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The Lives of Images. Provenances at Museum Berggruen
Picasso – Klee – Braque – Matisse

21.11.2018 to 19.05.2019
Museum Berggruen

The Nationalgalerie and the Zentralarchiv at Museum Berggruen are presenting an exhibition to mark the end of a three-year provenance research project. The exhibition tells the previously little-known life stories of paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque. How does an artwork become popular? Who were its owners? Under what circumstances did it change hands? The exhibition also includes a contemporary installation by French artist Raphaël Denis.

The Lives of Images: Provenances at Museum Berggruen: Picasso – Klee – Braque – Matisse is divided into eight sections in total:

  • Art Dealers and Collectors
  • Nazi Art Theft in France
  • What is Provenance Research?
  • Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler
  • Raphaël Denis
  • Picasso’s Milieu
  • Picasso and Paul Klee in the United States
  • African Works

Each of these themes is illustrated by extensive biographies of selected artworks. The exhibition reveals how the reverse side of a work is examined for clues to its provenance, giving visitors an understanding of the day-to-day work of provenance researchers. Every work that was researched receives a label detailing provenance chains that are also extensively documented and fully referenced in the exhibition catalogue. This special exhibition focuses on the provenance of artworks and their ownership histories prior to 1945. It also provides the occasion for a comprehensive rearrangement of the works, which are presented in new constellations both inside and outside the exhibition rooms.

The contemporary installation La loi normale des erreurs: Projet Picasso, version Berggruen, by French artist Raphaël Denis (born 1979), forms part of the exhibition and deals with the expropriation of artworks by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce or ERR), the Nazi Party organisation which was the main agent of the Nazis’s looting of art in occupied France. Juxtaposed with the installation are three works from the Museum Berggruen collection that were seized by the ERR and restituted to their owners after the war; Picasso’s 1921 Seated Nude Drying Her Foot is one example. Denis’s work exemplifies an artistic approach to the topic of provenance and looted art. The combination of the outcomes of scholarly research with an artistic installation is a new approach being followed by this exhibition.

Research project outcomes

The scholarly basis of the exhibition was generated through a research project supported by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation). This project, carried out from 2015 to 2018, investigated the provenances of 135 pre-1945 art objects which previously formed part of the private collection of Heinz Berggruen, and are presently the property of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). The project looked at paintings, works on paper and sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Henri Laurens. Over three years, the provenances of these works were systematically investigated in order to identify cultural property acquired as a result of Nazi persecution, particularly of Jewish owners.

Heinz Berggruen did not himself acquire any of the works before 1945. The earliest purchase by the art dealer and collector for which evidence can be found took place in 1954; the latest purchases can be dated to the year 2000. The majority of acquisitions – around 100 of the 135 artworks – were made after Berggruen ceased operating his gallery in 1980.

In the case of 83 of the works (around two thirds of those investigated), researchers found that forfeitures in the context of Nazi persecution were either extremely improbable or could be ruled out entirely by project’s end. Back in 2015, it had only be possible to reach this conclusion in relation to 38 works.

In the case of four works (by Pablo Picasso) researchers discovered that they had been confiscated from Jewish collectors in France by operatives of the German Embassy or the ERR: Seated Nude Drying Her Foot (1921) and The Yellow Jumper (1939) had belonged to Paul Rosenberg’s collection, Head of a Woman (1906-07) and Still Life with Blue Guitar (1924) to that of Alphonse Kann. All four works were treated as Nazi looted art and returned to their rightful owners immediately after the war. Only later did they enter Heinz Berggruen’s collection.

No cases were discovered in which artworks were clearly seized in the course of persecution by the Nazis and had not since been restituted. However, just over one third of the artworks have gaps in their provenances, meaning that at present, the evidence does not allow for a complete, continuous reconstruction of all former owners and the periods during which they owned the works. In the majority of these cases of works with gaps in provenance, there is no reason to suspect that they were surrendered as a result of persecution. In only four cases does the research suggest that such a persecution-related loss might have taken place. These works are Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Jaime Sabarté (1904) and Still Life with Glass and Playing Cards (Homage to Max Jacob) (1914), Georges Braque’s Still Life with Pipe (Le Quotidien du Midi) (1914) and Paul Klee’s Three Times Three Crosses (1925). On the basis of the publication of the research outcomes, it may in future become possible to close these gaps through further research or through information provided by external parties.

Besides the provenances of individual works, the research project has generated a large amount of information about the Nazis’s looting of art in France, art market structures in the early twentieth century in Europe and the USA, art circles in France, private collections in the USA during the 1930s and ’40s, the trade in “degenerate” art, and about complex systems for the administration of art estates (e.g. the Klee Society). Moreover, it has also been possible to expand our knowledge of the history of the critical reception of artists and the mechanisms by which they were made popular.

Exhibition catalogue

A book has been published to accompany the exhibition, a catalogue of Museum Berggruen’s holdings, supplemented by information on former owners and periods of ownership as revealed by the project.

The research outcomes are presented in detail in this companion publication, Biographien der Bilder: Provenienzen im Museum Bergguen (The Lives of Images: Provenances at Museum Berggruen), edited by Petra Winter, Doris Kachel and Sven Haase, Deutscher Kunstverlag (ISBN 978-3-422-07482-8). Life stories of selected works as well as essays illustrate the history of Heinz Berggruen’s private collection, indicate former owners and introduce the complexities of provenance and provenance research. The volume also includes reproductions of the works, photos of versos, historical images, portraits of collectors and dealers, a comprehensive index of the works investigated with extensive provenance information and references to corresponding sources, and a guide to individuals referred to.

Biographien der Bilder: Provenienzen im Museum Bergguen is available for purchase at Walther König bookstores or online.

Provenance research

In the 20 years since the declaration of the Washington Principles, museums have increasingly given attention to their responsibility to investigate their holdings in order to identify works that may have been looted by the Nazis. The Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz has carried out several systematic provenance research projects and investigated a large number of individual cases. In this way, it has been possible to return over 350 artworks and more than 2000 books to their rightful owners.

The provenance research project at Museum Berggruen was supported by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (a German civil law foundation).

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