Nazi heritage haunts new museum galleries



ZURICH – With the opening of an imposing extension on Saturday, the Kunsthaus Zurich has become the largest art museum in Switzerland. The expansive new cube designed by British architect David Chipperfield, facing the original building in a central plaza, more than doubles the museum’s exhibition space.

A spacious atrium leads to a newly installed garden, and marble staircases lead visitors to spacious galleries bathed in filtered daylight. On the second floor, they can admire masterpieces by Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh and Degas.

These works once belonged to Emil Georg Bührle, a Swiss industrialist who died in 1956 but whose dark legacy haunted the opening of the new $ 220 million expansion. Although it has long been known that Bührle made his fortune selling weapons to Nazi Germany and bought art looted by the regime, new revelations keep emerging.

In August, a Swiss magazine, Beobachter, reported that Bührle employed hundreds of girls and young women from struggling backgrounds. under conditions comparable to slave labor in Switzerland as late as the 1950s. This month the magazine said that in 1941, Bührle has bought two Swiss spinning mills at a bargain price after their former owners – Jews whose assets in Germany had been “aryanized” in forced sales – fled to Argentina.

And two weeks before the opening of the new expansion, a book on the Kunsthaus by historian Erich Keller was published. Its German title translates to “The contaminated museum. “

“It’s difficult,” said Christoph Becker, director of the Kunsthaus, after answering journalists’ questions at a press conference on Wednesday. “But the debate is a good thing.”

The ties between Bührle and the Kunsthaus go back to 1940, when Bührle became a member of its board of directors. He financed an earlier extension, completed in 1958. A bust and a plaque at the entrance to an exhibition hall that bears his name honor his contribution.

Today, 203 works belonging to the EG Bührle Collection Foundation, an organization created by the industrialist’s family after his death, have entered the Kunsthaus collection thanks to a 20-year loan. About 170 are on display in the new expansion.

In a recent interview, Keller said the Kunsthaus should never have accepted the foundation’s offer to exhibit these works. “It’s a collection built with money from arms sales, slave labor, child labor,” he said.

Credit…Kunsthaus Zurich

Born in Germany in 1890, Bührle served in the country’s army during World War I, then began working for a tool maker in the city of Magdeburg. He moved to Zurich in 1924 to lead a similar operation, where he patented and manufactured anti-aircraft guns for export around the world.

During World War II, his company produced weapons for the Allies and Nazi Germany, and Bührle became the richest man in Switzerland. Although the Allies blacklisted his business after the war, the boycott was lifted in 1946 and the business continued to grow.

Between 1936 and 1956, Bührle purchased over 600 works of art, some of which were looted from Jews by the Nazis. In 1948, the Swiss Supreme Court ordered him to return 13 pieces.

When the collection’s Impressionist masterpieces were exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington in 1990, critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times that the museum “should never have undertaken” the exhibition. “The important thing is not that these works should not be seen, but that they should be seen in a meaningful context,” he wrote.

In one of the twelve rooms dedicated to the Bührle collection in the new extension of the Kunsthaus, a display discusses the industrialist’s career and the provenance of his art with wall texts, documents and photos. Ahead of the exhibition opening at the Kunsthaus, officials from the city and region of Zurich commissioned a study from the University of Zurich, published last year, examining Bührle’s biography and the origins of fortune. that he used to buy art. The museum’s board includes representatives from the city and regional governments.

Yet the responsibility for researching the provenance of individual works of art was beyond the scope of this study. The Bührle Foundation itself began conducting provenance research in 2002, and the results are published on the website foundation website, although there is no detailed property history on the labels next to the paintings on display at the Kunsthaus.

Lukas Gloor, the director of the Bührle Foundation, said in an interview that “today we can be sure that there is no looted art, in the strict sense, in the collection”, but has added: “We are not ruling out the possibility that new information may come to light.”

In his book, Keller expresses doubts about the foundation’s research, calling the provenance reports on his website a “filter that holds back the decisive facts.”

He cites as an example a work by Cézanne from 1879, “Paysage”. The foundation’s website does not mention that its pre-war owners, Martha and Berthold Nothmann, were Jewish; he says the couple “left Germany in 1939”, instead of specifying that they fled persecution.

“Field of poppies near Vétheuil” from 1880 by Monet is another contested work. Bührle bought it in 1941 from a Swiss gallery for less than half of its market value, according to a 2012 report by historian Thomas Buomberger. It was offered for sale by Hans Erich Emden, the son of a German Jewish department store magnate whose property in Germany was expropriated by the Nazis after his move to Switzerland.

The foundation rejected a request from Emden’s heirs, arguing that the sale was not the result of Nazi persecution. Gloor said that cases in which German Jews sold assets while in exile in Switzerland should not necessarily be considered coerced sales.

“Switzerland was not occupied by the Germans; there was no persecution in Switzerland, ”he said. “People were free to sell or not to sell.”

With the collection moving to the Kunsthaus, the responsibility for provenance research now falls on the museum, although any decision to return it rests with the foundation as owner, Gloor said. He added that researchers now have unlimited access to the foundation’s archives, which are kept at the museum.

Gloor said he hoped independent academics would review the foundation’s work. “I’m glad my colleagues are asking questions or digging deeper,” he said.

Corinne Mauch, mayor of Zurich, said in an interview that she hopes the Kunsthaus expansion will enhance Zurich’s appeal as a cultural destination. “Zurich has always been seen as the financial and banking center,” she said. “It has gained profile as a cultural center in recent years. And this building is a milestone.

She stated that she supported the biographical research carried out by the university and the provenance research of the Bührle Foundation, which she described as a Swiss pioneer in researching the history of the ownership of her works of art. .

“It is important to show the paintings, but it is important that we present them in an exemplary way, which means confronting the problematic aspects,” she said. “I don’t think this debate will end just because we opened the expansion.”



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