Otto Dix, in a half-light, glowers from a self-portrait, jaw set, puffing on a cigar, looking infuriated. “What took so long?” he seems to ask, youthful as ever.
They keep coming back, these works of art lost to the Nazis, like bottles washed ashore. Three years ago, a small stash of sculptures turned up when a front-loader was digging a new subway station in Berlin.
Now some 1,500 pictures, an almost unfathomable trove, have surfaced; some were revealed in a news conference on Tuesday in Augsburg, Germany. From the first few blurry online reproductions they seem to include paintings by Matisse and Courbet, Franz Marc and Max Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, discovered in the Munich apartment of an old man named Cornelius Gurlitt whose father, Hildebrand, a dealer during the Nazi era, assembled a collection of the Modernist art that Hitler called “degenerate.”
Among the very first goals of the Nazis was to purge German museums and ransack private collections. Perversely, they stockpiled the modern art they hated, some to sell abroad in exchange for hard currency. Hildebrand was one of the dealers whom Joseph Goebbels picked for this task. Some art they paraded in an exhibition of shame. The show ended up a blockbuster, infuriating the Führer. After that, thousands upon thousands of confiscated works disappeared.
But as the years have gone by, art continues to be found, refusing oblivion.
Dix has returned, defiantly. He was despised by Hitler not just because he drew and painted in a spiky, gnarled, ghoulish way that decried the ravages of World War I and spoke to Weimar anxiety, but because his art mocked the German idea of heroism. The Munich self-portrait conveys a pride that seems ready to vanquish an enemy that had not quite appeared on the scene when Dix painted the work in 1919 but that both he and his art would outlast.
What’s especially moving about finds like the one in Munich, salvaged from the Nazi ruins, is not just that they survived all these years or that they might include lost masterpieces, although they rarely do. It is not even that they represent tokens of lost lives, millions of them. It is that they overcame what Hitler in another context once referred to as “the big lie,” an untruth “so colossal,” he said, that people could not help falling for it.
The big lie in this case involved the depravity of modern art. The lie was meant to turn death and destruction onto the world of art. But while paintings, drawings and sculptures are sadly fragile, the ideals they represent — the best ones, anyway — aren’t. And so the painted woman by Matisse, fan in lap, a string of pearls around her neck, a veil draped over her hair, is a testament to art’s indefatigable ambitions.
The work looks to be from the 1920s, when Matisse lived in Nice as the Sultan of the Riviera. But it’s timeless. Pattern on pattern, the picture nestles benign Cubism into a luxuriant portrait of deceptive domestic tranquillity and sexual poise. The woman, stern face framed by a square collar, fingers nervously knitted, is all soft curves and implicit apprehension, as if awaiting some secret lover. Once upon a time, Matisse’s Nice pictures were dismissed as decorative fluff. Not now. The portrait speaks to the strength of its maker and his enduring contribution to the catalog of beauty.
During this first frantic flush of publicity, before all the news inevitably turns to price tags and provenance, it’s still possible to appreciate the whims of fortune, which can trump even humanity’s most demonic ambitions. Who knows whether these pictures were preserved out of greed or fear or love? What matters in the long run is only that they made it. Artists tend to produce art as a vain bulwark against time, a gamble on posterity; and for many of the artists whom Hitler loathed, art was an explicit attempt to prevent him from getting the last word. Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto stored thousands of documents in buried milk cans for that same reason, and the discovery of those cans has provided history with the great archive of a lost people.
“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” as the German novelist W. G. Sebald wrote in “The Emigrants,” recalling a forgotten Alpine climber, whose remains a glacier suddenly gave up many decades after he had disappeared. Gustave Courbet’s “Village Girl With a Goat” is back from the wilderness now, having dropped off the map not during the Nazi era but sometime after an auction in 1949, ending up among the Gurlitt hoard. She’s by all appearances a familiar Courbet heroine, insolent and voluptuous, fleshy, puffy and pink-cheeked, clutching the legs of the sniffing goat she absently cradles, her gaze turned to something out of the picture we can’t see.
A client, perhaps, or maybe a mark.
“Landscape With Horses” has resurfaced, too. The Nazis confiscated works like this one by Franz Marc despite the fact that he had earned an Iron Cross and died a hero during World War I. He wrote to the painter Wassily Kandinsky in 1914 that he believed the war would “purify Europe.” The Third Reich’s men still found Marc’s abstract style beyond the pale. This landscape survives his own delusions as well as Hitler’s campaign.
And so, too, does “Melancholy Girls” by Kirchner, an image of a naked, ravaged woman whose face is scarred by lines like the bark of a birch tree. Kirchner was another casualty of his era. So devastated by the Nazis’ attack on modern art, he destroyed many of his own works. Then he took his own life.
The bigger truth will out.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 5, 2013
Because of a production error, a picture with an earlier version of this article was in error. The picture showed a scene by the Italian painter Canaletto, not a portrait by Gustave Courbet.