'A Kind of Fief' Munich Art Hoarder's Father in His Own Words

The name Cornelius Gurlitt has hit the headlines recently after the discovery of a massive art collection in his Munich apartment. His art dealer father Hildebrand offered a fascinating insight into his love of paintings in a never-before published text from 1955.

Hildebrand Gurlitt guides a tour through the Sao Paulo exhibition in 1954.
Kunstverein Düsseldorf

Hildebrand Gurlitt guides a tour through the Sao Paulo exhibition in 1954.


Almost a year before his death, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956) wrote a six-page essay on the history of his collection that was originally intended to serve as a foreword for an exhibition catalogue. But it was never printed "for all kinds of reasons," as Gurlitt wrote in a letter in November 1955. This forgotten manuscript, which was kept for decades in the Düsseldorf city archives, is one of the few texts written by Gurlitt that provides an insight into the life and intellectual world of this passionate collector. One page -- in which Gurlitt apparently describes his career as an art dealer during the Nazi era -- is missing from the archives. Nevertheless, the surviving pages are an important source of information on the life of this man. The following is a compilation of the key passages:

When I speak of my collection, forgive me if I also have to tell the story of my own life -- a life whose ups and downs have not had much that is remarkable, yet very much that is typically German. I had the good fortune to be born into a family in which already as a schoolboy, even before 1914, I encountered the art that we in Europe call "modern" today. My father was a man whose home was frequented by young artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel -- in short, the founders of the Dresden "Brücke" (the "Bridge" group of German expressionist artists -- editor's note). I will never forget the moment when I and my mother, "Madame royal Saxon privy councilor,"* saw the first exhibition of the "Brücke" in a baroque lamp shop, on a desolate street in Dresden, around 1912. This art -- these barbaric, passionately powerful colors, this rawness, enclosed in the poorest of wooden frames -- aimed to hit the middle class like a slap in the face. And that is indeed what it did. I, the young schoolboy, was also startled, but "Madame privy councilor" said that we should buy a sample of these interesting works, and she took home one of the most astonishing woodcuts. My father, though, who at the time was already the 60-year-old dean of a college, said to me that these young painters were excellent people. "It may very well be that this art will become as important to your life as the struggle over Hans Thoma, Arnold Böcklin and Max Liebermann was to mine."

It turned out that he was right, but with one minor difference. In my father's generation they fought with intellectual weapons -- whereas our battles were to be cruder.

Winter and Night Cities of Volnius and Kovnov

World War I began for me when I was finishing my last year in high school. The young man who read Dostoevsky "of course" volunteered for military service and was wounded a number of times as a machine gun officer in the great defensive battles of the Somme and in Champagne. Together with my war comrades on the front lines, we leafed through Franz Pfemfert's Der Sturm**, a magazine filled with avant-garde paintings and poetry, and we were thus prepared when we later met men like Arnold Zweig, Schmidt-Rottluff, Paul Fechter and others, who were also serving as soldiers in the mysterious Polish, Lithuanian, Yiddish, Baroque winter and night cities of Vilnius and Kovnov, which seemed so reminiscent to us of Chagall's paintings.

The volunteer who went to war turned into a young man who only cared about art, and was skeptical of all politics.

The father Cornelius was stationed in Versailles in 1871 when Bismarck established the German Empire. The son returned to Dresden and had seen so much senseless bloodshed that for the rest of his life he could not shake the thought that it was merely an astonishing coincidence -- the coincidence of one ten-thousandth of a second -- that he didn't share a grave with his friends on the Somme, but instead had been given a leave thanks to a wound. That thought probably allowed him to better understand the art of his era.

It was thus in this state of mind, and dressed in an old black-dyed uniform, that he began his studies in art history in the old city of Frankfurt am Main, which was ruled by Max Beckmann and Paul Hindemith, the stars of the day for those in the know. Amidst the political chaos of the day, virtually the only things that we students could be certain of was that Käthe Kollwitz was an important woman, Chagall was a great painter, the "Brücke," the "Blaue Reiter" (a group of expressionist artists -- editor's note) and "Bauhaus" were the centers of German art, Mary Wiegmann was a great dancer, and Georg Trakl and Franz Viktor Werfel were poets.

There was no question of purchasing and collecting. Back in 1915, my father, who was inundated with honorary positions at the time, had already sold to the state his last gold watch chain along with the gold honorary medals and decorations. Like most "respectable" Germans, inflation had completely wiped out his savings.

Transforming a Sleepy Provincial Museum

The Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper sent me to the US in 1925, and that same year I became the curator of the museum in Zwickau. This old Saxon city was now filled with coal mines, industry, unemployed workers and soot. My goal here for art lovers from all walks of life -- including the working class -- was to transform a sleepy provincial museum into a lively center of art. Since I only had limited funds, I sold, for instance, a large oil painting of dubious appeal from the late 19th century during the process of reorganizing the beautiful old collection. Young friends from the Bauhaus school gave the museum a coat of paint and took care of the lighting. To compile a collection of contemporary art, I purchased watercolors, drawings and lithographs from the great German painters of our era. I was of the opinion, as I still am today, that German Expressionism conveys its key messages in prints and drawings. I created a vibrant museum, which was visited by many groups and thousands of individuals from every corner of society, with guided tours and exhibitions. Works by leading members of the latest generation of German artists were shown, but there were also musical performances, for example, Paul Hindemith played old and new compositions of his own, Joachim Ringelnatz gave readings and Kurt Schwitters, Prof. Pinder and many others spoke. This work, which would be perfectly normal today in the museums of Germany's industrial cities, led to fierce battles with the Nazi Party and, in 1928, the loss of my position as curator; after all, I had promoted "Scribble-Scrabble Paul Klee," the "Scrawler" Oskar Kokoschka, the "East Baltic Mongoloids" Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach, the Jewish Liebermann. It was at this time that Bauhaus was booted out of Weimar. Young as I was, I had attempted the right thing in the wrong place.

After a few semesters teaching at the Dresden State Academy of Art, where I lectured to overcrowded auditoriums on precisely the things that the increasingly powerful Nazi Party hated, I became the director of the new and beautifully built Kunstverein in Hamburg where, after working successfully, I was sacked again, in the same spirit, in 1932.

You can hardly imagine in the US what it meant over the following years to remain true to the art that I loved. It meant going against the press, against public opinion that finally allowed "normal" citizens to give free rein to their innate hate of the good art that was blowing apart their cozy world.

I was alone. Of course, I still had a few friends, but all of my doubts continued to grow.

Naturally, the new art was still alive. The painters painted, although they usually did so in secret. Strangely enough, it was possible to find friends of new art even in the Nazi party's inner circles. Strangely enough, it was possible -- although only if you were lucky -- to do more for new art than was often done. I established an art gallery in my apartment on Hamburg's Alster Lake, and I was able to organize a number of beautiful new exhibitions, for example, the only one in the Third Reich showing the works of Max Beckmann before the great painter emigrated abroad.

Secretively Yet Eagerly Visiting a Den of Iniquity

People visited my Kunstkabinett, where modern art soon accumulated, like a kind of den of iniquity -- somewhat secretively, yet eagerly. "Between the lines," so to speak, the strangest people appeared at my door, including new museum curators who could be seen elsewhere running around in SS uniforms, but apparently felt at ease in my gallery and did not denounce me. But who knew whom? Who remained, who emigrated, what was right and what was brave?

A great many works of modern art passed through my hands. They came from painters, from emigrated clients and friends, from people who preferred to sell the paintings as a precaution, from the depot of confiscated art in Niederschönhausen where, if you had enough pluck, you could buy very beautiful paintings with the same foreign currencies that were otherwise illegal to possess and could land you in jail. What wasn't sold for cash -- some 80,000 works of art, I believe -- was burned by the SS. I was able to save many of these paintings from destruction and pass them on to great collectors, like Josef Haubrich in Cologne and Bernhard Sprengel in Hanover, who purchased the entire collection of prints and drawings by Emil Nolde. There were always men whose profound love of the new art made them courageous, but everything was done half in secret.

(A page is missing here.)

(After the bombing raids on Dresden on the night of Feb. 14, 1945 -editor's note) we swore to regret no material losses, to recognize the logical consequences that had led to the destruction and, although we were filled with sorrow, to resume life, no matter how simple.

I found the safeguarded remains of the collection and still own them. But their adventures had actually only just begun. Torn from their passepartouts, dispersed at various locations, part of the collection was in Saxony, and it was only later, after a communist village mayor had confiscated them, that I was able to secure their release with a bit of cunning and, thanks to a good Russian who was delighted with two bottles of schnapps on a rainy night, slip them through the Iron Curtain. Another part of the collection was confiscated by the Americans and returned to me -- safe and sound -- by an outstanding specialist five years later. A third part of the collection was hidden in the thick walls of an old windmill in the Franconia region and later recovered.

'A Fief I Have Been Assigned to Steward'

I have not been an art dealer for many years now; the "thousand years" of the Third Reich were enough for me. But I won't sell any of these works of art, just as I can acquire very few new ones. I see this collection, which has -- quite unexpectedly, I must say -- fallen back into my hands after so many perils, not as my property, but rather as a kind of fief that I have been assigned to steward.

I know that there is no word in these lines that addresses the spiritual and intellectual value of our art. I know how difficult it is to determine the standing of something that is so close to one's heart. I know, though, what these works of art have meant for me: the best of my life. These works reflect the struggle to come to terms with who we are, and I think that you can perhaps better understand this art if you know the story of this small collection, which is not unique, but really very typical for Germany.

* The German phrase is apparently a tongue-in-cheek reference to the old-fashioned title of the author's mother.

** The author is seemingly mistaken here; Der Sturm was founded by Herwath Walden, while Franz Pfemfert edited a similar magazine at the time called Die Aktion.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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