The Horrible Provenance of the Kunsthaus Zürich Collection

At the end of December, the Swiss painter Miriam Cahn made headlines when she announced that she intended to withdraw her work from the Kunsthaus Zürich, the largest art museum in Switzerland. In an open letter to the Swiss Jewish newspaper Tacheles, Cahn accused the museum of historical laundering, and in an interview with Swiss Radio Television (SRF) said, “I’ve had enough! I’m Jewish and that’s why I want to remove my works from the Kunsthaus. The latest chapter in what looks set to become Switzerland’s biggest museological scandal to date, Cahn’s protest is directed against the Kuntshaus’ revisionist management of industrialist Emil Bührle’s art collection, a German émigré in Switzerland who is known for selling weapons to the Nazis, for acquiring art stolen from Jewish owners, and whose business profited from the forced labor of female concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany.

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

The controversy first erupted in 2019, when the Kuntshaus and the Zurich city government negotiated the long-term loan (for the next 20 years) of around 200 works from the EG Bührle Collection Foundation, including works paintings by Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso. Fueled by the pragmatic logic of civic marketing, the hope was that these impressive loans would help catapult the Kunsthaus Zurich into the elite of international art museums. Having accepted Bührle’s works, the Kunsthaus downplayed its close ties to the Nazis. Before the opening in October 2021 of the Kunsthaus’s £175million extension – a building designed by architect David Chipperfield which now houses Bührle’s work – the mthe director of the useum, Christoph Becker, said in an interview with the Swiss newspaper NZZ that a collection could “not be used as a vehicle to depict historical facts”. In the same spirit, Lukas Gloor, former director of the Bührle Foundation, noted in an interview with Blick in November 2021 that it was not acceptable for “the collection to be turned into a memorial to Nazi persecution”, adding “it does not do the images justice”. However, the more officials try to downplay the obvious reality that the work in Bührle’s collection is tainted, the clearer it becomes that this issue remains a huge and very deliberate blind spot for the Kunsthaus Zürich.

Christoph Becker, director Kunsthaus Zürich, 2021. Courtesy and photography: Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zürich

Before moving to Switzerland in 1924, Bührle was a member of the right-wing paramilitary group Freikorps, and personally involved in the bloody suppression of the November anti-monarchist revolution that was sparked by Germany’s military defeat in World War I. It was Switzerland’s official (yet actually ambiguous) neutrality that was key to Bührle’s commercial success during World War II. – sometimes he was even the richest man in the country. In 1943, the BBC called Bührle’s manufacturing plant in Zürich “Germany’s largest non-bomb arms factory”. His fortune during the war was augmented by profiting 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 of the Ravensbrück concentration camp worked as slaves. under SS guard.

Bührle began collecting works of art in 1936, and over the next two decades invested a total of 40 million Swiss francs, acquiring around 600 works. When the aggressive and systematic looting of Jewish-owned collections in occupied France began in the summer of 1940 and many stolen works of art were dumped on the European market, Bührle was among those who profited. “Bührle made his first 16 purchases on the Parisian art market during the occupation, when Jewish gallery owners and collectors had works confiscated,” confirms a 2020 report from the University of Zürich. “Of the 93 works of art he purchased between 1941 and 1945, 13 were classified as looted works of art after the war.” After a number of restitution proceedings, Bührle was forced to return the 13 stolen paintings to their rightful owners in the late 1940s, but he later bought back nine, thus legalizing his questionable possessions.

Dmitri Kessel, Emil Bührle in his collection at Zollikerstrasse, June1954. ©Getty Images

This sinister link between art, money and violence is described with lucidity in the recent book by historian and journalist Erich Keller Das Kontaminierte Museum (“The Contaminated Museum”, 2021):

“On the one hand, the origin of the silver used to constitute the collection, and on the other hand the origin of a still unknown number of objects which it contains. This is an extraordinary circularity: money from military agreements contrary to Switzerland’s status of neutrality, some of which are illegal, is used to buy works of art that have only been put on the market ‘as a result of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies of expropriation and persecution. .’

In the book, Keller describes how, even today, the Bührle Foundation maintains a systematic silence on the Jewish family background of the former owners of the works in their collection: “The Nazi policy of persecution and theft of Jews is completely ignored, in the purpose of making all transactions involved appear non-suspicious. And indeed, the provenance of Bührle’s works has still not been examined by independent experts. The history of these paintings, presented in the gleaming new galleries of the Kunsthaus, remains obscure. For many years, attempts to establish the provenance of works in the Bührle collection ran into obstacles, such as in 2001 when the foundation told a team of researchers that its own archives had been destroyed – ten years later. later, as if by magic, the documents reappeared. (then recently moved to Kunsthaus to join Bührle’s works of art).

The main claims of critics such as Swiss artist Gina Fischli, who launched the call online Against looted art at the Kunsthaus Zürich, are the independent clarification of provenance, the full publication of the loan agreement between the Bührle Foundation and the Kunsthaus Zürich and a flawless historical contextualization program. In a recent interview with the Swiss newspaper WOZZürich city councilor Richard Wolff launched an idea that has been circulating for some time: that a real cannon be installed in the Kunsthaus Zürich next to works from the Bührle collection, in order to make its links with the arms industry “immediately visible” to visitors.

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

Signed in 2009 by 47 countries, including Switzerland, the Terezin Declaration states that:

“Noting the importance of returning collective 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 rectify the consequences of the seizures misuse of property, such as confiscations, forced sales, and coerced sales of property, which were part of the persecution of these innocent individuals and groups, the vast majority of whom died without heirs.

It will be interesting to see how seriously the Kunsthaus Zürich takes these principles in the future. Other museums in Switzerland have already shown that they To do take them seriously. For example, in December 2021, after several years of research work, the Kunstmuseum Bern announced that it would return two 1922 watercolors by Otto Dix to the descendants of Jewish collectors Dr Ismar Littmann and Dr Paul Schaefer, who rightfully owned the works. . The Kunsthaus Zürich should assume its responsibilities in the same way and stop trying to sweep history under the rug. If they don’t, there may soon be a lot of empty space on the walls of the museum, as more and more artists troubled by the ugly provenance of Bührle’s collection are asking for their own works be removed from the Kunsthaus.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Main picture: Kunsthaus Zürich, Chipperfield building, Heimplatz view with Pipilotti Rist, Lichter taste (Fumbled Lights), 2020, © Pipilotti Rist; photography: Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zürich

About Margaret L. Portillo

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