The Munich Art Hoard by Catherine Hickley reviewed by Ruth Hobley
This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.
Arriving at the Ilkley Playhouse, admittedly a little later than I intended, I was greeted by the encouraging sight of a near full-house for Catherine Hickley’s discussion of the newly-discovered Munich Art Hoard, and it took me several moments to find a free seat in and amongst the enthusiastic audience. It is perhaps unsurprising that Hickley’s recent publication on the astounding treasure trove of artworks stowed away in the Munich and Salzburg apartments of Cornelius Gurlitt attracted such a good turnout, being a comparatively recent (the hoard was only unearthed in late 2012) and unquestionably astonishing discovery. As became clear over the course of the evening, however, the status of the hoard, and of Nazi-looted art in general, is still shrouded in mystery and intrigue and, in the intimate and closely-lit setting of the Wildman theatre, the audience was given a rare glimpse into an evidently rich and endlessly absorbing subject that nonetheless remains an enigma to this day.
What came across most strongly, and provided an overarching link to the pleasantly open interview format of the discussion, was the sense of how art collections can be seen both as physical property and as personal identity. Through their illuminating conversation, Hickley and her interviewer were able to demonstrate this both on an individual level, through an examination of the contradictory character of Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, the man divided between a love of art and a love of money who amassed the hoard itself; and on a national scale, emphasising the sheer magnitude of Nazi looting in Europe, and its effect upon the cultural identities of the countries it touched.
This final point brought the conversation round to the underlying link to be made between this controversial period of art history, and the modern-day assault upon national and cultural identities in the destruction and theft of artworks in archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq by Islamic State; a strikingly pertinent association which brought home the continuing relevance of the issues raised over the course of the discussion.
At times, Hickley’s desire to keep the audience guessing slightly inhibited how much the discussion could reveal; a sense which was arguably exacerbated by the lack of visual aids, perhaps an unconventional choice when considering the highly visual subject matter. That being said, the occasional evasions did indeed entice me to read further into the subject, particularly when coupled with the evident enthusiasm displayed by the interviewer for the subject and more importantly for Hickley’s book.
Perhaps a sensation of things left hidden is an apt one with which to conclude a discussion of hoarded treasure; and there is no doubt that at the end of the evening, as I exited the packed and still buzzing room, I was left, in the best possible way, wanting to uncover more.
Ruth Hobley is part of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team.
Ruth is a recent graduate but still an English student at heart.