The Nazi Art

The discovery of almost 1500 artworks including examples by Picasso, Munch, Matisse, Kirchner and Klee in the properties of Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012 stunned the art world. The ‘Munich Art Hoard’, as it became known, was immediately suspected of being looted during the Nazi era, not least because Cornelius’s father was the celebrated art historian and dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt – a man who it transpires was prepared to exploit every aspect of Nazi policy to personally enrich himself, despite his Jewish heritage.

In 2012, nearly 1500 artworks were found in the properties of Cornelius Gurlitt, in Munich, Germany (Credit: Bundeskunsthalle Bonn)
Perhaps the publicity pricked Cornelius’s conscience, for on his death in 2014 he controversially left the hoard to the Kunstmuseum in Bern, stipulating that the provenance of the works be examined and any looted art returned to the heirs of the original owners.

The rise of the National Socialists meant that anyone seen to promote ‘degenerate art’ came under pressure

The first exhibitions to analyse the collection, jointly organised between the Kunstmuseum in Bern and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, are not art historical in any conventional sense. Instead they focus on the circumstances which allowed Hildebrand Gurlitt to build his collection; the persecution of ‘degenerate artists’ and Jewish collectors and dealers under the Nazi regime.

Cornelius’s father was the celebrated art historian and dealer Hildebrand (Credit: Alamy)
Hildebrand Gurlitt’s taste in art ran counter to the men who would become his masters and twice cost him his job, first at the Zwickau museum where his exhibitions of Die Brücke artists such as Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Emil Nolde fell foul of the Militant League for German Culture, and then at the Kunstverein in Hamburg where the rise of the National Socialists meant that anyone seen to promote ‘degenerate art’ came under pressure, and he was forced to resign in 1933.

Classified as a quarter Jew under the Reich Citizenship Laws because of his Jewish grandmother, Gurlitt was no longer able to work for the state. Relying on the excellent contacts he had made as a museum director he set himself up as a dealer, taking the precaution of registering the business under the name of his Aryan wife Helene.

Here he was, cautiously, still able to exhibit artists he favoured such as those of Die Brücke and the later Expressionists including Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann.
Taking advantage

He soon became very successful – but it is clear that his success relied largely on the exploitation of other Jewish dealers and collectors. Membership of The Reich Chamber of Fine Arts became compulsory for dealers and from 1935 Jews were systematically excluded, forcing them to liquidate their collections and allowing dealers like Gurlitt to benefit from lower-than-market prices as well as the increasing lack of competition.