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10 of the Most Infamous Art Destructions of World War II

Destruction of the Dormition Cathedral of the Kyivan Cave Monastery in World War II (via Wikimedia)
Destruction of the Dormition Cathedral of the Kyivan Cave Monastery in World War II (image via Wikimedia)

While the recent news of Cornelius Gurlitt’s cache of 1,400 Nazi-connected paintings is an astounding recovery of works long missing, the extent of irreparable cultural damage during World War II remains a gaping void of loss. There are thousands of paintings and other works of art that are still M.I.A. — and unlikely to return. Below are 10 acts of World War II art destruction.

Degenerate Art

Jean Metzinger, "Le Canot, En Canot (Femme au Canot et a l'Ombrelle), Im Boot" (1913) (via Wikimedia)
Jean Metzinger, “Le Canot, En Canot (Femme au Canot et a l’Ombrelle), Im Boot” (1913) (detail) (the painting has been lost since its showing in the Degenerate Art Exhibition) (image via Wikimedia)

Many of the recently recovered paintings are believed to have been seized as “degenerate art.” Thousands of paintings were taken from museums by the Nazis, most infamously for display in the Degenerate Art Exhibition which was more a spectacle than art show of the modernism in abstraction they saw as impure or degraded. While, as is evident with the Munich art recovery, it wasn’t all destroyed and much was in fact sold, it’s known that in one bonfire on July 27, 1942 around 4,000 works were incinerated outside the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, including art by Klee, Miro, Picasso, and Dali.

Art of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Self-portrait as a Soldier" (1915), oil on canvas (not destroyed, held in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Musem at Oberlin College) (via Wikimedia)
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, “Self-portrait as a Soldier” (1915), oil on canvas (not destroyed, held in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College) (image via Wikimedia)

While the destruction of “degenerate art” was a massive hit for modernism, perhaps no other artist was as shattered as German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. His carnal, vivid work where nudity and harsh lines were a defining theme drew the Nazi ire and around 600 pieces of his were destroyed. In 1938, Kirchner killed himself.

Art of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum

Vincent van Gogh, "Painter on His Way to Work" (1888), oil on canvas (via Wikimedia)
Vincent van Gogh, “Painter on His Way to Work” (1888), oil on canvas (image via Wikimedia)

One of Vincent van Gogh’s most striking self-portraits of isolation, showing the painter alone with his art supplies on a road in Provence, was destroyed in a fire in May of 1945. It was one several paintings from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin that was lost to fire along with works like Caravaggio’s “Saint Matthew and the Angel.”

The Stone Breakers

Gustave Courbet, "The Stone Breakers" (1849), oil on canvas (via The Yorck Project)
Gustave Courbet, “The Stone Breakers” (1849), oil on canvas (image via The Yorck Project)

Similar to Van Gogh with his emblematic painting, one of Gustave Courbet’s most iconic works was also lost in World War II. Courbet’s 1849 “The Stone Breakers,” celebrated for its detailed social realism where each fray of clothing of the workers is visible, was unfortunately lost in Dresden during the war — along with about 154 other pieces that were moved to a Dresden castle lost to an Allied bomb.

Dresden Gallery Firebombing

Gilles Backereel, "Danae" (1619/20) (via Wikimedia)
Gilles Backereel, “Danae” (1619/20) (image via Wikimedia)

The firebombing of Dresden involved an estimated 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiaries, killed nearly 25,000 and wrecking much of the city and its cultural objects. The Dresden Gallery was one of those hit, and while much of it had been stored away, there are works from the noted museum that were forever lost. Some of it was actually confiscated and relocated to the Soviet Union after the war and sometime along the way between its removal and its return an estimated 206 paintings were destroyed and 450 remain missing.

Art of St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck

Danse Macabre painting that was in St. Mary's Church in Lübeck Germany (via Wikimedia)
Danse Macabre painting that was in St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck, Germany (image via Wikimedia)

Perhaps it’s a little fitting that a famous work showing a Dance of Death, a tradition of paintings that are reminders of the temporary nature of life and all things, was lost to the destruction. A 1942 Allied bombing wrecked St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck including their famed Danse Macabre artwork, as well as art by Adriaen Isenbrandt and Jacob van Utrecht. The bells of the church also plummeted to the ground and shattered, where they remain to this day as a memorial to the war. Interestingly, the fire in the church also caused plaster to fall off the walls and reveal the Middle Ages paintings that had been long-lost. Unfortunately, the man tasked with their restoration ended up hiring a man who basically just made up his own versions, a sort of Beast Jesus precursor.

Klimt Paintings in Schloss Immendorf Fire

Gustav Klimt, "Philosophy" (1899-1907), ceiling panel for the Great Hall of Vienna University (via Wikimedia)
Gustav Klimt, “Philosophy” (1899-1907), ceiling panel for the Great Hall of Vienna University (image via Wikimedia)

The Schloss Immendorf castle in Austria contained 13 paintings by Gustav Klimt when the retreating Nazis demolished it with explosives. They included his paintings for Vienna University and numerous works from between 1898 to 1917, all originally placed in the castle for safekeeping.

Merzbau

Kurt Schwitters' "Merzbau," photographed in 1933 (via Galerie op Weg)
Kurt Schwitters’ “Merzbau,” photographed in 1933 (image via Galerie op Weg)

Dada artist Kurt Schwitters spent between 1923 and 1937 continuously building and altering his home into an experiential environment called “Merzbau.” It was destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1943, and although the idea of the interactive art that used cast off objects to make something striking, much as he did with his collage work, was incredibly influential to other artists, all that remains of the “Merzbau” are a few 1933 photographs of the space by Wilhelm Redemann from 1933.

The Amber Room

Reconstruction of the Amber Room (photograph by Ekaterina Didkovskaya/Flickr user)
Reconstruction of the Amber Room in St. Petersburg (photograph by Ekaterina Didkovskaya/Flickr user)

Perhaps there’s no more famous work of art — if you can call the Rococo frenzy that — lost in World War II than the Amber Room, partly because it’s just so crazy valuable. Built in amber and gold with precious stone mosaics in 1701, it was later owned by Peter the Great. When the Germans invaded Russia they took it apart and moved it back to Germany, which is where its story gets fuzzy. Some believe it was destroyed, like so many things, in the bombings, while others think it might have been packed up on a ship that sank.

Public Sculptures by Arno Breker

Arno Breker working on his "Dionysos" sculpture in 1936 (via davisson123/Flickr user)
Arno Breker working on his “Dionysos” sculpture in 1936 (image via davisson123/Flickr user)

Unlike much of the other art on this list, the Nazis adored German sculptor Arno Breker. With his idealized masculine forms, he was a highly favored artist for public art commissioned by the Nazis. However, post World War II about 90% of that art was destroyed by the Allies. Yet that didn’t exactly stop his career, although he remained a controversial figure up until his death in 1991, with protests being held at his exhibitions. The public, not unjustifiably, still saw him as a supporter of a dictatorship that destroyed so much.

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