The politics of hidden images: display and The Gurlitt Collection

Anna Blair
January 22, 2014
Online Only

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’


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Anna Blair