We are up visiting friends in the Northwest corner of Connecticut for Memorial Day. Yesterday was one of those rare brilliant days suffused with robust sun, mild breezes, glittering greens, and heady scents. At dawn, the thermometer read a brisk 47, but by late morning it was into the 70s. I went to visit another friend up the street who with his wife is an avid collector of contemporary art and who maintains a swank private exhibition space. From time to time, they organize shows drawn from their collection and invite sundry friends and acquaintances for an afternoon of art and conviviality. The next of these jamborees is scheduled for a couple weeks hence, but as I was here now I was given an advance look around.
My taste in art differs markedly from that of my friends, but the overall tenor of their latest assembly is quite remarkable, indeed moving. The inspiration for the exhibition is a letter from 1942, written in German, and addressed to “Lidi Sara Israel.” It was from the Nazi government occupying Luxembourg announcing “for the record” in echt Deutsch fashion the seizure and confiscation of her possessions. Thanks for the heads up!
The woman in question happened to be my friend’s mother. Hers was a story with a happy ending. Many others were not so fortunate. A copy of the Nazis’ courtesy notification occupies a quiet spot in the first room of the exhibition. Other objects include various WWII recruitment and propaganda posters, a skeletal representation, built to scale, of the Fat Man atomic bomb by Robert Morris, and a lithograph by Sigmar Polke of the infamous Nazi exhibition of Entartete Kunst—they organized one final showing of “degenerate art” before consigning Kandinsky, Max Beckmann, Klee, Mondrian, and all the rest to Nazi oblivion. There are other haunting pictures from the WWII section of the exhibition, including a terrifying painting by the Norwegian artist Vebjorn Sand depicting a celebratory, glasses-raised moment at the conclusion of the Wannsee Conference in 1942. The raucous group of senior apparatchiks had something to celebrate. They had just organized the administration of a huge and logistically complex government undertaking, the extermination of European Jewry. Sand’s painting, appropriately, is called Corpses I.
The exhibition is a sort of illustrated autobiography: signal world events from World War II, through the civil rights movement in the U.S., to 9/11 and its longaftermath. I am not at all sure my friends intended the exhibition to accompany the little town’s Memorial Day festivities, but it offered a thoughtful introduction. It was the usual thing. Brief fly-over by — I think — F16s), parade with vintage cars, trucks, and tractors, interspersed with veterans, boy scouts, local police and firemen, etc. The best-decorated bike of boy and girl were awarded commemorative coin sets, and former Senator James L. Buckley delivered a brief address which, unlike most such effusions, was much more than a congeries of clichés. Buckley was not afraid to speak of, and praise, American exceptionalism, an idea that has been in bad odor among the beautiful people at least since Barack Obama took office and told us that he believe in American exceptionalism in the same sense that a Greek would believe in Greek exceptionalism, a Brit in British exceptionalism, etc. We may leave aside the tantalizing suggestion that Obama has been doing everything possible to make America exceptional in the Greek sense. In fact, as Buckley noted, America emerged form the Second World War as the most powerful, prosperous, generous, and free country the world has ever seen.