edited by Peter Jonathan Bell and Kristi A. Nelson. D Giles, July 2020. 224 p. ill. ISBN 9781911282631 (h/c), $49.95.
Reviewed September 2020
Margot McIlwain Nishimura, Dean of Libraries, Rhode Island School of Design, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Berlin Masterpieces is a compact and beautifully produced catalog. Edited by Peter Jonathan Bell, curator of European Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Kristi A. Nelson, previously on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, the catalog was intended to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Cincinnati Art Museum from June to September 2020, now rescheduled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to 2021. The exhibition was organized largely in homage to native son, museum benefactor, and Monuments Man Walter Ings Farmer (1911-1997), who, as Director of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point from June 1945 to March 1946, oversaw the restitution of thousands of Nazi-looted objects and works of art at the end of the Second World War and gained fame as the author of the so-called “Wiesbaden Manifesto.” The manifesto, signed by twenty-four of Farmer’s fellow officers, protested the November 1945 order to send more than 200 of the greatest European paintings from German collections to the U.S.
Organized protest notwithstanding, 202 paintings came to the States, and began a fourteen-city exhibition tour at the National Gallery in March 1948 that concluded a year later at the Toledo Museum of Art. More than 2.5 million Americans, or 1.5% of the U.S. population at the time, saw the paintings in what was the first great blockbuster exhibition of the post-war era. The tour had significant educational, geopolitical, and financial dimensions, all of which are considered in the four essays and one interview that occupy the first half of The Berlin Masterpieces.
The second half of the publication, like the exhibition itself, is a more eclectic mix. It includes an essay about the current state of provenance research in American museums by Nancy Yeide that would be an excellent introduction to the topic for both undergraduate and graduate art history students; a catalogue of the twenty two works of art (eighteen paintings, three prints, and one drawing, 15th to the 20th centuries) in the Cincinnati exhibition, including four of “the 202” on loan from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie; and an appendix with the schedule, illustrated checklist, and archival documents related to the 1948-49 tour.
While all the works chosen for the exhibition at the core of The Berlin Masterpieces reward closer individual viewing, what ties them together are historical circumstances and tangential relationships (e.g., works were chosen from the Cincinnati collection because they were by artists that had been represented in the 1948-49 exhibition). The catalogue is most valuable, as a result, for its content that relates to the history of collecting, museology, provenance, and cultural patrimony.