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Lost Treasure

Hitler’s Holy Grail Plot

hitler painting

Cesar Rangel/AFP via Getty

Why did Hitler crave the missing panel in the famous Ghent Altarpiece? Maybe because the Nazi’s paranormal research group thought the masterpiece contained a map to the Holy Grail.

On the night of 10 April 1934, one of the twelve oak panels that comprise Jan van Eyck’s famous painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, was stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral, in Ghent, Belgium. Often referred to as “The Ghent Altarpiece,” this monumental oil painting is arguably the single most influential painting ever made. It is also the most-frequently stolen, having been burgled, in its entirety or in parts, at least six times—quite a feat, considering that it is the size of a barn door (14 x 11.5 feet) and weighs about two tons. It was the most-desired artwork by the Nazis, including Hitler and his second-in-command, Hermann Göring.

The two Nazi leaders actually raced one another to be the first to steal the altarpiece. The Nazi art theft unit, the ERR, captured it first for Hitler, from its hiding place at Chateau de Pau, in the south of France, where the Belgian government had sent it for safe-keeping. But an emissary from Göring appropriated it for the Luftwaffe head’s massive stolen art collection, which included some seven-thousand masterpieces, displayed at his country estate outside Berlin. Hitler got wind of this, and intercepted the altarpiece, sending it first to Castle Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, where it was restored, and then for storage in a salt mine in the Austrian Alps near Altaussee, where the twelve-thousand most famous stolen artworks from Nazi-occupied Europe were kept in secret, destined to feature in Hitler’s planned “super museum,” which would be the size of a city, and display every important artwork in the world. From the Altaussee salt mine, the Ghent Altarpiece and its fellow captives were ultimately rescued, thanks to the combined efforts of Austrian miners and a pair of Monuments Men, Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein, who only learned of the Altaussee hoard thanks to a fortuitous toothache that led them to a former SS officer, an art historian who was in hiding as the war drew to a close. The upcoming George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, dramatizes some of these stories, though taking a great many liberties in the process.

The iconography of The Ghent Altarpiece has long fascinated scholars. The painting was immediately the most famous in Europe, when it was completed in 1432. It was the first major oil painting. Oil had been used to bind pigments to paintings since the Middle Ages, but Jan van Eyck was the first to demonstrate the true potential of oils, which permit far greater subtlety and detail than largely-opaque egg-based tempera paint, which was preferred before The Ghent Altarpiece popularized oils. The altarpiece contains over 100 figures, and is an elaborate pantheon of Catholic mysticism—at its center stands a heavenly field, brimming with uniquely-depicted figures around a sacrificial lamb, representative of Christ (the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb from which the work draws it title). The lamb stands upon an altar and bleeds into a chalice—the Holy Grail.

Hitler so craved the Ghent Altarpiece because it was one of the most famous artworks in history, and it was by a Germanic artist, in the realistic, Northern Renaissance style that Hitler preferred.  It had also been forcibly repatriated to Belgium after the First World War, before which certain panels of the altarpiece had been displayed in Berlin. The Treaty of Versailles mentioned only four works of cultural heritage, foremost among them The Ghent Altarpiece. Hitler wanted to correct the humiliation inflicted on the German people by the Treaty of Versailles, and recapturing the altarpiece would go some way toward that goal.

Bodies for Sale

Modern Magdalenes

Malerie Marder's "#7", from her Anatomy series, 2008 – 2013

(Copyright Malerie Marder, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York)

Malerie Marder's brothel images get at the West's endless indecision about the meaning of prostitution.

This photo of Dutch prostitutes is from a solo show by Malerie Marder at Leslie Tonkonow gallery in New York. When the show was up for discussion at a recent edition of The Review Panel, the series of critics’ talk-fests organized by, all sorts of credible – and mutually exclusive – positions were tried on for size. Some speakers found the images just as sexist and exploitative as the profession these women are forced to belong to. Others praised Marder’s depiction of untraditional forms of female beauty, and the empowerment of big and old and even anorexic bodies that it implies. Still others felt that the pictures captured the tragic plight of women who have to sell themselves – or, alternatively, that the photos depicted women who’d taken charge of their bodies and lives, to pull cash from the pockets of men made idiots by their libidos. (Or of female photographers: I’ve heard that Marder paid her subjects the normal price of a trick.) Even though I tended to side with viewers who found the pictures and their subject problematic, I couldn’t simply dismiss the opposing opinions. This left me feeling that, more than anything, Marder’s photos are vastly successful in getting at our society’s total indecision about what prostitution is, and what it does to – or is it “for”? – women.

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Staff Picks

Vimeo’s Top 10 Videos of 2013

From a gorgeous lesson on mentoring to a wild compilation against bullying and the closest you can come to getting a hug from a video, see the year’s best from the video-sharing site.

1. ‘Wright’s Law’ from Zack Conkle

Jeffrey Wright’s excitable demeanor and crazy experiments teach children about the universe, but one lesson in particular teaches them the true meaning of life—when he opens up about his son. Zack Conkle, a photojournalist and former student of Wright’s, crafts a beautiful documentary about his mentor in two movements: The first makes you love what Wright does; the second makes you admire who he is. (Jason Sondhi)

2. Shugo Tokumaru, ‘Katachi,’ from Kijek / Adamski

Art World

The Small Town That Won a Picasso


It may have taken high-end Sotheby’s to remind us, but this raffle proves one thing—high culture shouldn’t be reserved for the super-rich.

In an art world gone mad, where a Francis Bacon triptych goes for $140 million at auction, a Jeff Koons sells for $58 million, and even a Norman Rockwell fetches multiple millions, it’s a welcome disturbance when a Picasso is bought for a mere $138 at, of all places, a raffle.

This week Jeffrey Gonano, a 25-year-old from Wexford, Pennsylvania, had the winning ticket— one of 50,000 in an online charity raffle organized by Sotheby’s in Paris. Worth an estimated million dollars, the small drawing—L’Homme au Gibus (Man with Opera Hat)—was conceived by the Spanish artist in 1914 and picked up from a New York gallery by a charity organization dedicated to preserving Tyre, the ancient city in modern-day Lebanon. Those behind the auction said tickets were purchased by art enthusiasts from France to Kyrgzstan, but that Americans accounted for a large number of buyers.

It certainly makes sense: Americans love a gamble. This news comes during the same week that a $648 Mega Millions jackpot made people queue up from California to New York to try and win the life-changing sum. There were two winners, in California and Georgia. But putting up a Picasso was an entirely different game of chance dreamed up by Sotheby’s, whose traditional high-end bidders could easily spare a few euros—or a hundred—on the opportunity to own a Picasso.

But what they got was Gonano, a project manager at a fire sprinkler firm, who had been searching for something to brighten his walls when he read about the auction. “I was looking for art and I thought I might as well,” he told Reuters. “I'm still in shock. I've never won anything like this before... Obviously.” Despite its value, Gonano claims he has no plans to sell the sketch, but that may change if buyers start lining up.

"Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive", made by Robert Motherwell in 1943

(The Museum of Modern Art, New York, ©Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York)

At the Guggenheim, Robert Motherwell's collages depend on patterns by others.

"Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive", made by Robert Motherwell in 1943, is from the lovely show of his early collages now at the Guggenheim in New York. That spotted surface glued on at right is identified as "German decorative paper", and must have existed already before Motherwell began his piece. It brings up one of the most interesting outstanding issues around Abstract Expressionist art: Were many of its classic devices, such as messy alloverism, already favorites in the decorative arts? The AbEx-ers were accused by their critics of "just making wallpaper" or "just producing tie fabrics" – which would seem to imply that the designers of wallpaper and ties had already discovered some elements of  AbEx style.

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When All Life Was A Warhol

A still from from a high-contrast film called “Fun and Games for Everyone,” shot by Serge Bard in Paris in 1968

(Courtesy The Kitchen)

In 1968, filmmaker Serge Bard gave the art world a high-contrast buzz.

Groovy, baby. This is a frame from a high-contrast film called “Fun and Games for Everyone,” shot by Serge Bard in Paris in 1968 and showing the opening of the first exhibition of the French avant-gardist Olivier Mosset. (Click here to watch a clip, complete with fuzz-guitar soundtrack.) Mosset’s got an installation of new conceptual paintings on view now at the The Kitchen in New York, and it includes a back room with Bard’s vintage film. Despite the changes that were supposed to have been ushered in by mai ‘68, Mosset’s opening feels like art-world business as usual. Except that the energy of that scene in 1968 seems to totally eclipse what’s up today: It could be that the vigor in the art world and the vigor in the streets were just subsets of a larger will for change that we’ve lost.

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Capturing Contingency

A diptych by Barbara Probst called “Exposure #109: Munich studio, 09.19.13, 5:31 p.m.”

(Image courtesy the artist and Murray Guy, New York)

Barbara Probst snaps single scenes from many angles – none seem to catch the truth.

This diptych by Barbara Probst is called “Exposure #109: Munich studio, 09.19.13, 5:31 p.m.”, and it’s in her solo show closing soon at Murray Guy gallery in New York. Probst’s work is built around a simple but fertile conceit: She sets up cameras in different positions around a single staged scene, then releases all their shutters at the same time. Sometimes the photos only vary in viewpoint; sometimes they are shot on very different kinds of film, with very different cameras. In today’s Daily Pic, the difference is at its most minimal: Probst’s two matching cameras must be just a few feet apart, with one looking into each of her two sitters’ eyes.  Gaze normally seems a natural and necessary part of any photo’s essence, but here it’s revealed as deeply contingent and artificial. Other photo grids by Probst give much more varied views on her subjects: one self-portrait diptych consists of an extreme close-up on one of her feet, and also a view from a ladder that shows her taking that shot of her foot. The sense of contingency can be so extreme it’s disturbing; it can feel as though there’s barely any stable world out there for Probst’s photos to document. Her world seems utterly dependent on how it gets recorded.

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Stunning Portraits

Capturing the World’s Finest Icons

Yousuf Karsh

From left, Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Warhol. (© Yousuf Karsh/Courtesy Mona Bismarck American Center, Paris)

Over a 60-year career, Yousuf Karsh took some of the most notable images of the world’s leading minds and biggest stars. A new show in Paris exhibits some of his powerful portraits.

In 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and only hours after he’d landed in Ottawa, Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh met the South African activist at the Château Laurier Hotel, with the idea of commemorating his visit to Canada. But Mandela seemed tired. The photographs weren’t coming out “real.” So Karsh—a man of warmth, beloved for his painless bedside manner and sincerely human interest in photographic subjects—switched off the lights. They should take a break and just talk. He remarked that it must be very hard: only four months ago Mandela had been in jail; now he was traveling with a whirlwind entourage. Mandela replied that it was—he didn't even know what half these people with him did.

"It reminds me of when I photographed Pope John XXIII," Karsh said softly. "I asked him how many people worked in the Vatican—and he said, ‘About half.’" Mandela was quiet. At first he didn't get the joke, but then he was slapping his thigh, poking his finger at his photographer. "Aren't you funny?" Mandela said, giggling, his face awash in that unstoppable smile. At that point Karsh resumed the session—with Mandela now and then dissolving into laughter and pointing. Two minutes later, he took the iconic portrait that Apple has used on its homepage, replacing all product information, as a tribute to the former South African statesman who died earlier this month.

In addition to Nelson Mandela, Karsh photographed 15,312 people in his 60-year career. Seventy-two of those portraits are on exhibit at the Mona Bismarck American Center for arts and culture, in Paris, until January 26. One the most iconic photographers of the 21st century, Karsh was eventually asked to take a picture of most everyone who figured prominently in the 1900s—painters, presidents, comedians, architectures, and authors ranging from Mother Teresa to Fidel Castro.

But Icons of the 20th Century, curated by Jerry Fielder, a former photographic assitant who became the director of the Yousuf Karsh estate upon the photographer’s death in 2002, focuses solely on Karsh’s work with French and American citizens, which allowed him to include less-well-known influencers like Marc Chagall. (Pablo Picasso, who was a Spanish citizen, though he lived in Paris most of his life, was the only portrait that was snuck in. It occupies the mantlepiece of the exhibit, and, as Fielder says, “No one has complained.”)

Stark Reminder

Finally, an Accurate Look at AIDS


“Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do.” (Gran Fury, New York, 1989. NYPL, Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

It’s no easy task, but ‘Why We Fight,’ now at the New York Public Library, perfectly recalls the fevered early years of activism—a signal flare fired from the library’s own archives.

In recent years, there has been a rush to remember AIDS, to capture its specifics on film and in galleries, to memorialize those we lost and honor those who survived. Given the ongoing nature of the AIDS crisis, this is no easy task. We live in a culture where the past is seen as a dead thing, a set of names and dates to be memorized—and then forgotten.

So no wonder AIDS activists are wary of our present memorializing impulse, when more than 35 million people around the world now live with AIDS.

At best, the study of history is a close examination of the forces that created a particular moment in time, which helps us better understand the workings of the world. At worst, it is a petting zoo, putting on display sanitized versions of real life that conform to our preexisting biases and beliefs. Instead of a window, we use history as a mirror, and like toddlers, we clap joyfully at our own reflections, naively believing we have engaged with something real.

Thankfully, the New York Public Library show “Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism,” open now through April 2014, offers a good example of what an engaged historical exhibit on AIDS might look like.

Steichen, Edward

Edward Steichen: Ad for Coty Lipstick, (c. 1930). (Permission of the Estate of Edward Steichen)

A recent gift to the Whitney Museum of American Art brings a collection of Edward Steichen’s early fashion work for Condé Nast to New York City.

It all began as a dare between two friends.

In 1911, Lucien Vogel, an influential French magazine publisher, proposed that photographer Edward Steichen promote fashion photography as fine art … or so the story goes.

Vogel’s dare resulted in photos of gowns by couturier Paul Poiret for Art et Décoration in what became known as the first modern fashion photographs ever published. In turn, Steichen was propelled to further prominence in the world of photography. 

Steichen’s diverse portfolio of landscapes, architecture, portraiture, and war photos had already proved his excellence. He had commanded the photographic division of the U.S. Army during WWI, and one of his closest friends and early supporters was Alfred Stieglitz, founder of the infamous 291 Gallery, which was responsible for helping introduce European artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Brancusi to the U.S. But his fashion photographs, with their theatrical lighting and design, were revolutionary in both style and format.


Old Master as Ax Murderer?

A study by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

(RISD Museum, purchased with funds from the estate of Maria Dasdagulian, in honor of Joseph Fazzano)

Around 1817, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres scattered body parts across a canvas.

This strange image by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres instantly grabbed my attention, one recent day during a quick tour of the lovely museum at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence. John Smith, the director, told me that his curators had nabbed the picture for a song a little while back, after it went unsold at an auction. (So much for the wisdom of collectors.)  The little canvas is a study for  "Christ Offering Saint Peter the Keys to Paradise", a major altarpiece commissioned in 1817 for a church in Rome. The study includes hands and faces from different characters in the final picture, each painted with the canvas turned 90 degrees, so as to interfere less with viewing the other details. Of course, the result is a wonderful modernist assemblage that has an almost Surrealist flavor. So maybe what I've really got here is an Old Master discard being used – by me, the museum visitor – as a modern objet trouvé. This might not have won the out-loud approval of Ingres, the avid Academician, but I think his eyes would have understood.

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Losing Your Virginity as Art


Clayton Pettet (Via Tumblr)

He was arrested for graffiti, but Clayton Pettet won't rest until the world sees his art. And by art, we mean he's going to lose his virginity in front of a live audience.

A gay art school student, who plans to lose his virginity in front of a live audience, has been arrested in London while promoting the show.

Clayton Pettet, 19, who was warned that his performance art piece could breach decency laws, told The Daily Beast he had been picked up by police officers after taking an unconventional approach to publicity. He was caught by officers after spray painting the date of the event on a billboard in East London.

The teenager remains coy about the precise nature of his explicit performance, but he says he will lose his virginity to an anonymous male friend in front of about 100 guests. He graffitied Art School Stole My Virginity, the name of the show, in pink letters under a railway bridge on Old Street. Scotland Yard confirmed that they had arrested a 19-year-old male on November 26th on suspicion of criminal damage. No charges were brought against him.

“It was so embarrassing,” confessed Pettet, a student at London’s top art school, Central Saint Martins. “I got cuffed and mug shot and everything. I was in the cell. They said, ‘What color graffiti?’ And I was like: ‘blossom pink’ and they were laughing, and I was sat there like: fuck me.”

Bizarre Silks

Lucy in the Sky with ... Snuff?

A length of Bizarre Silk from around 1700

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1964)

The Metropolitan Museum shows psychedelic textiles from circa 1700

The term of art for this kind of textile is “Bizarre Silk”, and it couldn’t be more appropriate: This silk could pass as acid-test Art Nouveau, but it’s actually a fabric from an as-yet-unidentified source in early 18th-century Europe that shows an influence from as-yet-unidentified Asian cultures. The example shown here is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, where I saw it in the  exhibition called “Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade 1500-1800”. I want a dressing gown made from it, to inspire my opium dreams.

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Marina Abramović

Death of a Performance Artist



Performance artist Marina Abramović puts her life—in all its traumatic detail—in the hands of internationally-acclaimed director Robert Wilson in a new show at the Park Avenue Armory.

It all began with one infamous performance: The Great Wall Walk.

In 1988, performance artist Marina Abramović started at the East end of The Great Wall of China and began walking west. Ninety days later, she met her long-time lover and performance partner, Ulay, who had started on the West side walking east, to say, or rather perform, their goodbyes.

Abramović had come to a crossroads in her career. “It was difficult because we always worked together,” Abramović told The Daily Beast, “So, for me it was [time] that I actually make a theater of my life.”

For each of Abramović’s past biographies, spanning print and film, the artist relinquished every aspect of her life to the directors of her choosing, allowing them to arrange and edit as they liked, promising no interferences in their decisions. “They are always mixing things according to their own taste,” the artist stated, “but every time my life looked different to me.”