Last Days: Taking Stock. Gurlitt in Review | Kunstmuseum Bern

Last Days: Taking Stock. Gurlitt in Review | Kunstmuseum Bern

Much has happened since the acceptance of the Estate of Cornelius Gurlitt (1932–2014) by the Kunstmuseum Bern in November 2014: in 2017, Switzerland’s first department of provenance research was founded at the Kunstmuseum Bern. In 2017 and 2018, works from the holdings were shown in several exhibitions and nine works were returned to their owners. Since December 2021 the entire holdings of the Gurlitt Estate have been made publicly accessible in a database for the first time. The Gurlitt Estate was comprehensively documented and explored, and the most important assessments and decisions were established in detail. Finally, with regard to works whose provenance was incomplete, a fairer solution for the victims of Nazism was developed, and in a first case put into operation with the voluntary handover of two works. With the large-scale exhibition Taking Stock. Gurlitt in Review, from 16 September 2022 until 15 January 2023 the Kunstmuseum Bern presents the results of this reappraisal.

Last Days: Taking Stock. Gurlitt in Review

For the first time, this exhibition provides an insight into the various dimensions of research into the history of the Gurlitt Estate, as well as the response to the results of the research. It invites visitors to address the works from the Gurlitt Estate from different perspectives. The works on show appear in their material form with the traces of their history and as objects of looting and trade, but also in terms of their aesthetic qualities as collectable objects. Whole groups of objects are presented in their historical contexts. Different views of the works of the Gurlitt Estate give us an understanding of the ethical, legal and political issues that emerge from of the history of Nazi art theft.

In an exhibition arranged over 13 stages, the questions thrown up by the Estate are probed in detail. What does provenance research mean in practice? Where are its limits? What challenges arise when dealing with the research results? What sort of responsibility has the Kunstmuseum Bern taken on, and how has it responded to that responsibility?

Personal documents from the Gurlitt written legacy and evidence of the destructive art policy of National Socialism complete the history of the Estate. As a result, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956) becomes real to us in his different roles: as museum director, art dealer and exhibition organiser; as son and father with a life connected to the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism and the early Federal Republic of Germany.

The exhibition rises to the challenge of presenting both verified and provisional discoveries concerning the history of the works and the methodical processes of provenance research to visitors in a clear and exciting way, and provides insights into the ethical, legal and political treatment of the research results. In collaboration with Christoph Stratenwerth (exhibition dramaturgy), Holzer Kobler Architekturen (Zürich/Berlin) (scenography) and the graphic design office 2xGoldstein (Rheinstetten) a thrilling exhibition course has been developed, connecting the search for clues and research into the artworks in pithy spatial arrangements.

‘With this exhibition we offer an overview of the works in the Cornelius Gurlitt Estate. But we also demonstrate the diversity of both historical and material knowledge that we reveal through provenance research. With the exhibition we also want to bring the potential of provenance research for museum work closer to a wider public. And show with examples how research results can be responsibility used,’ says Nikola Doll, Director of the Department of Provenance Research at the Kunstmuseum Bern and Curator of the Exhibition.

The exhibition presents around 350 exhibits, consisting both of artworks from the Cornelius Gurlitt Estate as well as reproductions of numerous historical documents from the written Estate of Cornelius Gurlitt in the German Federal Archive and other archives in Germany, France and Switzerland.

The Cornelius Gurlitt Estate at the Kunstmuseum Bern
The Cornelius Gurlitt Estate was made public in November 2013 as the ‘Schwabinger Kunstfund’. Cornelius Gurlitt died on 6 May 2014. In his will he listed the Kunstmuseum Bern Foundation as his sole heir. On 22 November 2014 the foundation decided to accept the Cornelius Gurlitt Estate. In an agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany and the Free State of Bavaria the Foundation settled on a procedure that distinguished between unambiguous and ambiguous attributions of provenance, and accordingly approached the process in different ways. This procedure is illustrated in the provenance categories (included in the media dossier).

In December 2021, after several years of research work on the Cornelius Gurlitt Estate of some 1,600 artworks, the Kunstmuseum Bern Foundation made pioneering decisions. Based on the results of extensive historical research, works with incomplete provenance, or without accompanying evidence that they were Nazi looted art, were definitively accepted (provenance category ‘yellow-green’). In the case of works with unclarified provenance for which no evidence of Nazi-looted art could be found, but where there were either references or conspicuous accompanying circumstances, the Foundation renounced ownership (‘yellow-red’).

In December 2021 the Kunstmuseum Bern renounced ownership of five artworks in the yellow-red category, and gave them to the Federal Republic of Germany. A further 23 artworks in the ‘yellow-red’ category are the object of further provenance research being conducted by the Kunstmuseum Bern. By 2021 the Kunstmuseum Bern and the Federal Republic of Germany had restored a total of nine artworks to the descendants of the rightful owners.

In total some 1,600 artworks from the Cornelius Gurlitt Estate entered the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern. With the assumption of the works towards the end of 2021 the long years of work with the Federal Republic and the Free State of Bavaria were officially concluded. Among the works to find a place in the collection were outstanding paper works by modern German artists, paintings and sculptures of 19th century French art, as well as small groups of works of East Asian applied art and archaeological artefacts. Some 300 works are by artists of the Gurlitt family, such as the landscape painter Heinrich Louis Theodor Gurlitt (1812–1897) and the Expressionist Cornelia Gurlitt (1890–1919).

‘In accepting the Cornelius Gurlitt Estate the Kunstmuseum Bern has assumed a great responsibility. Central to our approach are: thorough, independent research involving historical contexts, a comprehensible assessment of the results, complete transparency, willingness to engage in further research and reassessment of the evaluation should there be new information, as well as a determination to achieve fair and just solutions with potentially rightful owners, even when the state of information is incomplete,’ says Nina Zimmer, Director of the Kunstmuseum Bern – Zentrum Paul Klee.

Finally, the challenging situation for decision-making in the event of an incomplete state of knowledge can be depicted with reference to the claim by the heirs of Dr Ismar Littmann, and how a solution was found, leading to works by Otto Dix being voluntarily returned to the rightful owners, Dr. Ismar Littmann and Dr. Paul Schaefer or their descendants.

“With the solution in the Littmann case we have shown one possible way in which fair and just solutions can be found even when there are gaps in knowledge. Or rather, how the solution is not put off until such time as complete knowledge is acquired, a moment which will most probably never come,” says Marcel Brühlhart, who is member of the Board of Trustees and responsible for the Gurlitt dossier at the Kunstmuseum Bern.

Provenance research at the Kunstmusem Bern
The department of Provenance Research is devoted to questions of historic conditions of ownership and illegal appropriations. A critical approach to the history of the museum’s own collections and the institution itself was also established with the new department. One focus of interest here is the Cornelius Gurlitt Estate.

Over the past few years the department was able to build up areas of scientific cooperation with experts in Switzerland, Germany and France. One initial result of cooperation with the ‘Degenerate Art’ research unit of Hamburg University will be delivered in the autumn of 2022 in the form of the publication Kunst, Konflikt, Kollaboration. Hildebrand Gurlitt und die Moderne [Art, Conflict, Collaboration. Hildebrand Gurlitt and Modern Art).

In September 2021 the Department of Provenance Research organised the conference Deposita. Verfolgunsbedingte Verlagerungen in Schweizer Museen (1933-1945) (Deposits. Relocation of Cultural Property and the Consequences for Swiss Museums). Selected papers from the conference will be published in book form in 2023.

The commitment of the Kunstmuseum Bern to provenance research receives financial support from private foundations the Federal Office for Culture (Bundesamt für Kultur, BAK).

The opening of the exhibition will take place on Thursday, 15 September 2022, from 6.30 pm. Entrance to the museum is free on this evening.

Nikola Doll (curator)and Anne-Christine Strobel (curatorial assistant)



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