Criticism of the Kunsthaus Zürich: the collection of the “cannon king”


Status: 23.10.2021 3:35 p.m.

The arms manufacturer Bührle supplied the Wehrmacht and benefited from forced labor. The Kunsthaus Zürich shows its collection – without any context for visitors. Participating historians criticize this.

By Vera Rudolph, ARD Studio Geneva

In the new building designed by the British star architect David Chipperfield, the Kunsthaus Zürich is showing the collection of Emil Georg Bührle. But because of the problematic history of the collector, the Kunsthaus has come under fire: Bührle was born in Germany and became very rich as an arms manufacturer in Switzerland – he supplied war weapons in particular to Nazi Germany. With the profit he built up the art collection.

The Kunsthaus Zürich presents around 170 works, most of them modern and French impressionist classics. The problem: Bührle acquired many of them during the war, and 13 works were identified as looted art. Bührle had to return them and later bought nine of them again. A main accusation that remains to this day: The collection also includes so-called refugee goods – works that their Jewish owners sold in their distress.

The controversial provenance of a collection in the Kunsthaus Zürich has been criticized

Vera Rudolph, ARD Geneva, European magazine, 10/22/2021

Historian criticizes provenance report

However, visitors to the Kunsthaus do not find out exactly which works are involved. A documentation center is supposed to deal with the history of Bührle – but in a separate room, separate from the art. The focus is on the history of the collector and weapon manufacturer himself.

The historian Erich Keller criticizes this approach: the history and fate of the Jewish families behind the works of art remained invisible. With other historians, he should work up the history of Bührle and research the origin of the works. The city and the canton of Zurich had set up a commission of historians for this purpose.

However, the Bührle Foundation itself also worked on the report – there were therefore restrictions from the start, reports Keller: “This provenance research, which was carried out by the Bührle Foundation itself, would have to be tackled from scratch: independently, transparently all in one also international project. “

The exhibition by the art collector Werner Merzbacher is shown one floor below.

Image: ARD Studio Geneva

Another point of criticism that caught up with the Kunsthaus Zürich: Bührle owned a girls’ home with an attached spinning mill in Dietfurt in the canton of St. Gallen. Young women are said to have worked there against their will and without a fixed wage. Her forced labor meant even more profit for Bührle. To date, they have not received an apology. Her fate is also not mentioned at the Kunsthaus Zürich.

One floor below: The Merzbacher Collection

Just one floor below, the Kunsthaus is showing a collection whose history could not be more contradicting: it is the exhibition by Werner Merzbacher. His father was a Jew. When he was ten, his parents sent him to Switzerland – his salvation, because his parents were murdered by the Nazis in the Majdanek concentration camp.

Merzbacher became a successful fur trader and collects paintings, especially by famous Impressionists and Fauvists. The fact that his collection is shown under the same roof as that of the weapons manufacturer Bührle, for whom his business earned the title “King of the Guns”, is not a contradiction for Merzbacher – but a matter that needs to be dealt with: “I think it’s right that you clarify everything “, he says. “I thought that had already happened. But I took the path that I think was right. And that has nothing to do with Bührle, but with the fact that I exist.”

So far, little reminds of the fate behind the Bührle Collection at the Kunsthaus Zürich. It is the most beautiful art that has rekindled a debate about political responsibility and collective memory.

You can see these and other reports on Sunday, October 24th, 2021 at 12.45 in the “Europamagazin” program on Das Erste.

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