Home Page Memory Aids


On July 20, as I was roughing out an essay about Berlin for this page, a settlement was announced between Vienna’s Leopold Museum and the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray. The estate had contended that Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally (1912)—seized by American authorities while on loan from the Leopold to MoMA in 1998—had been stolen from its Jewish owner, Jaray, by Friedrich Welz, an Austrian Nazi, in 1939. According to the agreement, the museum would pay the estate $19 million; the estate would release its claim to the work. Portrait of Wally would return to Vienna after a brief exhibition in New York at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. An additional stipulation established how the painting will forever be shown to the public: the Leopold Museum will permanently display signage next to the Painting at the Leopold Museum, and at all future displays of the Painting of any kind that the Leopold Museum authorizes or allows anywhere in the world, that sets forth the true provenance of the Painting, including Lea Bondi Jaray’s prior ownership of the Painting and its theft from her by a Nazi agent before she fled to London in 1939

The righteousness of exposing persecution and crime is beyond debate. But my first thought upon reading the signage provision was “poor Wally-they’ve made her wear a yellow star.” Portrait of Wally is now a painting apart, permanently in evidence, its power to “speak”-for Schiele, for Viennese modernism, for the relationship between artist and model, for its own strange beauty-preempted by the duty to testify to events that transpired decades after its creation. I’ll be the first to concede, my response to Wally‘s fate was colored by my effort to come to terms with Berlin.

Prompted by the June opening of the sixth Berlin Biennale, I traveled to the city for the first time-unfashionably late, I know. Opening the catalogue at the preview, I found a schematic street map indicating the Biennale’s six far-flung venues, from KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the event’s birthplace in the Mitte, to four ad hoc locations in the Kreuzberg district plus the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museum Insel, where an exhibition of drawings by the 19th-century artist Adolph Menzel was meant to buttress the Biennale’s theme of contemporary realism. At the Alte Nationalgalerie, Menzel rubbed shoulders with El Anatsui, whose monumental facade installation was one component of another Berlin-wide exhibition, “Who Knows Tomorrow,” which distributed installations by five artists of African descent at four venues of the state museum system. That show’s tabloid-size handout also features an abbreviated plan tracing the initiative’s cross-district reach.

I recognized a diagram of reunification cultural policy in the maps of these city-spanning shows. Yet I found myself recalling Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, a 1947 novel based on the failed attempt by an “ordinary” couple to sow resistance to the Nazi regime by dropping treasonous postcards in buildings across the city. At Gestapo headquarters, a map of Berlin is obsessively studied by the inspector who tracks the perpetrators, marking the location where each card is discovered. Why think of Fallada and not, say, my last encounter with a plan of the Venice Biennale? Well, I am a Cold War baby, a Kennedy-era kid, whose parents’ friends included Holocaust survivors. In short, I arrived in Berlin fully equipped with memories of a city I had never seen.

Gestapo headquarters stood at 8 Prinz-Albrecht Strasse, today Niederkirchner Strasse. The site is part of an urban nexus where violent history and contemporary art collide with dizzying incongruity. What was left of Gestapo headquarters after Allied bombing was razed by the East German government. Alongside the foundations has risen a sleek new documentation center and tourist attraction called the Topography of Terror, where you are invited to descend into the remains of the Gestapo’s basement detention cells. It’s hard to tell where education ends and morbid fascination begins. Eventually the terror-studying folks merge with the crowds assembling for exhibitions (Olafur Eliasson and Frida Kahlo last June) at Martin-Gropius-Bau next door. From here, the simplest route to the galleries in Kreuzberg follows a preserved stretch of the Wall, along which open-air placards narrate the story of the barrier and its victims. Arrive at Friedrichstrasse, and you’ll find yourself staring at Checkpoint Charlie. But the GIs who stand sentinel at the onetime gateway to the U.S. sector are actors. Souvenir shops abound. Welcome to Berlinland, a gravitas-free zone.

The administration of memory is a complex undertaking in the new Berlin. Nowhere is it being handled with more grace than at the Neue Nationalgalerie, where the thematic reinstallation of modernist works from the permanent collection, unveiled last March, is punctuated by black-and-white photographs of the art lost by the national museum during the Nazi era and its immediate aftermath. The lost works include Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street, Berlin (1913), which was purchased by MoMA in 1939, the same year Portrait of Wally was stolen from Lea Bondi Jaray. This is how the history of Street, Berlin appears online as part of MoMA’s Provenance Research Project:

National Gallery, Berlin. 1920-1937 Confiscated (as “degenerate art”) from German state-owned Museum in 1937 and included in Entartete Kunst exhibition, in the Antiken-Museum in Hofgarten, Munich, July 19–November 30, 1937, and other venues; then sold by Nazi government. Buchholz Gallery, New York (Curt Valentin). 1939The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased from Buchholz, April 13, 1939

“Sold by Nazi government” sounds legally airtight, though other acts of that government have come to be considered criminal. Still, Germany is not likely to ask for restitution of the Kirchner. Nor is it likely to demand that MoMA display the provenance text beside the painting. At the Neue Nationalgalerie, photographic surrogates offer dolorous documentation of loss, like snapshots on a grave. There is a different pathos in the branding of Wally. I’m glad the Jaray Estate held fast in its pursuit of justice. I wish it had held fast to Wally, too. Yes, she might remain out of public view, at least for a while. But no future buyer could be contractually compelled, as the Leopold Museum has been, to treat her so cruelly.