I really don’t want to write about this, but I feel that I must.
As I’m typing these words, I’m watching this documentary, which I’ve recorded, all over again.
Before I go on, let me say that I watched this the first time years ago at the recommendation of artist Scott Andrew Spencer.
“It was horrific, appalling and at the same time I couldn’t stop looking at the art,” Scott told me in an email. “Fine,” I thought. “I’ll watch it during my Thanksgiving break.”
Scott replied, “…You might want to watch it after Thanksgiving as it IS kind of a downer.”
“Downer?” I thought. Well, it’s called, “The Rape of Europa,” so it certainly isn’t a comedy, but how bad can it be?
“Adolf Hitler (uh boy) purged art he hated and he stole art he coveted,” the announcer says during the opening of the documentary.
“The Nazis were not just the most systematic mass murderers in history, they were the greatest thieves. They stole everything!” says Historian Jonathan Petropoulos.
With that, just like the first time I watched, a chill literally went up and down my spine and I feel a major headache coming on right from the television screen. Do I really want to watch this yet again?
The answer is YES because there is something so riveting about “The Rape of Europa.” Quite frankly, it’s probably the best documentary that I’ve ever seen. I won’t ruin it for you, but I must tell you how it has affected me as an art collector.
Watching it, you quickly learn that early on, Adolf Hitler was a young painter (who knew?) who was denied admission into the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna which had many Jewish jurors. He also reportedly hated “Modern Art.” Yet, he was obsessed with art that he favored.
So, what do you do when you disagree with and don’t like something? Most people might just move on with their lives and realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them and their tastes. Not Hitler. After coming to power, he began his systematic campaign of racial purification and extermination.
Works of modern masters like Matisse, Van Gogh and Picasso were on his “purge” list. Can you imagine? Those works were labeled “degenerate.”
Thousands and thousands of works of art were burned … and Hitler along with many Nazi leaders became formidable art collectors … art thieves is more accurate. They literally marched throughout Europe on Hitler’s rampage. They murdered millions of people and stole thousands upon thousands of artworks, in addition to destroying cultural icons that were considered “racially impure.”
Watching this documentary, you’re quickly reminded that The Holocaust was a massive attack on Jews and ALL OF US. It’s just amazing and infuriating how one vile, diabolical human being can do so much irreparable damage.
Ultimately, what makes “The Rape of Europa” so great is the case that it makes for humanity as manifested through art. Watch on the edge of your seat and feel your heart beat through your chest as everyday people move swiftly and valiantly to protect their culture. Anecdote after anecdote reminds us that we don’t amount to much without art and culture. It’s what we create while we’re here and then leave behind that defines who we are.
My head is pounding as I write this. The complete hatred and lack of regard for human life here is astounding. No, we should never forget for reasons that are as numerous as the human lives and paintings destroyed.
Apart from the obvious moral message, this documentary raises another question in my mind. WHY DO WE IGNORE ART TODAY? While many of us DO indeed appreciate art, the number is far too small.
It seems that we haven’t learned much. We treat so many things in our society as disposable. We throw away perfectly good things that are no longer of use … we literally call people “trash” and regard them as such … and we dismiss contemporary art and culture as nonsense or lacking in some way. What’s wrong with this picture?
You know, the Nazis were well aware of the significance of art and how it could be used in the daily lives of people to control society. It was Hitler’s goal to build an art city that was a monument to him. In short, he considered (some) art highly valuable not necessarily because of its monetary value, but because of how he could culturally manipulate it. He gave himself the power to decide what was good art versus bad art.
Never again should everyday people support any leader who builds that kind of power. This should be obvious, but maybe it's not.
Also, where is OUR art appreciation? When are WE as a collective society going to realize that without culture, we are nothing? So much of our society is obsessed with money, fame and things that don’t ultimately matter. Yes, art and culture can fade away just like fame and riches, but not if the people decide to prioritize them and fight for them. Hopefully, it won’t take the threat of another evil leader or world war for us to realize this. Thank God for the World War II allies and the “little people” of Europe who fought like hell for their lives and their art … including the Mona Lisa … which might not be around today.
After watching, I sent Scott an email telling him how floored I was by this documentary.
“I warned you,” said Scott. “I think it’s a good thing you watched it though.”
So do I. One last thing. There’s a defining moment about halfway through “The Rape of Europa” where we see David Carroll of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts do something that should restore anyone’s lost faith in humanity. It’s a wonderful antidote to all of the plundering and pillaging that went on.
I won’t completely give it away, but let me say this … when you take the moral high road … when you correct a past injustice … not only do you mend fences; you actually join the nobility. Suddenly, glory is yours.
As human beings, we aren’t always going to do the right thing, but we can always rise to the occasion. Whether we realize it or not, our deeds totally define us and when we do them right, just like the old AND modern masters did, they become works of art.