The Easter egg in the salt mine

From the 3/30/19 issue of The Economist, in “Reflecting on past sins” about “the clamour to return cultural treasures taken by colonialists” (from Africa), this photo on p. 62 (as captioned here), presumably included to  illustrate the cultural, political, and legal issues involved:

(#1) Getting back to where it once belonged.

First, there’s the photo in #1. What does it show? Why this picture — are we supposed to recognize the elements in the picture, or is it just intended as a generic representative of a certain type of situation or event? And what is it doing in a story on the restitution of African art objects removed by colonial powers (mostly in the 19th century)?

Then there’s the Easter egg quotation in the caption, from the Beatles’ song “Get Back”. That’s what caught my eye first (unsurprisingly, given my interests in ludic language in general, and Easter egg quotations in particular), but then I cast a puzzled eye on the photo itself.

The photo: what does it show? A soldier (male, in uniform, helmeted, with his weapon slung over his shoulder), standing alongside what looks like a large oil painting in an ornate frame. The painting is labeled Kiste St 16: (German Kiste ‘chest, case’, here presumably to be understood as ‘crate’ — one crate out of a set of others). The setting is unclear; it might be a workshop, or some sort of storage place. Nothing explicitly indicates the time when the photo was taken.

No doubt the Economist expects us to identify the solder as an American GI from the mid-20th century — in fact, as such a soldier in 1945, posing with one of the pieces of art (and other valuables) sequestered by the Germans during World War II (in safe spaces, especially underground locations like salt mines) to protect them from bombing by the Allies. More that that, for such a photo to be newsworthy in the first place, there would have to be something special about this piece of art: either it’s a celebrated artwork, blessedly spared by sequestration from the ravages of war; or it’s artwork seized by the Nazis from its owner and then brought to light — not destroyed, but merely hidden! — by advancing Allied troops. (Note how much background knowledge and practical reasoning is needed just to make these minimal speculations.)

Here’s the painting on its own, with the soldier cropped out:

(#2) The flautist and the four aristocrats

A flute-player provides musical accompaniment to a garden scene between four upper-class Europeans in (roughly) 18th-century fancy dress (suitable for court appearances, or official portraits). The scene might, I thought, be a courtship encounter between the couple in the foreground, with the woman’s parents standing behind her. (Note how much background information and practical reasoning is needed just to make these minimal speculations about what’s depicted in the painting.)

With this as background, I tried to discover the source of the photo. The print edition of the Economist provides no list of credits for its images (nor do the images themseves include credits), and if there’s such a list on-line, I couldn’t find them in a thorough search of the magazine’s site (but, I eventually discovered, each on-line image has a credit attached to it, which doesn’t appear in print; #1 is from the Getty Images site). So I turned to Google Images, a search than ran aground in the same way that searches for cartoon images regularly do, by returning metadata rather than visual matches: given a cartoon, it returns the tag Cartoon, and provides an assortment of cartoons for you to look at; given #1, it returns the tag Monochrome, and provides an assortment of b&w photos for you to look at.

Ah, I thought, the problem is that the photo is too complex, with both the painting and the soldier in it. So I extracted the painting: #2 above. Google Images then returned the tag Vintage Clothing, and provided an assortment of photos of people in old-fashioned dress.

Laughing bitterly through outraged oaths, I pressed on with a simple Google word seach, for “painting flautist”. Well, you wouldn’t believe how many paintings / drawings / cartoons / whatever there are on the net of people playing a flute or some instrument resembling one. Many hundreds. And #2 is not among them. Apparently, #2 is not a well-known artwork.

Well, what about the whole photo? The on-line version of the photo credits the Getty Images site, but there’s no effective way to search that site for a particular image. I did in fact go back to exploring its source, but to explain how I did that requires investigating why there’s such a photo in the Economist article at all.

The photo: why is it there? Let’s just accept that the photo shows a 1945 scene of an American GI accompanying an artwork that had been sequestered in Germany during World War II — and not just any artwork, but one that had been seized by the Nazis. How does that connect to the Economist story? The story itself doesn’t mention the picture, and the picture’s caption doesn’t refer directly to anything in the story. The (indirect) link between them comes in this one paragraph, two columns away from the photo on p. 62:

In 1998 representatives of 44 countries gathered in Washington, DC, to discuss how the heirs of Jewish collectors could lay claim to the artworks that had been stolen by the Nazis and their agents — often known as Raubkunst [‘art theft’]. Gradually the debate spread to what Nicholas Thomas, director of the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, calls “colonial Raubkunst”. That refers to the untrammelled accumulation of ethnographic collections from Germany’s colonial empire: Togo, Cameroon, mainland Tanzania and former South-West Africa (now Namibia and part of Botswana).

The link is the analogy between the Nazi Raubkunst and the colonial Raubkunst — decidedly inexact, but both cases give rise to knotty questions about restitution, which is the actual topic of the Economist piece.

Contrast the treatment of #1 with the way the only other photo in the piece is treated:

(#3) The main image for the Economist piece: the Benin Bronzes on view at the British Museum (not credited in the print story)

In the text (p. 61):

The authors concluded that 95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside the continent. Most of it was looted, stolen, bought under duress or borrowed and never returned, they said. They argued that objects should go back, starting with those that were carried off as booty during raids.

Western museums were appalled. Jean-Jacques Aillagon, a former French culture minister, complained to Le Figaro: “Their recommendations would have the effect of emptying French museums of their African collections, placing in their stead physical or virtual copies!” Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, which faces restitution claims from Nigeria for the Benin Bronzes (pictured above) as well as from Turkey and Greece, made no public comment. But over the winter he has repeatedly said to friends: “The report is not helpful. Not helpful at all.”

Armed with all of this, I googled “Raubkunst photo Getty”, hoping to find the source of the mystery photo in #1. Tons of stuff, only one occurrence of the mystery photo. But hold the happy happy joy joy song and dance; as you probably guessed, it’s just a link to the Economist article.

The photo: why this photo? I conclude that #1 is just a photo that the Economist‘s editors found in the gigantic Getty archives and plugged into their African art restitution story, without any context or any background information — without any human or artistic or historical particularity —  to convey something like: Oh, the African story we’re talking about is sort of like the Nazis looting art from Jews, so here’s a generic photo of an artwork that the Nazis salted away during the war.  They don’t tell us (no doubt they don’t know) what painting it is or who owned it before — was it in fact stolen from Jewish owners? — or what happened to it after.

As it happens, googling on “Raubkunst photo Getty” pulls up as its first hit a photo that is very well-known, often taken to be the Canonical Recovered Raubkunst Photograph.

(#4) In the saltmine: Americans examining Edouard Manet’s In the Conservatory / The Greenhouse / Wintergarden

Maybe the Economist‘s editors thought that would have been too much of a cliché, but this photo has the virtue of maximum particularity: every person in it (with their role in the event) has been identified; its location has been identified (a specific one of those saltmine storage spaces); the exact date in 1945 when it was taken has been identified; the very famous Manet painting in it is almost instantly recognizable; its original owner is known; and the disposition of the painting is known. In any case, a bit of this information would have particularized this recovered Raubkunst photo and made it a much more effective illustration than #1.

I’ll give you many of these details in a later section, after I do my shtick on Easter egg quotes. There will be a surprise ending.

“Get back to where you once belonged”. In my 4/13/19 posting “Easter egg quotations”, I discourse on quotations that don’t contribute more than their literal meaning (and are not ostentatiously playful, as so many quotations in the Economist are), but provide a kind of side pleasure just from being recognized as quotations (rather than plain text); they are Easter eggs hidden in the text.

Two examples there: a reference to “fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency” of certain viruses (a quotation from Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition” sketch just worked into a science article); and “Cell is a cell is a cell” in another science piece, conveying the belief that all cells are alike (and unobtrusively playing on Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose”).

Which brings us to the caption of #1, “Get back to where you once belonged”, a colloquial but straightforward description of restitution of art objects. And an exact quotation from the Beatles’ song “Get Back”. From Wikipedia:

“Get Back” is a song recorded by the English rock band the Beatles and written by Paul McCartney (though credited to Lennon-McCartney), originally released as a single on 11 April 1969 and credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”. A different mix of the song was released just after the group split

(#5) The remastered version of the Let It Be track

The main lyrics:

Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner
But he knew it wouldn’t last
Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona
For some California grass

Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged
Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged
Get back Jojo, go home

Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman
But she was another man
All the girls around her say she’s got it coming
But she gets it while she can

Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged
Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged
Get back Loretta, go home

The song went through several versions, becoming less topical and more absurdist in time. From the (very serious and meticulous) Beatles Bible site on the song:

The song began as a satirical and critical look at attitudes towards immigrants in Britain. McCartney intended to parody the negative attitudes that were prevalent among politicians and the press.

… The Beatles eventually realised that their intentions could be misconstrued, and the story of Jo Jo and Loretta Martin evolved.

“Many people have since claimed to be the Jo Jo and they’re not, let me put that straight! I had no particular person in mind, again it was a fictional character, half man, half woman, all very ambiguous. I often left things ambiguous, I like doing that in my songs.” —  Paul McCartney (in Many Years From Now by Barry Miles)

Whatever the true meaning, ‘Get back’ served as a neat summary of The Beatles’ back-to-basics musical intentions

Make of that what you will, but “Get back where you once belonged” is to be taken pretty much literally, though you have no idea where sweet Loretta Martin is supposed to get back to.

Manet’s Wintergarden. Pulling up this reproduction of the painting in #1 —


— I came across a stunning surprise in an obscure place: from 6/25/14 on the US National Archives blog by Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, entitled

“Wintergarden by Manet was NOT Looted by the Nazis”

Piqued by an article in the Washington Post the week before, Bradsher laid into the tradition of #4 as the Canonical Recovered Raubkunst Photograph. From the blog:

In 1912 David C. Preyer wrote in his book The Art of the Berlin Galleries that the then Royal National Gallery did not until 1896 make any effort to add foreign works to its collection. In taking the reader through a tour of Gallery V of the museum, which contained principally the work of French Impressionists, he pointed out one work by Edouard Manet, titled “In the Conservatory.” He wrote that it showed a man and a woman, M. and Mme. Guillemet, “friends of the artist, whom he posed on the veranda of his studio in the Rue d’Amsterdam before a group of exotic plants.” “It is,” he observed, “a beautiful painting, of vibrating colour, rich, pure paint, simple composition, with the whole picture based upon two or three values.” This painting, also known as “The Greenhouse” and “Wintergarden,” had been given to Berlin’s National-Galerie as a gift by the Berlin Friends of Art in 1896. After the Nazis took over Germany, there were some who apparently considered selling French Impressionist works, including Manet’s work, from German museums.

In The Washington Post this past week was a photograph [#4] of American soldiers in the mine at Merkers, Germany, looking at the Manet painting. The caption read: “U.S. soldiers examine the painting Wintergarden by French Impressionist Edouard Manet, stolen by the Nazi regime and hidden in a salt mine in Merkers, Germany.” Actually this piece of art work, as all others stored and recovered at Merkers, were German-owned, not looted.

Yet, newspapers, articles, and other published sources for decades have labeled the painting as looted. They did so based on an erroneous caption on the Signal Corps photograph at the National Archives. But it does not take much effort to know that the paintings evacuated from Berlin’s museums to Merkers in March 1945, were not looted.

Bradsher fumes on from there. (Don’t make archivists angry; you really wouldn’t like them when they’re angry.) But of course he has a point: some of the valuables sequestered by the Nazis during the war belonged to German institutions and had never been looted. We have photos of things being recovered by Americans from their hiding places, but we don’t know which of them were German-owned, which looted. A great many of them we know to have been looted, but some were not, and the latter shouldn’t be presented as the former.

The final sting: because we don’t know anything about the provenance of the painting in the original mystery photo (#1), we don’t know that it was in fact looted, and so it should not be offered as an example of Raubkunst.

[It’s no good to say that #1, or #4, could have been depictions of the recovery of looted art, the details aren’t important, only the general idea is. Well, the photos in #1 and #4 could have been depictions of enthusiastic art theft by American military personnel: how could you tell from just looking at the photos?

The point is that we expect that those who represent these photos as illustrations of looted art are assuring us, directly or indirectly, that this is the truth as they know it and are asking us to accept their authority in the matter. If I can’t accept that authority in this case, why shouldn’t I entertain the possibility that the people in #2 are viewing a wall display of pastry molds? I mean, that could be.

It’s even worse to say that, well, it’s not so, or might not be so, but it might as well be; it’s close enough for everyday purposes. That kind of thinking can get you to some dark places.

A verbally or physically abuses B for being an X; is then told that B is not in fact an X, despite exhibiting some features of an X; and then maintains that B deserves it, because B might as well be an X. So guy A gaybashes guy B because B doesn’t seem very masculine to A or hangs out with gay guys or has been seen in a gay neighborhood. Told that B is in fact straight, A dismisses the objection, on the grounds that B might as well be gay, he’s that close, it doesn’t really make any difference.

Rather less direly, on learning that #4 does not in fact depict the recovery of looted art, some people are inclined to dismiss the objection, saying that the photo might as well have depicted this, the situations are that close, it doesn’t really make any difference. I want to insist that close doesn’t count, the truth does.

But then I’ve gotten a certain amount of slagging behind my back for being a Jew, from people who knew full well that I wasn’t — but with my nose, my funny vaguely eastern European name, my conversational style, my inclination to intellectual matters, my having Jews as most of my mentors and models in linguistics, my parents having owned a small jewelry shop, etc., as they see it I might as well be a Jew. Oi.]

3 Responses to “The Easter egg in the salt mine”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Arnold, I tried to make a comment earlier on this very interesting post, but had difficulty. Do you see any trace of it.

    The substance was that, using, I was able to find the original picture on Getty, which says the painting is by Fragonard.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I saw no trace of your earlier attempt at all. But this is wonderful. I now have some material on Neuschwanstein and the Monuments Men, thanks to you. I’ve tried to identify the specific Fragonard, but the man was regrettably prolific, and this painting seems never to have been well-known. In the process, I’ve discovered that Fragonard in bulk is very very hard to take.

  2. [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky finds a stock photo used to represent art stolen by the Nazis and uses it to explore issues of recovery […]

Leave a Reply