Gurlitt art collection at last goes on display in Germany and Switzerland

Posted on: November 20, 2017 by

The world was astonished in 2013, when the German government disclosed the discovery of an unprecedented trove of art works in Munich.  The presumptive owner, Cornelius Gurlitt, who was nearly 80 when he died, had never worked, never had a bank account, nor social security or insurance.  He was a recluse with no known friends or family, but he was the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer whose career had spanned four decades. Hildebrand Gurlitt had been an early defender of modern art, which was subsequently decried by the Nazis and purged from German museums as ‘degenerate art’, before he entered a darker period, becoming one of four of Hitler’s agents who purchased art destined for the Führermuseum, to be built in Linz, Austria.  It is still unclear whether he was only involved in purchases of works of art or whether he acquired them by more sinister means.  He died in a car accident in 1956 and left his collection to his son Cornelius.

Two weeks ago, the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany simultaneously opened two exhibitions displaying, for the first time, some 450 works previously held by Gurlitt, who died in 2014.

Max Beckmann, Zandvoort Beach Cafe, among the works on display at the Bern Museum.

The exhibition at the Bern Museum, Degenerate Art – Confiscated and Sold, concentrates on so-called ‘Degenerate Art’ and exhibits 160 works, mainly on paper, by Ernst Ludwig Kirschner, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann and others.   One of the curators, Nina Zimmer, said the exhibitions were “paying homage to the people who became victims of Nazi art theft, as well as artists who were defamed and persecuted as ‘degenerate’.”   It is also hoped that seeing the works will trigger some memories and provide some clues as to the provenance of the works.  The exhibition also provides insight on provenance research through its Provenance Studio display.

Thomas Couture, Portrait of a Seated Young Woman, on display in Bonn.

The Bonn exhibition, Nazi Art Theft and its Consequences, displays numerous works by Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Picasso, Rodin and others.  So far, the Provenance Task Force headed by Andrea Baresel-Brand has met with little success in identifying the owners of the art.  Only five paintings have so far been traced, including Two Riders on a Beach by Max Liebermann, Femme Assise by Matisse and a portrait by Thomas Couture (pictured here).   The exhibition also provides documentation and pictures on the strange career of Hildebrand Gurlitt.

The Bonn exhibition runs from 3rd November 2017 until 11th March 2018 while the Bern exhibition is on display until March 4th 2018. The two exhibitions will be brought together in the fall of 2018 and shown at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, in Berlin