Would I put my life at risk to save Art? This question is actually a real life one that individuals have been forced to ask themselves.
The year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Instigated by Germany, the war devastated vast stretches of Europe. Moreover, German units systematically looted the occupied territories and perpetrated the biggest art theft in the history of Europe. A number of films depict attempts by the retreating Nazi army at the end of World War II to transport and hide stolen art, and the allied efforts to stop them.
You may have heard of the film Monuments Men, about a small group of American and English curators and art historians traversing war ravaged Europe during the last days of Nazi occupation, near the end of the War. Their task was to uncover and save the great works of art that had been systematically plundered at the orders of Hitler and Goering.
The documentary film, Rape of Europa, is about the same operation. these individuals really did believe it was worth risking their lives to save Art.
The art, architecture and monuments that end up in the middle of wars have been looted, damaged and destroyed since there have been conflicts. Every country in every age may face a terror of its own, which can lead to tragic losses of life and culture. The Bode Museum in Berlin is currently showing The Lost Museum: The Berlin Sculpture and Paintings Collections 70 Years After World War II, which focuses on a devastating fire and theft from that collection at the war’s end. It seems nothing much was spared the devastation of the time.
Just as recent as 2012, over 1400 paintings and prints were discovered in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive Munich man who was the son of Hitler’s art dealer. The works were confiscated by the Nazis from private owners before and during the war, and Gurlitt inherited the stolen art from his father. Attempts to make restitution of the art to the heirs of the original families is ongoing.
In our own time, destruction of irreplaceable antiquity has continued in Iraq. ISIS has been looting museums and selling off the artifacts on the black market as a huge funding source. They have also notoriously destroyed art and cultural sites deemed “idolatry” by the caliphate. News reports and satellite images have told the sickening story of World Heritage sites having been blown up by ISIS, now lost forever in one explosion.
Recently, a hero for the Art he studied and protected for decades, Khaled al-Asaad was put to death after a month of torture because he steadfastly refused reveal the hiding place of many ancient carvings which had been stored for safe keeping. Born in the ancient city of Palmyra in the early 1930s, he was a Syrian archeologist, curator, and museum director. His loss has been mourned, his sacrifice, honored worldwide. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has put a bust from Palmyra on display in his honor.
As you look through these linked sources, try and imagine the choices these people made and why they might have made those choices. Next time you are in Boston, visit the Palmyra bust at the MFA and remember Khaled al-Asaad.