Restitution as an art in itself

Posted on: October 2, 2015 by

An art exhibition in Norway is built around a work by Henri Matisse, Blue Dress in a Yellow Armchair, and yet the work isn’t even there.

The Henie Onstad Museum returned the work in March 2014 to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, the famous Parisian art dealer whose collection of masterpieces had been looted by the Nazis after the German invasion of May 1940. In fact, it isn’t the only Matisse that has recently gone back to the same heirs, who include well-known French journalist Anne Sinclair. One of the finds from the Gurlitt hoard of 2012 was returned several months ago to the Rosenberg descendants.

matisse bleueBut what has the Norwegian museum done following the restitution? It has put on a show that focuses on the provenance research undertaken as a result of the Matisse discovery. Twenty works have been highlighted from the collection, all of which had unclear provenance during the Second World War. Norway, like France, had been invaded by the Nazis, but the Matisse is the only reported case of a Holocaust-related restitution from a Norwegian museum.

Perhaps this will help to enlighten the Norwegian public on the ongoing problem of looted art in public collections, which is certainly a good thing. But it also shows that the history of a painting’s ownership – its provenance – can be as interesting a subject of exhibition as the art itself. People are becoming increasingly interested in the story these works have to tell. And while the stories may end up embarrassing the host institution, their airing may also result in the righting of long-ago wrongs.

Image: Henri Matisse, Robe bleue dans un fauteuil ocre, 1937