How Far Would You Go for Your Passion?

The hardest part about being a writer or an artist is having the inclination but not the talent. Rejection is the deepest of all artistic suffering because it is not just what we do -- it is who we are. And when we are celebrated for our work, there is nothing that comes closer to validating our soul.

Art is passion. You do it because you have to; it is your breath, your lifeline. But how far would you go for your passion? Would you kill for it? Steal it? Destroy it? Or protect it at all costs?

Enter Adolf Hitler.

Hitler's War began with the systematic destruction of the avant-garde, and now ironically, 70 years later, it is the piece of Holocaust history still making front-page news. His mission to destroy Germany's modern artists was not innately 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 renowned artist was never 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" and his true passion encouraged.

I believe that these early rejections set the stage for what would come later ... the rape of Europe's masterpieces, and the eradication of those artists who didn't play by his rules. Once real power was in Hitler's hands, he alone decided what was considered art, who would be permitted to paint, and whose hands would remain bound. Those whose works were considered "un-German" were labeled "Degenerates" and forbidden to paint ... or else.

Hitler and his posse despised the avant-garde -- particularly Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and especially his homegrown band of German Expressionists, who fell into two groups of artists -- Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). The Expressionists painted the emotion that a subject evoked, rather than the subject itself. Nature, people, buildings were a wild collage of chaotic and lush brushstrokes. Nothing made sense, and yet the imagery brilliantly impacted the viewer. Expressionism drove the orderly, neo-classical-loving Nazis crazy. Among the household name "Degenerates" were Beckmann, Kirchner, Marc, Dix, Nolde and Heckel. Their works were forbidden because of their deeply provocative style. And yet, it was no surprise that this passionate movement of art was celebrated, and taking the world by storm.

Hitler's plan of attack was simple: Crush it. Supply stores were shut down, galleries were boarded up, paintings were burned, museums were closed, teachers/curators were stripped of their jobs -- all artists who did not comply with the Aryan handbook of "What Is Art" were banned from exhibiting, selling their works, and most devastating of all: forbidden from creating even inside the privacy of their own homes. Too many artists were forced to hide; others fled, numerous artists sadly committed suicide, and others were imprisoned and murdered.

But the Nazis knew a good deal when they saw it. Degenerate works worth a lot of money were auctioned, sold, stolen, dealt -- profits from this "Despicable Art" were used to fund the Nazi War Machine. Talk about irony.

I am a writer not a painter, but I tried to picture what would happen if my computer was taken, my research confiscated, my manuscript burned, my phone line cut, my contacts threatened not to work with me, and creating a story -- even for my personal use -- was considered a crime against my country.

My passion - the very thing that breathes life into my day -- would be stolen from my hand, but not my head nor my heart. They couldn't take that, no matter what. And yet ... muzzling my artistry could break me, but somehow, I'd like to believe, not stop me.

Stolen art is considered one of today's hottest cultural topics, because of the magnitude of what is at stake: major artworks worth millions hanging on the walls of revered museums worldwide, and within the protective vaults of private collections. Possessing the art is the passion.

But even passion has its loopholes.

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, Dutch museums had uncovered 139 artworks "likely" looted by the Nazis. A few months ago, Canada announced the "hunt" was on for looted art hiding in its museums and private collections. A few months back, Austria announced that a house in Salzburg is being "probed" for stolen art. Weeks ago, France returned over 100 stolen paintings. In March, A Norwegian art museum returned a precious Matisse painting looted by the Nazis to the American heirs of the French art dealer Paul Rosenberg.

These "outings" will surely continue. Coming clean, like everything else, is all just a matter of time.

As we carry out our noble quest to reclaim stolen artwork, don't lose sight of the tiny names scripted illegibly in the corners of paintings. Always remember: Paintings have a canvas, but passion has a face.

Behind every surviving "Matisse" is the untold story of scores of young, aspiring artists whose potential brilliance never saw the light of a canvas; whose talent was destroyed too soon to have a legacy. Those artists whose hands were bound must have their place in our history.

Here's the thing: All artists, both the masters and the "starving" among us, are created equal when it comes to passion. How far we will go for it -- kill, steal, protect, save -- that is the question that has only one true answer: When it's in your soul, you will go the distance.

Lisa Barr is the author of the award-winning debut novel, Fugitive Colors (Arcade), a suspenseful tale of stolen art, love, lust and revenge on the "eve" of WWII.