Love, war, art, celebrity, heroism and intrigue.
“Diary of an Art Dealer,” a journal by the late Rene Gimpel, has all the elements of a great story, a fact that was not lost on filmmakers Lillian Bowers and Brian Plow. The Baltimore-based duo are currently at work on a documentary called “Pentimento” about Gimpel, a French Jew born in 1881, who died in Neuen-gamme concentration camp in Germany just before it was liberated in 1945. His journal, written between 1918 and 1939, spans the Bella Epoque (the beautiful era), one the most prolific and extravagant periods in 20th-century arts and culture that ended at the beginning of World War II.
Gimpel’s circle of friends included artists such as Monet, Matisse, Cassatt, Renoir and Picasso. The DuPonts, the Rothschilds, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan were clients; author Marcel Proust was a close friend, and Gimpel’s mother was Adele Vuitton (niece of Luis Vuitton), a Catholic who converted to Judaism.
Lillian Bowers, whose film projects include, “Little Castles,” about Baltimore’s formstone rowhouses, and “Not a Lady Among Us,” about Baltimore’s Woman’s Industrial Exchange, learned of Gimpel’s story when she visited a used bookstore and purchased a copy of “Diary of An Art Dealer,” which was first published in 1966.
“I read it and I was fascinated by the writer. I just loved him,” said Bowers. It was not until she finished the journal and read its preface that Bowers realized Gimpel, a prominent art collector as well as dealer, was Jewish. From the preface she also learned he had fought in the French Resistance and later perished in a death camp.
In fall 2011, Bowers was introduced to Brian Plow through mutual friend Dr. Greg Faller, associate dean of Towson University’s College of Fine Arts and Communication. When Bowers told him about Gimpel and her idea to make a documentary, Plow, a professor in the electronic media department at Towson as well as a filmmaker and cinematographer (“Water Lilies,” “Home” and “A Day in the Sun”), was interested in pursuing the project. The two have been working on the film for the past year-and-a-half.
“After World War II, a lot of art just scattered to the wind,” said Plow. “Gimpel had the foresight and the wisdom to start getting his art out of Europe [before the Nazis could confiscate it]. But lots of it was still taken. He tried to sell parts of his collection to the DuPont family, but he didn’t get himself out.”
“There would have been no disgrace in leaving,” said Bowers. “He had a successful gallery in New York City, right next to Cartier. He had powerful friends. But I sense he stayed because [he believed] it was the moral thing to do. It was his country. He thought the Nazis should leave, not him.”
Continued Bowers: “Sometimes he’s a moral touchstone for me. I’ll think, ‘What would Rene do in this situation?’”
Bowers stressed that Gimpel was also extremely funny, didn’t suffer fools gladly and “was crazy in love with being alive.” A great observer of people and social mores, Bowers said Gimpel was “highly attuned to the cultural pulse [of the times].”
In one part of the journal, relayed Bowers, Gimpel visited a member of the Rothschild family, who spoke to him from his bathtub. Of Rothschild, Gimpel wrote, “There is no daylight for the dimwitted.”
In the years following the war, Gimpel’s three sons, Charles, Peter and Jean, who also fought in the Resistance but survived the war, embarked on a mission to recover the many works of art the Nazis stole from their father. Unlike many other art dealers and collectors, Gimpel was careful to maintain detailed records and photographs of his artwork. Because of his diligence, it has been possible for some of his art to be found and returned.
Lawrence Eisenstein of Owings Mills, an attorney at the Washington D.C., firm of Eisenstein Malanchuk, LLP, has been working with the Gimpel family to recover the rest of their art collection. Eisenstein said the Gimpel family’s story is unique because the quantity of lost works is so large. Additionally, while many families know they have lost art to the Nazis, most don’t have the ledger books and images of the works that the Gimpels do.
“It makes it more of a treasure hunt. There are so many clues. It’s int-riguing and interesting. There are works scattered around the world,” noted Eisenstein.
In 1946, the brothers discovered a cache of their father’s paintings hidden in a garage outside of London. They used the money from those works to start a gallery named for their father called Gimpel Fils. The gallery’s first exhibition, “Five Centuries of European Painting,” was comprised of the works that were recovered. Today, the gallery is located at 30 Davies St. in London and is run by Rene Gimpel’s grandson, also Rene Gimpel, who also runs Gallerie Gimpel & Muller in Paris.
The production and research for “Pentimento” is still in process.
“Right now, the biggest challenge is how many directions the film can take,” said Plow. “The story is so rich. How deep should we go? We don’t want to lose sight of the big picture.”
Despite positive feedback from funders, financial backing is also an issue.
“We were one of the finalists for the Roy W. Dean film grant. And the Catapult Film Fund said it was a really solid application but not what they’re doing right now. You just need to be in the right place at the right time,” said Bowers.
Bowers is planning to visit local synagogues to talk to congregants about the project. Then she will relaunch the project’s Kickstarter (online fundraising) campaign. For more information, see the trailer for “Pentimento” at vimeo.com and visit formstonefilms.org/coming.html.