Munich museum takes down Picasso portrait amid restitution dispute

The Art Newspaper 30 March 2023
By James Jackson

The painting, Madame Soler, was previously owned by the prominent collector Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in the 1930s

Pablo Picasso's Madame Soler (1903) has been hanging in the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich since 1964

The Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich has taken down a disputed Picasso portrait after an intervention from the German culture minister, who said that a resolution of the dispute was “really overdue”.

Madame Soler, a 1903 Expressionist portrait of the wife of a tailor friend painted during Picasso’s Blue Period, was owned by the collector Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. He transferred the work, along with other pieces, to the art dealer Justin Thannhauser across the Swiss border in the early 1930s amid rising antisemitism.

The piece was then sold to Bavaria in 1964 and has hung in the southern German state’s Modern art museum, the Pinakothek der Moderne, ever since. The museum has denied that this was a case of looted art, maintaining that the sale to Thannhauser was legitimate despite claims by the historian Julius Schoeps, a descendent of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy who wrote a nearly 200-page book titled Who owns Picasso's 'Madame Soler'? How the Free State of Bavaria dealt with a spectacular Nazi-looted art case.

The museum's stance could contradict 1998’s Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, of which the Federal Republic of Germany was a co-signatory. Fifty years after Picasso’s death, the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper called the museum’s intransigence “outrageous” and for the representational Expressionist piece to “become something like the poster girl of a new era in German art history these days […] finally dealing with how, decades after the end of German fascism, the heirs of Jewish collectors can be given back what was stolen, extorted, or confiscated from them.”

Other Picasso works previously owned by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Boy Leading a Horse and Le Moulin de la Galette, were subject of a settlement between his descendants and the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Culture Minister Claudia Roth told the Bavarian broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung: "I expressly call on the Bavarian state government to finally clear the way for the Bavarian State Painting Collections to agree to an appeal to the Advisory Commission. This is really overdue now,” hinting at passing a new restitution law. The painting has now been taken down from public display, ostensibly for curatorial reasons.
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