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In Art Lost And Found, The Echoes Of A Century's Upheaval

One of the works discovered in the trove, a painting from Otto Dix, is projected on a screen during a news conference in Augsburg, southern Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013.
Kerstin Joensson
Courtesy of AP Images
One of the works discovered in the trove, a painting from Otto Dix, is projected on a screen during a news conference in Augsburg, southern Germany, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013.

Every week, a cluster of stories comes to define the landscape of news media. These can be stories of international scope or local intimacy, but for their own distinctive reasons, they all offer narratives defined almost in real time.

To get a better grasp on the hectic pace of current events, it's often vital to turn to another kind of narrative — our favorite kind: books. That's why each week we'll invite authors to suggest a book that somehow deepens, contextualizes or offers an entirely new angle on one of the week's major headlines.

This week, German authorities revealed that a museum's worth of artworks looted by the Nazis had been discovered. Valued at approximately $1.3 billion, the trove contains many works long thought lost, some of which were produced by artists considered 20th century masters.

Susan Choi kicks off our new series with Visitation, a novel by German author Jenny Erpenbeck. It's a story of the century as seen by the objects we've owned and lost along the way.

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In a Munich apartment, more than 1,400 pieces of art, by such masters as Matisse, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Otto Dix, lay stacked on shelves or piled up in drawers. Some had been presumed forever lost. Others, including a Chagall, had never been known to exist. The scale of the discovery will require a rewriting of art history. But the human history of how those paintings came to be in that apartment — 1,400 tales of dispossession — will never fully be written.

The paintings can't talk, though if they could, they might sound like Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Visitation, which tells a similar story, though not from the point of view of hidden art works. The central character of this novel sits on a lake in Brandenburg, Germany. It's a house that watches as political upheaval ruins the lives of its residents one after another. The Jews who live in it are forced to sell it cheap when they attempt to escape the Third Reich. Soviet soldiers move in at the end of the war. They avenge themselves with pillage and rape. Later, the house's East German owner has to flee when he's discovered doing business with the West. People bury their cherished objects in the garden for safekeeping. Other people wind up in equally unmarked, forgotten graves.

Erpenbeck's house collects this inventory of rupture, displacement and loss. It's unsentimental and devastating. Houses keep something of the people who've lived in them; it's something we sense, but can never decipher.

I think a similar thing is true of the paintings found in Munich this week. Those artworks have trafficked with all these people who've owned them or stolen, protected them or tried to profit from them. The history of their entanglement with these people is part of them now. The object remembers its people. It's their only trace. Sometimes that's the closest we can get to restoring what's lost.

Susan Choi is an American novelist. In 2010, she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. Her works include My Education and A Person of Interest.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Choi