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Hitler's art dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt, in fear of his life because of his Jewish heritage, wheeled and dealed for the Nazis. Michael Glover examines the paintings he stashed, which are now on display in Germany

 

This month, a sensational story about Adolf Hitler, art and a part-concealed Jewish identity stutters to a fascinatingly inconclusive conclusion in Germany, with the opening of two exhibitions, one in Bonn and the other in Bern.

The story began in 2012, when an old man called Cornelius Gurlitt was accused of tax evasion by the authorities in Augsburg. That accusation led to the discovery of an extraordinary trove of art in his apartment in a very respectable part of Munich.

For months, the authorities kept the story to themselves. Then the Press got wind of it. Those months of concealment gave the story of its discovery by the authorities some headwind.

The art had belonged to his father, Hildebrand, who had been a museum director and art dealer from the time of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and throughout the Third Reich. Hildebrand had died in a car accident in 1956.

It was presented as nothing less than the story of the wheelings and dealings of Hitler's principal art dealer - and here was the loot perhaps, in the custody of his 80-year-old, reclusive son, in the full dazzle of publicity.

The two exhibitions put on display 400 of the 1500 works in the Gurlitt collection, 250 in Bonn and 150 in Bern. They also tell the immensely complicated story of that seizure and its subsequent impact, demonstrate how the provenance experts of Germany and Switzerland responded to its shockwaves and show off some of its best works by such modern masters as Klee, Munch, Dix, Marc and Nolde.

Most interesting of all, they present in great detail the convoluted, morally dubious story of Hildebrand Gurlitt himself within the context of the tumultuous times through which he lived.

Yes, it was one respectable man's fear of the consequence of having been condemned as a "menschlich" (a man of mixed race, one quarter Jew) and sent to the camps, which caused the Dresden art dealer and museum director Hildebrand Gurlitt to work with the Reich Ministry in order to save his own skin.

A Nuremberg Law of 1935 had characterised - and, therefore, condemned - him as a "second-degree half-caste". He was a vulnerable man, aware of the pressing need to survive in an ever more dangerous world. The only answer was to cosy up to the regime.

He, therefore, perjured himself by dealing in and disposing of works which Hitler condemned as "degenerate", which were snatched in their thousands from public museums, and looted from the homes of Jewish collectors. More than 20,000 works were confiscated in all. "We even hope to make money from the garbage," quipped Goebbels.

Hildebrand Gurlitt's skills as an art dealer with international connections were extremely useful. The Reich desperately needed foreign currency to fund the war effort.

Hildebrand bought, sold, and acquired work for German museums and other collectors, and amassed works for his own private collection, enriching himself in the process.

He became Hitler's art dealer and, after the war, under close scrutiny at the denazification tribunal, he slipped through the net that appeared to be closing around him by characterising himself as a victim.

And, what is more, he kept much of what he had acquired. In the basement of the Kunst Museum, Bern, 150 of the 1,500 works in the Gurlitt estate have gone on display. Most of them are works on paper. The dull green metal plan chest in which they were once stored, all 15 drawers of it, faces us as we enter, utterly humdrum.

The fact that the works were kept in the dark means that so many of them have retained their colourful vibrancy. Age has not faded them one whit.

What exactly does it mean, though, this word "degenerate"? "There is no logical explanation, because it was not logical," Nina Zimmer, the formidable director of the Bern museum, tells me. "It was an ideological impulse."

Even the sculptor Henry Moore was condemned. Why Moore, of all people? She smiles. "Oh, the work was probably a little sketchy and modern looking." Perhaps nothing more than that, then.

What fascinates us above all else is the realisation that Hitler, a poor artist himself, took art so seriously, that he believed in its power to transform human lives.

It almost beggars believe that the fate of Expressionism was decided at a rally in Nuremberg. No one takes art that seriously now.

That is why the works on these walls were so dangerous, because they had the power, in Hitler's opinion, to deprave the human spirit.

Do all these works have something in common then to our eye now? Yes, undeniably. They show off what we might loosely describe as the free flow of the human spirit.

Hitler believed that art should be elevating, noble, in tune with the aristocratic principle. The classical and the realistic, in a world shown to be settled, orderly and steady, were his ideals.

The art here is, by comparison, full of bodily distortion. It is wild, impulsively improvisatory, dangerously subjective, stylistically lawless and untameable. It knows no expressive boundaries. You could even call much of it pessimistic, or even schizophrenic.

Hildebrand Gurlitt himself was a tissue of contradictions, an opportunist.

Before and after the Second World War, he had championed the cause of modern art that he was complicit in denouncing during the years of the Reich.

He was to champion it yet again after the war.

And yet even as he denounced it, he was also dealing in it to his own financial advantage. In the 1920s, as a successful museum director in the Weimar Republic, he had put on shows of work by the moderns, arguing that it was the new work by such painters as Beckman which would serve "as a bait for everything spiritual", as he put it.

He wanted avant-garde art to play its part in bringing about a social revolution. He was a German cultural idealist.

Like Hitler, he wanted to rebuild the reputation of Germany as a nation of culture.

Later on, these works were seized wholesale by the Nazis, and many artists suffered brutally as a consequence.

They went into exile.

They committed suicide. They hid themselves away, consumed by an inner darkness.

Many of their tragic human stories are told here.

Emil Nolde had 1,052 works seized from German museums. He protested with great violence. Others protested on his behalf. Was his work not the very epitome of Germanness? It was all to no avail.

He withdrew to his studio in north Germany and, living in isolation, devoted himself to painting 1,300 watercolours on very small sheets of paper. He described these works as his "unpainted paintings".

At the kunsthalle in Bonn, we see a much broader range of works from the Gurlitt trove altogether, from Durer and Holbein to Monet, Degas and Picasso.

Here are many works which Hitler himself would have favoured, 18th-century French paintings, for example, of which his own hero, Frederick the Great, would have approved.

In one cabinet, there are leather-bound volumes showing off works newly acquired. These were produced twice a year, and shown to Hitler at Christmas and on his birthday. Twenty of them still survive.

Just before the American army marched into Munich where the works were being stored, the locals looted it. Hundreds are still missing.

The subject of looted art and restitution to its rightful owner remains a topic of agonised, burdensome debate in Germany. So often, the labels that describe the provenance of individual works in the Bonn show remain maddeningly inconclusive. No one really knows whether they were looted or not. Too much has been lost. Too much remains to be found.

Meanwhile, the seekers of the provenance of these works - who exactly acquired it and when, and then who acquired it after that - continue their dogged, unglamorous and morally impeccable work.

Meanwhile, the name of the Gurlitt family is tainted forever by the fact that Hildebrand Gurlitt did all those deals with the villains of the Reich in order to save his own skin.

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