November 17, 2013

Gurlitt Art Collection: De Spiegel's Ozlem Guler Scores Interview with reclusive heir Cornelius Gurlitt

Today Ozlem Guler for De Spiegel International Online presents an "Interview with a Phantom: Cornelius Gurlitt Shares the Secrets of His Pictures" (translated from German to English).

Mr. Guler writes that 'perhaps 30' 'strangers' (customs investigators officials from the Augsburg public prosecutors office) 'broke the lock and came in' to Mr. Gurlitt's apartment in Munich in February 2012 and spent four days removing more than 1,000 artworks.
Meanwhile, Gurlitt was expected to sit in a corner and remain quiet. He complied with their wishes, watching as they removed Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on the Beach" from the wall, a work that had hung there for decades, and took the Chagall from the locked wooden cabinet. 

They left nothing behind, not even the small suitcase containing his favorite pictures, a collection of works on paper. For decades, Gurlitt had unpacked the drawings each evening to admire them. Now they were gone and Gurlitt was alone.
Mr. Gurlitt remained in the apartment apparently even when the story broke two weeks ago:
Since that day, Gurlitt has been alone in his bare apartment, in a white-painted building in Munich, a city he calls a prison. And ever since the German newsweekly Focus uncovered the confiscation of his collection two weeks ago, the world's press has been gathering downstairs, outside the front door of his apartment block. Whenever he leaves the building, he is inundated with camera flashes, as if he were a war criminal. Strangers are constantly knocking on his door and sliding letters through the mail slot. 

The works are a sensational treasure trove, including paintings by Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The mysterious collection stems from the estate of his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art critic, museum director and art dealer who died in 1956, one of the men who established modern art in Germany and, after 1933, did business with the Nazis. 

This interview in De Spiegel is with the 81-year-old heir of the Hildebrand Gurlitt art collection and provides his point of view of the investigation and the impact on his life, pictured as solitary, cut off from television and the internet, and alone with his paintings -- the Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on the Beach" hung on the wall in his living room for decades. In regards to his father's art dealing:
The family moved around a lot, always following a father who didn't have an easy time because he "wasn't racially flawless," Gurlitt notes. But he always fought and was very clever, he adds. In Hamburg his father registered the art gallery at Klopstockstrasse 35 in his wife's name, with the art dealer himself listed as an employee. Later, in Dresden, Gurlitt says his father didn't register his business at all. Instead, he kept the works of art at home and ran his business from there. "My father was often driven out, he often fell but he always got back up on his feet again."
As for growing up with the paintings and his father's motives, Cornelius Gurlitt is quoted:
He remembers playing among paintings by Liebermann, Beckmann and Chagall when he was a child. They moved with him from city to city, and hung in the living rooms and hallways. His father sorted them and loved them -- and they all bear his mark. He hung the green face by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner on the wall above young Cornelius' bed. "Hitler didn't like green faces," says Gurlitt. In the privacy of their home, the family didn't speak well of the Führer, Gurlitt recalls. His father resisted the dictator, but so surreptitiously that no one noticed it, he adds. 
Hildebrand Gurlitt never bought anything from a private individual, Cornelius insists. Anything else would have been unimaginable for him. The pictures came from German museums or art dealers, Gurlitt says, adding that his father only cooperated with the Nazis because he wanted to save the paintings from being burned. And then he says: "It's possible that my father may have been offered something privately, but he certainly didn't accept it. He would have found that unsavory."
How his father saved the paintings from the Russians:
He helped his father back in Dresden when they saved the works of art from the Russians. People should be thankful to him, he says. "My father knew the Russians were getting closer and closer." 
His father quickly organized a vehicle from the carpool in Dresden, he recalls, and father and son loaded the artwork into the car. His father then brought everything to a farmer near Dresden, and later to a castle in southern Germany. He says that his father knew people everywhere in Germany.
And as for Mr. Gurlitt's opinion:
Gurlitt sees his paintings in the newspapers. He's appalled. "What kind of state is this that puts my private property on display?" he asks. Gurlitt has tears in his eyes. He whispers: "They have to come back to me." 
The next morning, Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback is quoted in the newspaper as saying that the authorities should definitely speak with Gurlitt. 
It's painful to see Gurlitt being slowly consumed by despair. "They have it all wrong," he says. "I won't speak with them, and I won't voluntarily give back anything, no, no. The public prosecutor has enough that exonerates me." 
Gurlitt hopes the paintings that are rightfully his will soon be returned. He would still like to sell one work, though, perhaps the Liebermann -- if he is entitled to it, as he puts it -- to pay his hospital bills. The remaining paintings should be returned to his apartment, he says. The Chagall will then be put back into the cupboard, and the painting of the woman playing the piano will go in the hallway, where his mother always hung it. 
"I've really missed the paintings -- I notice that now." He says there has been enough public exposure -- of him and his paintings -- and he won't give them to any museum in the world. They have enough other things that they can exhibit, he contends. 
"When I'm dead, they can do with them what they want." But until then, he wants to have them for himself. Then he'll finally have a bit of "peace and quiet" again.

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