Zurich Art Museum succumbs to Bührle’s ambitions – expat guide to Switzerland
The art collection of arms magnate Emil Georg BÃ¼hrle will be housed at the Kunsthaus in Zurich for the next 20 years. It was an agreement that the city of Zurich allowed the BÃ¼hrle Foundation to dictate, which intellectually brought the Kunsthaus back to the 19e century.
Over the next two decades, Zurich’s art museum, the Kunsthaus, will be able to exhibit a powerful collection of paintings, ranging from medieval to modern times.
The museum is now aiming to play in international leagues, and observers abroad have paid due attention. The New York Times again reported on the Kunsthaus. It is not about the images, but about the collector: because Emil G. BÃ¼hrle, who died in 1956, financed his collection through arms sales – to Nazi Germany in particular.
BÃ¼hrle manufactured weapons of war in his factories in Zurich from the 1920s, and his wealth allowed him to indulge his passion for art. A few months after the outbreak of World War II, BÃ¼hrle was elected a member of the Kunsthaus fundraising committee.
Through the gates of hell to high art
Two years after the end of the war, he donated Auguste Rodin’s Gates to Hell to the Kunsthaus. It still occupies a prominent place in front of the building, as an alternative entrance to the world of art through pain and death.
Above the martyred bodies sits The Thinker, who watches over everything. No doubt BÃ¼hrle would have seen himself that way. In the 1950s, he financed a first extension of the Kunsthaus with the money he had earned on the battlefields of Europe.
Historian Erich Keller has meticulously reviewed the history of the relationship between the Kunsthaus and the BÃ¼hrle Collection in his book Das Kontaminierte Museum (The Corrupted Museum).
What prompted a man like BÃ¼hrle to collect art? In the 19th century, the period from which most of the works in BÃ¼hrle’s collection were made, the upper class strove to establish a strict division between the world of the market and that of art.
On the one hand, it was hell, the struggle for (economic) survival, to gain money; on the other hand, aesthetic sensitivity and intellect. Collecting art meant more than ostentatious consumption. It also meant showing one’s excellent taste to society at large, and signaling that beyond the cut and thrust of business life among tough men, one still had a sensitive soul.
It is indeed one of the positive aspects of bourgeois society at its peak that a man can gain prestige by this kind of contribution. What is not so positive – and the modern avant-garde denounces this aspect, especially the Dadaists after the First World War – is that the refinement of the living room has little impact on current affairs. All that one appreciated as beautiful did not affect the way he behaved – âdisinterested enjoyment,â it was said.
BÃ¼hrle was really just an upstart in Zurich society, but his art culture earned him the recognition he dreamed of. To this day, visitors to the Kunsthaus extension he financed in 1958 are still greeted by a bust of the princely donor.
Four years after his death, in 1960, the BÃ¼hrle Collection Foundation was created, in order to ensure a definitive separation between art and arms trafficking, and to exhibit the works on his own account.
Switzerland was then in a phase of peaceful and profitable amnesia. All responsibility for World War II was carefully concealed behind an anti-Communist front, an insistence on Switzerland’s determination to defend itself and the stories of a pacifist, neutral Switzerland, interpreter of “good offices”.
Just ten years after Auschwitz, Swiss journalism has not been concerned with questions of guilt, but with fear that the booming economy will swell people’s minds. A source from Keller’s book clearly shows this.
At the opening of the BÃ¼hrle collection in Zurich, the newspaper Neue ZÃ¼rcher Zeitung proudly noted: âTo people from abroad, [this is] just another indication that Switzerland aims to enjoy its prosperity in a dignified manner, deriving a sense of duty to the intellectual and artistic sphere from its material capacities.
BÃ¼hrle’s plan to redeem his sensitive soul seemed to have worked. But during the 1960s, an icy wind began to blow against this kind of cynical humanism. By 1968, it was clear that Oerlikon-BÃ¼hrle AG had supplied arms to countries like South Africa for years – illegally. Dieter BÃ¼hrle, son of patron Emil, spent a short time in prison. At the same time, the elder BÃ¼hrle became a symbol of Switzerland’s moral bankruptcy in its relations with the Nazi regime.
The Kunsthaus BÃ¼hrle room was renamed in 1975, as Keller writes. In the 1980s, films and books regularly reminded the public who had collected these paintings and with what money. BÃ¼hrle’s collection has remained a “poisoned chalice” for years, as one German magazine recently described.
Historians can write plaques
Yet after the turn of the millennium it got a new lease of life. First of all, Christoph Becker was appointed director of the Kunsthaus at this time. Becker, in comparison with his predecessors Harald Szeemann and Bice Curiger, defended a traditional bourgeois approach. The dominance of collectors in the Kunsthaus, which others have called a “throwback to feudal times”, seemed to Becker a major advantage.
In 2000, the BÃ¼hrle hall regained its name. From 2003 Becker is also a member of the board of directors of the BÃ¼hrle Foundation. The opening of the BÃ¼hrle collection in the new extension one year before the end of his term can be seen as his crowning achievement.
Keller’s book shows that the city has been heavily involved in this effort. Zurich wants to play in the league of international big cities – and just like BÃ¼hrle in his time, and city officials are interested in acquiring cultural capital. The financial center wants to be able to show not only its wealth but also its fine intelligence.
The Kunsthaus’s good relationship with the BÃ¼hrle collection made it clear where the sought-after capital was to be found. They entered into a rather one-sided contract. The paintings were not given to the city as a gift, but simply on loan. One condition was that provenance research should remain the prerogative of the BÃ¼hrle collection. The contract stipulated that no work of art that BÃ¼hrle might have purchased under questionable circumstances was to be returned.
Another condition was that the collector’s own vision be included in the exhibition. The contract also obliges the Kunsthaus to show BÃ¼hrle’s collection for a period of 20 years as a whole – just as BÃ¼hrle collected it.
There are, with good reason, frequent references to âinnocent paintingsâ but the whole is not innocent; it reflects the perspective of a man who became fabulously wealthy through corpses, but who aspired to be remembered as a fine art lover with a flair for the delicate art of the Impressionists. With this extension building, he finally succeeded.
The historical study and the controversies over BÃ¼hrle have done little to change this. In 2016, when the âBÃ¼hrle Black Bookâ raised doubts about the legality of BÃ¼hrle’s acquisition of some of the paintings, the city commissioned a group of researchers from the University of Zurich to âput the BÃ¼hrle collection back into its own right. historical context “. Questions of provenance were explicitly excluded from their mandate.
Still, there was no outcry until Lukas Gloor, the Foundation’s chief art historian, attempted to falsify their research report in order to embellish BÃ¼hrle’s portrayal. In 2020, he proposed deleting terms such as âFreikorpsâ (referring to German paramilitary groups engaged in suppressing the revolution in the aftermath of World War I – BÃ¼hrle had been implicated) and âanti-Semitismâ.
Erich Keller was a member of the study committee, and after this censorship attempt he made his concerns public. In his book, he asks what historical research is for the general public. What was this study to do, years after voters in Zurich approved the construction project in 2012? Clearly not much.
Mayor Corinne Mauch declared in 2020 that â[v]Visitors to the museum should leave with the feeling that Zurich is responsible for the BÃ¼hrle collection. What this really meant was: the historical report was to convey a sense of responsibility without any effect on political or curatorial decision-making, and without probing the question of whether a work of art from the BÃ¼hrle Foundation should be returned. The city of Zurich has succumbed to the Foundation’s agenda.
All of this is reminiscent of the argument that statues of slave traders should not be removed from urban centers, but simply provided with explanatory plaques. Historians are responsible for making these plaques and leaving the situation, if not entirely without comment, at least intact. Talk about history, like art at 19e century, is thus relegated to the domain of disinterested study, and a visit to a museum is only a visit to a museum.
Back to the bourgeois era
If the city of Zurich really wanted to show itself as a place of spirit and spirit rather than just wealth, it should have shown a little more backbone. In 2005, after protests erupted, a similar project was turned down when Friedrich Christian Flick, heir to the Flick family from the Nazi industry, wanted to show himself and his collection in Zurich – it can now be found at the Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum in Berlin. .
Calls for a similar boycott are currently dismissed as moralistic gestures, as “canceling culture” or as a teenage attitude. The innocent paintings could have been organized in a more radical way, and the history of the collection and its funding could have been used to punctuate the exhibition in a less pleasant way. Or at least the personality cult around the collector could have been left out – BÃ¼hrle reduced to the dimensions of a footnote – and the collection could have been broken down into thematic sections, instead of being held together by the fact that they belonged to a long – dead arms dealer.
In its selection criteria, the BÃ¼hrle collection also reflects a kind of pre-war nostalgia. Only a fraction of the paintings date from the 1920s, two from the 1930s and there is a Picasso from the 1940s. After 1945, there is only BÃ¼hrle himself – a portrait of the patron by Oskar Kokoschka.
In its search for a sense of simple, selfless enjoyment – for which a museum is hardly the appropriate place after all the horrors of the 20th century – Zurich has intellectually regressed to the naive sentimentalism of the bourgeois era.
Translated from German by Terence Macnamee