Lisa Barr is the author of the award-win­ning debut nov­el, Fugi­tive Col­ors (Arcade), a sus­pense­ful tale of an artist’s revenge on the eve” of WWII. Today, she chimes in on the on-going con­ver­sa­tion about Hitler, the Holo­caust, and art for Jew­ish Book Council.

In 1991, I was serv­ing as the man­ag­ing edi­tor of a women’s mag­a­zine based in Chica­go. I was sent on an assign­ment to cov­er the Degen­er­ate Art” Exhib­it at the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. Enter­ing the muse­um, I lit­er­al­ly stopped in my tracks – I had found my sto­ry. Even as a daugh­ter of a Holo­caust sur­vivor, I nev­er knew about the Nazis relent­less mis­sion to destroy the avant-garde – par­tic­u­lar­ly painters. Hitler and his hench­men went after the Ger­man Expres­sion­ists with a vengeance nev­er seen before, and I was blown away by what I discovered.

At the time, I was already 150 pages into writ­ing my first man­u­script about young ter­ror­ists, but after that exhib­it, I sim­ply stopped writ­ing that nov­el. I couldn’t sleep. I remem­ber stay­ing up all night, star­ing out the win­dow – think­ing who were those artists whose works were stolen, whose hands were tied, and whose can­vas­es were destroyed and confiscated? 

What if some­one had stolen my com­put­er, smashed my print­er, took all my research, for­bade me from enter­ing book­stores, and destroyed all my past work, as though I nev­er existed?

What if some­one decid­ed that my pas­sion had to be quashed, or else?

No sleep mor­phed into even less sleep, as I began to out­line a sto­ry. I want­ed to take this unknown part of Holo­caust his­to­ry and some­how bring it alive through fic­tion; to ush­er in the hard his­to­ry through the back door. As a writer, I love to teach, but first I knew I had to learn.

I need­ed to go back and real­ly get a feel for what it was like to be a young artist in the ear­ly 30s, liv­ing in the whirl­wind of Ger­man Expressionism. 

Expres­sion­ism is not about paint­ing the sub­ject, rather it’s about paint­ing how the sub­ject makes you feel. It was a touchy-feely move­ment of art – chaot­ic, wild, col­or­ful, fan­ta­sy-like – a move­ment that went against the Aryan grain of orga­ni­za­tion and con­trol, but one that was tak­ing the world by storm.

I delved into past inter­views, his­tor­i­cal accounts, books, per­son­al his­to­ries, doc­u­ments, paint­ings – I am a writer, not a painter but in order for my work to be real I need­ed to actu­al­ly feel, smell, touch a can­vas, as though I, too, were there. I need­ed to write this through the eyes of a young artist whose paint­ings were being stolen out from under him, and expe­ri­ence what that was real­ly like.

The hard­est part of being a writer or an artist is hav­ing the incli­na­tion but not the tal­ent. Rejec­tion, as we writ­ers know all too well, is the deep­est of all artis­tic pain, and this is where Hitler came in.

For Hitler, his mis­sion to destroy the avant-garde was not polit­i­cal – it was per­son­al.  Yes, Hitler before he became Hitler” was a painter. He had been reject­ed twice from the Acad­e­my of Fine Arts in Vien­na. He resort­ed to sell­ing paint­ed post­cards on the street and lat­er house paint­ing – his dream of liv­ing as a cel­e­brat­ed painter nev­er being real­ized. He had been told repeat­ed­ly that he was not good enough, and to go find anoth­er trade to survive.

One won­ders how things might have been, had he been accept­ed.”

I tru­ly believe that these ear­ly rejec­tions set the stage for what would come later…the rape of Europe’s mas­ter­pieces, and the destruc­tion of artists who didn’t play by Hitler’s rules. Once real pow­er was in Hitler’s hands, he decid­ed what was good enough, what was con­sid­ered art.

It was no secret in Ger­many that Hitler despised the avant-garde – par­tic­u­lar­ly Cubists, Dadaists, and Sur­re­al­ists, and espe­cial­ly his home­grown Ger­man Expres­sion­ists, who fell into two groups of artists – Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reit­er (The Blue Rid­er) – orig­i­nat­ing from Berlin, Dres­den and Munich – and labeled them Degen­er­ate artists.” Among the name Degen­er­ates” were Beck­mann, Kirch­n­er, Marc, Dix, Nolde, and Heck­el. Sup­plies stores were shut down, gal­leries were board­ed up, muse­ums were closed down, artists who did not com­ply with the Aryan rule book were for­bid­den to exhib­it and sell their art. Artists were forced to hide; oth­ers fled, many com­mit­ted sui­cide, and many oth­ers were impris­oned and murdered.

Hitler’s war began with the destruc­tion of the avant-garde, and now iron­i­cal­ly, 70 years lat­er, this is the piece of Holo­caust his­to­ry still mak­ing front-page news.

This past Novem­ber, Ger­many dropped its loot­ed art bomb­shell: a cache of 1,500 mas­ter­pieces (Picas­so, Matisse, Cha­gall, among them) worth more than $1 bil­lion was dis­cov­ered in a Ger­man apart­ment. Pri­or to that, in Octo­ber, it was announced that Dutch muse­ums had uncov­ered 139 art­works like­ly” loot­ed by the Nazis. Last month, Cana­da announced the hunt” was on for loot­ed art hid­ing in its muse­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tions. And just a few days lat­er, Aus­tria announced that a house in Salzburg is being probed” for stolen art (coin­ci­den­tal­ly owned by the Gurlitt fam­i­ly, the very same own­ers of the art-loot­ed apart­ment in Ger­many). A week ago, France returned over 100 stolen paintings.

One won­ders if the crit­i­cal­ly-panned Clooney-led pro­duc­tion of The Mon­u­ments Men had any­thing to do with the recent out­ings.” Despite its Hogan’s Heroes-ish trea­sure hunt theme, the film did suc­ceed in bring­ing this part of Holo­caust his­to­ry to the mass­es and fur­ther expose the world’s dirty lit­tle secret: The Nazis were not the only bad guys in town.

One thing is clear: This coun­try-by-coun­try expo­sure will soon trav­el from Europe to our own doorstep – where sim­i­lar murky unknown” his­to­ries of beloved art­works hang­ing in major muse­um and pri­vate col­lec­tions will sure­ly be unveiled.

Like every­thing else, it’s all just a mat­ter of time.

While we are busy uncov­er­ing the lost his­to­ries of paint­ings worth mil­lions still resid­ing in the slip­pery hands of The Alleged and The Guilty” – let us not for­get the plight of the artists them­selves. Paint­ings have a can­vas, but pas­sion has a face. Behind every sur­viv­ing” Picas­so, were also scores of young, aspir­ing artists whose poten­tial bril­liance – whose expres­sion – will nev­er see the light of a canvas. 

Read more about Fugi­tive Col­ors here.

Relat­ed Content:

Lisa Barr is the author of The Unbreak­ables and the his­tor­i­cal thriller, Fugi­tive Col­ors, which won the IPPY gold medal for Best Lit­er­ary Fic­tion 2014,” and first prize at The Hol­ly­wood Film Fes­ti­val (Opus Mag­num Dis­cov­ery Award). Lisa served as an edi­tor for The Jerusalem Post, man­ag­ing edi­tor of Moment, and an editor/​reporter for the Chica­go Sun-Times. She has been fea­tured on Good Morn­ing Amer­i­ca and Today for her work as an author and journalist.