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Bonhams New York examines the legacy of World War II in Impressionist & Modern art
Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Bauernrosen und rudbeckien, 1950. Watercolor on paper, 14 1/8 x 18 1/8in. Est $100,000-150,000. Photo: Courtesy of Bonhams.

NEW YORK, NY.- The auction of Impressionist & Modern Art to be held at the Bonhams Madison Avenue salesroom on May 7 includes works by several artists whose legacies are linked with the turbulence of WWII. From Germany, Austria, Italy and beyond, these artists’ lives mirror the confusion, violence and ultimate redemption experienced across the continent.

German artist Emile Nolde, considered one of the greatest watercolorists of the last 100 years, was initially held in high esteem within Germany. However, the regime condemned his work after Hitler declared all forms of modernism “degenerate.” He was included in the infamous 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition, and Nolde’s works were removed from museums. Between 1938-1935, Nolde continued to paint in secret, creating hundreds of watercolors he referred to as his “unpainted pictures.”

After the war, Nolde’s reputation was restored, and he began to paint openly once again. Bonhams will offer Bauernrosen und rudbeckien, a robust and lively watercolor painted in 1950 (est. $100,000-150,000). The characteristic floral composition bursts with bold and courageous blossoms, symbols of joie de vivre as well as reminders of fate.

The Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, on the other hand, had passed nearly two decades before the outbreak of WWII, but that did not mean his works were spared. Many of Klimt’s masterpieces were confiscated by the SS while others were burned as the Nazis retreated across Austria, destroying historic sites after their defeat in 1945.

Bonhams will offer a preparatory study depicting a skeleton for one such lost masterpiece, Medicine, from the faculty paintings for the ceiling of Vienna’s Great Hall (est. $20,000-30,000). The black chalk drawing on offer is one of but a few studies that remain of this fabled series depicting personifications of the three ideologies commissioned in 1894. The completed painting Medicine was seized by the German state and destroyed in 1945. Representing more than just a figural study, Klimt’s skeletal drawing is an elegant and chilling testament to one of the darkest periods in art history.

Some extremely fortunate artists were able to leave Europe before the height of the destruction. Both Marc Chagall (1887-1985), who was Russian but living in France at the outbreak of the war, and Max Ernst (1891-1976) who was German, were able to escape to the US via Paris after the intercession of powerful friends like Peggy Guggenheim. Chagall’s Les amoureux aux fruits ou Deux têtes from 1950, nine years after his arrival in the US will be on offer (est. $250,000-350,000), as well as a 1944 untitled figure study by Ernst (est. $18,000-22,000).

Mario Sironi’s Due Figure from 1952 addresses the opposite isolation (est. $8,000-12,000). Sironi, an Italian Modernist who supported Mussolini and contributed significantly to Fascist causes, was forced into isolation after the war because of his unpopular political affiliations. After Mussolini’s defeat, an outcast Sironi returned to easel painting. The tempura and ink on paper Due Figure exhibits the frustrated abstraction typical of his paintings from this period of societal withdrawal.

Other Italian works of note include Massimo Campigli’s serene 1956 portrait titled simply Signora (est. $50,000-70,000) from the collection of the late Anthony Quinn. Quinn began acquiring paintings in Los Angeles in the 1950s at the urging of Greta Garbo, and the paintings from that period capture Quinn's vision as both an artist and a collector. Bonhams will also offer Alexander Archipenko’s bronze Linear Oriental conceived and cast in 1961, from the same esteemed collection (est. $50,000-70,000).

Bonhams Impressionist & Modern Art auction will take place May 7 in New York. The auction will preview at Bonhams from May 4-6.

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