Looted art and suppressed music: how to excavate culture driven underground?

Posted on Gwen, 2014-01-24 11:20 by Opera Explorer

Last November in Munich, Swiss customs authorities carrying out a routine passenger inspection made a rather unexpected discovery when they came across Cornelius Gurlitt: he was found to be carrying the sum of €9,000 in cash, which led the tax authorities to a gargantuan hoard of over 1,400 artworks, many of which were believed to have been confiscated by the Nazis, in the pensioner’s Munich home. According to Der Spiegel, Gurlitt – a distant relation of the composer Manfred Gurlitt - maintains that his father, Hildebrand, acquired the paintings ‘legally’, but this does not solve the question of how he managed to keep so many paintings secret for so long, let alone how they all fitted into his apartment. (What’s the German for Tardis, I wonder?)

These gaps in the cultural canon are merely the artistic aftershock of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’, of which the seizure and destruction of ‘degenerate’ art played a huge role. As German Jewish writer Heinrich Heine presciently wrote in 1821, ‘Where one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people’, and this quote now adorns a commemorative plaque in the Holocaust Museum in Israel.  The quote takes on even greater relevance today when we consider it in its original context, in Heine’s play Almansor, referring to the burning of the Quran during the Spanish Inquisition.  And yet, despite its sinister origins, and the real, human cost that these vanished expressions of humanity connote, there is something enticing, or almost romantic, about the rediscovery of art from the abyss of history, particularly after it was presumed lost.  The notion that an ordinary apartment could house an Aladdin’s cave of ‘lost’ or looted art appeals to the eternal fantasy of a secret world hidden just out of sight. If nothing else, it reaffirms the belief that the world can still foster a child-like sense of wonder in us, or transform before our very eyes.  In our age of ever-increasing information and Google-mapping, we could be forgiven for feeling as though there are no more ‘secret’ places left to discover – and these stories tap into our need to find the magical in the everyday.

In terms of the Gurlitt story’s dark roots, wild improbability, and the sense of awe it inspires, I find it not dissimilar to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, in which a mundane Soviet communal apartment becomes a portal to another world; the ‘fifth dimension’, through which the heroine is transported to a grand ball hosted by none other than Satan himself. It is telling that Bulgakov’s novel was written against the horrific backdrop of Soviet purges, where thousands of prominent cultural figures mysteriously ‘disappeared’ in the night, only to be sent to the Gulag, or to meet summary execution. In this climate of persecution, ‘unpatriotic’ works were censored by Stalin, and The Master and Margarita was only published in abridged form many years after Bulgakov’s death. 

Around the time that the Gurlitt story broke, my boyfriend and I went on a tour of the ‘secret’ London Underground station at the Aldwych, with its ‘hidden’ - or at least, buried - wartime history.  Since its closure in 1993, it has been used for music videos, films, and security exercises, and I suspect that it has far more visitors now, with the cult status and nostalgic appeal of a ‘closed’ station, than it ever had as a functioning stop on the Piccadilly Line! I was intrigued to hear that not only had the station been used as a shelter from the Blitz for displaced Londoners, but that at the same time, its second platform was used to safeguard works of art from the Galleries, including the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. It transformed my appreciation of the everyday-seeming dusty tunnels – apologies to train enthusiasts! - to think of them as both a lifeline and a kind of makeshift gallery, albeit one kept under armed guard.  (Incidentally, our forthcoming productions of Manon Lescaut and Boulevard Solitude at WNO will use the setting of a ‘station’ to frame an updated depiction of the story of a vulnerable young woman perpetually in transit; only, rather than housing great paintings as in the wartime Aldwych, the on-stage ‘platform’ will instead be filled with the music of Puccini and Henze.) However, the nobility of the gesture towards the preservation of the marbles is tainted by the ongoing debate as to whether the statues, taken from the Greek Parthenon by Lord Elgin, should be restored to their native Greece. On this subject, David Pountney quipped, ‘It seems that restitution is a moral obligation if the victim is Jewish, but not Greek.’  The politics of cultural restitution and preservation are complex enough when tangible objects are at stake, so how do we ‘repatriate’, or rehabilitate suppressed musical artefacts and composers?

On Saturday last week, Houston Opera hosted the US première of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera The Passenger, which came to English National Opera in the Autumn of 2012 in a production by WNO's Chief Executive & Artistic Director David Pountney.  He spoke to me about the ‘double jeopardy’ in which Jewish composers like Weinberg were placed after they escaped persecution by the Nazis: all of Weinberg’s family was killed in Poland, and so he came to seek refuge in the Soviet Union. David explains; ‘Weinberg was Polish and never occupied an institutional post in the USSR, and his opera The Passenger was in effect banned, and denounced as being ‘abstract humanism’.  Then, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the disbanding of publishing houses that had printed and promoted his works, he no longer had a face, while in Poland he was dismissed as a Soviet composer.  It just shows how fragile your identity can be, if exile deprives you of the apparatus of your national identity – that is, your family, your network of colleagues, and the institutions that supported your activity.’

The only way we can reclaim suppressed musical works from the ashes of history is by restoring them to audiences in the neutral territory of production, or rather, performance.  There audiences are at last able to make their own discoveries of unchartered musical terrain.  I am sure that the Munich case will not be last account of lost (or looted?) ‘degenerate’ art, but unlike Mr Gurlitt, who looks as though he is keen to hold onto his paintings, there are new concerts and performances of this music, and not just across the pond, which aim to bring forbidden music back to life. Tomorrow in Cambridge at 8pm, Trinity College Chapel will host ‘Voices of Degenerate Music’; a concert of ‘forbidden’ works compiled and directed by third-year student Adam Cigman Mark.

The age of information has not removed all mystery from our culture, far from it. The power of technology can be harnessed to publicise these events, to promulgate these ‘forbidden’ works, and to map the legacy of their restoration to the public arena. In the mean time, I’m sure the tax inspectors of Munich will not forget Mr Gurlitt’s apartment in a hurry!

Sophie Rashbrook