The Rape of Europa— and the Barnes♦
If you care about art, history, or documentary filmmaking, The Rape of Europa, which played recently and all too briefly at the Ritz at the Bourse, is a work not to miss. The loss and destruction of hundreds of thousands of artworks, buildings and artifacts during World War II obviously can’t be compared with the deaths of tens of millions of human beings. But the equation is false in the first place: I’d choose a child over a Rembrandt, but I’d mourn the Rembrandt in a way I couldn’t the child.
It’s worth asking why this is so (for me, at least; perhaps it isn’t for you). It’s true the supply of Rembrandts is limited while that of children is sufficiently abundant that the abortion of 1.5 million human fetuses each year in the U.S. is an issue of no great moral urgency for most Americans, and even a triumph of reproductive rights for some. Quantity isn’t the issue, though.
I would have to say that a child’s life represents an absolute value (again, for me), but it’s partially a potential value too, since the child is not yet what the adult may be, for good or ill. There is an ironic moment in The Rape of Europa when Oskar Kokoschka, who with Egon Schiele was admitted to the same class of the Vienna Academy of the Fine Arts that rejected Adolph Hitler, speculates on how 20th-Century history might have turned out had Hitler won the place awarded Kokoschka. Would we care as much for Hitler the child if we knew his future destiny? Would we not, as in Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil, wonder whether our duty lay not in protecting this child but eliminating him?
Saving the Mona Lisa
The value of a Rembrandt, on the other hand, is fully realized, and, to any civilized person, incontestable. It’s a part of all of us in the way a child about whom we know nothing is not, except abstractly.
When the Nazis wanted to punish the inhabitants of Warsaw for the uprising of August 1944, they first blew up what had remained of the Warsaw Castle, the traditional residence of the kings of Poland and a structure whose iconic value for Poles was much like that of the Statue of Liberty for us. The Poles rebuilt the castle as an urgent priority after the war, even while still suffering acute shortages of food and shelter.
When the Mona Lisa was being evacuated from the Louvre, it was sent from Paris in a closed ambulance with a curator in attendance, who was found unconscious and nearly suffocated when the vehicle arrived at its destination: the curator was willing to risk his life so that the work could be hermetically sealed for the journey.
When the treasures looted during the Germans’ retreat from Paris were returned to the city, virtually the entire population came out to cheer and weep. The preciousness of art is one of the things that most importantly define us as human.
Hitler as frustrated painter
The Rape of Europa, based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas, realized for the screen by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham, and sensitively narrated by Joan Allen, thus casts history’s greatest conflict as a parable of creation and destruction that represents perhaps the deepest dialectic of civilization itself. The frustrated painter Adolf Hitler and his art-loving henchman, Hermann Goering, ransacked the museums, galleries and private houses of Europe to adorn the Third Reich; the victorious Allies, in liberating Europe, left a trail of destruction (and no small amount of looting) in their wake, particularly in Italy. Even when the line between heroes and villains is as clear as can be, irony abounds.
A child, helpless and dependent, will nonetheless become an adult who can, at least under ordinary circumstances, look out for himself. Art, however, exists continually at our sufferance; a knife, a hammer, or a bomb suffices to deface, mutilate or destroy it. Among the most poignant images in The Rape of Europa were those showing the galleries of the Louvre and the Hermitage, protectively emptied of their art. It was impossible for me to look at these images without thinking of the similar fate that awaits the gallery of the Barnes Foundation in Merion if the current efforts to loot it succeed.
Location, location, location
To be sure, the art itself, transported five miles to downtown Philadelphia at a cost of $300 million, would physically survive. Its character as a collection, however, would not, even in a court-mandated simulacrum. The Mona Lisa would doubtless have remained as a physical artifact in the museum that Hitler, even in his demented last hours, still dreamed of building in Linz. But it wouldn’t have been the same work of art.
Great art is as deeply sensitive to its location—to the time and place that define it as a production of the human spirit, and to the generations of care and love that protect it—as it is to temperature and humidity. It’s astonishing, watching The Rape of Europa in a Philadelphia theater, to think that one of the world’s great collections of art is endangered in our own community by the sort of arrogance that Hitler and Goering displayed in extremis more than 60 years ago. Our own cultural barbarians must not be allowed to prevail.
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