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Culture

"Tainted Art" Controversy Surrounds Berlin Exhibition

Even as the clock ticks on the opening of his large contemporary art exhibition in Berlin, controversial German art collector Flick is still fending off accusations related to his grandfather's Nazi past.

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Flick is accused of financing his vast art collection with "blood money"

This week German art collector Friedrich Christian Flick unpacked the first of his boxes in Berlin containing his fabulous contemporary art collection against a background of simmering debate over whether the "tainted" show should go on display at all.

One of the first paintings to be unveiled next Tuesday in front of assembled photographers and journalists in the exhibition hall near Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof was German painter Martin Kippenberger's "The Young Progressive Doctor."

That along with around 2,500 further works of modern art ranging from Duchamp and Mondrian to contemporary pieces by Jason Rohoades and Paul McCarthy are scheduled to go on display on September 22 for seven years.

"I'm thrilled, it's better than I could have ever imagined even in my wildest dreams," said Flick during the presentation of the art works, in a reference to the architecture of the massive exhibition hall. Its restoration was financed by Flick through €8 million. "I've never seen my collection in such a big context before," he added. "We're showing contemporary and provocative art."

Christina Weiss, State Secretary for Media and Culture, spoke on Tuesday of an "art historical sensation" and a "unique collection with uncomfortable works of world class." Weiss added she hoped the collection could find a permanent home in Berlin and fill in a crucial gap in contemporary art in the city's rich museum landscape.

Show sullied by "blood money"

But the enthusiasm surrounding the opening of the vast exhibition couldn't conceal the controversy that has dogged it and its owner for years.

Friedrich Flick vor dem Kriegsverbrechertribunal in Nürnberg

Nuremberg war crimes tribunal on Dec. 22, 1947. Friedrich Flick was accused of employing forced labor and of usurpation of factories in the German-occupied territories. He was sentenced to 7 years of prison.

The grandson of Friedrich Flick (1883-1972), one of the chief arms manufacturers of the Nazis who was found guilty of using forced labor and who refused paying compensation, Flick has for years been accused of financing the expensive collection with the massive wealth left to him by his grandfather.

Jewish groups in Germany have said the collection is stained by "blood money."

In an open letter to Flick published in a German daily earlier this year, Michael Fürst, a member of the Central Council of Jews, said the exhibition equated an "unbearable provocation for all those who had to suffer hunger, humiliation and torture as forced laborers and concentration camp inmates in your grandfather's factories."

Fürst also slammed Berlin authorities for organizing the exhibition and said he was shocked "by the lack of sensitivity among Berlin's cultural officials, who had apparently been blinded and made forgetful by the glamour of big money and the gigantic range of the collection."

Flick, himself a millionaire, has also come under fire for failing to pay into a reparation fund set up by German industry to compensate those forced into labor camps by the Nazis.

Family feud

This week the controversy took another twist with Flick's sister Dagmar Ottmann distancing herself publicly from the exhibition and demanding that the family history first be researched by historians. Flick's brother, Gert-Rudolf Flick protested against the marketing of the "Flick" name and slammed the planned display.

Flick has dismissed the criticism, saying "It's natural that there are different views within a family, even on important issues."

Flick stresses amends for pasts

Flick Ausstellung in Berlin Klaus Dieter Lehmann und Friedrich Christian Flick

Klaus Dieter Lehmann (right), president of the Prussian Cultural Foundation and Flick sit on an art object by Franz West in the future exhibition hall

The millionaire art collector has admitted that "the family name Flick comes with a special responsibility," but insists that the display of his collection is not intended to "relativize or make people forget" the crimes of his grandfather.

This week Flick pointed to his efforts to make amends for the past. "Three years ago I set up a foundation for tolerance with ten million euros that supports around 45 projects, particularly for teenagers," he said. "The facts speak for themselves."

A Berlin television station also reported this week that Flick had also provided funds to help modernize a synagogue in Berlin and his "Tolerance Foundation" was also named in the list of promoters for the 70th anniversary issue of the New York-based German-Jewish magazine Aufbau.

Show should be free of ideology

This week Flick stressed he was open to discussion about his controversial past, but warned it shouldn't be carried over to the artists represented in the exhibition. "The exhibition should not be abused by viewing it through ideologically-tinted glasses," he said.

Flick has been backed by Weiss, who pointed to the detailed program accompanying the Berlin exhibition, which focuses on the Nazi past. "Art can't be held liable for the actions of the family," said Weiss.

At the same time, she said it was clear that German society "still hadn't come to grips with guilt and responsibility," adding, "No debate will be stifled."

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