A new phase of decolonization, no longer through weapons, but through cultural objects, appears in films that talk about the repatriation of works of art

At the movies

A new phase of decolonization, no longer through weapons, but through cultural objects, appears in films that talk about the repatriation of works of art stolen by the Nazis. The golden lady focuses on the ultimately successful lawsuit brought by the heiress of Adele Bloch-Bauer, portrayed by Gustav Klim, against the Belvedere Museum in Vienna.

This is an individual case of theft restitution. The broader panorama, in general, was addressed by the Americans in Masterpiece hunters, which focused on the end of World War II, when the Allies mounted a search and rescue operation for the treasures plundered by the Nazis.

It was known that they had embezzled all the countries they occupied and that they had collected works of art by the millions. They also liked precious books, illuminated manuscripts, jewelry, coins and medals, objects of worship, and so on. They didn't reject anything... All of this would go to the Führermuseum, Hitler's personal museum, in his hometown of Linz, Austria, which would be the largest museum in the world, displacing the Louvre from first place.

The Allies created a commission with representatives from each of the interested countries: a Frenchman, an Englishman and so on. Minus one Russian, because the Russians were coming in the opposite direction and if they arrived earlier, they would take over everything. The film plays with this, adding suspense to the dispute over who would grab the booty first. The informal name of the commission would be monuments men, the original title of the film.

An all-star cast attracts viewers: George Clooney (double director), Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman – and many more. The plot, summarized in a single search, focuses on the “Madonna and Child”, a marble sculpture by Michelangelo stolen from the cathedral of Bruges, Belgium.

The operation managed to find and repatriate tons of parts hidden in the underground galleries of salt mines in Austria.

An extraordinary figure, Rose Valland, is embodied by Cate Blanchett. She spent the entire war working at the museum Jeu de Paume of Paris, the collection and concentration center for Nazi loot, patiently documenting everything that was stolen, in addition to placing a small sign on the piece itself for future recognition. You think: her life would make a novel...

Because he gave an autobiography, Le front de l`art, although I am really asking for a film, with a guaranteed place among these, such are the adventures it tells. She ended up becoming a specialist and would be called up to work in Germany after the war, always taking care of repatriations. And years later she would be appointed supreme responsible for France's art collections.

For their part, the Russians send us the film Francophonie – The Louvre under occupation. It is not just any film, as its director is the great Alexandre Sokurov (from Russian Ark it's from auspicious) and was awarded at the Venice Festival. Apparently, the director is obsessed with museums, because Russian ark takes place within the Hermitage from Saint Petersburg. The Russians bring another point of view. The names, little known here, of civilizing heroes such as Jacques Jaujard and Count Metternich enter the scene. The latter, a Nazi officer, even, according to the film, received the Legion of Honor for his commitment to protecting French artistic heritage, hiding it from his own supporters.

In anachronistic fictional insertions, an amusing megalomaniacal Napoleon appears who wants to absorb and possess everything, repeating: “It’s me!”. He even points to Mona Lisa, who looks at him sideways with her almost mocking air, and says: “It’s me!” In turn, Jacques Jaujard is the brave Director of the Museums of France who commanded the preparation and evacuation of four thousand crates of works of art, removing them from the usual places where they were exhibited and hiding them in castles in the interior of the country. The film advances valuable reflections on the ties between art and power.

It took a while, but he would end up getting a film of his own, in 2015: Illustre et inconnu. Jacques Jaujard sauvé le Louvre, which would be awarded an Emmy award.

Paper spoils

Given the enormous scope of the theft perpetrated by the Nazis, it is better understandable the paper robbery that the Americans carried out (London Review of Books, 2.7.2020). Librarians and scholars, Supported by military personnel, they swept across Europe and took everything that might appear to be documentation from afar, with the Nazi archives themselves, which were numerous, and state documents being of primary interest.

The collection – if the euphemism is appropriate, as it was more about looting and looting, illicit and illegal – carried out by the Americans had already begun on the eve of the war, anticipating the destruction. Books and periodicals were purchased and sent to the United States on packed trains and ships. What could not be purchased was copied onto microfilm, a recent invention.

But also, what was already less justifiable and amounted to pure and simple theft, they gradually began to collect patents and industrial technology, to benefit American businesses at home.

The operation as a whole was the result of a partnership between the Library of Congress and the espionage services. If you have never wondered, given its gigantism, how this came to be the largest library in the world, specializing in materials to advise parliamentarians, here is the answer. Most of the collected material went there. And, in the intoxication of victory, the conquerors began to attack public libraries and universities.

That was in the past, but in the present the issue continues to simmer. Now the French have made another film, titled Restore African art – Les fantômes de la colonisation, which provides a history of relations between France and Africa, analyzing the various metamorphoses they took as times changed. Thus, the documentary goes through the Scramble for Africa, the colonial war, the occupation of Dahomey (currently Benin) and surrounding countries such as Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, Congo.

It then examines colonial exhibitions and the creation of institutions such as the Musee de l`Homme at the Trocadéro, when the interest in Ethnography arises. This museum attracted modernist painters who went there to contemplate African sculptures and aesthetically valued what was previously seen through the prism of exoticism.

Another phase begins after the end of World War II, with the liberation of the colonies and Pan-Africanism. It is then that the god Gu is “promoted” from the Trocadéro to the Louvre, upon being recognized as a work of art. Life-size metal sculpture, part of the famous Benin Bronzes, represents the god of metallurgy and war. Although it is known that he resided in the royal palace in Abomey, his label in the Louvre is silent regarding provenance and conditions of expropriation... to abuse yet another euphemism.

The documentary talks at length about the remarkable initiative of Musee de l`Homme which was the expedition to Africa to collect artifacts and study the populations, lasting two years from 1931. He attributes all the credit to Michel Leiris, future author of L'Afrique fantôme, and does not even mention the name of the head of the expedition, of which he was secretary. The leader was Michel Griaule, a distinguished ethnologist who was in the midst of building a notable record of service, becoming the greatest expert on the Dogon in Mali, as well as in the future in Ethiopia.

Michel Griaule made a career as a professor of Ethnology at the Sorbonne. The expedition was called the East-West Crossing or Dakar–Djibouti Mission. In the end, they came to distrust their own methods, as they ended up copying the colonialists, intimidating the natives, desecrating sacred objects of worship and confiscating statues of gods.

At the moment, Africa is providing shelter for the repatriation of the 90 thousand pieces that France took throughout history. Three new African arts museums are already operating in Dakar, Johannesburg and Giza – all very modern in architecture and museology. King Beanzim's palace in the capital of Dahomey, Abomei, razed by the French invader, has been rebuilt and awaits the return of its contents, including the god Gu. In time: the recent armed conflicts are not unrelated to France's exploitation of the region's wealth.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of reading and rereading (Sesc\Ouro over Blue). []

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