Everyone knows that Hitler was a painter before he was a dictator. A really, really shit watercolour painter. It gives me untold pleasure to know that the only physical memento mori of the man are notable only in their wishy washy banality. But, even though he was awful at painting, Hitler always thought of himself as an artist, he just changed his tools of expression, swapping a bit of oil based acrylic here for a bit of mechanised genocide there. Whilst he proved to be lamentably brilliant at being the auteur of the Holocaust he still couldn’t get over the fact that he had failed at being a painter. So, when he came into power he began banning degenerate art and stealing the art collected and owned by degenerates themselves. I italicise degenerate because the Nazi meaning is different to the correct one. Degenerate for the Nazis meant gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and Jews. Oh and political opponents and anybody else who got in the way. Hitler began by wanting to hide these paintings out of sight. Hitler wanted to hide away the work of degenerate artistes like Picasso and Matisse. He wanted to hide it away because he hated the artists. He hated their being “un-German”, he hated their perceived other-ness. But, he mostly hated them because they could really, truly paint and had known a success which had been denied to him. However, he soon came to decide that their being hidden from sight didn’t guarantee safety from degeneration. They saw the paintings as a kind of reverse version of the portrait in Dorian Gray, fearing that they were somehow capable of transmitting their louche evils via osmosis into their hearts so white.
The Nazis enlisted Hildebrand Gurlitt to sell the pieces abroad for profit to fuel the Fascist machine. After the war he told investigators that his collection had been destroyed during the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945. He also said that he had been persecuted himself for having a Jewish grandmother. Having been cleared of collaboration with the Nazis he resumed his work as an art dealer until he died in a car crash in 1956. Then, in a kind of art history relay, he passed the clandestine baton on to his son Cornelius Gurlitt and for 56 years these paintings were hidden away in Gurlitt Junior’s unassuming Munich apartment.
We take a delight in stories of a perfectly preserved past. We greedily read articles about secret apartments discovered decades later in exactly the same state as when their occupants fled them. We marvel at the stories of Egyptian tombs untouched by human hand for millennia. It is human nature to cling to physical permanence from our precarious foothold in mortality. This particular unearthing of an untouched history is more than mere fascination. It is more than the discovery of art thought lost forever. Of some art never known of till now. This discovery heralds one of the final triumphs over Nazism and what I hope to be one of the final revelations of their murky deeds which have escaped notice for so many years.
I could not care less about the recovery of this art. What I care about and what really sticks in my throat is the fact that two generations took such care to conceal and protect inanimate objects. Such care would have been better placed concealing and protecting the decreasingly animate human beings awaiting transport to the camps. There were some people who were shielded and protected from genocide. Some were smuggled out and hidden with care and attention, but rarely the obsessive care and attention with which these paintings were fiercely guarded for nearly 70 years.
Gurlitt is a real life Gollum, the only difference being that he has many preciouses. Many beloved objects that he values above all others, that his father valued above all others as well. Apparently, after his preciouses had been discovered Gurlitt asked why the police couldn't have just waited until he was dead, a suitably baffling and ironic plea from a man who deems the preservation of art to be of more consequence and import than the preservation of humanity.