Thursday, September 9, 2010

Critical Issues: Post-WWII Repatriation

Students have commented that art history is dead! In other words, because it deals with objects from the past, primarily, it may seem that the study of it lacks relevance. I disagree, certainly. To substantiate this claim, I offer one example: repatriation -- and, specifically, post-WWII repatriation.

Litigation concerning Egon Schiele's
Portrait of Wally (1912) has recently come to a close. The case between the U.S. government and the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray and Vienna’s Leopold Museum was settled in July 2010. Put simply, the Leopold Foundation will pay the Bondi heirs to keep the painting. In return, the Bondi estate agrees to drop all claims in return for payment of $19 million, a temporary exhibition of the painting at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Leopold Museum’s recognition of the family in signs accompanying the painting in future exhibitions.

Meticulous details have been uncovered in the decade since the painting was seized by U.S. federal authorities in 1999, on the heels of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In addition, legislation and voluntary guidelines have been created for procedures and practices instructing museums in handling claims of looting by Nazis. Collective practices have guided museums in discourse and, on occasion, resolution. This case involving Schiele’s
Portrait of Wally and the related settlement disclose nuances and intricacies of claims of ownership. In addition to cases and litigation, there are defenses and conciliations, as well as public perception — each of which impact the ways in which objects have afterlives, that is, postscripts to their joining a collection.

To me, it is the post-creation life of objects that can enable them to maintain agency. Certainly, the creation and immediate reception are critical. But are not the afterlives of the work equally critical? A close reading of this particular painting's provenance is, indeed, enlightening. Consider, too, the famed Elgin Marbles (and the slew of other Parthenon marbles). The list goes on.

I would argue, then, that art history is not dead. In fact, twenty-first century museums, scholars, collectors, art markets, and the general public have grown cognizant of the looming presence of the past on our present, with greater attention being paid to the broader issues of provenance and legacy as well as problematized acquisition, such as those conferred in times of conflict or in questionable circumstances.

What do you think?

NOTE: For a fuller discussion of the early days of the "Portrait of Wally", see Judith Dobrzynski's blog.


GC::VA said...

It sickens my stomach to think that students would say that art history is dead. It really baffles me to be honest.

I guess it is the same as the teenager that fights their parents and gets frustrated by their reasonings. It just takes an experience and some time and all the sudden the teenager says "oh, ok I can see why you did that"

Anonymous said...

How could art history EVER be dead, anyhow? For as long as humans exist, art will never fade. I am very confused as to why students would believe that such a time-enduring topic could ever be dead.

Earl Grey said...

Thanks for the comments:) The main reason that students have cited art history's irrelevance is that the art we study, for the most part, was created so long ago that it cannot have relevance in terms of content, or in term's of one's own artmaking.

Individuals (not just students, by the way!) believe that contemporary art is somehow "better" than art of the past. While this is a modernist view that has been accepted by many -- and for some time now-- it also denies the possibility that art has a particular relevance for a time and place and another relevance for another time and another place. Here, I would cite van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait"-- we cannot possibly ever know the fullest meaning of this work for a variety of reasons. See the work at:

But, this impossibility may be further reason to study the work intently -- at least in my opinion!