Thursday, March 28, 2013

Picture Study, Holocaust Week, and other Remembrances

by Megan Hoyt

Frida Kahlo painting her self-portrait
"We want to open their eyes and minds to appreciate the masterpieces of pictorial art, to lead them from mere fondness for a pretty picture which pleases the senses up to honest love and discriminating admiration for what is truly beautiful-- a love and admiration which are the response of heart and intellect to the appeal addressed to them through the senses by all great works of art."

(from a speech given at the P.N.E.U. 5th Annual Conference, held May 14-17, 1901)

It's Holy Week on the Christian calendar -- a blessed week for believers in Jesus that culminates on Sunday with what some call Easter, a celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. At our house, we call it Resurrection Sunday and leave the egg hunts and bunnies for another day. As a person of Jewish descent, though, I also take this week each year to do a brief but deep Holocaust study with my children. We don't ever want them to forget what happened under Hitler's regime. Every year, I choose a different book for them to read, and we watch a few movies and talk about what it might have meant to our family if my grandfather and grandmother had not emigrated to the United States from Narayev (Narajow), their tiny village in Austria-Hungary (now part of Ukraine, previously Poland). They did it for less than noble reasons, by the way. It was more ordinary than one might think. My grandfather was about to be drafted to fight in World War I. Had he remained in Austria-Hungary, he would have been forced into the trenches. But he was a gentle, soft-spoken man who didn't want to be a soldier. He fled the village he had grown up in and known so well and came to a new country, learned a new language, began a new life. Without this grand adventure, I would not exist. Thank you, Pop! There are all sorts of interesting side stories to the journey, one of which involves my grandmother's brother Isaac whose pen name was Moshe Nadir. Great Uncle Isaac, it turns out, was a famous Yiddish playwright in NYC. Very little of his work is published in English, but I managed to find a couple of his short stories here in Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. But I digress.

This week, we read Milkweed, by Jerry Spinelli. It's a quick read, but very engaging. Misha (not his real name -- he doesn't know his real name) is an orphan and a thief, scraping by on the streets of Warsaw. We get a clear view of what life would have been like for a Jewish boy in Poland in the 1930s and 1940s. But we also get to see life through the eyes of an innocent child, to watch as he attempts to make sense of what is going on in his world. I love this perspective. I'm glad Mr. Spinelli chose it as his point of view.

I googled a bit after I finished planning for this week, and there have been some interesting discoveries over the years since World War II ended -- interesting for art lovers around the world and interesting when it comes to restitution for Jewish families and museums the Nazi regime looted. Here is what happened in Austria:

"Under a 1998 restitution law, Austria has returned some 10,000 Nazi-stolen paintings to the descendants of their former owners. Most notorious was the restitution of another painting by Austria's Klimt, the 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which the Austrian state was forced to return to the heirs of its previous owner in 2006, after a lengthy legal battle. According to Haslauer, many more stolen paintings adorn Austrian living rooms: 'If these pictures were owned by state museums, they would no doubt have to be returned,' he noted."

Valuable privately-owned paintings ripped from the homes of Jewish families in Austria are still, now, today, treasured by the descendants of Nazis. Lovely. I'd like to believe that they just don't know how to find the previous owners or haven't yet realized the art adorning their walls is stolen. Who knows? Still, it gnaws at my insides a little, I have to admit. In Milkweed, Misha stole food to survive Nazi-occupied Poland. Why do these people continue to keep stolen property hanging on their walls? What is the payoff for them? Beauty? At what cost?

4 January 1944. German soldiers of the Division "Hermann Göring" posing near the main entrance of Palazzo Venezia showing a picture taken from the National Museum of Naples Picture Gallery. (Don't look happy.)

This happened in 2007 in Switzerland:

" 'A number of masterpieces believed to have been looted by the Nazis have been found in a Swiss bank safe,' the Zurich prosecutor's office said Tuesday, confirming earlier reports in the German media.

The paintings include works by Monet, Renoir and Pissarro, reported the German daily, Süddeutsche Zeitung. The safe was rented by Bruno Lohse, an art historian and dealer commissioned by the Nazis to assess works of art looted from Jewish people in territories occupied by the Nazis, especially France, the report said. Lohse died in March, aged 95. The paintings -- there are more than 14 -- were discovered in the safe of a Zurich bank by a Swiss prosecutor helping out with investigations into extortion and money laundering underway in Munich and Liechtenstein."

And here are some soldiers preparing to return this painting to its rightful owner after Nazis confiscated it during a raid on a museum and hid it in an underground salt mine. The soldiers returned it immediately, back in the 1950s. One person searches tirelessly to find the Jewish owner and return the painting while another quietly hangs it on the wall of his dining room. The difference, I think, is strength of character. We talked about how to help build that into a child from an early age in last week's blog. There's more on the theft of Jewish and museum-owned art and riches here. And here is the database of some 20,000 stolen masterpieces that are currently (as of 2008) being returned to their rightful owners.

 This is happening in France right now in 2013:

"France is to return seven paintings stolen, or appropriated under pressure by the Nazis, from their Jewish owners in the 1930s to their families on Tuesday. The paintings were destined to be displayed in an art gallery Adolf Hitler planned to build in Austria, where he grew up. Four of the works have been hanging in the Louvre in Paris. The official handover is part of a renewed effort by the French government to return looted or misappropriated artworks to their rightful owners. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis purloined about 100,000 paintings, sculptures and other valuable objects in Jewish private collections in Europe. Some were stolen, others were sold under pressure, often to fund an escape from German occupation and the death camps."

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, accompanied by Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., inspect art treasures stolen by Germans and hidden in salt mine in Germany.
I'm happy that they are returning these works, but a little unnerved at how long it's taken them to do it. And what do we do with this word "restitution?" I'm wondering because sometimes things are done to a nation or a people or even one person that irrevocably alter the course of their lives in ways that change even entire generations. Take, for example, the Jews under Egyptian occupation. God told Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him about the several plagues that were about to befall him if he refused to release the Jews from slavery. Pharaoh refused. Plagues came. Pharaoh eventually relented, but only after his and every other firstborn son was killed. And even then, he changed his mind again and followed them to the edge of the Red Sea. We all know what happened next. Sea parted. Jews danced on through (with Miriam and her timbrels). Egyptian soldiers get washed into the sea and killed. Life changed suddenly for the Jews who escaped from Egypt that day. But did you know that Moses told them (because God told him to) to ask for silver and gold and basically plunder the Egyptians right before they left? It's right there in Exodus 12.

Hermann Göring ordered the seizure of art treasures.
What's the difference between Hitler-sanctioned and God-sanctioned plunder? It was all stealing or gifts given under duress. Of course, under a regime that enslaved people (Egypt) or an evil regime that slaughtered six million people because of their heritage/religion (Nazis), the seizure and return of plunder to its rightful owners not only seems right but a natural consequence of their evil misdeeds. In fact, to me, there isn't enough we could ever do to offer restitution to the families of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust.

I don't pity either group. Human beings can be so dark and evil, and God can only stand so much of it before taking action. I am going to step out here on a limb and dare to say that God must be obeyed, no matter what it is He tells you to do. But I don't always understand His ways. I tend to think I might have stepped in sooner both times. Maybe He was giving them ample time to repent before their final destruction? And where is the rest of the stolen art?

This brings me to my main topic for this week (not really, but I needed a segue) which is the value of picture study. I have so enjoyed studying the works of great artists of the past. I have my favorites: Renoir, David, Caravaggio, Ghirlandaio. And the most perfect moment, the pinnacle of our studies, was when we traveled to Washington, DC, and NYC to go first to the National Gallery and next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's fantastic to study paintings by viewing prints at home, but it's far greater to see them in person. As I stood there, staring at Degas's ballet dancer in bronze or at Madame Charpentier and Her Children (It was bigger than I imagined!), tears streamed down my face. I was looking at old friends. It was as if we had been pen pals for many years, separated by time and distance, and were at last meeting face to face. Who WOULDN'T cry? The only thing better was having my daughter there with me to share in the joy I was experiencing. And she did share in it -- because she had grown up doing picture study!

This is picture study, in a nutshell (from a Parents' Review article):

"Our next subject is Picture Study, another feature of the P.U.S. Usually there are six pictures by one artist set for the term; this term there are three each by the Dutch painters Jan Steen and Gerard Dou. This is a lesson eagerly looked forward to by the children. The method on which it is carried out is somewhat as follows: Each child is given a copy of the picture to be studied and this he looks at carefully for several minutes. When he feels that he really knows it well, he turns it face downward and proceeds to tell you all he can about it.

Every little detail is noticed—the position of the woman sitting on the chair, the key hanging up on the wall, the vine leaves creeping in at the window, etc., etc. Having done this, he looks at his picture again, while the teacher adds any comments it is necessary to make, and the child then paints either a portion or the whole of it from memory. The position of the figures and the details in these reproductions is sometimes quite remarkable.

Then comes Drawing—six twigs of trees, studies of animals that you have been able to watch, children at play in brush-drawing. Original brush-drawing from books set for readings."

From Picture Talks, by Miss K. R. Hammond, Volume 12, no. 7, July 1901, pgs. 501-509:

"Let us then ask, What is the fundamental idea of our scheme of Picture Talks? It is, I take it, our conception of Art itself; not as the luxury of the rich, the plaything of the idle, the fetish of the would-be "cultured," but as a means of expressing man's noblest dreams, deepest thoughts and tenderest fancies. This conception has been variously expressed in various definitions. Thus:--

"Art is the incarnation of a soul of truth in a body of beauty."

" . . . the beautiful expression of thought tinged by emotion."

". . . the second revelation of infinity . . . across the mind of man."

". . . a second creation: man's will calling a thought into material existence, and his judgment pronouncing it to be very good."

If you want to learn the basics of picture study, grab a copy of Eve Anderson's Picture Study dvd from Bobby Scott at Childlight Schools. While you're at it, buy the whole set so you'll have her narration and nature study dvds, too. These are all well worth the $$. And here are a few other helps.

From my new friend Thomas Rooper:

"A lesson in which Literature and Art were combined in a most attractive manner deserves special mention. A poem by Browning was considered in connection with a photograph of the picture by Lippo Lippi, on which the poem was founded. The various figures in the picture were identified, and in this way the connection between the poem and the picture was explained so that the one interpreted the other. The picture was then studied from an artistic point of view, and the leading lines were blocked out on paper, so as to show how the various parts combine to concentrate the attention on the leading thought. [Perhaps this refers to Lippi's painting, St. Jerome in Penance, which is mentioned in Browning's poem, 'Fra Lippo Lippi'?]

"The students are accustomed to refer to numerous books and other sources of information in order to find suitable illustrations, and hence the matter of even the simplest lessons contains something of permanent interest and value. The lessons in Drawing and in Pictorial Art, which are given by Miss Sumner and Mrs. Firth, are of untold value in this connection."

Sample Picture Study Lesson (from a Parents' Review article via AO)
Picture Talks
Meet the Artist
Garden of Praise Art Appreciation
Recent Renoir Recovery

Do check out these links. They are spectacular and will aid your picture study greatly!


  1. Thank you for sharing how you ensure your children know that the Holocaust was a very real, horrific chapter in the book of humanity. My mother was born in Germany during World War II and saw the world through a child's eyes. But, for the hand of God, she would not be here today.

    I LOVE your analogy of seeing a piece in the museum in person. Pamela and I are about to see a Winslow Homer painting at "our British museum" (the Nelson-Atkins) today. It really does feel like meeting a penpal for the first time.

    I am blown away that God was whispering to both of us: "Blog picture study...." I had no idea you were blogging picture study but that is exactly what I just posted last night!

  2. I didn't know you were blogging on picture study, too! It's funny because I was going to follow the CM Blog Carnival topics, but the next one was Education is a discipline and I had already talked a lot about that. Then I was going to talk about composer study, but I have SOOOOO much to say about that and I knew I couldn't do it justice with the time I had available. So I'm postponing that. But it will be a LONG post. I warn you! lol! My parents being symphony musicians and my entire childhood literally put to music both at home and when I went to work with them, which was frequently because they didn't like to hire babysitters and my older siblings didn't often want to babysit me, I have a LOT to say about classical music, composers, learning to play an instrument, watching music performed live, opera, etc. Stay tuned! :D

  3. By the way, our Hannah HATED Holocaust week with a passion. She dreaded March. I don't think I considered her personhood enough in those earlier years (I didn't do this until she was in middle school, but still...). She was extremely fragile and sensitive when it came to visual learning. She freaked out at Jonny Quest as a teen, so why I wasn't more careful with Holocaust studies is beyond me. Sometimes time is the only thing that provides us with wisdom. As we're going through these stages, we don't see as clearly as we do once we're past them. I don't know why that is. If I had it to do over again, I would be very cautious about what she read and watched. For certain children, a Hallmark Movie Channel version of The Diary of Anne Frank is okay while Elie Weisel's Night is definitely NOT. That's why I chose Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed for Jesse even though he's 16. It's a book most middle schoolers read, but I didn't want him to read anything more harsh than that right now. There's time enough later in life for a more in depth look at injustice of all kinds.

  4. Megan, thanks for showing us the Eve Anderson Picture Study DVD. It was good to see it again!

    Has your family seen the film "I am David"? It's about an 11 yo boy who escapes a forced-labor camp after WW2, with a perspective similar to what you describe in Milkweed. It shows him being transformed by beauty (scenery, opera, art, books) as he travels through Italy. Think you'd enjoy it.

    Beth S.

  5. Thanks for the recommendation, Beth! I think I saw it many years back, but I'd like Jesse to see it.