It’s funny how Renee L. and I were reading similar books. She just finished reading Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (see her review here) and I just finished Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling. Both books deal with that black period in recent French history—the Occupation during the Second World War. I’m not a refugee from that period as Renee is but I do share her desire to understand what is not understandable.
Pictures from an Exhibtion is the story of the Berenzon family. The father Daniel is a prodigious collector of art and thanks to his genius in handling artists, some of the era’s greatest works graced the walls of their famous Gallery. Their family was friends with the Camondo family themselves great patrons of art. But while Daniel drills into Max, his only son, knowledge of their great collection, Max is nonetheless unfathomably forbidden to enter into the family business. Instead his father hires Rose Clement a beautiful and brilliant gallery assistant to work with him. Max inevitably falls in love with Rose. Unfortunately for all of them Paris falls into Nazi hands and the family is forced to flee for their lives. When they come back in 1945 their wondrous collection has disappeared. What follows next is Max’ quest to recover the family’s collection.
There is no doubting the horrors that were unleashed during this dark period of history. There is no shortage of documents detailing all the pain, suffering and misery endured by people. Less documented however is the pillage and looting that accompanied this particular war. Make no mistake about it, there was as much pillage and looting carried out during this period as there was during those days of colonial conquest and rule. What was the object of this looting? Art from the greatest collectors of those times, which happened to also be the most persecuted people. This book does a great job retelling the story of this war from the perspective of a citizenry robbed of everything including his art. And a city without its art is one that has lost its soul.
“I walked among the paintings that had not been shipped—Masson, Miro, Picabia, Valadon, Max Ernst, Leger, Picasso, Kisling, La Fresnaye and Klee. On May 26m, they disappeared. On May 27, I arrived at work almost at dawn, and already a column of smoke greeted me above the terrace of the Tuileries. By sunset, the fire still burned, fueled by the five or ten thousand paintings that our occupiers considered so dangerous.”
“On Bastille Day of 1944, Alfred Rosenberg’s organization, the ERR issued an internal report of European confiscations. ….22,004 works of art in all categorized as
10,890 paintings, watercolors and drawings,684 miniatures, paintings on glass and enamel, books and manuscripts, 2,477 furniture pieces of acknowledged historical value, 583 textiles, 5,825 objects d’art,….”
And while the occupiers made off with much of the art, this book doesn’t spare the French art dealers who had made profit from dealings with the Germans and who later tried to sell back furniture and other objects to the same people who owned them before the war.
But just as every story has its villain, there must also be a hero. In this case, it’s a brave heroine. Rose Clement was modeled after real life Rose Valland, who remained at the Louvre and kept meticulous records of paintings that later enabled the government to recover some of the lost art. It’s just a shame that her character wasn’t as well-fleshed out as it could’ve been.
One passage I really liked is one where Rose is in the middle of the Louvre overseeing the removal of artwork for safer destinations.
“The Louvre’s galleries all led, like spokes to the center of a wheel to the Winged Victory of Samothrace. We had arrived there, on the museum’s first floor, looking up to the score of steps that led to its third, over which a wooden ramp had been constructed. Scaffolding sufficient for a house surrounded Winged Victory. The famous bosom was covered by a heavy piece of leather and encircled with rope. A second box of slatted wood was built around the statue, this one with wheels at its corners. The wings of solid marble still looked ready to take flight. A noose cinched where the head been a thousand years before.”
As with Sarah’s Key, Pictures at an Exhibition shines an illuminating light on a very dark period of our past. It’s a portrait of man, made cruel by great greed and common venality. It’s a continuing lesson to all of us not to go down that path again.