Nov 2007 Journal
The voluptuous charms of a bejewelled Egyptian girl gazing discreetly down at two tiny bronze cymbals in her hands is the pièce de résistance of Ben Uri’s exhibition Auktion 392, Reclaiming the Galerie Stern, Düsseldorf. Framed by a theatrical curtain, this painting, by Emile Vernet-Lecomte, was successfully restituted to the Stern estate after the Nazis forced its Jewish owner, Max Stern, to sell the contents of his gallery in 1937. The Ben Uri features Stern’s gallery in its launch of a European tour of Nazi plundered art.
Thus Boundary Road is reconstructed into the fateful Auktion 392 in which the distraught dealer sold his dynastic collection through Lempertz auctioneers in Cologne, a place frequented by noted Nazi looters like Hermann Göring. It all contributed to an eerie atmosphere as black-and-white prints of major works from the collection by many Northern European artists such as Richard Burnier, Wilhelm von Schadow and Johannes Koekkoek are arranged like a shadow show of vanished times. Nicaise de Keyser’s beautiful Pieta and Eduard von Gebhardt’s depiction of his sick wife are riveting. Much of the work is pastorally idyllic - an ironic twist when you consider the cruel cynicism with which these paintings were despatched. Stern was fond of Old Masters but concerned himself less with modern European art, although some Otto Dix paintings and other Expressionist works were removed from his gallery to feature in the Nazis’ contemporaneous Munich exhibition of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), which sounded the death knell to Jewish artists in particular and freedom of expression in general.
Stern fled to Paris virtually penniless. He later joined his sister in London until he was interned as an enemy alien, first in Britain and later in Canada. After the war, Stern retrieved some of his pillaged art and became a successful art dealer in Montreal, promoting modern sculptors like Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin. Recovering the rest of the works sold in Auktion 392 is complicated by the fact that dealers are not legally bound to provide a work’s full provenance or history. Max Stern unwittingly colluded by failing to provide provenance records of his works. Thus the disintegration of his gallery and a vital artistic history of his times disappeared well before Kristallnacht, an ugly hint of the darkness to come. Meanwhile, the totemic Egyptian girl with the Sephardi nose, painted in the wake of Napoleon’s march into Egypt, remains an oriental symbol of dignity in defeat.
The National Gallery’s exhibition Work, Rest and Play, flagged up last month, opens with Duane Hanson’s super-realistic, life-size sculpture Traveller. Dozing while waiting for his flight – it’s a pure case of leisure imitating work. Twenty-five artists from Canaletto and Gaugin, to Ford Madox Brown offer their views of work and play. Giovanni Battista Moroni’s reflective sixteenth-century tailor is beautifully observed and contrasts with Laura Knight’s intense vision of women at work during the Second World War, and Maggi Hambling’s portrait of the chemist Dr Dorothy Hodgkin, whose very hands seem to burn with intellectual fervour.