The Ugly Provenance of Kunsthaus Zrich’s Collection –

Posted By on February 9, 2022

At the end of December last year, Swiss painter Miriam Cahn made headlines by announcing that she intended to withdraw her work from Kunsthaus Zrich, Switzerlands largest art museum. In an open letter to the Swiss-Jewish journal Tacheles, Cahn accused the museum of historical whitewashing, and in an interview with Swiss Radio and Television (SRF) stated: Ive had enough! Im a Jew and thats why I want to withdraw my works from the Kunsthaus. The latest chapter in what looks set to grow into Switzerlands largest museological scandal to date, Cahns protest is directed against the Kuntshauss revisionist handling of the art collection of industrialist Emil Bhrle,a German emigre to Switzerland who is known to have sold weapons to the Nazis, to have acquired art works stolen from Jewish owners, and whose company profited from forced labour by Prisoners of a women's concentration camp in Nazi-Germany.

Kunsthaus Zurich, Bhrle Collection, 2021. Courtesy and photograph:Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zrich

The controversy first arose in 2019, when the Kuntshaus and Zurichs city government negotiated the long-term loan (for the next 20 years) of around 200 works from the Foundation E.G. Bhrle Collection, including paintings by Paul Czanne, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso. Fuelled by the pragmatic logic of civic marketing, the hope was that these impressive loans would help catapult Zurichs Kunsthaus into the top flight of international art museums. Having accepted Bhrles works, the Kunsthaus downplayed his close links to the Nazis. Before the opening in October 2021 of the Kunsthauss 175million extension a building designed by architect David Chipperfield that now houses the Bhrle works the museum's director, Christoph Becker, said in an interview with Swiss newspaper NZZ that a collection could not be used as a vehicle to portray historical facts. In a similar vein, Lukas Gloor, former director of the Bhrle Foundation, noted in an interview with Blickin November 2021 that it was not acceptable for the collection to be turned into a memorial to Nazi persecution, adding it doesnt do justice to the pictures. However, the harder those responsible try to play down the obvious reality that the work in Bhrles collection is tainted, the clearer it becomes that this issue remains an enormous and very deliberate blind spot for Kunsthaus Zrich.

Christoph Becker, director Kunsthaus Zrich, 2021. Courtesy and photograph:Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zurich

Before he moved to Switzerland in 1924, Bhrle was a member of the right-wing paramilitary group Freikorps, and personally involved in the bloody suppression of the anti-monarchist November Revolution that was triggered by Germany's military defeat in World War I. It was Switzerland's official (and yet in reality ambiguous) neutrality that was the key to Bhrle's business success during World War II at times he was even the countrys richest man. In 1943, the BBC referred to Bhrles manufacturing plant in Zrich as Germanys greatest bomb-free arms factory. His fortune during the war was added to by profiteering from Nazi forced labour: Bhrle received royalties from a German company for the production of weapons in a factory in Velten, north of Berlin a place where women prisoners from the Ravensbrck concentration camp worked as slaves under SS guard.

Bhrle began collecting art in 1936 and over the next two decades invested a total of 40 million Swiss francs, acquiring around 600 works. When aggressive, systematic plundering of Jewish-owned collections in occupied France began in the summer of 1940 and many of the stolen art works were flushed onto the European market, Bhrle was among those to benefit. Bhrle made his first 16 purchases on the Paris art market during the occupation, when Jewish gallerists and collectors were having works confiscated, confirms a 2020 report by Zrich University. Of the 93 artworks he bought between 1941 and 1945, 13 were classified as looted art after the war. After a number of restitution proceedings Bhrle was obliged to return all 13 of these stolen paintings to their rightful owners at the end of the 1940s, but he later bought nine of them back again, thus legalizing his dubious assets.

Dmitri Kessel, Emil Buhrle in his collection at Zollikerstrasse, June, 1954. Getty Images

This sinister nexus of art, money and violence is lucidly described in historian and journalist Erich Kellers recent book Das kontaminierte Museum ('The Contaminated Museum', 2021):

On the one hand, the origins of the money used to build the collection, and on the other the origins of a still unknown number of objects it contains. This constitutes an extraordinary circularity: money derived from military deals at odds with Switzerlands neutral status, some of them illegal, being used to buy art objects that only came onto the market as a result of the Nazis anti-Semitic policies of expropriation and persecution.

In the book, Keller describes how even today the Bhrle Foundation maintains a systematic silence concerning the Jewish family background of the previous owners of works in their collection: The Nazi policy of persecuting and robbing Jews is completely disregarded, with the aim of making all of the transactions involved appear unsuspicious. And indeed, the provenance of Bhrle's works has still not been examined by independent experts. The history of these paintings, presented in the Kunsthauss sparkling new galleries, remains in the dark. Over many years, attempts to establish the provenance of works in the Bhrle collection have encountered obstacles, as in 2001 when the foundation told a team of researchers that its own archive had been destroyed ten years later, as if by magic, the documents reappeared (and then recently, moved to the Kunsthaus to join Bhrle's art works).

The key demands of critics such as Swiss artist Gina Fischli, who launched the online appeal Against Looted Art in the Kunsthaus Zrich, are the independent clarification of provenance, full publication of the loan agreement between the Bhrle Foundation and Kunsthaus Zrich and a programme of unflinching historical contextualization. In a recent interview with Swiss newspaper WOZ, Zrich city councillor Richard Wolff raised an idea that has been circulating for some time: that a real canon be installed at Kunsthaus Zrich next to works from the Bhrle collection, to make its ties to the weapon industry immediately visible for visitors.

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

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

Noting the importance of restituting communal and individual immovable property that belonged to the 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 wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property, which 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 Zrich takes these principles, moving forward. Other museums in Switzerland have already shown that they do take them seriously. For example, in December 2021, following several years of research work, Kunstmuseum Bern announced that it will return two 1922 watercolours by Otto Dix to the descendants of the Jewish collectors Dr Ismar Littmann and Dr Paul Schaefer, who rightfully owned the works. Kunsthaus Zrich should take responsibility in a similar way, and stop trying to sweep history under the carpet. If they do not, its possible there may soon be a lot of empty spaces on the walls of the museum, as more artists troubled by the ugly provenance of Bhrles collection ask for their own works to be withdrawn from the Kunsthaus.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Main image:Kunsthaus Zurich, Chipperfield building, view Heimplatz with Pipilotti Rist, Tastende Lichter (Fumbled Lights), 2020, Pipilotti Rist; photograph: Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zurich

Excerpt from:

The Ugly Provenance of Kunsthaus Zrich's Collection -

Related Post


Comments are closed.