Facing an Uncomfortable Past: Restitution and the rehang of the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz

The Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, founded in 2003 in the Upper Austrian regional capital, is closely tied to its home city: the name Lentos, coming from the celtic and meaning ‘close by the river’, was the linguistic predecessor to the city’s name ‘Lentia’ during Roman times. The museum’s location by the Danube, housed in a modern building designed by Zurich architects Weber+Hofer, faces and mirrors the city’s Ars Electronica Centre (AEC), a museum dedicated to the electronic arts, on the other side of the river. Together, the Lentos and the AEC buildings have not only served to transform Linz’s industrial riverside into a location of culture, they also visually shift attention away from the Nibelungen bridge connecting the city core to the suburb Urfahr and the Upper Austrian North, leading on to the Czech Republic. Built between 1938 and 1940, the bridge was part of a large national socialist redevelopment project, building on plans Adolf Hitler had first sketched out in the mid-1920s. Today, the Nibelungen bridge still counts as one of the main connectors between Linz and northern Upper Austria – serving as an uneasy reminder of the country’s national socialist past, which the Lentos is now confronting head-on.

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Exhibition view, LENTOS Kunstmuseum, Linz, 2018 – photo: maschekS, LENTOS Kunstmuseum

After a change of personnel in 2017, the museum has recently restructured the permanent display of its collection, which, according to its website ‘will allow visitors to get to know the most important movements and styles of art history from the 19th century to the present in the original’. Rather than offering only this promised conventional overview, however, the Lentos has also introduced and reinforced some aspects that are set to address the role of museums in public education and the forging of art historical narratives in a more innovative manner. As a part of this, it shows striking attempts at transparency in terms of how a museum collection is built and how restitution is dealt with – a particularly important point in the management of Austrian museum collections given the country’s national socialist past. Considering the historical positioning of Linz in the twentieth century and the Lentos’s links to this history as a municipal art collection, its overhauled permanent display shows the opportunities arising from a difficult legacy.

The Nazi legacy

Predominantly known as an industrial city, the Upper Austrian capital Linz is dominated by the Voest steel production company and an urban landscape of factory buildings and social housing projects surrounding its historical core. Yet, as one of Austria’s largest cities, Linz also has a diverse cultural heritage, whose rising prominence was not least due to its role as European Capital of Culture in 2009. An important part of this programme was a confrontation with the national socialist past: as Adolf Hitler’s favourite city, the ‘Special Commission: Linz’ was founded in 1939 to transform the Linz into a major cultural capital. Close to Hitler’s birthplace of Braunau and the German border, harbouring industrial might and easy access to the Danube river, during National Socialism, the city was to become an alternative to Vienna, whose cultural significance had been aligned with Jewish cosmopolitanism and Habsburg nostalgia by the regime.

The extensive plans of redevelopment for Linz also included the so-called Führermuseum, in which Hitler’s favourite artworks, looted from across Europe, would go on display. As part of the city’s programme as European Capital of Culture, the Schlossmuseum presented an extensive exhibition, which addressed the Führermuseum project and the planned redevelopment of Linz.

Yet the growing prominence of Linz under National Socialism, as it was addressed in the 2008/2009 exhibition, also casts a long shadow over the origins of the city’s gallery for modern and contemporary art: founded in 2003, the Lentos Art Museum builds on the collection of the German art dealer and publisher Wolfgang Gurlitt (1888-1965), whose relocation to Linz and ties to the city cannot be viewed without consideration of his connections to the regime and the Führermuseum project. As the cousin of the infamous Nazi-art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, part of whose vast collection of looted artworks was only recovered in possession of his son Cornelius in 2010, Gurlitt participated in the acquisition selection for the Führermuseum and dealt with looted objects. As a recent exhibition which inaugurated the rehang at the Lentos has pointed out, however, he also helped Jewish colleagues and friends to save their lives and possessions. In this light, Gurlitt represents an ambiguous figure, whose ‘rediscovery’ underlines the museum’s growing willingness to deal with the complicated nuances of collaboration and resistance that are so symptomatic of this era in Austrian (art) history.

After the Second World War, Gurlitt stayed in Linz, became an Austrian citizen and co-founded the New Gallery of the City of Linz, which he headed until 1960. With most of his artworks becoming part of the city collection of modern art, the Lentos was thus built from a rich selection of paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, whose opaque acquisition history serves as a reminder to Linz’s position as a darling city under National Socialism. As the backbone of the Lentos collection, the updated permanent display now takes this legacy to task.

The case of Ria Munk III

Featuring prominently in the first room, restitution case studies serve as the entrance to the collection display. The works in question are not present in the room; rather, a changing projection on the wall commemorates those images that could already be restored to the heirs of their original owners, while a booklet offers detailed information about the restitution process. It outlines the conditions under which the paintings in question came into Wolfgang Gurlitt’s ownership (if known at all) and sets focus on the stories of numerous families and individuals persecuted and murdered by the National Socialist regime.

Klimt Ria Munk

Gustav Klimt: Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III, 1917-18, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – photo: metmuseum.org

The works projected and described in the booklet include Gustav Klimt’s Ria Munk III (unfinished), for example, picturing the daughter of a family of wealthy Klimt patrons, who committed suicide in 1911, aged only 24. Her unfinished portrait hung in her mother Aranka’s summer villa in Austria’s Salzkammergut region, which was wholly confiscated by the Nazis in 1942 after Aranka was murdered in the Łódż Ghetto. The painting, however, was not listed among the confiscated possessions, leading to the assumption that Gurlitt, who had a villa nearby, might have removed it before it could be taken away. Even though this history was known and in spite of warnings by municipal officials not to buy the work because of its acquisition history, the city of Linz purchased Ria Munk III in 1956 from Gurlitt. It was only restored to the heirs of Aranka Munk in 2009.

Given the prominent position of Klimt in Austrian art history, Ria Munk III represents an emblematic story with an exceptional host of actors involved. The detailed outline of its acquisition history, next to that of paintings by Egon Schiele, Lesser Ury, Anton Romako and Lovis Corinth, frames the permanent display, showing with a great level of transparency which paintings were from the Gurlitt collection. They also disclose how their histories are slowly unravelled by the study group for provenance research founded by Linz city council in collaboration with the museum in 2007. In the permanent display, which stretches from the late nineteenth century to the contemporary, this work is made visible in detailed exhibition labels, which not only give detail about the works but also about their acquisition history. A simple yet effective practice, the labels thus dislocate the works from the sterile ‘white cube’ context of the gallery and imply their role in a wider social and political world.

The early twentieth century on display  

The rooms in which restitution cases from the Gurlitt collection feature most prominently are those tracing artistic developments from the late nineteenth century to the Second World War, forming the backbone of the exhibition. Starting with the Austrian portrait painter Anton Romako and finishing with a juxtaposition between national socialist and ‘degenerate’ art, which includes works by Franz Glaubacker (1896-1974) on one side and Ida Kerkovius on the other, it follows canonical narratives of early twentieth century modernism. These are organised in line with stylistic developments, including impressionism, expressionism and abstraction, the new objectivity and a small section on photography, shown in a separate space from painting, prints and sculpture. On the one hand, this formal categorisation makes for a conventional presentation, serving as an alternative guide through the collection aside from the narratives of restitution from Gurlitt’s collection, outlined at the beginning. Yet the drive to be more inclusive in response to the collection’s murky past also surfaces in this more conventional narrative.

The main focus of the collection is Austrian based, including a cross-section of artists reaching from Romako via Klimt and Schiele to Oskar Kokoschka, Anton Kolig, Alfons Walde and Franz Sedlacek. Yet the display also strives to balance out some of the inequalities inscribed in the art historical canon, which have informed some of the core issues of debate within the discipline in the past decades. Most notably, this includes the dynamic of artistic centres and peripheries, describing the imbalance of power between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ European countries, and women’s contributions to modern art in the region.

Broncia Koller Pinell cut

Broncia Koller-Pinell: Portrait of Theresia Coudenhove, c. 1895, LENTOS Kunstmuseum, Linz – photo: Julia Secklehner

Without singling them out or pointing out differences between ‘regional’ and ‘international’ art, the display encompasses a remarkably high number of women artists, who have long been overlooked, such as Broncia Koller-Pinell, Helene Funke, and Marianne von Werefkin. The composition by the Hungarian co-founder of the de Stijl group, Vilmos Huszár represents one of the earliest examples of abstraction on display, while the section showing what was considered ‘degenerate art’ under National Socialism prominently features works by the Latvian Bauhaus-student, weaver and painter Kerkovius.

Of course, cynics may suggest that these artists might simply have been more available to a regional city gallery than ‘master paintings’ reserved for major Austrian institutions like the Albertina or the Belvedere in Vienna. However, the Lentos indeed holds a good selection of high-profile works as well, including Egon Schiele’s Chief Inspector Heinrich Benesch and his Son Otto (1913) for example. Unsurprisingly, these were all inherited from Gurlitt. Rather than lifted out as the pinnacles of the collection, however, these works are integrated well in the display – which, implicitly, also speaks for the quality of the other works. The conventional organisation of the display by formal features thus offers some refreshing image combinations and, upon second look, is remarkably inclusive and aware of current debates in art history.

It is only unfortunate that this organisation of the display, based on the museum’s aims to emphasise a progressive politics in response to the precarious heritage of its collection, will only be accessible to visitors with a background in art history: aside from the details given on the restitution cases and some longer, interpretative exhibition labels, there is no guiding wall text that would lead one through the exhibition, apart from broad headlines – such as ‘Towards Abstraction: Expressionism and Cubist Tendencies’. Thus, what makes for a thoroughly enjoyable exploration for art historians might turn out to be rather confusing for the general visitor. With this approach to exhibition-making, the Lentos is by no means the exception, as has already been shown on this blog. Given the potential the Lentos collection harbours, and the informed approaches that are quite clearly taken in the selection of the display, some additional information would improve accessibility and make the museum’s open take on showing art history in the museum more approachable for the general visitor.

A notable exception here is ‘Zu schade für die Lade’ (‘Too precious for the cupboard’), a changing section in the display, which rotate a showcase of works from the graphic collection from across the twentieth century. The selected work (currently The Dandelion of Time, 1978, by Margit Palme) comes with a detailed sheet of information about the artist, the works the acquisition and wider contexts.

Display reforms and accessibility

Closely engaging with the legacy of Wolfgang Gurlitt, the rehang of the permanent display in the Lentos Kunstmuseum offers some innovative approaches that strive to overturn the national socialist past it is tied to. This is done with a combination of approaches that not only emphasise transparency but curate a display informed by diversity. In doing so, the museum’s carefully selected permanent display, in alignment with its rich collection, is a reminder that more attention should be paid to regional museums: able to bypass the need for blockbuster exhibitions in national museums, which draw in masses of visitors but all too rarely engage critically with the material on display, the Lentos is exemplary in dealing with its own and the city’s past without making this the sole focus of its display. However, as a museum conceived for a broader public, it will still be necessary to communicate these approaches more comprehensibly. Perhaps other museum might also catch on then.

Julia Secklehner

The Lentos Kunstmuseum website: https://www.lentos.at/html/en/index.aspx

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/YPVDJ

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