World War II is unquestionably one of the saddest and enraging periods of our recent time. On top of the loss of countless lives, especially of Jewish people, art also suffered a great toll. Modern art, in general, was seen as “degenerate” by Hitler and the Nazi regime. As a result, many artworks of that time were destroyed or pillaged, including paintings of Vincent van Gogh.
This article will delve further into how van Gogh pictures survived, or not, this dark period.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler would rise to power as Chancellor of Germany. He was an unsuccessful artist who valued the ideals of more traditional art, such as the artworks of the Old Master, always favoring a realistic representation. Since Modern movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, and Impressionism took liberties with form and color in their compositions, the despot saw these artworks as degenerate, corrupting the “true art.” As Chancellor, Hitler imposed his artistic views nationwide.
Then, what is known as the Nazi Plunder began. Property of German Jews started being seized. Not only valuable items such as currency, gold, and silver were stolen, but also items of cultural value. Museums were forced to sell or destroy their “degenerate” artworks. However, some masterpieces would fall in the private collection of high-ranking officers.
As the Reich expanded its territory, so did the persecution of the Jewish people, and consequently, their possessions and artworks. This process was systematic, with many entities enforcing and overlooking the operation, and was an integral part of the Holocaust.
By the end of the conflict, about 20% of all artworks in Europe were plundered by the Nazi regime. Many of these artworks disappeared in the hands of private collectors. Some have never been found, and those that reappeared are often the focus of high-profile lawsuits aiming to return them to the heirs of the rightful owner. This process might prove difficult because the history of ownership was often erased upon their confiscation.
Many Jewish collectors were owners of van Gogh pictures, and so, they were seized by the Nazi regime. Several of the stolen artworks were stored in safe places, most commonly salt mines, many feet below the surface. Eventually, 400 paintings of a museum in the city of Magdeburg were stored in one of these salt mines, fearing bombing runs by the allied forces. Finally, in 1945, a bombing destroyed part of said museum. One of these paintings was van Gogh’s “The Artist on the Road to Tarascon,” a highly unusual self-portrait for the artist.
Self-portraits are some of the most famous of all Vincent van Gogh paintings; his depictions of himself seem to carry all the complexity of his mind. Most of his self-portraits show the artist’s bust. However, in “The Artist on the Road to Tarascon,” van Gogh depicted himself further from the viewer. As the artist described the painting to his brother Theo, van Gogh painted himself laden with painting materials, such as canvas, props, and boxes. He walks along a road by a cornfield on a colorful sunny day. The artist is distant, and the viewer can’t make out his face.
But, did the painting really burn in a fire? Well, there’s speculation over the real fate of the painting, stating that the fire was used as a cover to looting; they would burn lesser artworks and keep the more valuable. A US military document says that one of the two fires in the salt mines was caused by people who went there to loot. The second fire could be due to negligence of US guards and can’t be precise whether the fire was accidental or deliberate. This makes the hypothesis that van Gogh’s painting, and others, could have survived the fire and fallen into private collections quite believable.
A rare photo of one of van Gogh pieces has surfaced. “Six Sunflowers,” painted in 1888, was destroyed by an allied bombing in Osaka, Japan, shortly before the end of WWII in 1945. The artwork is part of van Gogh’s famous series of sunflowers and was supposed to be used as decoration in the artist’s studio, The Yellow House. In one of van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, the artist describes the artwork, which depicts six very stylized sunflowers over a dark-blue background; he intended to put the artwork on an orange frame.
Today, this characteristic might seem unimportant. However, in the late-1800s, the framings of artworks were either ornamented gilt frames or often simple white frames. As an artist, van Gogh loved to explore compositions with complementary colors and seemed especially fond of the combination of orange and blue. By doing this, van Gogh’s intention was to use the frame not only as a support for the paintings but as part of the composition itself.
Since the end of the war, many artworks have slowly been returning to the heir of their rightful owners. However, the German Lost Art Foundation still mentions dozens of unrecovered van Gogh paintings. Were they destroyed as well? Are they hanging on the walls of private collectors? Would they ever return to the public eye? Only time will tell.