Belong­ing and Betray­al: How Jews Made the Art World Modern

By – December 27, 2021

The sto­ries of the Nazis’ lust for fine art dur­ing World War II most often revolves around the pil­lag­ing of per­son­al and pri­vate col­lec­tions and sub­se­quent efforts at resti­tu­tion. Per­haps the most pub­li­cized instance of loot­ed art is that of Gus­tav Klimt’s com­mis­sioned por­trait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a tour de force of jew­el-like col­or and elab­o­rate pat­tern­ing. The 2015 movie Woman in Gold chron­i­cled Maria Altman’s pro­tract­ed and ulti­mate­ly suc­cess­ful legal effort to recov­er this icon-like por­trait of her aunt from the Aus­tri­an government.

Resti­tu­tion on a much grander scale was the sub­ject of a star-stud­ded 2014 film, star­ring George Clooney and Matt Damon, dra­ma­tiz­ing the efforts of The Mon­u­ments, Fine Arts, and Archives Pro­gram estab­lished by the Allied armies — infor­mal­ly known as the Mon­u­ments Men. This vast under­tak­ing required the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and dis­cov­ery of near­ly five mil­lion plun­dered objects through­out Europe.

Yet, there is anoth­er sto­ry to tell among this intrigu­ing but oft-rehearsed nar­ra­tive, a pro­logue of sorts, and Charles Dellheim’s book Belong­ing and Betray­al deft­ly does just that. Dell­heim trains his eye on a sur­pris­ing­ly large and influ­en­tial num­ber of pre-war Jew­ish deal­ers, con­nois­seurs, and col­lec­tors of art, and lat­er the fate of their col­lec­tions, which ranged from Old Mas­ters to avant-garde con­cep­tions. For exam­ple, Paul Cas­sir­er bold­ly intro­duced the French Impres­sion­ists to Ger­mans, and he heav­i­ly pro­mot­ed the unap­pre­ci­at­ed Vin­cent Van Gogh in Berlin. Inter­na­tion­al­ly renowned, Paul Rosen­berg rep­re­sent­ed and cham­pi­oned Pablo Picas­so, with right of first refusal for his work (Paul’s broth­er Léonce was also a lead­ing gal­lerist). In 1940, forced to flee after the Nazi inva­sion of Paris, Rosen­berg left approx­i­mate­ly four hun­dred works behind. Set­tled in New York City, after the war Rosen­berg ded­i­cat­ed much ener­gy to recov­er­ing his con­fis­cat­ed prop­er­ty (he reclaimed over three hun­dred works).

Side by side his chron­i­cle of these world-class cul­tur­al bro­kers, Dell­heim attrib­ut­es the promi­nence of Jews as arbiters and col­lec­tors of art to the desire to find a place in the world at large, and art — they believed — was a means to respectabil­i­ty. That is to say, in addi­tion to nar­rat­ing the vast con­tri­bu­tion of Jews to the ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry art world, Dell­heim explores the Jew­ish assim­i­la­tion experience.

Not only did Jew­ish own­ers of art earn Hitler’s scorn, so did some of the artists; mak­ers of avant-garde were dubbed degen­er­ate” by the Nazis and hence their art was tar­get­ed as much as the Jew­ish pro­pri­etors who advo­cat­ed for them. Mod­ernist artists and Jews were both out­siders try­ing to break in.

Dellheim’s book tran­scends typ­i­cal uni­ver­si­ty press pub­li­ca­tions. The vol­ume is an enjoy­able, breezy read that inter­twines the for­tunes and fate of a host of col­or­ful fig­ures who changed the art world, as well as the dev­as­tat­ing betray­al of some of its very best.

Saman­tha Baskind is Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author or edi­tor of six books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clopae­dia Judaica and is cur­rent­ly series edi­tor of Dimy­onot: Jews and the Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, pub­lished by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Discussion Questions

Belong­ing and Betray­al is a deeply researched and mas­ter­ful­ly recount­ed sto­ry of how the quest for social accep­tance among a small Jew­ish elite in the West in the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies shaped West­ern soci­ety, espe­cial­ly its char­ac­ter­is­tic mod­ern artis­tic move­ments. Deft­ly Inter­weav­ing social his­to­ry, art his­to­ry, and mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Charles Dell­heim recre­ates the aspi­ra­tions and ulti­mate dis­il­lu­sion­ment of a galaxy of Jew­ish art col­lec­tors and their Jew­ish facil­i­ta­tors. The large­ly unknown Jew­ish role in the build­ing of the great West­ern art muse­ums is recount­ed in care­ful detail and with great verve. Dell­haim casts a wide net to include the great builders of muse­um col­lec­tions of the West, link­ing their indi­vid­ual aspi­ra­tions and achieve­ments to the broad­er cat­a­stroph­ic Jew­ish fate in Europe. The work is a tour de force and epic in scope, pro­vid­ing a new lens through which to exam­ine the path of Jew­ish eman­ci­pa­tion and ulti­mate dis­place­ment and expro­pri­a­tion in Europe.