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The Gurlitt Art Trove

THE LEGACY OF THE GERMAN ART DEALER AND MUSEUM DIRECTOR HILDEBRAND GURLITT (1895–1956) WAS INITIALLY PRESENTED IN THE MEDIA AS LOST NAZI TREASURES. HOWEVER, VERY QUICKLY OTHER ISSUES BECAME MORE PRESSING: WHERE DID THESE ARTWORKS ORIGINALLY COME FROM? UNDER WHICH CIRCUMSTANCES DID GURLITT ACQUIRE THEM? HOW COULD HOLDINGS OF THIS KIND AND NUMBER, OF WHICH EXPERTS WERE AT LEAST AWARE, REMAIN IN OBSCURITY AFTER HILDEBRAND GURLITT PASSED AWAY IN NOVEMBER 1956?

Today we know that the Gur­litt art tro­ve com­pri­ses over 1,500 works of art and that their owner was Cor­ne­li­us Gur­litt (1932–2014), Hil­de­brand Gurlitt’s son. The works were dis­co­ve­r­ed in his Munich apart­ment in Novem­ber 2012 and later also in his house in Salz­burg. It came as a gre­at sur­pri­se when Cor­ne­li­us Gur­litt bequea­thed his collec­tion to the Kunst­mu­se­um Bern Foun­da­ti­on and made the muse­um the sole reci­pi­ent of an exten­si­ve collec­tion of art­works from the lega­cy of his father. The­re is no clear ans­wer to the ques­ti­on why the Kunst­mu­se­um Bern was made bene­fi­cia­ry of the­se acqui­si­ti­ons from the 1930s and 1940s, and we can only spe­cu­la­te as to the rea­sons. Howe­ver, the Gur­litts did have con­nec­tions to Bern through busi­ness con­ta­cts with gal­le­ries and auc­tion houses.

With the dis­co­very of the art tro­ve, nume­rous works by artists resur­fa­ced that had been defa­med by the Nazi regime as «dege­ne­ra­te» and who­se whe­rea­bouts were a puz­zle fol­lowing their con­fis­ca­ti­on from Ger­man muse­ums. The art tro­ve com­pri­ses pre­do­mi­na­te­ly works on paper, that is, gou­aches, water­co­lors, color wood­cuts, drawings, and prints. The hol­dings that have sur­vi­ved pro­vi­de us with valu­able insights into the trends and are­as in art that shaped Hil­de­brand Gurlitt’s under­stan­ding of art, docu­men­ting also his pre­fe­ren­ces and inte­rests as a collec­tor. Gurlitt’s socia­liz­a­ti­on in art was mol­d­ed by modern art trends in Ber­lin, the Seces­si­on artists in the cir­cles of Max Lie­ber­mann and Lovis Corinth. The lar­gest part of the exhi­bi­ti­on, howe­ver, is devo­ted to moder­nist move­ments that ori­gi­na­ted in the city Hil­de­brand Gur­litt was born in, name­ly Dres­den: they inclu­de the artists’ group Die Brü­cke (The Bridge) and new objec­ti­vi­ty and verism, of the lat­ter espe­cial­ly the work of Otto Dix, but also Geor­ge Grosz and Max Beck­mann. Due to the back­ground of Nazi cul­tu­ral poli­tics, Dos­sier Gur­litt and the goal of a sur­vey of the collec­tion means that the cir­cum­s­tan­ces invol­ved in com­pi­ling it and Gurlitt’s acti­vi­ties as an art dea­ler can­not be ignored.

The art tro­ve yet again focu­ses our atten­ti­on on ques­ti­ons con­cer­ning the histo­ry of art dealing under a dic­ta­tor­s­hip and how the respon­si­bi­li­ty for the­se actions is shared by tho­se working for and with it. Hil­de­brand Gur­litt belongs to this group as offi­cial sta­te art dea­ler for the con­fis­ca­ted works of «dege­ne­ra­te art» and buy­er for the Fueh­rer Muse­um in Linz.

With the exhi­bi­ti­on Dege­ne­ra­ted Art – Con­fis­ca­ted and Sold held from Novem­ber 2017 until March 2018 the Kunst­mu­se­um Bern addres­sed the issue of regimes ruled by injus­ti­ce using art as an instru­ment for their own pur­po­ses. The exhi­bi­ti­on elu­ci­da­ted how sta­te-orga­ni­zed loo­ting of art and cul­tu­ral pro­per­ty was a vehi­cle of poli­ti­cal and racist per­se­cu­ti­on that tar­ge­ted mino­ri­ty groups in Ger­ma­ny and in the Ger­man occu­p­ied ter­ri­to­ries. The con­fis­ca­ti­on of over 20,000 pain­tings, sculp­tures, and prints from Ger­man muse­ums in the «dege­ne­ra­te art» cam­pai­gn is para­dig­ma­tic for the dest­ruc­ti­ve ope­ra­ti­ons of this regime against a free cul­tu­re. It left huge gaps in the collec­tions of Ger­man muse­ums and play­ed a decisi­ve influ­ence in the lives of the artists who suf­fe­red under its per­se­cu­ti­on. The cour­se of Hil­de­brand Gurlitt’s care­er as muse­um direc­tor and art dea­ler imparts an idea of his asso­cia­ti­on with the dic­ta­tor­s­hip. His sup­port of moder­nist artists ear­ly in his care­er was his undoing.

He was fired from his posi­ti­on as direc­tor of the Ham­bur­ger Kunst­ver­ein and later as direc­tor of Muse­um Zwi­ckau becau­se he exhi­bi­ted and purcha­sed anti-war pic­tures, expres­sio­nist, abs­tract, and veris­tic art, that is, art that was ruth­less in its por­tra­yal of rea­li­ty. With the power of the Natio­nal Socia­list Ger­man Workers‘ Par­ty (NSDAP) con­stant­ly gro­wing muse­um direc­tors like Gur­litt came incre­a­singly under pres­su­re. By means of tar­ge­ted cam­pai­gns, Nazi fol­lo­wers and mem­bers of the NSDAP affi­lia­ted Mili­tant League for Ger­man Cul­tu­re suc­cee­ded in pro­mo­ting social hos­ti­li­ty toward con­tem­pora­ry art. By equa­ting it gene­ral­ly with artis­tic deca­dence and social decli­ne, they equal­ly dis­credi­ted art and demo­cra­cy. The inau­s­pi­cious con­fla­ti­on of poli­ti­cal pro­pa­gan­da and con­tem­pora­ry art was not inven­ted by the Nazis. As ear­ly as the clo­se of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, rea­lism and impres­sio­nism were addres­sed in nume­rous wri­tings as mani­fes­ta­ti­ons of cul­tu­ral and social decli­ne on account of their sty­listic varie­ty and ten­den­cy toward abstraction.

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