Five years ago, the Gurlitt affair sent shockwaves through the art world and beyond. More than one thousand paintings collected by a Nazi art dealer were seized from a Munich apartment. They had been hidden for decades and included looted works.
Who owned these and other paintings is a question many institutions continue to struggle with.
Katja Blomberg, director of the contemporary gallery Haus am Waldsee, is on a different kind of journey.
She is searching for a missing picture, an icon of German modernism: Franz Marc’s “The Tower of Blue Horses” from 1913.
Many say the painting is lost but she is also investigating the space it left behind.
It was last seen in 1945 at Haus am Waldsee by the founder of Tagesspiegel newspaper, Edwin Redslob.
A question that continues to vex her is why no one followed indications that it was in Berlin after World War II ended.
The painting was taken in 1937 from the Kronprinzenpalais to the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich.
Three decades later, when asked about his memories by feature editor Heinz Ohff, Mr. Redslob drifted, told anecdotes.
No more clues were forthcoming and no one else asked, aside from Roland März, a curator at Berlin’s national gallery. The publicly-funded museum owned the painting until it was confiscated by the Nazis.
In 1937, the work was taken from the Kronprinzenpalais, where the national gallery shows its modern works, to the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich. It only hung there briefly, before being taken down after massive protests.
That’s when its whereabouts get hazy. Nazi dignitary Hermann Göring is said to have taken the work and stored it with other stolen paintings in the former villa of a raincoat manufacturer, known today as Haus am Waldsee, the art gallery.
To trace the work and lend form to its absence, Ms. Blomberg invited 11 artists and the writer Julia Franck to give shape to the painting’s loss from a contemporary perspective.
Michael Hering, the new director of the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, had the same idea.
His museum owns the famous postcard that Franz Marc wrote in 1912 to Else Lasker-Schüler. On the back is a first sketch for the masterpiece he would paint the following year. Alongside the sketch are the lines: “The Blue Rider presents Your Majesty with his Blue Horse.”
Mr. Hering asked artists to consider the legendary work. This call led to an exhibition in Rotterdam’s Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum. The location makes sense because the Netherlands suffered art theft but also was a hub for the art trade.
The Berlin show, also centered on Marc’s painting, is called “Missing: The Tower of Blue Horses.” It conveys for the first time the intertwined issues of stolen art, repression and loss from a historical perspective, through a contemporary artistic investigation.
The exhibition opened last week and coincides with the year of the Documenta, a contemporary art exhibition which takes place every five years in Kassel.
The exhibition in Kassel, as the place of origin for rehabilitated modernism in Germany, was eager to accept the Gurlitt collection. Its curators posed some similar questions five years ago about who owned the works.
But the situation for Franz Marc’s painting is different; the focus is not on the culprit because the work is missing.
Nor can there be any talk of amnesia for a picture that has a fixed place in collective memory: as a highlight of modernism, as a favorite picture in the Weimar Republic, as the legacy of an artist who died in war age 36, and as the crystalline vision of a better world in which the beauty of animals is celebrated.
The painting was perhaps seen once more in 1947, this time in the building next door, a youth hostel. Could boy scouts have used it to ignite a campfire?
Artist Norbert Bisky found an apt metaphor for the loss, repainting the picture in its original dimensions. He framed it much as it had been, adding the inventory numbers of the galleries, and then demolished the work. The visitor encounters its scorched, shredded remains on the floor of the first room in the Haus am Waldsee gallery. Marc’s brutal death, violence against art and persecution during the Third Reich all come together in this drastic installation.
What if? This is the question that resonates through the space.
It also greets the visitor through Tobias Rehberger’s illuminated art mounted on the dilapidated shed alongside the Haus am Waldsee. The phrase “Something else is possible” is written in harsh neon lettering; mounted on a building in Ibiza or above a gallery in Frankfurt, it would have an entirely different meaning. Within the “Missing” exhibition, it probes the question of the whereabouts of Marc’s picture.
The painting may have been seen once more in 1947, this time in the building next door, a youth hostel. Might youngsters have used it to light a campfire?
Marcel van Eeden’s series of drawings suggest another possibility. “The Tower of Blue Horses” is exchanged for drugs; after the war, a former Nazi takes the picture out of hiding from the villa and disappears forever.
Maybe today it is locked in a Swiss bank vault. Who knows? After the Gurlitt cache was discovered, fresh hopes emerged for lost art works.
This article first appeared in daily Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.