Kunsthaus Zurich advisers quit in conflict over new B├╝hrle exhibition

The Art Newspaper 27 October 2023
By Catherine Hickley

The experts were hired after a previous iteration of the show was deemed inadequate in addressing the dark legacy of Emil Georg Bührle, who made his fortune selling weapons to Nazi Germany

A panel of academics appointed to advise the Kunsthaus Zurich over its new exhibition of the troubled Bührle collection has resigned en masse over differences of opinion with the curators, the museum said in a statement.

The new exhibition, opening on 3 November, was announced after an outcry over the previous show of the collection that overshadowed the 2021 opening of the Kunsthaus’s major new extension, designed by David Chipperfield.

Critics said that the initial exhibition, which was curated by the Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection, was inadequate in presenting provenance and addressing the dark legacy of Emil Georg Bührle, an arms manufacturer who made his fortune selling weapons to Nazi Germany and who bought looted art.

A new director, Ann Demeester, took over the Kunsthaus in January, promising to replace the existing exhibition with a show that would highlight individual biographies of the previous Jewish owners but also discuss “a complicated relationship with a patron that says a lot about the position of Switzerland in the Second World War.”

The panel of external experts, which resigned on 13 October, disagreed with the curators “on what weight should be given to the individual fates of the former owners who were victims of the Nazi regime,” the Kunsthaus said in its statement today. Matthieu Leimgruber, a professor of history at Zurich University, said he and the other members of the panel will not discuss their decision to step down with the media before 1 November.

But their move suggests the new exhibition will face difficulties similar to those of its predecessor instead of helping the museum to overcome its troubled legacy.

The Kunsthaus’s links with Bührle date back to 1940, when he became a member of its board of trustees. A bust and plaque at the entrance of an exhibition hall named after him honour his contribution to the museum—which includes two of the collection’s highlights that he donated in 1952, two Claude Monet paintings of water lilies.

In 2012, the Kunsthaus signed a 20-year loan contract for 203 works with the Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection, set up by his family after the arms manufacturer’s death. These include works by Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh.

Some critics argued at the time that the Kunsthaus should not have accepted the loan. The historian Erich Keller, who wrote a book titled The Contaminated Museum, described the Bührle collection as “built with money from arms sales, from slave labour, from child labour.”

But Bührle is also known to have bought looted art, and questions hover over some of the works at the Kunsthaus. As the owner of the collection, the foundation has conducted and published provenance research. This, too, has come under fire, with critics accusing the foundation of whitewashing the provenance of some works. An independent commission led by Raphael Gross, the president of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, is assessing the provenance research and will publish its findings next year.

In today’s statement, Demeester said the disagreements with the panel of experts advising the museum was “regrettable and shows how complex the subject is.” Demeester and Philippe Büttner, a curator at the Kunsthaus, led a curating team for the exhibition, which is planned to run for at least a year.

“We wanted diverse voices,” Demeester said. “Dissent and debate are a part of this exhibition.”

The Kunsthaus said the new exhibition will include video interviews, audio stories and texts aimed at “smoothing the way for everyone to form their own opinion.”
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