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Have You Ever Hidden 1,600 Artworks at Home?

By: Panni Ajtony

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What story does a picture tell? Conrad Felixmüller’s Couple Before Landscape depicts a serene meeting of woods and meadow, with a solitary birch standing out in its vibrant green against the deep blue of the forest. In the foreground, an embracing couple in deep shades of blue and purple, resolutely avoiding eye contact with the beholder. But who are they? What is behind the female figure’s melancholic half- smile? We, the onlookers, might not ever learn this, but the 1921 painting is emblematic of a much bigger story.

Couple Before Landscape by Conrad Felixmüller, 1921. Source.


The Curious Case of Cornelius Gurlitt


The Dresden-born Felixmüller’s painting is in fact part of the so-called Gurlitt Estate, a once-secret private collection whose infamous discovery marked a landmark moment in 21st century art history. In 2012, while investigating potential tax evasion, German authorities discovered and confiscated around 1,600 artworks from the home of Cornelius Gurlitt (1932 – 2014) in Munich, Germany. Most of these were works of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European artists, including notable names like Paul Cezanne, Edvard Munch, Auguste Rodin, and Otto Dix. Since Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895 – 1956), Cornelius' father and the assembler of the family collection, was known as an art dealer who extensively collaborated with the Nazi regime and its propagandist art initiatives, the provenance research – establishing origins and ownership histories – of the collection quickly followed. (For a detailed portrait of the elder Gurlitt and his Nazi ties, I recommend this fascinating article by Spiegel.)


After the investigation became public and gathered the rapt attention of the media, estimates of the overall value of the trove skyrocketed and so did guesses about the potential number of artworks that were looted or coerced from Jewish owners. While these turned out to be gross exaggerations, the significance of this discovery was still immense (Voss 58). By bringing the topic of Nazi-looted art into everyday discourse and to the media, the Gurlitt case breathed new life into art restitution efforts (Hufnagel and Chappell 594).


The Challenges of Provenance Research


To date, three related projects and task forces have worked on clarifying the origins of the objects. Their provenance research has made the restitution of several looted artworks possible, while clearing the origins of numerous others from the collection. As Cornelius Gurlitt, who died during the legal proceedings following the confiscation, bequeathed his collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern, most of the remaining artworks are now part of the museum’s collections.


Yet, Couple Before Landscape shows that the museum’s research is still far from over. Felixmüller’s work with its characteristic Expressionist bursts of colour and defined brushwork is one of many whose origins are still surrounded by conspicuous circumstances and implications of looting. We only know that Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired the watercolour sometime before 1945, but its ownership history between 1933 and 1945 is still not fully identified, so the museum’s diligent work must continue. And while the development of provenance research might often raise more questions than we can answer right now (such as, how broadly “looted art” should be defined), the Gurlitt Estate and its masterpieces like Couple Before Landscape provide us more than enough to marvel at until we can (Huyssen et al. 4).


The Kunstmuseum Bern recently organized an exhibition on the history of the Gurlitt collection titled Taking Stock. Gurlitt in Review. Sadly, it is not on view anymore (and it was in Switzerland anyway), but they had a super interesting digital exhibition guide (PDF version here) that you can enjoy on its own from the comfort of your home!


Watch this video to learn more about the research process and the 2020 book Gurlitt Art Trove: Research pathways chronicling the provenance examinations of the Gurlitt Estate.


References

Hufnagel, Saskia, and Duncan Chappell. “The Gurlitt ‘Collection’ and Nazi-Looted Art.” The Palgrave Handbook on Art Crime, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2019, pp. 587–606. Springer Law and Criminology eBooks, https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-54405-6_27. Accessed 30 Jan. 2023.


Huyssen, Andreas, et al. “Nazi-Looted Art and Its Legacies: Introduction.” New German Critique, vol. 44, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1–7. Duke University Press, https://doi.org/10.1215/0094033X-3705667. Accessed 30 Jan. 2023.


Voss, Julia. “Have German Restitution Politics Been Advanced Since the Gurlitt Case? A Journalist’s Perspective.” New German Critique, vol. 44, no. 1, 2017, pp. 57–73. Duke University Press, https://doi.org/10.1215/0094033X-3705694. Accessed 30 Jan. 2023.

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