The Research Project
Ernst Barlach, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix, Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Schlemmer – many of their famous paintings and sculptures have been lost, leaving behind painful gaps in the collections of German museums. For example, where is Franz Marc’s well-known painting “Turm der blauen Pferde” (The Tower of Blue Horses) from 1913, which hung in the National Gallery in Berlin until its confiscation in 1937 – even today, nobody knows!
This is due to the policy on art enforced in the Third Reich. In 1937 in Germany Modernist art was quite unprecedentedly vilified as “degenerate”. The Nazis confiscated more than 2,000 works from museums and sold them abroad for foreign currency or exchanged them works of early German art. The “useless remainder” was burnt – and, so around 5,000 pieces of art were lost forever. But where are the paintings that were placed on the international market or, contrary to the imposed ban, on the black market within Germany? What fate awaited them there?
“Degenerate art” research centers located in Berlin and Hamburg dedicate their time to the investigation of this mystery. Led by Prof. Klaus Krüger and Prof. Uwe Fleckner, a team of researchers are attempting to reconstruct the confiscations. The art works concerned are recorded in an inventory and then linked to images of them that have survived. A central focus of the research is on the changes of ownership that have taken place en route to the works’ present locations. That said, researchers also spend time examining the organizational and ideological context of the “degenerate art” policy. This in turn leads to important insights into the history of museums and the reception of artistic modernity in the context of the political turmoil of the 20th century.
Unlike stolen artworks or those hidden from the Nazis, no valid claim for restitution can be made on the works confiscated as „degenerate art” from museums in 1937. The Nazi law passed in 1938 permitted the seizure of “degenerate art” without compensation and was never revoked. Thus, public institutions, such as museums, are left unable to claim that racial or political persecution was involved. In other words, whoever has one of these artworks in their possession is still considered the lawful owner, even today. In some cases however, for example, if the piece was on loan from a private collector when confiscated, there is a direct link to legal claims for restitution from collectors (victims of persecution at the time) and their descendants, which cause a stir in the media time and time again. The “Degenerate Art” Research Center also considers itself an influential informant in this area.
Taking the example of a then-condemned wooden sculpture by Ernst Barlach, the film depicts on the big screen the multifaceted and, in some cases, politically charged search for these artworks, lost without a trace.
Prof. Dr. Klaus Krüger (Berlin) Location
Prof. Dr. Uwe Fleckner (Hamburg)
Hamburg | Berlin (Germany)