The eye of the beholder

Linda Schulte-Sasse
Linda Schulte-Sasse is the DeWitt Wallace professor of German, and chair of the German department, at Macalester College in St. Paul.
Submitted photo

Making my way through the Minneapolis Institute of Art's sensational "Louvre and the Masterpiece" exhibition, I found one painting hard to access because of the crowd surrounding it: Vermeer's "The Astronomer."

Was this work such a draw because only 30-some paintings have been authenticated as Vermeer's? Because only now has the painting been permitted into the United States?

Or could it be because, as rumor has it, "The Astronomer" was Adolf Hitler's favorite painting, and became part of his private collection when the Nazis confiscated it from the French branch of the Rothschild family in 1940, as they pilfered countless artworks that became "property of the Third Reich"?

Nowhere in the exhibition is mention made of the painting's acquisition history. It aims more broadly to show us masterpieces, and how the very definition of "masterpiece" depends on somebody's hardly infallible gaze.

We learn how the works on display have been subject to shifting criteria, to an ever-changing group of "deciders" judging what's good and what's not, what's fake and what's real, what's in and what's out.

Museum curators likely considered the painting's circuitous Hitler connection an unnecessary distraction. But the news scarcely needed curatorial encouragement, as word leaked out quickly.

Vermeer's The Astronomer
"The Astronomer," by Johannes Vermeer, circa 1668. The painting is one of the masterpieces of the Louvre Museum in Paris which is on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fifty percent of the Star Tribune's coverage of the show has been devoted to the Hitler subplot -- instantly making "Hitler's favorite" painting into the star of the show, and making the temptation to imagine Hitler looking at the picture almost irresistible.

So what do we see when we look at "The Astronomer" from 1668 with Hitler's eyes of 1940?

If we try hard enough, the astronomer reaching for the celestial globe might morph into Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," holding the globe (albeit merely the world globe) in the palm of his hand. Our imagined Hitler gaze easily mobilizes a masterpiece in the service of a master race.

Yet we need not abuse Vermeer so literally to imagine how Hitler saw "The Astronomer." However mediocre a painter, Hitler cannot be denied an appreciation of the aesthetic.

National Socialism not only went to great lengths to promote the "right" art, but rendered political life in an aesthetic form that needed constantly to be rehearsed in parades, rallies and festivals.

Hitler would have cherished Vermeer's painting as part of an "original" Germanic, Aryan, "healthy" spirit restored by his movement. And just as our knowledge of Hitler may interfere with our viewing of Vermeer, Hitler's own obsession with "degenerate," "Jewish" modernism doubtless made him unable to look at the "great" masters without seeing the specter of the dreaded Other.

If Hitler even recognized the painting on the wall of the astronomer's room, "The Finding of Moses," as a reference to the Hebraic tradition, he might have explained it away, much as he declared Rembrandt a true Aryan "despite" having painted in the Jewish quarter.

Yet this need to explain suggests that Hitler's enjoyment even of the masters was tinged with anxiety.

Countless speeches, cultural policies and passages from "Mein Kampf" could corroborate our speculation as to what Hitler saw in "The Astronomer" and similar art works he collected.

If the titillating historical trivia about one infamous decider defining "masterpiece" in his pathological terms does indeed distract from our "pure" appreciation of Vermeer, it drives to a logical extreme what the Louvre exhibition wants us to do -- to remember that when we're looking at a masterpiece, we're always looking with somebody else's eyes -- eyes that see what ideology and historical moment prescribe.

And the experience is all the more fun because the exhibition didn't "tell us;" we snuck our secret knowledge in, past the catalogue and the audio headsets.

----

Linda Schulte-Sasse is DeWitt Wallace professor of German at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.