The ugly provenance of the Kunsthaus Zurich collection

In late December last year, Swiss painter Miriam Cahn made headlines when she announced that she intended to withdraw her works from the Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland’s largest art museum. In an open letter to the Swiss-Jewish magazine tacheles, Cahn accused the museum of historical whitewashing in an interview With Swiss Radio and Television (SRF) said, “I’ve had enough! I am Jewish and therefore want to withdraw my works from the Kunsthaus.’ Cahn’s protest is directed against the Kuntshaus’s revisionist handling of the art collection of the industrialist Emil Bührle, probably the biggest museum scandal in Switzerland. a German émigré to Switzerland known to have sold arms to the Nazis, acquired artworks stolen from Jewish owners, and whose business benefited from the forced labor of inmates at a women’s concentration camp in Nazi Germany.

Kunsthaus Zürich, Bührle Collection, 2021. Courtesy and photo: Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zürich

The controversy first arose in 2019, when the Kuntshaus and the city of Zurich negotiated the permanent loan (for the next 20 years) of around 200 works from the EG Bührle collection to the EG Foundation, including paintings by Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pierre – Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso. Driven by the pragmatic logic of citizen marketing, it was hoped that these impressive loans would catapult the Zurich Kunsthaus into the top group of international art museums. In adopting Bührle’s work, the Kunsthaus downplayed its close ties to the Nazis. Before the opening of the Kunsthaus in October 2021 £175m extension – a building designed by architect David Chipperfield which now houses the Bührle works – the mThis is what useum managing director Christoph Becker said in an interview with the Schweizer Zeitung NZZ that a collection “cannot be used as a vehicle for the presentation of historical facts”. Similarly, Lukas Gloor, former director of the Bührle Foundation, noticed in an interview With view in November 2021 that it was unacceptable to “turn the collection into a memorial to Nazi persecution,” adding “that doesn’t do the images justice.” But the more those responsible try to downplay the obvious reality that the works in the Bührle Collection are contaminated, the clearer it becomes that this issue remains an enormous and very deliberate blind spot for the Kunsthaus Zürich.

Christoph Becker, Director Kunsthaus Zürich, 2021. Courtesy and photo: Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zürich

Before moving to Switzerland in 1924, Bührle was a member of the extreme right-wing paramilitary group Freikorps, and personally involved in the bloody suppression of the anti-monarchist November Revolution triggered by Germany’s military defeat in World War I. Switzerland’s official (yet in reality ambiguous) neutrality was key to Bührle’s business success during World War II – at times he was even the richest man in the country. In 1943, the BBC described the Bührle factory in Zurich as “Germany’s largest bomb-free weapons factory”. Added to his wartime fortune was profit from Nazi forced labor: Bührle received royalties from a German company for the production of weapons at a factory in Velten, north of Berlin – a place where female prisoners from Ravensbrück concentration camp were used as slaves worked under SS guard.

Bührle began collecting art in 1936 and over the next two decades invested a total of 40 million Swiss francs and acquired around 600 works. When an aggressive, systematic plundering of Jewish collections in occupied France began in the summer of 1940 and many of the stolen works of art were flushed onto the European market, Bührle also benefited from this. “Bührle made his first 16 purchases on the Paris art market during the occupation, when Jewish gallery owners and collectors had works confiscated,” confirms a 2020 report from the University of Zurich. “Of the 93 artworks he bought between 1941 and 1945, 13 were classified as looted art after the war.” After several restitution proceedings, Bührle had to return all 13 of these stolen paintings to their rightful owners at the end of the 1940s, but later bought back nine of them, thereby legalizing his dubious fortune.

Dimitri Kessel, Emil Bührle in his collection on Zollikerstrasse, June1954. © Getty Images

This sinister connection between art, money and violence is vividly described in the latest book by historian and journalist Erich Keller The contaminated museum (“The Contaminated Museum”, 2021):

“On the one hand the origin of the money used to build the collection and on the other hand the origin of a still unknown number of objects that it contains. This represents an extraordinary circular argument: money from military transactions, which runs counter to the neutrality of Switzerland, sometimes illegally, is used to buy art objects that only came onto the market as a result of the anti-Semitic expropriation and persecution policies of the National Socialists.’

In it, Keller describes how the Bührle Foundation is still systematically silent about the Jewish family background of the previous owners of works in its collection: “The Nazi policy of persecuting and robbing the Jews is completely ignored with the aim of doing everything for those involved Transactions appear unspectacular.’ And indeed, the provenance of Bührle’s works has not yet been examined by independent experts. Presented in the Kunsthaus’s sparkling new halls, the history of these paintings remains shrouded in mystery. Attempts to clarify the provenance of works in the Bührle Collection have met with obstacles for many years, such as in 2001 when the foundation informed a team of researchers that its own archive had been destroyed – ten years later the documents reappeared as if by magic (and then recently moved to the Kunsthaus to join Bührle’s artworks).

These are central demands from critics such as the Swiss artist Gina Fischli, who launched the online appeal Against looted art in the Kunsthaus Zurich, are the independent clarification of provenance, the complete publication of the loan agreement between the Bührle Foundation and the Kunsthaus Zürich and a program of unsparing historical contextualisation. In a recent interview with the Swiss newspaper WOZZurich City Councilor Richard Wolff came up with an idea that had been circulating for a long time: to install a real cannon in the Kunsthaus Zurich next to works from the Bührle Collection in order to make the connection to the arms industry “immediately visible” for visitors.

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Kunsthaus Zürich, Chipperfield extension, central hall with staircase, 2021. Courtesy: Kunsthaus Zürich; Photo: Juliet Haller, Office for Urban Development, Zurich

The Theresienstadt Declaration, signed in 2009 by 47 countries including Switzerland, states:

“Recalling the importance of returning communal and individual immovable property that belonged to victims of the Holocaust (Shoah) and other victims of Nazi persecution, the participating States urge that every effort be made to remedy the consequences of unlawful property confiscations, such as . B. Correcting confiscations, forcible sales and forced sales of property that were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups, the vast majority of whom died heirless.’

It will be interesting to see how seriously the Kunsthaus Zürich takes these principles and promotes them. Other museums in Switzerland have already proven this to do take her seriously In December 2021, after several years of research, the Kunstmuseum Bern announced that it was giving two watercolors by Otto Dix from 1922 to the descendants of the Jewish collector Dr. Ismar Littman and Dr. The Kunsthaus Zurich should similarly take responsibility and stop sweeping history under the rug. If they don’t, there may soon be many voids on the museum’s walls as more and more artists, concerned about the ugly provenance of Bührle’s collection, demand the removal of their own works from the Kunsthaus.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

main image: Kunsthaus Zurich, Chipperfield Building, view of Heimplatz with Pipilotti Rist, groping lights (Fumbled Lights), 2020, © Pipilotti Rist; Photo: Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zurich

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