Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Dispute over Bührle exhibition – Kunsthaus Zurich: Bührle advisory board resigned

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Next week the Kunsthaus Zurich opens the new Bührle exhibition. The scientific advisory board that was supposed to accompany them is now resigning as a group and making serious accusations.

That happened: The first exhibition of Bührle’s pictures at the Kunsthaus was already met with strong criticism. The context of Nazi persecution and the Holocaust is not given enough consideration and Emil Bührle is uncritically celebrated as a patron, according to the tenor in 2021. The Kunsthaus and its new management, Ann Demeester, promised a revision. The new exhibition is scheduled to open next week, accompanied by an independent scientific advisory board. It has now been announced that he is resigning. This is reported by Deutschlandfunk. The letter of resignation is available to SRF. The resignation is a scandal, because the advisory board was supposed to guarantee that, after various conflicts over the Bührle collection, the Kunsthaus would now work independently and impartially on solutions.

What conflicts accompany the Bührle pictures? For over 200 million francs, the Kunsthaus, with large public participation, built an extension in which the loans from the private Bührle Foundation can be presented. The valuable art collection of the weapons producer Emil Bührle includes works by world-famous artists such as Renoir, Monet and Cézanne. However, it is still unclear whether these include works that must be returned to the heirs of the previous Jewish owners. The provenance of the pictures is currently being independently verified because the Kunsthaus and the Bührle Foundation did not do this at the opening. The first exhibition in autumn 2021 was therefore massively criticized.

What are the reasons for the resignation? The advisory board complains about two things: Firstly, the exhibition texts were sent far too late for proofreading; time pressure makes careful editing difficult. This raises the suspicion that the Kunstshaus didn’t really take the advisory board seriously and that it only served as a fig leaf. The second reason highlighted in the resignation letter is even more important. It concerns the direction of the exhibition. Bührle is still too much of a focus, and the fates of disenfranchised, expelled, dispossessed and murdered Jews play too small a role.

Why should an art exhibition take the Holocaust into account? The expropriation of Jewish property was a systematic part of Nazi persecution. Bührle and other collectors, such as prominent Nazi figures, benefited from this expropriation and the art market flourished. Especially because many Jewish collectors had to finance their escape by selling pictures during their time of need. The resignation letter now states that the new exhibition “gives the impression that the fates of the victims of the Nazi regime are being marginalized once again.”

What does the Kunsthaus say about this? Neither the Kunsthaus nor the advisory board are currently making a statement. Neither side wanted to comment. The spokesman for the Kunsthaus and the spokeswoman for the advisory board said they would only present their views at a press conference next week. This approach was agreed upon and we wanted to stick to it. It should also be noted that the advisory board distances itself from the exhibition (as of October 13th). Any revisions are not excluded.

This is what the Kunsthaus director Ann Demeester says

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«We hired an independent, competent advisory board to advise us on the new exhibition of the Emil Bührle Collection and to continually question it critically; that was the goal. We wanted diversity. Dissent and debate are part of this exhibition,” says Kunsthaus director Ann Demeester.

«Our twelve-month collaboration was based on great mutual respect. But in the end we agreed that we do not agree on all aspects of the concrete implementation. This is unfortunate and shows how complex the issue is. I would like to thank the members of the advisory board for having played a decisive role in shaping the conception of the exhibition in many aspects – with passion, a keen eye and constructive criticism – but I regret that we did not find a consensus on the concrete implementation. »

Further background information will be explained at a media conference on November 2nd.

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