Authors on their new books. Carnie Matisonn answers Naomi Meyer's questions on Degas' Dust.
Carnie, will you please elaborate on the title Degas' Dust – especially the subtitle: Joburg maverick's quest to regain Nazi war booty?
Degas’ Dust traverses post-World War 2 contemporary history, the impact of pillaged art in the aftermath of the war as a secondary currency with special reference to the impressionists, among whom Edgar Degas was a founding member. The story of my pursuit of art stolen from my murdered granduncle Karnielsohn finds resolution in the discovery of a portrait of Karnielsohn accredited to Degas. It is believed that Degas was a friend of Karnielsohn until he discovered that Karnielsohn was Jewish. The growth of Degas’s anti-Semitism and bigotry is explained in the book, because it eventually led to the destruction of all relationships he had with Jewish people, to the extent that he even refused to allow Jewish models to pose for him. I imagine it saddened my old relative at the time. I think the title Degas’ Dust is justified by all the events that led to my pursuit of the Nazi thugs who stole the art after murdering the owner. The Degas portrait was identified by an art dealer and was the catalyst that led to one of the Nazis’ being tracked down and a number of my family artworks being recovered. The “dust” theme is important as I was trying to pursue something after a lot of time had already passed, and of course most of the people from that era have already “returned to dust”. The book takes a good, hard look at the legacies we leave behind long after we are gone, and our art is a very important part of that.
The byline was included by the publisher to elicit interest from the reader, because the story of a Joburger “hunting” Nazis is presumably quite unusual.
Tell us about Degas, please. Who was he?
Unlike many of the French impressionist artists who came from backgrounds of abject poverty, Degas was the son of a well-to-do banker. While he is regarded as one of the founders of impressionism, he chose to call himself a realist. He aspired to become a painter on subjects of contemporary history, but became particularly famous for his portraits of dancers, with a repetitive theme of their pain, suffering and isolation. He had the benefit of an education in literature and went on to study law at the University of Paris. He soon found his calling in painting. Degas thrived as an artist between 1859 and 1915. He also became a collector of works by old masters such as El Greco and contemporary impressionists such as Manet, Gauguin, Pissarro and Cezanne. By all accounts he was arrogant and argumentative and alienated all his friends, including Renoir. He died alone and almost blind in September 1917. For all his criticism of the impressionist artists, he was strongly influenced by Cassat and Manet. It is fair to conclude that his enthusiastic duplications of works by the old masters allowed him to develop techniques that contributed to his success as an impressionist, however much he might not have called himself that. He remains highly celebrated and well regarded as a painter to this day.
This book reveals a lot about Johannesburg's history on the artistic front. Can you tell our readers about the start of supper theatre in South Africa?
I opened my first theatre restaurant, The Stage Door, in Hillbrow in the late 1970s. It distinguished itself from other supper clubs by the scope and quality of the musical productions. At that time lunch- and dinner-time entertainment in restaurants was confined to stripteases and gimmicky semi-naked female dancers draping themselves with live pythons. The Stage Door was a theatre restaurant that would not have been out of place in the Montmartre or Pigalle area of Paris as it had an emphasis on sophisticated performances by highly talented artists. While other restaurateurs tried to emulate the concept, their supper clubs were of short duration because their concept of entertainment was substantially based on female nudity. The success of The Stage Door was based on its performances of burlesque.
My second theatre restaurant, Al Teatro in Mellville, had much to do with my passion and enjoyment of living in a creative world of artistic appreciation. At both The Stage Door and Al Teatro a large percentage of the clients was made up of actors, artists, socialites and tourists who were referred to the venues by the concierges of many five-star hotels.
You are an attorney as well. How do you reconcile the artistic world with the corporate world? Can it be done?
Typically an attorney will live in the same world as his or her peers, aside from varying amounts of time set aside for recreational activity. The aspect of corporate law I have been involved in requires considerable creative thinking in applying the law as a tool for the resolution of mostly complex business and financial problems. For me there was no material difference or conflict between playing the violin at a function and representing a client in a boardroom or court of law. I would argue that the different disciplines can improve one’s ability to think laterally.
A part of your story is about international art dealers and Nazi hunters. In which way did South Africans feel the effects of the Second World War, and its aftermath, shortly after the end of the war?
Many South Africans were conflicted by South Africa’s having fought for the Allies. It is no secret that Hendrik Verwoerd, the then prime minister and architect of apartheid, was described as a Nazi in the Supreme Court of South Africa in 1942 and that John Vorster was a deeply committed Nazi sympathiser, especially during the period of his membership of and total commitment to the Ossewa Brandwag. Many South Africans of German origin felt betrayed by South Africa’s contribution to the defeat of Hitler and often gave vent to their feelings of frustration by participating in acts of anti-Semitism. It has been argued that Hitler’s Herrenvolk philosophy was the basis on which the foundations of apartheid were built.
The removal of artworks at universities in South Africa sparked a debate here and made a few South Africans mention the loose comparison to the removal of artworks by the Germans during the time of war. Do you think the contexts are so different that no comparison can be made - or what are your views?
To me the removal and destruction of artworks at South African universities can be attributed to wanton acts of vandalism under the guise of rebellion against colonialism. The artworks removed by the Germans from museums and looted from Jews that they murdered took place because the Germans were incapable of resisting the opportunity to steal items of value from victims of their atrocities. Indeed, the upper echelons of the Reich became highly selective in which artworks they chose to steal, with the determining factor being those of the highest commercial value. Their preference was the looting of old masters rather than works by impressionists, which the Nazis regarded as degenerate art. It was usually the SS officers in the lower ranks of the Reich who were able to steal impressionist works that were often rejected by the likes of Bormann and Goebbels. The vandalism in South Africa by students at universities is primarily the voice of poor, inadequately educated people who feel that this is the only way in which they can express their frustrations with what they perceive to be the slow rate of transformation. The German criminals of the Third Reich had no such motive. They were murderers, thugs and highly opportunistic thieves motivated entirely by financial self-interest.
Who is your ideal reader of this book - or in other words: to whom did you want to tell your story?
The ideal reader of Degas’ Dust is everyone between the ages of 18 and 80. The emotional aspects of the story should appeal to anyone as an inspiration to set their own goals and overcome their obstacles. The readers should be able to identify their own life circumstances with many of the trials and tribulations of the people in the book and to come to appreciate that we place too many limitations on ourselves. I’d like to think that people would be able to identify with all the universal human aspects of my story – starting from humble beginnings, trying to succeed as a musician, deciding what to do with my career, getting married, divorced, starting businesses, nearly going bankrupt, learning to fly aircraft, making a name for myself in the legal profession, and so on. There’s something for everyone in the story and I think it has been beautifully told and edited.
Secondly, the book offers many lessons in history that are easily read, highly informative and give cause for reflection. Once you’ve read this book, you’ll suddenly have a broader, deeper understanding of things that will always be wonderful talking points at dinner parties.
Thirdly, the book offers the layperson an understanding of some of the past anti-Semitism in South Africa. A quote by Christopher Hitchens in the book explains why this matters: “Because anti-Semitism is the godfather of racism and the gateway to tyranny and fascism and war, it is to be regarded not as the enemy of the Jewish people, I learnt, but as the common enemy of humanity and civilisation.”
The book should also appeal to adults interested in the socio-political history of South Africa leading up to the present political conundrum. Loving attention has been given to recreating a sense of living in the country, particularly Joburg, from the ‘50s onwards.
Lastly, the aspect of art history dealt with from the unusual angle of how the Nazis used it as currency is very interesting. I believe if this book finds its way to the bookshelves of as many South African homes as possible it will be an enjoyable read that will be referred to over the years by young and old alike. The story often alludes to choices we make and consequences we face.
Is art timeless? Can it tell a story of a time?
Art is timeless. It has a unique objectivity and sense of aesthetics and reflects on history, political events, the beauty of nature, the kaleidoscope of colours that light up our lives. I do not believe that good art can be transient. Artists portray stories of the times in which they live through the use of imagery that is often more powerful than words.
All history books incorporate a degree of conjecture by authors who were either not present at the time or have no direct access to reliable witnesses. The stories are true subject to this obvious proviso.
You wrote this book with Charles Cilliers. Please tell us about the process and how the two of you worked together technically?
In 2011 I published a book in the USA called The Final Audit which told my story in the form of a documentary. Charles reviewed the book in a six-page article published in FHM, which was favourably received by readers. Shortly thereafter we met with Helena Spring, a renowned film producer, who expressed interest in a publication of a sequel to The Final Audit that included the relationships between the characters and graphic descriptions of the events, written at a level that would inspire a broad spectrum of interest and an elaboration of the historical events in which they took place. The book has therefore been written to inspire interest from a broad range of readers. Helena believes the two books should be available side by side, as the stories are two totally different sides of the same coin. Charles felt strongly that Degas’ Dust should be written in the style of a novel that makes for easy reading, is informative while remaining action packed, with anecdotes of life during the different decades. He started off by analysing the published version of The Final Audit and posed questions that required elaboration from me in order to bring the characters, their feelings, motives and behaviour to life. After I had provided written answers to all these many questions Charles plugged them into the original manuscript of The Final Audit and edited out sections that conflicted with the pace and readability of Degas’ Dust. He also wrote in a lot of what was needed to improve the flow and voice of the story while living himself into all the events retold in the book. The book that finally took shape from years of back and forth and a lot of rereading, rewriting and editing is truly something to be proud of. The working relationship with him has been harmonious, uncomplicated and mutually respectful throughout.
Your book shows "one man can achieve the impossible" (according to the press release). What was the impossible, or would the answer give away too much of the story?
My journey had a destination without a road map. Most people I told about what I had in mind told me that it sounded completely impossible. It’s a good thing I didn’t listen.