Friday May 4, 2007
by Jesse Hamlin. San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Bernard Taper dreamed about Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Man'', the most prized painting looted by the Nazis that has never been found. He spent two years searching for the Raphael in ravaged post-World War II Germany and for many other works he did recover as an art-intelligence officer with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the U.S. military.
"It's the most valuable single thing that's still missing,'' says Taper, a longtime writer for the New Yorker, one-time Chronicle reporter and retired UC Berkeley journalism professor. He tracked down many artworks in 1946 and '47, including objects German peasants had looted from an abandoned train carrying booty pilfered by Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring. A connoisseur of luxury, Göring had amassed thousands of paintings, sculptures and others works during his tenure as the second-most powerful man in Nazi Germany.
Taper is sitting in the sunny living room of the Berkeley home he shares with his wife, poet Gwen Head,
recalling the slippery art advisers, black marketeers and such top Nazis as Albert Speer he interrogated 60 years ago. On the table is a book published by the Polish government, in English titled "Wartime Losses, Foreign Paintings, Volume I", with Raphael's curly-haired young man on the cover (the portrait belonged to the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow). He's become the poster child for the countless artworks stolen by Hitler and his Nazi henchmen from Jewish homes and art galleries, civic museums, private collections and churches across Europe; tens of thousands of them still missing during the reign of the Third Reich.
The Nazis were not just the most systematic mass murderers in history, they were the greatest thieves,'' says historian Jonathan Petropoulos in the potent new documentary "The Rape of Europa,'' which screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival next Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and
plays at the Krakow and Jerusalem film festivals next month. Taper is one of several of the so-called Monument Men who appear in the film. They describe the vast hordes of art, furniture and religious objects the Nazis stashed in castles, salt mines and bunkers in Germany and Austria, and the noble efforts to recover, protect and return them to the countries from which they were stolen.
Jointly written, produced and directed by three San Francisco filmmakers; Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, The Rape of Europa'' is based on the 1995 book of the same name by Lynn Nicholas. Seven years in the making, the documentary delves into the Nazis' obsession with art, and the fervor for not only wiping out entire races but also their cultural patrimony as well. And it tells the story of the people who tried to salvage the remnants of European culture and those still working to repair the damage: the Monument Men on the front lines in Italy who sought to protect historic buildings and artworks from Allied bombing (sometimes unsuccessfully); the working people at the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, who struggled to save their cultural heritage; and the Italian conservators still piecing together the shattered frescoes from the Camposanto in Pisa, destroyed by Allied shells.
I was fascinated with this issue of art and culture being like mana, invested with some kind of soul,'' says Berge, who met his co-directors in the early '90s in the documentary film Masters Program at Stanford. The Nazis wanted to eliminate it, and all these other people wanted to protect it. You could kill all the people, but if the objects remained, there would be something left of the soul. And the Nazis were trying to eliminate every vestige of it.''
Rather than dealing in obvious terms of good and evil, Cohen says, "It was central for us to get all those gray areas. We wanted to get into the mind-set, to understand the Nazis' obsessive art collecting; not only the collecting but the eradication and what it said about them. We felt strongly that this was a new lens to look at this period of history through, and we could bear witness in a different way than how we were taught about the Holocaust.''
A failed artist, Hitler had begun collecting art and using it as propaganda after his rise to power in the 1930s. He had more than 16,000 works of modern art, which he labeled "degenerate,'' purged from German museums. They were destroyed, sold or traded for Old Masters. Other high-ranking Nazis began collecting, following the example of the Führer, who planned a great museum of European art, honoring his reign, in his provincial hometown of Linz, Austria. Many of the stolen Rembrandts, Vermeers and Boticellis were earmarked for Hitler's museum.
When American art experts learned of the Nazi looting, they convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to form a commission to try to save European monuments and artworks as the Allies prepared to invade Europe. Officers with art and curatorial backgrounds were assigned to Army units to advise the advancing troops about what buildings were worth saving. They made aerial photographs marking monuments not to be bombed. A strategic bombing of the vital Florence rail yards spared the city's great art treasures, but the Germans blew up historic bridges as they retreated.
The ranks of the Monument Men included such later well-known figures as James Rorimer, future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Lincoln Kirsten, director of the New York City Ballet (Taper wrote the definitive biography of the great Russian-born choreographer Kirsten brought to America, George Balanchine). One of the most lauded Monument Men was Capt. Deane Keller, a Yale art professor charged with protecting Italian art and buildings. A medieval cemetery with vast Gothic galleries containing treasured frescoes, the Camposanto was accidentally hit during the battle for Pisa, and the lead roof melted over the frescoes and marble work.
Over the next several weeks, Keller got Italian soldiers to clean the place out and pick up thousands of fresco fragments. He got U.S. Army engineers to build a temporary roof to shield works that survived, hunting up the materials wherever he could, and sent art conservators from Rome and Florence
to tend to the works. Keller, who later rescued a horde of looted works by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raphael and accompanied their triumphant return to Florence, was buried in Camposanto after his death in 1992.
"My story is not as heroic or as glamorous as those of the earlier Monuments people, whom I look on as legendary figures, truly chivalric in their courage, enterprise and dedication to a cause,'' Taper wrote in a 1995 essay, included in a book "The Spoils of War,'' the title of an international symposium he participated in that year.
"I was in the Army for three years, and I didn't fire a shot at anybody and nobody fired a shot at me. That's the definition of a good war,'' the white-haired Taper, sharp at 89, says with a smile. But he did his part to bring forth light, in the form of recovered art, from the darkness of the war.
Born in London and educated at UC Berkeley, Taper was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He served in intelligence and infantry units before being sent back to Berkeley to learn Chinese in preparation for work as a liaison officer assigned to Chaing Kai-Shek's army in China. But at the last minute, the entire class was sent to Germany, where the war was over.
"It was the Army. Why do you think they invented words like 'snafu'?", laughs Taper, who was assigned to Patton's Third Army, then sent to Munich to write intelligence reports. Lunching outdoors one day at an officers' club, he fell into conversation with a dashing chap named Walter Horn, an Aryan German who abhorred Hitler and left, became a professor of medieval history at UC Berkeley, and saw combat action during the war.
"He started telling me marvelous, fascinating stories about what it was like in his job to search for lost and stolen art,'' recalls Taper, who had begun contributing to the New Yorker and the Nation while serving in occupied Germany. Horn was desperate to go home, but couldn't until he found a successor for his art-investigating job. "When he met me he found his successor,'' says Taper, who told Horn he wasn't an art historian and probably wasn't qualified. Horn said the Monuments section was "lousy with art historians'' but what was needed was somebody who knew how to ask questions. As a budding journalist, Taper fit the bill.
As a further inducement, Horn told him he would have the use of a white BMW roadster, wouldn't have to wear a uniform, could travel freely without orders and would meet women. "And he said if nothing else, there's all this art you can look at,'' recalls Taper, quick to point out that he got a brown Audi sedan, not the promised BMW. For about six weeks, Taper was in charge of the Army's art-collecting center at Wiesbaden, which was filled with not only looted art but works from various German civic collections.
They had fantastic stuff there,'' Taper says. "In the office, across the whole back wall, was Watteau's 'Embarkation for Cythera,' and a wonderful Degas, where you look up through the orchestra pit, through the beards of the musicians at these elegant dancers. "It was from the Frankfurt Museum'' ,as Taper says in the documentary, "Just that office alone was worth the price of admission to World War II.'' Outside the door stood a 5,000-year-old stone Nefertiti, which also stopped Taper in his tracks. "I couldn't just brush by. I had to stop and commune with her.''
Building on the work of previous Monument Men, such as his friend Stewart Leonard, a bomb diffuser who single-handedly removed 22 mines from the Chartres Cathedral and later opened crates containing priceless books and Dürer drawings, Taper tracked down mostly mid-level missing artworks, by painters like the 16th century Dutch artist Mierevelt and his Flemish contemporary Teniers, as well church statuary and other looted objects.
"Probably the best artwork I helped recover was from Göring's train,'' Taper says, abandoned on a rail siding not far from Neuschwanstein Castle, where Allied troops found a huge cache of stolen art. The locals had heard there was schnapps on board, Taper says, and after stealing the schnapps, they took the rest of the stuff, which included late-Gothic wood statutes and a 15th century School of Rogier van der Weyden painting."Not bad,'' says Taper, who had the bright idea of tapping the de-Nazifed German police to help him find stolen goods.
He learned that the Gothic statutes had been taken by a cabinetmaker named Roth. "When caught, the man said he'd seen the objects lying in the mud and took pity on them'' by taking them home. "After that,'' Taper says, "when we had an interrogation, we'd say, 'Did you steal that, or did you just take pity on it?'
Searching for the missing Raphael, Taper questioned many people, including the art advisers to Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of the occupied Polish area called "General Gouvernement.'' Frank kept the Raphael, along with a Rembrandt and Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine; both of which were found and returned to the rightful owner in his Krakow residence. As the Russians advanced on Krakow, Frank and his entourage left in a rush, taking all three masterpieces with them. They stopped in various towns on their way to Bavaria. By the time Frank was captured in Neuhaus, the Raphael had vanished.
Taper spent many hours questioning Frank's first art adviser, the nfamous Kajetan Mühlmann and his successor, Wilhelm Ernest von Palezieux, whom Taper found in the French occupation zone. He got conflicting stories; all of these characters suffered from what Taper calls "selective amnesia'' - tracked down all the leads, but came up empty-handed. A number of important missing works have cropped up in recent years as paintings have come on the market and governments open their files. The Russians, who suffered mightily at Hitler's hands, still have loads of things Stalin took from Germany when the Red Army got back what was left of the stolen Russian art. Taper doesn't know if the Raphael will ever resurface.
In addition to returning looted works, "a major part of our task was the fostering of the public German institutions,'' says Taper, who still recalls concerts held in freezing halls in bombed-out cities across Germany, which fed defeated spirits. "That was all they had.''
Taper thinks the work the Monument Men did was not only important in terms of equity, but also as ritual and symbol. "It was a symbol that there were higher values than victory, higher values than patriotism,'' he says. "It was a rare kind of behavior, which was a disinterested doing of good.''
In "The Rape of Europa,'' an Army doctor named Leonard Malamut, who was on hand when American soldiers discovered Hitler's vast horde of loot a quarter mile down a salt mine in the Austrian Alps, says: "All this accumulated beauty had been stolen by the most murderous thieves that ever existed on the face of the Earth. How they could retain the nicety of appreciation of great art and be exterminating millions of people nearby in concentration camps, I couldn't understand then and I can't understand it today.''
Taper may not understand, but he can fathom it. "Human beings are complicated,'' he says."I've read enough Shakespeare to know.'' Still, amid all the sickening evidence of man's depravity and destructiveness,'' he wrote, it was good to "help preserve some of the things mankind had done that one could not only bear to contemplate but even take joy in.''