I was lucky enough to happen upon this exhibition in Berlin last month. As a Caravaggio fan, I mourned the 3 works destroyed in a 1945 fire, and never expected to see them face to face. In truth, I still haven’t, but black and white replicas in the original dimensions helped me get a sense of what I might have seen. Those Nazis have so much to answer for.
The exhibition’s focus is on the fate of the 400 works lost by the painting and sculpture collections once housed in this building. Given all we know about the millions of lives lost and the amount of property destroyed thanks to the actions of a regime headquartered in Berlin, such numbers of artworks might seem infinitesimal, and beside the point. This could have been a self-pitying display. Instead, it’s a candid exposition of museum issues regarding art loss, recovery and reconstitution, described in the dual-language (German/English) wall texts as “a polyphonic reflection: curators, conservators, archivists, historians, moulders and artists . . . offer a variety of perspectives and even contradictions.” The exhibition can also be understood in the context of the recent trend in museums to encourage multiple voices and perspectives. The visitor may enter with a fixed view of how to think about seven decades following the war’s end, but the museum asserts that “this legacy [of missing art] has meant something different for each generation. Every approach reflects the prevailing political zeitgeist and thus the decision to favor one version of the past over another.”