MAK Exhibition, “Recollecting”

Austrian Press Agency (APA) (12/02/2008)

MAK Exhibition, “Recollecting”
The Journey from Plunder to Restitution

Historical stations along the way track the history of art objects and their owners – contemporary artists contribute to the exhibition, “aktuelle Blicke”

Vienna – Looted art. What do these two words have in common? It is not a genre, it has no special style and belongs to no particular tradition. What the two words have in common is the unique fate of the human being from whom they have stolen, and that of the heirs, to whom that which was stolen will be returned; that is, in the best but not always the most frequent of cases. That is the “lender’s main focus and point of departure and,” said MAK director Peter Noever at today’s guided tour for the press when speaking about the exhibition, “Recollecting,” which will open tomorrow and run until February 15 in Vienna’s MAK center for art. “It cannot be compared to any other exhibit at this institution.”

A stride through the halls in search of art enjoyment is impossible since the “historical stations” build a kind of a labyrinth, depicting restituted works of art, such as paintings, porcelain, rugs, buttons, etc., next to documentation of the long and sad journey. The path from plunder to restitution is paved with bureaucracy – from official notifications to “Aryization,” by way of letters in which museum directors write of “unique opportunities,” or particularly low cost acquisitions, or requests for permission to export the art objects after the war.

Television screens which have been installed at each station along the way remind one that the exhibit is less about a documentary on historical crime than it is about its victims. “I am not an expert on art; I only know what I like,” said one of the heirs of Philipp Gomperz during an interview. Lucas Cranach’s “Madonna and Child in a Landscape” is exhibited once again in Vienna. The Imperial Governor of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, took the paintings; his wife admitted after the war that it was burned when in fact its sale can be traced back to the U.S. in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The exhibition didn’t spare from retelling stories. It is an exhibition with a lot to read about and to understand that the current of history never ceases. It concerns only a selection of stories which never find their ending, because many cases that have been unresolved. For example, there is Richard Neumann, who is fighting for two valuable altar panels which were hanging in the Kunsthistorische Museum. His grandfather could have bought them back after the war only if they stayed within the country – and thus, he entrusted them to the museum under very unfavorable conditions. The exhibition is not always about valuable paintings; for example, there are glasses and porcelain elephants, button and cars, books, letters and textiles about which much is unknown; sometimes portions of a collection were signed over to the museum in exchange for the permission to take the rest out of the country or were put on permanent loan in the museum.

Finally, the exhibit is very much an historical documentation. For example, the Mauerbach auction, in which “unidentified property” from impoverished Holocaust survivors was auctioned off in 1966, hosted by MAK. For decades the Republic of Austria had stored the objects in the Kartause Mauerbach; in only very few cases were the objects restituted. Clues as to the owners of the unidentified property were not sufficiently followed up, revealing the fact that until now the researcher on restitution, Sophie Lillie, has had only photos to rely on when searching for the true owners. Years after the auction, (which was carried out by the Jewish Community Vienna together with Christie’s), it was considered too late, however.

For an exhibition to take place there where an Amerling painting once again slipped into the hands of others is something ironic about it. Nonetheless, the heirs of Wilhelm Freund, made their restituted “Medea” by Anselm Feuerbach available. Many more of the contemporary works here are a follow-up to the Mauerbach auction. Thus, Arye Wachsmuth and Sophie Lillie depict in one installation the reverse side of the objects, revealing crucial clues as ‘endless repetition’. The artist group, “Klub Zwei” show a video, “Too Little, Too Late.”

The artists, among them also Ines Doujak, Lisl Ponger and Maria Eichhorn, “committed themselves where they wanted to be,” and tried to offer a “real glimpse,” explained guest curator Alexandra Reininghaus. Sometimes this real glimpse is very simple and clear: Rainer Ganahl photographed the exhibited art objects which had already been restituted in their new and old home – as for example, above the bedroom chest, in a narrow hallway, or in the middle of a wall full of family photos, and in doing so, fulfills Peter Noever’s aim of giving a “signal against the renaissance of forgetting.” This exhibition cannot be about looking back at an historical phenomenon, but is rather a documentation of a certain time in history.

“Recollecting. Looted Art and Restitution” runs from December 15 – February 15, at the MAK Exhibition Hall. For more information, see: