BERLIN — Much of contemporary Western life is marked by an increasing anxiety regarding consumption. When possible, some of us try to understand where the objects in our lives come from in an attempt to avoid products created under inhumane or ecologically destructive conditions. While accepting that nothing is produced without contributing to some measure of harm, ethical consumption means choosing the less bad option. It means deciding to support or boycott something on the basis of its provenance.
Mostly, this applies to consumer goods: food, clothes, and other necessary items. However, this desire for transparency and knowledge of what we participate in can also be observed in recent museum practices, some of which attempt to unearth and lay bare the conditions in which art is produced, bought, sold, and finally, exhibited. This is the guiding principle behind Gurlitt: Status Report, An Art Dealer in Nazi Germany, currently on view at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, in collaboration with the Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn and Kunstmuseum Bern.
In 2012, to the astonishment of the international media, a collection of more than 1,500 immensely valuable artworks were discovered in the Schwabing apartment of one Cornelius Gurlitt during an investigation into possible tax evasion. At the Gropius Bau, a selection of this art, including works by Rubens, Rodin, Renoir, Monet, and countless other masters, reemerges after decades of being hidden from public view. Part exhibition, part presentation of research findings, the exhibition strives to show exactly how these artworks came to be in Gurlitt’s possession.
Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in 2014, bequeathing his entire estate to the Kunstmuseum Bern, really only plays a bit part here. The exhibition’s real protagonist is his father, the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who founded the collection. Hildebrand Gurlitt was a canny operator who, despite being part Jewish, managed not only to survive but to thrive in Nazi Germany. He achieved this through full cooperation: facilitating the sale of so-called “degenerate art” to (mostly) foreign buyers to buoy the regime’s coffers, while also acquiring suitably völkisch art from Nazi-occupied countries for the planned Führer Museum in Linz. At the same time, Gurlitt made money siphoning off countless works for his own collection. Where the art came from, and the reason behind each individual sale — if the pieces were sold at all — did not really concern him. After the war, he was successfully de-Nazified and exonerated, and went on to become the director at Kunstverein Düsseldorf. He died in a car accident in 1956.
At the Gropius Bau, the art of Gurlitt’s collection — much of it on view for the first time — becomes almost incidental. More important is its provenance, the winding routes it took to get here, and whether it was looted or sold under duress. The real point of this research — undertaken by an international team of experts called the Schwabing Trove Taskforce — is to understand whether the artworks were legally or illegally attained and, in the latter case, to return them to the heirs of their rightful owners. To this end, the exhibition is full of text and is as much an educational exercise as one centered on the appreciation of art. Particular artworks are exhibited alongside case studies documenting their original owners, predominately Jewish people forced to sell their possessions, or whose homes were looted as they either fled or were murdered. These small family histories make fully apparent the horror on which Gurlitt’s successful career was founded.
One such example is Thomas Couture’s “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1850–1855), an oil painting of a dark-haired young woman looking relaxed as she idly clutches a necklace, turning slightly to meet our gaze. From the adjoining vitrine, we learn this belonged to George Mandel (1885–1944), one of the leaders of the French resistance. In 1954, his companion Béatrice Bretty spoke of a painting of a woman. The painting had a small hole in the canvas and went missing from Mandel’s Paris apartment following his arrest. Examining Gurlitt’s cache in 2017, restorers detected this hole, thereby identifying it as the aforementioned missing painting.
Emphasizing the monstrous events that allowed these artworks to make their way into Gurlitt’s possession (Mandel was imprisoned from 1940 until 1944, when members of a pro-German militia executed him in the forest of Fontainebleau), the exhibition’s curators ensure it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand these artworks in purely aesthetic terms. We can just look at the artworks, of course, but that is to willfully deny the importance of historical context.
One of the gallery’s walls shows a photo of a crowd of German people, taken during the war. They stand amidst a sea of household objects, clothes, and other personal items. Notwithstanding that these goods were stolen from Jews being sent to their deaths, this crowd is there to buy. Remaining vague, the murderous provenance of these objects can be sidelined without much thought. At stake is that these sales were converted into hard cash — continued revenue that enabled the Reich to further their inhumanity. Through the example of just one individual, Gurlitt: Status Report, An Art Dealer in Nazi Germany uses provenance to make clear the entanglement of art and Nazism. Even in our contemporary era, where and how art is made, exchanged, and exhibited largely depends on the sum of our personal, mundane decisions: on choosing to see or not see.
Gurlitt: Status Report, An Art Dealer in Nazi Germany continues at Martin-Gropius-Bau (Niederkirchnerstraße 7 10963 Berlin) through January 7, 2019. The exhibition is organized by the Bundeskunsthalle and Kunstmuseum Bern.