The Nazis Are Still Ruining Art, and Other News


On the Shelf

Michele Marieschi, La Punta Della Dogana e San Giorgio Maggiore.


  • Even now, more than seventy years after the end of World War II, the Nazis have found new ways to ruin things. Art, for example. In July, Sotheby’s will sell Michele Marieschi’s eighteenth-century painting La Punta Della Dogana e San Giorgio Maggiore. You might wish to buy it—it’s a nice painting, on the face of it, containing boats, water, the sky, and other attractive things often found in paintings. But read the fine print. The painting was looted by the Nazis decades ago, and the Jewish family who’d originally owned it has fought for generations to get it back. Now that it’s been recovered, you’d think the family could simply reclaim it. But the art market has other ideas, and the painting’s market value has escalated; rather than return it, Sotheby’s has brokered an uneasy settlement with the family. Nina Siegal has the story in detail: “It was 1937, Vienna, when a Jewish couple named Heinrich and Anna Maria Graf bought a vibrant eighteenth-century oil painting of the Grand Canal in Venice with the Punta Della Dogana in the background. The work held pride of place in their living room, the highlight of their small but treasured art collection. One year later, Germany annexed Austria, and the Grafs and their twin six-year-old daughters, Erika and Eva, had to flee the country. They put their art into storage … By the time they settled in Forest Hills, Queens, it was 1942, and all their possessions had been looted by the Nazis … Looted artworks that have been in private hands for decades are coming to market after settlement agreements with the rightful owners, in a way that tries to address their tainted past. These agreements may not result in the return of the paintings to the heirs, but the compromise does provide at least a form of resolution and some compensation to the heirs, and brings the artworks out of hiding.”
  • Philip Gourevitch, a former editor of The Paris Review, remembers reading Denis Johnson’s debut novel, Angels, in an ecstatic single sitting when he was twenty-one. He liked it so much that he decided he had to speak to Johnson—immediately. Gourevitch writes, “Who was this guy? Who wrote this language that carried traces of many writers I’d read before but was its own world entirely? If this was his first book, he must want to hear how good it is. The bio beneath his photo said he lived on Cape Cod. I picked up the phone and called information. I dialed the number the operator gave me, a woman answered, and when I said his name, she asked who was calling, and I said, ‘A reader’ … The only thing that he said that I remember exactly was when I asked him how long it had taken to write the book. He asked me if I was a writer, and I said that that remained to be seen. Then he answered my question: ‘Twelve years,’ he said. Later that night, I told a friend about my strange phone call, and when I got to the bit about twelve years, I said, ‘You see, it’s hopeless.’ But that wasn’t really what I felt, and I knew it. What I had felt when I hung up the phone was that I had got what I wanted. What I felt was: it was worth it.”

  • Chris Ware on Saul Steinberg and the literal stamp he left on the art of cartooning: “One can’t overstate the importance of Steinberg’s working for reproduction, of his creating drawings to be disseminated to the mailboxes, laps, and, I guess, bathroom walls, of receptive readers and not, at least initially, to museum wallsThe Museum turns on an eminently Steinbergian tool—the rubber stamp—and, as a lithograph, manipulates the idea of reproduction while pictorially lampooning and dissembling it. Identical figures are plunked out to represent visitors and viewers of (what else?) official stamps of approval; over the museum’s horizon, stamps rise like suns, the entire composition grounded and buttressed by illegible signatures and, of course, more stamps. As a visa-seeking émigré in his early life, Steinberg’s fascination with legal seals is easily understandable … Steinberg bundles the stamp’s sanctioning power and aesthetics into the frame of the art itself, stamping his own authorizing red imprimatur in that expected nonspace outside the image, along with his signature (legible, one notes) and, as a digestif, a blind stamp (a stamp without ink, visible by the impression it leaves on the page), just to snuff out any lingering doubt about the drawing’s authenticity and, by proxy, the artist’s own legitimacy.”
  • Jon K. Lauck’s new book From Warm Center to Ragged Edge traces the history of the East Coast’s scorn for the Midwest: when did we begin to cast a whole vibrant region of the country as “flyover states”? Reviewing the book, Michael Dirda writes, “Lauck traces the birth of this condescension to the 1920s, when writers and critics began to attack life in the Midwest as narrow-minded and repressive. Books such as Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street quickly exemplified what has been called ‘the revolt from the village.’ City slickers like H. L. Mencken and magazines such as The New Yorker further ridiculed the Midwest as a backward, second-class culture of yokels and rednecks who lacked a dedication to the intellect, let alone sensitivity to the arts. A few critics, such as Bernard DeVoto, argued against these simplistic orthodoxies. As Nebraska writer Bess Streeter Aldrich movingly declared, ‘A writer may portray some of the decent things of life around him and reserve the privilege to call that real life, too.’ ”
  • Simon Schama on the long, radiant career of Hokusai: “Hokusai, who died in 1849, is often thought of as the last genius of the woodblock color print revolution, a people’s art if ever there was one, which had begun over a century earlier. But his long life stretched all the way back to the middle of the eighteenth century, when the supply of woodblock prints—costing about the price of a double helping of noodles—transformed how art was consumed. It was a genre invented to satisfy the cultural appetite of the biggest city in the world, the million-plus population of Edo (now Tokyo) … For all his exalted sense of vocation and Buddhist devotion, [Hokusai] was, in his own way, an outrageous showman with art as his magic. Summoned to perform before the shogun, he laid down a thick band of blue, then pulled a live chicken from a basket which hopped around in the paint. Hokusai declared the result Autumn leaves at Tatsuta river. In 1804, before an audience come to see a temple sculpture, Hokusai used a hemp broom and fifty-four liters of ink to make a colossal, twenty-meter-long portrait of the founder of Zen Buddhism.”