Monday, January 24, 2011

The Lost and Destroyed Art in WW2

Looking back to the class where we looked into the western cannon of art, one painting made me think more then the others. The stonebreakers, a painting by Gustave Courbet, is a painting made during the late 19th century. It depicts a father working as a stone breaker, a gruelling job with little pay and few prospects. The harsh lighting of the painting shows the sun bearing down on him. His son is standing behind him, symbolizing the fact his fathers job will be continued by him; it's a circle of life that will keep him poor. This painting, like many others, was destroyed during the second world war.

The Stone Breakers, Courbet. 1850 Destroyed with 154 other paintings when the truck transporting them to a castle in Konigsberg was bombed by Allied planes.

We know of it because of photographs, but the original was lost long ago. It's saddening to think a painting important enough to be shown to students in an introductory course on art history couldn't be preserved, but then again, the conflict it was lost in was a very destructive and harsh one. Thinking of all the people who lost their lives in the war is a terrible thought. The loss of art however, is just as bad; people come and go, but one of the only ways to piece together our past is through art, architecture and the design of everyday objects (with the other way being historical accounts through old books.) Losing paintings means losing a page of man's past. Thankfully, a lot of the art that has been destroyed in the last 100 years has been documented, and we can still see a glimpse of its stature.

When Germany invaded europe, and took over the majority of it, Hitler created a list of works of art he wanted. He was building a museum, the Fuhrermuseum, and he wanted the best examples of German art  in it. He ordered the looting of museums across France and the low countries. The art pieces that were thought to have value to the Nazi party were sent to several locations, to be catalogued by art historians and sent to Berlin. Those that didn't were sold on the international art market. Those that weren't sold were destroyed in bonfires like the one in the gardens of the galerie national du jeu de Paume in 1942, where several painitings from prominent artists like Picasso, Dali, Ernst, Klee, Leger and Miro were lost.

 As the war turned sour and Fascist Italy fell, the Germans, under the pretext of 'preserving' art, looted the museums of Italy and sent all the art back to the German mainland. A large amount of the art was found in salt mines across Germany... they were just humid enough to preserve the art and would be protected from the bombing.

This famous photograph shows President Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and General Patton looking at art found in the Salt mine in Merkers

How much of the art didn't make it out of the war? It's hard to tell since there are still works of art that are unaccounted for today. They could have been destroyed since the war, or they could be hiding in an unsuspecting persons attic. The Clark Photograph and Clippings Archive has an account on Flickr documenting the art pieces lost or destroyed during World War 2. While most of the works that are still lost are China and everyday objects, there are still paintings too.

You can take a look at the list of art works, their creators, the year of their destruction and how at this link.

While being the largest act of artistic destruction during the 20th century, it wasn't the only one. Since then, art has been destroyed because of fire, accident, or because of terrorist attack (the September 11th attacks destroyed works of Picasso, Lichtenstein and a tapestry from Miro, one of only two he ever made.) There have been a few instances when art has been destroyed simply because people found it 'ugly.' Richard Serra's Tilted Arc was removed from a New York park in 1989 for this reason.


  1. There was one art school which was also an art gallery in Haiti that was destroyed with the seisme of January 12. There was also a church in port au prince with a mural done by the 3 most famous haitian painters and the church is destroyed. no remains of the mural. this made me extremely sad when i've heard. the destruction of art is extremely difficult to manage because unlike a building, it can hardly be remade.

  2. That's terrible! I never thought about the fact that the world trade center actually had art in it too... very sad.. but interesting that we can at the very least keep track of art a lot better then we used to