Critic’s Notebook: The Void at the Heart of ‘Gurlitt: Status Report’

Hildebrand even lent the Kirchner to a show in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1953. There’s a photograph in the Bern exhibition of that show. Like “Gurlitt: Status Report,” it recounted the Nazi campaign against modernism. I looked around at the visitors in Bern studying the wall texts explaining the Nazis and art. The museumgoers in the photograph, wearing pillbox hats and baggy suits, were doing the same. What’s that metaphor about rowing? You can’t move forward without looking back?

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At the Kunstmuseum Bern, Otto Dix’s “Schütze vom Infanterieregiment 103” was seized by the Nazis as “degenerate” art. Dix chronicled the brutality of war and the decadence of postwar German society. Credit Kunstmuseum Bern

Did I mention that Kirchner studied with Hildebrand’s father at the Technical University in Dresden? The Gurlitts were distinguished writers, art historians and painters. Hildebrand’s grandfather, Louis Gurlitt, painted plein-air sketches in the 19th century, some very beautiful ones. Cornelia Gurlitt, Hildebrand’s sister, was an artist in the Expressionist orbit of the Blue Rider group, influenced by Chagall.

Cornelia’s drawings in Bern and Bonn are touching and urbane. She turns out to be another casualty, committing suicide in 1919, pregnant with the child of a married lover, the art critic Paul Fechter. Inconsolable, Cornelia’s father blamed her death on, of all things, the influence of the Lithuanian Jews of Vilnius, where Cornelia had volunteered to work as a field nurse on the Eastern Front.

As I said, a mess.

Breathless news accounts when the Gurlitt collection was uncovered speculated about a $1 billion trove of art. The fact is, it’s not really a collection, not in the true sense of the word. It’s a dealer’s inventory, this and that, about as curated as the cosmetics counter of a department store. Buying for Hitler, Hildebrand had a blank check and no scruples, obtaining works by Delacroix and Fragonard, Seurat and Courbet, sometimes to fill gaps in German museums left by the elimination of modern art, skimming off what he wanted to keep or sell.

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On view in “Gurlitt: Status Report,” at the Kunstmuseum Bern, Emil Nolde’s “Green Coastal Landscape With Steamer.” Credit Kunstmuseum Bern

He acquired a Paul Signac river scene; watercolors by August Macke; horses in a landscape by Franz Marc; a Monet of Waterloo Bridge; a Millet, a Boucher, some beautiful prints and drawings by Kollwitz, Munch, Liebermann and Menzel.

The Frick Collection, it’s not.

Of the 1,500 Gurlitt works, hundreds are family heirlooms by Louis and Cornelia; hundreds are Expressionist pictures and trace back to German museums; hundreds more, mass-production prints, have no real value.

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At the Kunstmuseum Bern, a “degenerate” Modernist work by Franz Marc, “Sitzendes Pferd” (“Seated Horses”), was in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt. Credit Kunstmuseum Bern

So we’re talking 100 or maybe 200 works whose provenance, or previous ownership, may be a legitimate matter of debate and inquiry — ones possibly looted or acquired at forced sales by Jewish owners.

Authorities announced earlier this month that they had identified the former owner of a portrait of a young woman by the 19th century French academician, Thomas Couture. I spent a few minutes pondering it in the Bonn show (whose subject is mostly Hildebrand). The work belonged to Georges Mandel, France’s interior minister in 1940. His opposition to the Vichy regime got him arrested and killed. After the war, Mandel’s lifelong partner, the French actress Beatrice Bretty, filed a claim for the Couture, which had been confiscated, noting a stitched hole in the canvas. Researchers identified the telltale mark the other day.

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A visitor looks at “Portrait of a Sitting Young Woman” by the French artist Thomas Couture, in “Gurlitt: Status Report,” a double exhibition of works from the Cornelius Gurlitt estate. The authorities have recently identified the former owner. Credit Sascha Steinbach/European Pressphoto Agency

That made six works traced back to their owners since Gurlitt researchers began their investigations four years ago. There have been grumblings in Germany about the time and money spent, yielding meager results, a few eyebrows raised over the confiscation of Cornelius Gurlitt’s art in the first place. The official excuse was tax evasion. The Germans pulled an Al Capone.

But perhaps what’s most annoying is how Gurlitt still eclipses the art.

It is Cornelius’s suitcase, the one in which the police found a hidden Monet, that you first see in Bonn, displayed like an icon in the opening gallery. In Bern, it is his dilapidated file cabinet, where he kept drawings and prints.

Cornelius is the void at the heart of “Gurlitt: Status Report,” a man who never registered his address, who didn’t watch television or see a movie after 1967, a self-appointed keeper of the family flame.

The line between pathology and strategy can be fuzzy. Gurlitt lived for his art, he said, though it wasn’t really his. For someone who came of age with rock ’n’ roll, he was a castaway from an earlier time to judge by accounts of his stuffy Munich apartment, with its threadbare sofa, its antique cart for schnapps, its Wagner collection and shelves stocked with Thomas Mann, porcelain trinkets and art books.

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Henri Matisse’s “A Woman Sitting in a Chair,” shown on the Lost Art website, was among some 1,400 works German authorities confiscated from the residence of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who worked for the Nazis. Looted from the Rosenberg collection, it was returned to the heirs. Credit Lost Art Koordinierungsstelle Ma, via Getty Images

Among these was a postwar catalog mentioning a looted Matisse of a seated woman from the Paul Rosenberg collection. (One of the six, since returned to the heirs.) Cornelius made a note in the catalog about the picture.

So at least there is no doubt that he knew what he was doing, and that he knew what he was doing was wrong.

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