The Kunsthaus Zurich, one of the most prestigious museums in Switzerland, presents “in context” its Emil Bührle collection, an arms dealer who amassed his masterpieces in the murky circumstances of forced sales and Nazi spoliations of the Second World War. “In the history of the Bührle collection there have always been moments of controversy which respond to the signs of the times and we now live in another era,” museum director Ann Demeester explains to AFP, presenting this exhibition entitled A Future for the Past. Bührle Collection: art, context, war and conflict. But the controversy continues around the place reserved for the fate of the former owners of these paintings in the new museography.
The Zurich Museum of Fine Arts was the subject of criticism during the opening in 2021 of an imposing new building intended to house the impressive collection of 170 works by the German industrialist and patron who was naturalized Swiss. The man's journey and acquisitions are intriguing. Before his death in 1956, the arms dealer had amassed a vast collection of some 600 pieces including works by Manet, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Sisley, Cézanne, Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, Van Gogh or Gauguin. Some had previously been stolen from Jews or sold in a hurry by their owners to escape the Nazis.
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Between 1936 and 1945, he acquired around 150 works. And after the war, it was discovered that 13 of them had been stolen and Bührle had to return them. He acquired nine of them a second time, tracing the museum on its website. Until 2015, the collection was visible in a very confidential site in Zurich, but paintings were stolen during a hold-up in 2008, which prompted the museum to move the whole thing.
To turn the page on the controversy, the Kunsthaus called on experts responsible for retracing the journey of certain works and is presenting an exhibition on Friday focused on transparency.
The exhibition opens with an account of the journey of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's impressionist masterpiece, Portrait of Irène Cahen d'Anvers (1850), confiscated by the Nazis before being returned to its Jewish owners after the war then sold to Emil Bührle. “We felt it was important to openly address problematic issues that have been discussed in the media over the past few years but never here in our house,” says Ann Demeester. Thus, the museum obtained authorization from the E. G. Bührle Collection Foundation, owner of the works, to review the concept of presentation of this permanent private loan, leaving more room for pedagogy and debate.
Beyond the explanatory notes devoted to certain looted works and their former Jewish owners, the museum solicits visitors' opinions through digital surveys and allows them to hear through interposed screens the contradictory points of view of numerous experts and historians. “We don't like controversy but we like discussions, so if a museum is a sanctuary for beautiful images, it is also (...) a platform where conversations take place,” argues Ann Demeester.
Even before the exhibition opened, an external advisory committee of specialists involved in the preparation of the exhibition preferred to throw in the towel. “Despite our repeated recommendations to give the necessary space to the destiny of persecuted, robbed and murdered collectors, only a small part of the exhibition is devoted to their presentation and their recognition,” confides a representative of the committee to the daily Le Temps . “To the extent that Emil Bührle took advantage of this historical context to build his collection, it is problematic to have the impression that the victims of National Socialism are marginalized,” she adds.
Recognizing “disagreements over the concrete realization” of the exhibition, the Kunsthaus officially said it “regretted” this rupture, calling, however, to continue a “valuable and interesting” debate.
» A future for the past. Bührle Collection: art, context, war and conflict. Starting November 3 and “for at least one year,” according to the museum.