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Kunsthaus Zürich opens museum extension with controversial artworks from Nazi arms dealer

The new €230m David Chipperfield extension

The Kunsthaus Zürich opened a new €230m building designed by David Chipperfield Architects at the weekend, which has been connected to the museum’s 1910 Karl Moser building to create the largest art museum in Switzerland.

The extension more than doubles the size of the public areas, which means the Kunsthaus in central Zurich will be able to display 17% of the paintings and sculptures from its own collection, compared with 10% previously, along with film and photography, works on paper and installations.

Controversial Bührle Collection

The original Karl Moser building built in 1910

These include 203 impressionist artworks on a 20-year loan from the controversial Bührle collection belonging to the family of Swiss arms Dealer Emile Georg Bührle.

Bührle, who supplied arms to the Axis powers during the Second World War, joined the board of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft (Zurich Arts Society) in 1944, some of whose members were sympathetic to the Nazis, and, as an art collector, bought Nazi looted art and lent and gifted parts of his collection to the Kunsthaus from 1943 until his death in 1956.

The museum says the provenance of the collection is fully documented and that an already strong presence of French painting in Switzerland will be much enhanced by the arrival of the Bührle Collection.

Impressionist paintings from the Bührle Collection on display in the new galleries

“The high-profile ensemble will make Zurich second only to Paris as a centre for art of this kind,” said the museum. “The Impressionist works of global importance collected by Emil Bührle (1890–1956) are closely bound up with his activities as an arms manufacturer and the times in which he lived; one of the rooms within a suite that displays some 170 works contains extensive documentation on the historical context to Bührle’s role as an industrialist, patron and collector. “

Digitorial explaining background to Bührle Collection

As part of a Digitorial introduction to the collection, which people can access online, the following is said about the provenance of the collection and its links to the Nazis and Theodor Fischer who played a key part in trading art looted by the Germans from their own galleries and those of occupied countries.

“Bührle had been in contact with Theodor Fischer’s gallery in Lucerne since 1938. In 1939 he attended the auction organised by Fischer for the Nazi regime of works that had been confiscated in German museums and defamed as ‘degenerate’. In the years that followed, Fischer also sold privately owned works that had been stolen by the National Socialists in France. Bührle bought eleven of these paintings from Fischer, ten of them in 1942 alone with a total value of 543,000 francs. Soon after the end of the war, Bührle realised that he had illegally acquired part of his collection.

Stolen artworks

Ams dealer Emil Bührle

“In 1945, under pressure from the Allies, the Federal Council (the Swiss government) set up a looted property chamber at the Federal Supreme Court. Legal investigations followed, in the course of which 77 works of art found in Swiss collections were identified that had been stolen from their owners. 13 of them were in the possession of Bührle, he had to restitute these works. He bought nine of them a second time at market prices.

“La Liseuse by Camille Corot is one of the pictures that Bührle acquired from Fischer and later had to restitute. The work was stolen from the Jewish gallery owner Paul Rosenberg in 1940 on his escape from France. Bührle acquired it in 1942 from Galerie Fischer for 70,000 francs. In 1948 he had to return it to Rosenberg. Less than a month later he bought it for the sum of 80,000 francs in his New York gallery. Bührle bought the painting for the second time, but this time from the rightful owner.”

The Contaminated Museum

However, despite a popular vote in 2012 to build the extension there was an unsuccessful appeal in 2015 against the museum’s plans.

And the outrage continues in a book published last month by historian Erich Keller entitled The Contaminated Museum which asks the question: “How did the collection, contaminated by war, displacement and the Holocaust, find its way into a public museum?” Keller says debates about looted art “do not revolve around a distant past, but rather ask questions about political responsibility in the present”.

At a press conference before the museum opening at the weekend, Director Christoph Becker – who has been in charge since 2000 and will step down in 2023 – said about the controversy surrounding the collection: “It’s difficult but the debate is a good thing.”

The museum says the entire digitised archives of the Bührle Collection and the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft can be consulted by researchers in the Kunsthaus library.

“The Emil Bührle Collection can thus be approached on all levels, with everything from readily accessible introductions to academic scholarship.”

The Zurich Arts Society expects the enlarged premises and expanded programme to boost visitor numbers to as many as 375,000 a year from 2022. The target is for the enlarged Kunsthaus to remain over 50% self-financing.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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