Nog vijftien etsen van Ensor in Mannheim - Fifteen more etchings by Ensor in Mannheim

De Standaard 2 December 2022
By Geert Sels

To read the article published in Dutch in De Standaard click here for p.1 and here for p.2.

English translation

During WWII, the Nazi-friendly organisation DeVlag set up propaganda exhibitions in German cities. From these, sixteen of Ensor's graphic works were returned from Düsseldorf after the war. De Standaard found 15 more in Mannheim.

At the outbreak of war, the chief curator of Antwerp's Museum of Fine Arts decided to keep a diary. In late 1940, Arthur Cornette noted: 'Visit 3 D coming to see the Düsseldorf collection.' Throughout the war, he would write 'D' instead of 'Germans'. Was it code language? Or did he not get the word out of his pen? 'Little favourable impression', he still noted. Which mysterious collection was he actually talking about?

He was talking about a package of art that his curator Jozef Muls had brought together at the museum. Muls is considered the instigator of a series of travelling propaganda exhibitions in Nazi Germany. He had handled things skilfully. In September 1940, he wrote a letter to secretary-general Marcel Nyns, who replaced the Minister of Education and Culture during the war. 'The Reichspropaganda Staff has asked me to organise an exhibition of Modern Flemish Art in the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf,' he wrote.

He then asked nicely if there were any objections. The German government had guaranteed to buy art for a substantial sum. Surely, in those times of scarcity, that was nice for our artists? Nyns already had to be very harsh to say 'no' to that. He therefore said 'yes'. Thus, Muls was perfectly covered.

Letterhead of museum

Muls took the liberty of inviting Belgian artists on museum stationery. That was less threatening than that of the German propaganda service. As curator and professor, Muls enjoyed great confidence in artist circles. The guide was experienced. If one rode ahead, the rest would follow. But apparently he had sensed that he could face difficulties with this project: he withdrew at the eleventh hour. Without notifying the artists he had warmed up to take part in the exhibition.

In the end, 52 artists took part in the 'Contemporary Flemish Art' exhibition. It was a collaboration between the city of Düsseldorf and DeVlag, the organisation that sought cultural cooperation between Flanders and Nazi Germany. The Nazis were only too happy to attempt an intertwining of the two cultures. Provided some modelling, they thought, Flemings could be made into good Aryans. That the Nazis could show a softer side through art was a bonus.

There would be more such exhibitions. These were curated by Edgard Leonard, a young man in his thirties who had been a member of DeVlag since its inception. His ambition was to expand the exhibitions and get more established artists on board. The three exhibitions he curated between 1941 and 1943 all toured various German cities. They visited Cologne, Darmstadt, Mannheim, Saarbrücken and Trier, among others. And Nuremberg, where the Nazis held their annual Reich Party Days.

I have recovered eight catalogues from those exhibitions. If I match the works of art, I arrive at 110 works by Jakob Smits; only James Ensor was better represented with 129 works. For the record: works that were shown in several cities were counted each time. Quite a lot was sold at those travelling exhibitions. When the investigators of the War Office conducted a search of Leonard's house after the war, they found a list of Ensors that had already been sold. In August 1943, the counter stood at almost 180,000 francs.

Entartete Kunst

From the 1920s, German museums bought works by Ensor - the Museum of Mannheim was one of the first. So the artist enjoyed great prestige in Germany. But not with the Nazis. They removed his painting 'Death and the Masks' from the Mannheim museum in 1937 and sent it to be publicly shamed in the Entartete Kunst exhibition.

The work was considered sufficiently degenerate to end up on sale in Lucerne in 1939. There it was purchased by the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Liège. The painting remains one of the key works in its collection.

Although the Nazis had carried 'The Death and the Masks' out past the front door, barely four years later a hefty load of Ensor's prints came in through the back door. Numerous cities and museums bought works by him at DeVlag's travelling exhibitions.

So why was it suddenly possible? Operation Entartete Kunst had been a one-off clean-up and the Nazis had clearly drawn their line. In full wartime, they needed their energy for something other than guarding art tastes. And weren't the Flemist Art exhibitions running under the auspices of the Propaganda Abteilung? There was a 'seen and approved' label attached to them, so to speak.

Given the numerous purchases at the DeVlag exhibitions, my interest was piqued when the Kunsthalle Mannheim held a retrospective on James Ensor in July 2021. Imagine if there were graphics from the Flemish exhibitions hanging there? That's where I had to go. In the first rooms hung mostly paintings. Then followed a series of graphics from an earlier period. But then I began to recognise etchings that had appeared in the catalogues of the propaganda exhibitions. That of 'The Cathedral', for instance, and 'Portrait of E. Rousseau', both from the Saarbrücken catalogue. I recognised 'Boats on the Beach' and the antibourgeois caricature of the latrine cleaner from the Trier catalogue.

The Kunsthalle Mannheim bought a total of 15 works of art on paper by Ensor: four at the DeVlag exhibition in Darmstadt in the summer of 1941 and 11 more at the exhibition that visited Mannheim in late 1942. In Darmstadt, it further bought a painting of a landscape by Albert Saverys.

I was surprised that these works were still in Mannheim. In the London Declaration in 1943, the Allies agreed that any transaction with the Nazi occupier was considered non-existent. As a result, not only looted but also sold works of art from Nazi Germany could be reclaimed. All works in Mannheim should have been returned to Belgium after the war.

After all, that is how it had gone with an almost identical case. At the Flemish Art exhibitions, the city of Düsseldorf had bought sixteen works on paper by Ensor. These all came back to Belgium after the war. Paintings by Hubert Malfait and Fernand Dresse bought at the propaganda exhibitions also returned. 'Winter landscape' by Albert Servaes, with a similar history, was ceded to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels after the war. It is still in the collection there.

The question is what to do with the works in Mannheim. Will they return to Belgium? Or has the magic power of the London Declaration worn off in the meantime?

© website copyright Central Registry 2024