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.