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Gurlitt art trove works that were once 'Nazi treasure' are being exhibited for the first time in Israel, including much so-called "degenerate" art. Visitors have the chance to explore long-hidden Jewish family histories.
Miri Rosin places her right hand over her heart. The elderly lady is visibly moved. She takes a deep breath.
"Did you see the photo of the Rue de Rivoli?” she asks. "All these wonderful pieces of art and then this photo. That makes me so …” She struggles to find the words. "... angry, sad. I love Paris. Look, you can just about make out the Louvre here. I was in the Louvre so often," exclaims the art lover. "And here is the Rue de Rivoli decorated with swastikas."
The photo was taken during the Nazi occupation of Paris. At that time Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956) was in Paris buying artworks on the orders of Adolf Hitler, usually for absurdly small prices which in no way reflected their real market value.
The works were often extorted from Jewish art dealers or collectors; in other words, they were stolen from those who lived in fear of death. From 1941, more than 65,000 Jewish people were taken to the Drancy internment camp near Paris before being deported to Nazi death camps and murdered.
'A sad time for Jewish people'
Visitors to the Israel Museum like Miri Rosin well-know this history. It's part of the emotional baggage they bring to the newly unveiled exhibition, "Fateful Choices: Art from the Gurlitt Trove," which has already shown in Bern, Bonn and Berlin.
The Israel Museum is displaying a selection of works from the collection that was discovered in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of the aforementioned art dealer. Among the 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures are works by many illustrious artists: Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, Paul Gauguin, Aristide Maillol, Gustave Courbet, Edvard Munch, Otto Dix and Max Ernst.
Hildebrand Gurlitt (center) was ordered by Hitler to buy artworks in Paris during the Nazi occupation
There are not many historical photos to be found in the exhibition, like the one of the Parisian street displaying swastikas. "It was a sad time for the Jewish people and we don't need to be constantly reminded of it," said the curator Shlomit Steinberg. "It's in our blood, our bones, people's hands tattooed with blue numbers. There is no need to bring the Holocaust into this exhibition. Of course it is in the background. But it shouldn't be the center.”
Of course, the exhibition also deals with the circumstances and the person of art historian and collector Hildebrand Gurlitt, including his family history, his trading in "degenerate art," and Gurlitt's time as an art dealer in Paris.
Under Hitler's orders, Gurlitt bought and sold so-called degenerate art and in doing so collected foreign currency for the Third Reich. He also bought art in Paris and other places for Hitler's planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. He spent the remainder of his life as a museum director and art collector in Dusseldorf, and passed on his collection to his son Cornelius.
'Nazi treasure' little known in Israel
A number of "degenerate" art pieces were among the 1590 works recovered from the collection of Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012. Dubbed the "Schwabing art trove" and "Nazi treasure", the discovery triggered a worldwide outcry.
Yet the find attracted little attention in Israel. "This is the first I've heard of it,” confesses Deborah Eytan, who came to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv for the opening of the exhibition and now finds the history of the art dealer "absolutely fascinating."
Gurlitt initially promoted avant garde art before serving the Nazi party by extorting artworks from Jewish families — despite, or perhaps because of, having a Jewish grandmother, which made him a "quarter Jewish" according to the Nuremberg Laws. He acquired art suited to Hitler's taste and yet clearly kept certain degenerate art works for his own collection.
But much else is not clear about Gurlitt's story. "The exhibition asks more questions than it answers," concluded the 36-year-old Eytan, who also feels a personal connection to the story of the Nazi-era art dealer.
Her great-grandfather fled Nazi Germany for London after Hitler seized power in 1933. He had been an art dealer whose business was eventually "aryanized" as artworks were increasingly bought by Nazi-employed dealers — men like Gurlitt. Once in exile in London, in 1934 he curated one of the earliest exhibitions of works by persecuted artists — Sotheby's in London recently showed an exhibition about emigrant groups who revolutionized the British art scene, including Eytan's great-grandfather.
Many visitors to the exhibition opening in Jerusalem have been inspired to consider their own family histories. "I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors," says Ada Makavitz-Ottervanger, a member of the group Friends of the Israel Museum. She finds the exhibition extremely moving. "The art itself is beautiful."
Makavitz-Ottervanger feels that the exhibition will bring a sense of justice. "We are now able to see this art in Jerusalem, and it is no longer kept in secret somewhere," she said.
'Provenance undergoing clarification'
Miri Rosin is standing in front of two 1895 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir with the title Scenes from Oedipus Rex. "I've seen lots of Renoirs," says the Israeli, "but these two really are something special. Very different from everything that I know about Renoir." Beneath the title of the work a sign reads: "Provenance undergoing clarification."
On the issue of provenance, Miri Roisin believes the works should remain in Israel. "They belong to the Jewish people," she told DW.
But only now is the number of artworks stolen from Jewish families in Paris and other parts of Europe coming to light. According to Artnet, around 500 works from the Gurlitt trove have been the subject of provenance investigations. Finding the original owners has not been easy. So far only seven of the works have been definitively identified as having been stolen. Five of them have been returned to the original owners' relatives.
The famous Max Liebermann work Two Riders on the Beach by Max Liebermanntypifies the ambiguity over provenance. The Taskforce created specifically for the Gurlitt trove was able to identify New Yorker David Toren as the legitimate heir after he sued the German government. Another version of the artwork, a smaller pastel sketch that might have a drafting of the original work, is displayed in Jerusalem, but provenance is still to be clarified.
"We would be very happy if someone would actually say 'I recognize this picture and I have a photo of it at home where my grandfather is sitting in his salon and this painting is right behind him'," says Ido Bruno, director of the Israel Museum. But he says that finding provenance is not ultimately the goal of the Gurlitt Trove exhibition, which is more concerned with confronting the public with moral and ethical questions.
"The exhibition is called ‘Fateful Choices' for a reason," says Bruno. "We are putting an emphasis on the moral and ethical questions which the story raises. One question is: 'What would you have done if you were in Gurlitt's shoes?''
"Fateful Choices: Art from the Gurlitt Trove" runs through January 15, 2020 at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem