protect its contents. Most artwork stolen under Nazi rule did not come from museums and public spaces at all, but rather from Jewish collections, empty houses, and from the collections of enemies of the state.

The great works recovered by Faison’s efforts included Vermeer’s “Astronomer,” Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child,” and Rubens’ “Portrait of Helene Fourment.” (In general, French art was less favored than that from other parts of Europe, though more art was moved through France than any other location.)

As Nazi rule crumbled before the Allied assault, Hitler contemplated destroying the Austrian salt mines and all of its contents, going so far as to plant the bomb, Faison revealed in his lecture. Luckily, the art was spared, and the Allied organizations began the long process of locating, recovering and returning the works to their rightful places.

After the lights came up, Faison took a few questions. Despite his advanced years, his energy and enthusiasm about the art world were readily apparent. I wondered why the Nazis, who so catastrophically disdained human life, simultaneously valued the art that reflects our human experience. Faison explained that the Nazis valued “Nazi” life, not “enemy” life. They felt entitled to the best of what there was, fine art being a symbol of the best a society has to offer. This is where the concept of trophy art comes from: Collecting the most valued possessions of a conquered people. There’s a point, of course, where art separates from the human condition and takes on a value of its own. And yet, our fine art inarguably tells the story of us, a particular people living in a given time.

Sometimes, too, the works also tell their own, secret stories — ones that dwell far beneath the strokes on the canvas.

[Prof. Faison will remain in residence at WCU throughout the month of April. For more information on the Looting Investigations and recovered artwork, try this Web site: www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbacks/nazigold/loot.html]

SHARE
About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

Leave a Reply