The recent discovery of 1,406 artworks confiscated in Nazi Germany, thought lost forever, is the beginning of both an art historical fantasy and a legal quagmire. The facts are astonishing in themselves: border police stopped Cornelius Gurlitt on a train from Switzerland, found him suspicious and began a tax evasion investigation, only to discover his apartment harboured paintings, drawings and prints acquired mostly under dubious circumstances by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, between 1938 and 1941. Hildebrand Gurlitt had been one of four art dealers authorised by the Nazi party to sell modern art (then deemed ‘degenerate’) abroad; Cornelius, with no passport, bank account or registered address, had to the eyes of the government never existed.
It is on the quirky details of personality that the media first dwelt, on the expired cans of food that the artwork was hidden behind, the anecdotes of neighbours to whom Cornelius Gurlitt never spoke. In the second week stories turned to speculation, with numerous news agencies reporting a cousin’s claim that Gurlitt might know the location of the Amber Room, an interior taken from Russia’s Catherine Palace in 1941 and now valued at over one hundred million euro. Other journalists suggested that many more Munich apartments may harbour lost masterpieces. The logic behind such articles seems generally to be: if this, why not more?
This discovery, though, is astounding in itself. It may act as a pointer to further discoveries, but to look primarily toward such a future is to ignore the wonders of the present and the strange, messy ways in which this find connects us to our past.
Moreover, the writing surrounding Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment only glances at the secreted artwork. This is a tale of hoarded treasure told backwards, and the paintings themselves are a postscript pushed aside for prequels and sequels. The monetary value of the collection – around one billion euro – is constantly reported, but the historical and aesthetic worth is bypassed. The architecture of Gurlitt’s apartment block has seen more public scrutiny than Otto Dix’s previously unknown self-portrait.
It’s appropriate, perhaps, that this is a story that broke through the usual newspaper binary of crime as topical and art as a Sunday segment. History and politics have layered meaning on the artworks that emerged and submerged across twentieth-century Germany, and so it’s almost fitting that we hear more about personalities than paintings from this collection. For the latter half of the twentieth-century, works such as these have been written about as ghosts.
It’s not possible to say exactly what works are in the Gurlitt collection. Ownership claims make any discovery of this scale sites for protracted legal battle, and it’s uncertain how transparent this process will be. At a press conference held the day after Focus, a German news magazine, broke the story, it was announced that the inventory would remain confidential. Those investigating the case have thus far done so with secrecy, and have faced heavy criticism for the extended period between the discovery and public notification; Gurlitt’s flat was first searched in February of 2012.
Nonetheless, some details of the collection have been announced. The periods and styles are wide-ranging, including a sixteenth century print by Albrecht Durer, a Canaletto sketch from the eighteenth century, French post-impressionist work by Henri Matisse and, famously, the sort of German expressionist masterpieces that Adolf Hitler condemned particularly. The artists represented in the collection include also Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Oskar Kokoschka, Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann. Between two hundred to three hundred of the works in the Gurlitt collection – including those by some of the aforementioned artists – would have been classified by the Nazi party as ‘degenerate’ and therefore eligible for seizure by the state.
This practice was enshrined in 1937’s Exhibition of Degenerate Art, held in Munich’s Hofgarten. Unusual in the history of display, the exhibition sought to give the German public a definition of ‘bad art’ and to position modern art as a social problem, something to be eradicated. It was designed as counterpoint to the Great German Art Exhibition, held simultaneously, which presented the public with images of Aryan farmers and mothers alongside realistic landscapes. Curatorial decisions are never neutral, and this is particularly clear in the design for the Exhibition of Degenerate Art; the gallery was chosen for its narrow, dark spaces, shocking slogans that would elicit reactions were scrawled around artwork, and paintings were hung askew and without frames in order to further cultivate an impression of disrupted order. Actors were hired to walk amongst the crowds and criticise the work. Modern art was condemned, but simultaneously fetishised; in positioning this work as a negative social force, art itself is shown as something powerful, something that can shake or shape society.
Nazi Germany’s attitude to art is often credited to Hitler’s own past as an artist, and certainly the Exhibition of Degenerate Art could be read as the product of a personal vendetta; given the opportunity, he ridiculed and rejected the avant-garde as they had ridiculed and rejected his chosen style. The exhibition, however, was not Hitler’s own idea. It was pitched to him by Adolf Ziegler and Joseph Goebbels, and moreover fits with a larger belief in art as a sociopolitical tool that stretches from frescoes in medieval churches through Victorian painting to the CIA’s covert sponsorship of abstract expressionism during the Cold War. As the Nazi party rejected modern art, Mussolini’s political strategy relied upon its celebration. In fascist Italy, futurist art was co-opted by the state as a means of implying a political movement forward.
The Gurlitt collection conjures up queries as to the location of this attitude today. Many of the articles announcing the discovery are illustrated with photographs of Hitler and Goebbels visiting the Exhibition of Degenerate Art. Hildebrand Gurlitt was involved in the selection of pieces from German museums in advance of the show, and many of the artists listed as represented in his son’s apartment had works shown in the Hofgarten in 1937, and so it is likely – though not certain – that some of the artwork on which the world now fixates is the same once displayed as an example of social ills. 21,000 works were confiscated in this period, of which 650 were shown in the Exhibition of Degenerate Art.
The works of these modern painters are often seen now as luxury products. Henri Matisse’s Sitting Woman is valued at sixty million euro, and has been claimed by Anne Sinclair, granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg and ex-wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Given such artworks are often too expensive for museums, and are passed about away from public eyes, the patina of irrelevance is unsurprising. This, too, though, says something about societal attitudes to art; a painting is purposed through the place it is kept, attic or institution, and not the messages it could communicate to to the public.
These particular paintings have almost always been silenced, though. German expressionism emerged as a violent aesthetic response to Europe’s fast-changing urban and industrial environments. Franz Marc’s twisted, distorted animals capture the tumult and terror of the early twentieth-century; Otto Dix’s alien faces suggest the darker forces at play within both the city and the human psyche. For all the social weight of the content, context made audiences struggle to see these works clearly at their most highly publicised outing. Following this, works were thought lost or destroyed. While the Exhibition of Degenerate Art has been very extensively studied, most of this work has – by necessity – been done through secondary sources. People have always spoken for these images; they haven’t been able or available to communicate for themselves; their messages have always been mediated.
This re-emergence of lost art might provide an opportunity to counter this, and yet already the discussion is curtained. There is the difficulty accessing details of the artwork, certainly, but there’s also the idea that art isn’t relevant, is a forgettable rather than significant detail in a political narrative. It is possible that resistance to art’s political role springs partially from the positions it has held in the twentieth-century, allied more with fascism and attempts at social control than with freedom; we wish to see ourselves in a positive place historically, and so we use public discourse to strip culture of its power even as art objects reach their highest prices at auction.
The collection found in the Gurlitt apartment is politically loaded and so much so that it will continue to restrict the possibility of pieces being seen, particularly en masse. Exhibitions are political acts, built on individual and institutional agendas, and particularly so when their history is intertwined with that of twentieth-century humanity. Nonetheless, daydreams have floated through media commentary, and if it does appear that a vast portion of these works were in 1937’s Exhibition of Degenerate Art, there will be calls from art historians – or at least wishful sighs – for its reconstruction.
The ethics of restaging such an exhibition would be difficult. The exhibition of replicas and reiterations has become fashionable in recent years, but generally as a form of homage. The most ambitious of these projects has been the 2013 restaging of 1969’s When Attitudes Become Form, one of the most significant exhibitions in the history of postwar conceptual art. It is the influential exhibitions which are restaged, but reconstructing an exhibition is more an act of nostalgia and projection than an opportunity to critically interrogate the original. Such an undertaking foregrounds the impossibility of repetition; every decision is built upon interpreting an archive, and this is particularly difficult when – as in the Exhibition of Degenerate Art – so many historical issues and secondary sources fill the space between the disappearance and reappearance of relevant artworks. This project would speak to an audience interested in meta-exhibitions, in conversations about historical authenticity and the role of repetition, but could be read entirely differently by the public who would scrutinise it.
The Exhibition of Degenerate Art was a particularly problematic showing of art and there’s some complicity involved in re-enactment, even if done critically. Exhibitions, as a form, struggle to make open their own position as mediators. It’s easier to critique from outside, and the format asks visitors to step into a particular narrative. The Exhibition of Degenerate Art would pose the additional problem of asking visitors to position themselves in relation to the Nazi party; if they dislike the works on show, they will be acutely aware that they share this view with some of history’s most awful figures.
Irony, as a display strategy, is dependent on distance from original attitudes and circumstances. The sentences written around the paintings are not laughable; they remain offensive. As much as we might like to relegate the Germany of the late 1930s to history, many are still struggling with the aftermath. Neo-Nazi activity continues and the constant appearance of related issues in the news – just last week, a lawsuit was brought against a New York school district for anti-semitic treatment of students – shows that we’re not yet distant enough from this period to have the sort of critical detachment required to stage and study, as a public, an art exhibition that foreshadowed the destruction of society.
It’s also worth questioning whether we would ever want to have that distance, the compartmentalisation of art and public life that would allow this sort of mythologising, the recreation of history’s bleakest moments as scholarly spectacle.
The lack of space in time is made particularly apparent by the many claims expected to emerge in relation to the ownership of artwork found in Cornelis Gurlitt’s possession. This is a major reason why the international public cannot expect to see works exhibited in the immediate future, and is further proof that paintings are almost always more than material objects.
For the moment, ownership of these artworks is very much political. They remain hidden, seen through a gauze of guesswork and press conferences, under the control of the German state. It is reported that there are existing ownership claims on around two hundred works. Many other pieces are entirely unknown or undocumented. Hildebrand Gurlitt is known to have acquired work from German museums, from Jewish owners under duress in Germany and from the looted collections of Jewish owners in France gathered at the Jeu de Paume in the early 1940s. Cornelius Gurlitt sold Max Beckmann’s Lion Tamer in 2011, a few months before this collection was seized, and made a settlement with the family of Alfred Flechtheim, from whom his father had purchased the painting. The allied forces catalogued one hundred of Gurlitt’s collection in 1950 before returning it to him; this inventory has now been released by the US State Department. It is on these details that most conjecture rests.
The list of artworks in the collection is itself a question of power, and to whom information belongs. The German government insist they cannot issue a complete list, lest it endanger potential claimants. The US State Department and many potential heirs to lost paintings are pushing for the publication of such an inventory, asking for more transparency and less state control. Meike Hoffmann is the only art historian allowed access.
It’s likely to be decades before most objects and stories in this collection are accessible. Many owners, if reunited with their property, will sell artworks at auction or donate them to institutions. This is where the public can eventually hope to encounter them, long after news cycles have forgotten Cornelius Gurlitt’s expired food.
For the moment, individual artworks are secreted from view, and the politics of the situation continue to speak above aesthetics. In many ways, it’s appropriate that articles skirt around the images apparently at the centre of this story; these art objects are anchors for ideas, attempts to rework the nature of power and reorder the past. In arguing over the publication of an inventory, the world is arguing about how best to deal with the twentieth-century, about the way in which both protection and transparency are positions to be questioned, about patterns of state action and inaction. In filing legal claims for drawings, people are calling for their own representation within history. Culture is always entwined with politics, but rarely hidden by it in such a messily loaded way. The artworks found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment in early 2012 might be masterpieces seen alone, but as a collection they form a symbolic terrain where battles over agency and memory will be played out over the coming years.
Jonas Tinius responds to this article in his essay ‘The Unethical Aesthetic?: A Commentary on the Gurlitt Case’