It’s a quiet viewing experience in the galleries of “Fateful Choices: Art from the Gurlitt Trove,” the Israel Museum exhibit that opened September 24 and closes January 15, 2020.
The exhibit, displayed in three galleries, with a documentary video explaining the Gurlitt story by three experts, includes just 100 of the paintings amassed by Hildebrand Gurlitt, the German art collector who gathered thousands of questionably sourced artworks during World War II, when he allegedly benefited from the Nazi looting of valuable artworks from Jewish victims.
The artworks on the Israel Museum walls include the deep oils of Gauguin, the abstract blues and greens of Cezanne and Monet, and the stark lines of Max Liebermann and Otto Dix. They’re grouped and displayed in separate chronological sections, including pre-war, wartime and the post-war period, as a method of understanding and processing the timeline of Gurlitt’s career and life.
Yet each and every one of the paintings and drawings, whether by recognizable masters or included as an indelible part of this convoluted story, has a place in the tale of Nazi looting and Holocaust art provenance.
Shlomit Steinberg says her favorite part of the exhibit is the first section, including works by Gurlitt’s own family members, his sister and his uncle, who were among the artists, scholars and other creative masters in the family. One of the artworks by his sister, Cornelia Gurlitt, depicts Jesus, and behind him, an unmistakable rendering of Jerusalem.
“Maybe there was a little something Jewish in her?” asked Steinberg, the Hans Dichand Senior Curator of European Art at the Israel Museum.
The massive trove, worth some $1.4 billion, was discovered in 2012 during a tax probe by German police of Hildebrand’s reclusive son Cornelius. Authorities hid the discovery for a year, but have since committed to returning the works of art to the descendants of their rightful owners, setting up the Schwabinger Kunstfund taskforce to deal with claims. Steinberg is one of the two Israeli art experts on the taskforce.
Steinberg said she was the first member of the group to suggest creating museum exhibits worldwide to expose the wider public to the Gurlitt story, but it took several years until exhibits were put together, and some more time until the 100 artworks on display made it to Israel.
As the curator of European art, Steinberg has organized and represented the Israel Museum at conferences dealing with art restitution since her 2008 curation of two Israel Museum exhibits: “Looking for Owners: Custody, Research and Restitution of Art Stolen from France during World War II,” and “Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust in the Israel Museum.”
The taskforce also accepted a second Israeli art expert, Yehudit Shendar, who at the time was deputy director and senior art curator at Yad Vashem’s museums division.
It was an unusual move, said Steinberg, but it was appropriate given their separate areas of expertise.
In fact, it was Bobby Brown, then the executive director of Project HEART (Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce), a non-profit initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who worked quickly to convince the German culture minister that at least one Israeli, and preferably two, should be on the taskforce.
“I wanted that person to be as influential as they could be, and Shlomit and Yehudit are the best in their fields,” said Brown. “I told [the minister] she needed an unbiased committee.”
After both women were accepted, the three Israelis worked together on the sidelines toward the goal of having people understand what happened with Jewish-owned art.
It’s nearly impossible to restitute individual paintings, said Brown, given the few survivors left, the necessary research and the prohibitive legal costs. “It’s almost a hidden aspect of the Holocaust and it’s very important that we shed light on the whole issue,” he said. “Now, that art is tainted and we tainted it.”
Part of the Gurlitt research process was putting on the exhibit in Jerusalem, said Steinberg. “I’m stubborn as an ox and I kept in touch with these guys,” she said. “I kept asking and probing and checking, and going back and forth about dates. We wanted them to know we’re having it and didn’t want it to drag on forever.”
The Israel Museum is only the fourth museum to exhibit some of the Gurlitt works. The first was in Bern, Switzerland, the museum that inherited the trove, followed by two in Germany, in Bonn and then in Berlin. After those exhibits had been shown, Steinberg kept pushing for permission to exhibit some of the paintings at the Israel Museum.
Will they be given back?
Things were not straightforward in Jerusalem either, where the Israel Museum was going through a series of changes at the top before director Ido Bruno took the position in 2017. Steinberg had to keep explaining the mission and purpose of a Gurlitt exhibit during the turnover of several museum directors.
Throughout, Steinberg was working closely with the head curator from Bern, who also came to visit the Israel Museum, and her other taskforce colleagues.
There were concerns about letting some of the artworks rest after all their travels, but Steinberg knew which pieces she wanted to come to Israel. “I wanted Otto Dix, the works by Grandpa Gurlitt, the Chagall,” she said. “There were tens and tens of works of art. I didn’t need that; I didn’t need to show [the] huge diversity [of the collection].
“I was keeping big names on board, and not giving them up, but being more flexible about works of art from the trove that hadn’t been exhibited.”
There was also an unspoken worry about whether the Israel Museum would return the works once they had them.
“Of course we will [return them], but that’s a major concern for them,” said Steinberg. “I worked with people who learned to trust us. Not everybody has been to Israel or knows what it’s like here, or how it’s going to be accepted.”
Showing the front of the paintings
Steinberg was the one who originally suggested that the pieces be put on display anywhere, as the taskforce got to work in 2015, with the German public eager to see results in restitution from the trove that had been discovered in 2012.
Steinberg suggested that it could be helpful to create museum exhibits that would help expose the works to the public. The taskforce experts weren’t using the actual works, they were only looking at photos of the art pieces as part of their research, and it made sense to show the actual works, in public, to the public.
“I said, ‘Let’s look at the front of the painting,'” said Steinberg.
Some of her taskforce colleagues were horrified at the idea of museum exhibits that could put Gurlitt — and his controversial story — on a pedestal.
“I didn’t intend to do that; he was a very shady character,” said Steinberg.
They forgot they were Jews
What Steinberg did do was invest several years of intensive research, reading Gurlitt’s letters and paperwork, studying the photo archives of the Gurlitt trove, and piecing together the story of Hildebrand Gurlitt and his role in the stolen and looted art of 1930s-era Jews.
Hildebrand Gurlitt was a quarter Jewish through his grandmother, Elisabeth Gurlitt, but the family had long relinquished their claims to being Jewish. He was married to Helena, a blue-eyed blonde, whom he described as Aryan, along with his children who were blue-eyed blondes with long features.
Being a quarter Jewish could have proved problematic under the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws, and Gurlitt repeatedly refuted his Jewishness, particularly in paperwork used to gain entry to the commission of German art dealers.
He was born into the kind of family that everyone wants to be born into, said Steinberg. They were a cohort of historians and painters, gallerists and architects, the haute bourgeoisie. They owned a palatial villa, and his grandfather established the architecture department at the University of Dresden.
“These people, long before the Weimar Republic, were assimilated into society,” she said. “They forgot they were Jews.”
It’s unclear exactly how Hildebrand Gurlitt gained the artworks, but Steinberg notes that while he did not have a part in efforts by the Nazis to seize works from museums and private collections, he still put much effort into acquiring them and moving them around.
Gurlitt had a shaky start in his professional work as a curator, a period that is described in the exhibit, but by the 1930s, his career seemed to be taking off.
They weren’t poor; there are photos of them from 1938 in fur coats and a beautiful car, drinking and laughing in a beer garden, recounted Steinberg. Life was good for the Gurlitts.
Maybe he didn’t sleep at night or was supporting his greater family, maybe he was a good guy, maybe it was all one big pretense, but you’re looking at something that looks suspiciously happy in a very difficult period in the Jewish world
While Jews and others were suffering under the Nazi regime, Gurlitt thrived. Steinberg holds open the possibility that he may have had qualms about wheeling and dealing art being seized or sold off at cut-rate prices by those fleeing, but there’s nothing in the pictures to indicate as much.
“Maybe he didn’t sleep at night or was supporting his greater family, maybe he was a good guy, maybe it was all one big pretense, but you’re looking at something that looks suspiciously happy in a very difficult period in the Jewish world,” she said.
From the mid-1930s, Gurlitt purchased and sold artworks from private individuals, including Jewish owners who had to pay extortionate taxes, or were liquidating assets in order to flee Germany. He was also one of several German art dealers appointed to market confiscated works of art abroad.
Gurlitt’s streak of good luck continued, and in 1941, he went to Paris, where there was a kind of free-for-all of art and theft and money changing, said Steinberg. He had a lover who was married to a Swiss diplomat, and could move artworks in the diplomatic briefcase. Gurlitt also made friends with someone who had a fleet of trucks used to move Chippendale furniture, and it’s clear he made a deal with them to move artwork to Germany, across borders. These artworks were mostly small, nothing large or monumental, and were moved and delivered to his own collection in Germany.
In fact, one of the only large pieces of art that Gurlitt had in his collection, and which is included in the Israel Museum exhibit, is a portrait of two women by Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller, Hitler’s favorite artist and purchased by Gurlitt in 1953.
It must have been a birthday or anniversary present, surmised Steinberg, because “who would want Hitler’s favorite artist in 1953?”
Gurlitt stayed in Paris until late 1944 and when he returned to Germany, to Dresden, he moved the artworks to Aschbach, a castle in a tiny village of the same name in the region of Bavaria. The village happened to be the location of an American deportation camp for Jewish survivors, and Gurlitt ended up being investigated by the American authorities after years of escaping their notice.
Suddenly he remembered his Jewish identity, telling investigators he was a Jew, his grandmother was a Jew, and he eventually succeeded in retaining his trove of paintings.
After the war, the Gurlitts moved to Dusseldorf and stayed there until 1956 when Gurlitt died, as the result of a questionable car accident caused by bad brakes. His leg was badly injured and needed to be amputated, but his wife refused because she didn’t want a one-legged husband, according to Steinberg. She continued to deal art, moved to Munich and brought a house in Salzburg.
Her children, said Steinberg, were loners, used to moving around, and never really comfortable in the societies in which they lived.
It was Cornelius Gurlitt, Hildebrand’s son, who was eventually found with the treasure trove of artworks, when he was hunted down in 2012 by the authorities for tax evasion.
Gurlitt, 81, was still alive when the art taskforce began operating.
“We were really intrigued by him,” said Steinberg.
Cornelius Gurlitt was “not a regular person,” she said, describing him as a recluse, a man with issues. He only communicated with his sister, who died in 2012 although his brother-in-law, Klaus, is still alive.
Gurlitt junior died soon after, in 2014, unexpectedly leaving the artworks to a museum in Bern. He had a special affiliation to the city because of his uncle, Willy, a musicologist who had escaped there after the war.
“It was a place where he felt comfortable, and he got the idea from a gallery owner he had been selling to,” said Steinberg.
Despite all the suspicions and research, for now, the art trove is still in one piece, telling its story of war, identity and questionable motives.
“It’s not a purely fun exhibit,” said Steinberg. “But I think the art is good. The works of art that I managed to bring are something I’m proud of. And I think the bastard had good taste; he knew what he was doing.”