Plundered objects can be read as meaningful signifiers—in connection with historical, juridical, economic, political, and socio-psychological events—as well as sources of information on the Holocaust, per Raul Hilberg. Both past and current events and procedures adhere to these objects. In 2003, when I did my exhibition and research project Politics of Restitution at Lenbachhaus in Munich, the remaining stock from Nazi collections found in 1945 by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the American Military Government still comprised around 2,200 works of art and artifacts. A great number of the works that had been secured turned out to be plundered art, predominantly from private Jewish ownership, either in Germany or countries under Nazi occupation. By March 1949, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section had returned 249,683 unlawfully acquired items, with the remainder of the seized goods handed over to the jurisdiction of the German restitution authorities. Many of these so-called state loans, whose status today still remains unconfirmed, are located in the collections of German museums. Fifteen of these state loans, which at that time were located in the collection of the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, were the subject of my research.
Alexander Alberro: The question of whether the artworks in the Gurlitt estate are evidentiary objects or visual witnesses is quite complicated. Certainly, the cluster of art objects stands as visible evidence. It’s evidence on one level of a collection, or “estate” as you have phrased it, which I do believe is the better term. On another level, it at least partly substantiates a crime of enormous proportions. And on yet another level, it’s evidence of a big secret. The secret is of course Cornelius Gurlitt’s, with the stash of artworks that he had kept hidden from view in his various homes for many decades. That the estate has now been exposed makes it a visible secret. But the behavior of the museums and the German state institutions in this case, breaking up the Gurlitt estate into a number of isolated and dispersed clusters and objects, has made the secret one of the German nation at large. What is this larger secret? What is it that is being repressed? Ironically, the more it is repressed, the more it percolates toward the surface.
At the same time, the collection also stands as a visual witness. On the one hand, it witnesses the collecting practices of a particular individual, an art lover who entered into the orbit of the Nazis, as well as the clandestine life of that individual’s son. On the other hand, the estate is at least a partial witness to horrors beyond recognition: the event of the Holocaust. The desperate act of concealment and, more recently, of dispersal in this case appears to be an attempt (whether conscious or unwitting) to avert the demand for recognition made by many who were othered by National Socialist culture in the 1930s and 1940s.
But even more than either evidence or witness, the Gurlitt estate is a perfect example of what psychoanalyst Dori Laub and literary critic Shoshana Felman refer to as “testimony.” For Laub, the Holocaust “produced no witnesses.” As he argues in his important essay, “An Event Without a Witness,” “Not only, in effect, did the Nazis try to exterminate the physical witnesses of their crime, but the inherently incomprehensible and deceptive psychological structure of the event of their actions precluded its own witnessing, even by its very victims.” Surprisingly, but with a poignancy and coincidental nature that is almost uncanny, the Gurlitt estate operates as a testimony to a radical crisis of a history that nonetheless remains, as such, at once unspeakable and inarticulable—a history that can no longer be accounted for, and formulated in, its own terms.
AS I was quite struck by a recent essay by Claude Lanzmann in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that was titled “Das Unnennbare benennen,” or, “To Name the Nameless.” The title itself sounded familiar, and when I was looking in the catalogue of the 5th Berlin Biennial , I found an essay Elena Filipovic and I commissioned by Georges Didi-Huberman, titled “Die Namenlosen ausstellen,” which translates to “Expose the Nameless” or “To Exhibit the Nameless.” Didi-Huberman’s text opens with the sentence “Peoples [les peoples] are exposed.” The essay rhymes beautifully with Lanzmann’s FAZ article on the disappearance of the witness and material things, the “works” that get, as Lanzmann wrote, “relegated to the heavenly spheres of art.” As he continues:
A contrast between memory and history, between historians and witnesses is created: the witnesses will soon be dead, and all that will remain are the historians as the only foundation of the truth, so it seems. But in the process the works are forgotten, as if they formed an obstacle to history. The historians, at least in part, rid themselves of the works by pointing to the celestial spheres of art. But the true transmission takes place only by way of the works.
Lanzmann also writes about the emergence of history—as a science of professional scrutiny and interpretation of events and documents, deeds, and things—and its gradually taking the place of embodied memory. Which is all just to say that I wonder about the disappearance of witness and the embodied memory in relationship to the Gurlitt estate, or its elimination, as you put it, Alex. When those witnesses of some profound violence have died, can the works that remain—in this case, a collection—stand as a different kind of witness? To what end?
ME Lanzmann emphasizes the necessity of the experience to viewers of his film Shoah . The film does not attempt to be a history lesson but rather testimony. The stolen works of art and artifacts that had not been returned after the war were not, however, identified as testimony; their status as stolen art was frequently concealed.
The deadlines for lodging restitution claims expired on December 31, 1948, in the American zone, according to Occupation law, and on June 30, 1950, in the British zone and Berlin. In 1949, the collection points were closed and the remaining stocks handed over, initially to the trusteeship of the Bavarian Minister-President, then to the Treuhandverwaltung für Kulturgut [Trusteeship for Cultural Property] in Munich, before they passed in 1963 to the Federal Finance Minister. In November 1965, works from these stocks were put on display for the directors of all interested German museums in an “information show” in Schloss Schleißheim near Munich. Subsequently 582 paintings, 1,289 prints, and 20 tapestries went to the permanent collections of German museums where they remain on display today—as works of art and artifacts, not as testimony.
It was only in 2000 that the Koordinierungsstelle der Länder für Kultur gutverluste [Coordination Office of the Federal States for Restitution of Cultural Objects] set up the Lost Art Internet Database [www.lostart.de], which lists all the federal loans in German museums. This fulfilled the state’s duty of complying with the principles of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, in 1998, which obliged participating states to return any cultural assets confiscated under Nazi persecution. The provenance of the Gurlitt estate is currently being researched and the results made accessible online on the Lost Art Internet Database together with excerpts from Gurlitt’s financial ledgers. Germany is obviously striving to behave correctly under the watchful gaze of the international community. Documenta, with its international audience, could provide the appropriate context for presenting the Gurlitt case.
AS Which brings up a question: whereas museums keep their collections to make them public, Cornelius Gurlitt kept the works only for his own enjoyment, thus removing them from any public discourse. What, then, of the question of preservation, which one normally associates with the museum’s role to keep and protect artifacts, but that in this case—and cases like it—has something of the miserly in it?
AA Many collectors keep their cluster of objects for their own pleasure and remove them from public discourse. It seems to me that the more pertinent issue here is that now, when the fact of the many objects in this large, previously hidden collection has been revealed to the public, that very same public is still being denied the ability to contemplate the collection as a whole. I agree with you that it could be very productive to show the entire Gurlitt estate in one place. And documenta, with its early history as a “bridge” from the historical avant-garde of the early twentieth century, over the period of National Socialism, to the return of modern avantgarde art following the war, would be a perfectly logical venue for this archive. On display at documenta, the estate could be contemplated in a variety of ways—cultural, historical, material, political—which would inevitably relate to the initial logic that realized documenta in 1955.
ME Whether privately or publicly owned, when such works go on public display in museums, the respective institution should be immediately obliged to declare the work’s origins. Hitler had assembled, i.e., plundered, a comprehensive collection to furnish an art museum planned for Linz in Austria. This is the source of works hanging on permanent display in museums that are described as being “on loan” or “on loan from the Federal Republic of Germany,” but without any indication whatsoever of their origins in Nazi collections.
Title 18 of the Military Government Regulations stated that all objects acquired by the Nazis within Germany or in occupied territories after January 1933, regardless of whatever considerations may have been involved, were to be regarded as looted art if obtained either a) directly through confiscation, expropriation, or plundering, or b) indirectly through purchase or other transactions. All cultural assets that the Nazis acquired were regarded without exception as stolen, regardless of whether or not contracts of sale had been concluded. The restituted works were initially given to the relevant government, which was to pass the items on to their original owners. Unrestituted works from these stocks can still be found today in the collections of American, Dutch, British, and French museums. In 1997, a number of French museums in Paris, Sèvres, Versailles, and elsewhere—including the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Centre Georges Pompidou—put nine hundred such works on display in an attempt to find their owners.