Exhibition of works sold by the Germans at the Lucerne auction in 1939 opens in Liege

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Exhibition of works sold by the Germans at the Lucerne auction in 1939 opens in Liege
Paul Gauguin, Le Sorcier d'Hiva Oa, 1902. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège (Bal), © Ville de Liège.

LIEGE.- An original exhibition bringing together in Liège the works from the Lucerne auction Art and history are combined in an exhibition presented in Liège dedicated to works that were sold by the Germans at the Lucerne auction in 1939.

On the eve of the Second World War, the Nazi authorities wished to dispose of the Modern art works in display in German art galleries that they considered “degenerate”. In June 1939, they organised a grand auction in Lucerne. This auction, which was to take on a historic dimension, offered works by some of the greatest artists of the period: Gauguin, Chagall, Matisse, Kokoschka and even Picasso…

The Belgian government was represented at the auction, as was a delegation from Liège that had managed to raise quite a large sum. Belgium acquired several works of art for the museums of Antwerp and Brussels while Liège purchased nine exceptional paintings that today form part of the city’s major collections.

Now scattered around the world in prestigious private and public collections, a large number of the works from the auction have been brought together for the first time and exclusively presented at the Cité Miroir in Liège. The exhibition has been enriched by numerous documents evoking the historical context of the auction.

The Cité Miroir, a building with an exceptional architectural style, is a new multipurpose cultural venue in the very heart of Liège. It was built in 1939 and has just been fully renovated. This complex housed the Sauvenière public baths and swimming pool. It is now devoted to public and cultural projects.

The exhibition brings together masters such as Chagall, Picasso, Gauguin, Ensor and many others around the theme ‘Art and Power’. Art and history forms the essence of this exhibition, which reunites the works the Nazi regime considered as degenerate and sold at auction in Lucerne in 1939, for the first time in Europe.

Numerous documents evoking the historical context of the sale add substance to the exhibition. It is important to note that the Lucerne auction exclusively concerns works originating from German museums and not those confiscated from Jewish families.

The Lucerne auction was part of a broader process concerning the Nazi regime’s attitude to modern art. On the eve of the Second World War, the Nazi authorities wanted to dispose of the modern artworks they classed as ‘degenerate’ (Entartete Kunst). Museums from thirty-two towns across the Rhine were affected. «In total approximately 7,000 works of art were confiscated from state museums,” explains Jean-Patrick Duchesne, professor of art history at the University of Liège and scientific curator of the exhibition. “On the other hand the regime never banned private sales. There is considerable ambiguity and contradiction surrounding the concept of degenerate art. There was however no unanimity within the regime.» Some of the works confiscated were destroyed but fortunately the majority have been preserved.

Experts rigorously selected the pieces likely to be sold off at extortionate prices during a «trial run» to determine their value. An importantly auction was held at Lucerne, at the Theodor Fischer gallery on 29 June 1939. This sale, which was to take on a historical dimension, comprised 125 works. The catalogue lists 108 paintings and 17 sculptures by 39 artists : the precursors of expressionism (such as Ensor, Gauguin and Van Gogh), German impressionists (such as Corinth, Liebermann and Mataré), French or foreign members of the School of Paris (Ecole de Paris) (including Braque, Chagall, Derain, Marie Laurencin, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Vlaminck) and particularly German expressionists (the Germans Dix, Grosz, Hofer, Macke, Marc, Nolde, the Austrian Kokoschka and the two Swiss artists Amiet and Klee).

Far from being publicised, preparations for the Lucerne auction were organised with the utmost discretion. Nevertheless, they came to the attention of the local Liège resident Jules Bosmant, teacher and influential art critic (and future director of the Fine Arts Museum of Liège). Sensing a good deal for the city, he brought off an amazing feat, amassing BEF 5 million, a colossal amount at the time, in a single month. The money came from the City of Liège, the Belgian State and patrons. The Liège delegation dispatched to Lucerne negotiated with the official delegations to obtain a piece of the cake. It succeeded in purchasing nine exceptional canvases (out of ten discounted paintings), which currently form part of the major works of the City’s collections and are permanently exhibited in its Fine Arts Museum.

At this point, it is interesting to note that after a rich history including several developments during the 20th century (the very first museum was built in 1905), the Fine Arts Museum, open since July 20111 and rechristened BAL (Beaux-Arts Liège) now comprises all the collections of Liège, those of the Museum of Walloon Fine Arts, the MAMAC collections (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), the Fonds des Anciens collections (800 paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries that have never been exhibited in public) and 40,000 works originating from the Prints and Drawings Room (Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins).

The Liège delegation dispatched to Lucerne to negotiate the acquisition of the works consisted of Auguste Buisseret, liberal alderman responsible for the Fine Arts (future minister and mayor), Jacques Ochs, director of the Academy and the Fine Arts Museum and Olympe Gilbart, editor-inchief of the newspaper La Meuse and teacher of a Walloon art history course at the Université of Liège.

The Liège delegation succeeded in ‘extracting’ the following paintings:

• Marc Chagall (1887-1985): The Blue House (La maison bleue)
• James Ensor (1860-1949): Masks Confronting Death (Les masques et la mort)
• Paul Gauguin (1848-1903): The Magician of Hivoa (Le sorcier d’Hiva-Oa)
• Oscar Kokoschka (1886-1980): Monte Carlo
• Marie Laurencin (1885-1956): Portrait of a Little Girl (Portrait de jeune fille)
• Max Liebermann (1847-1935): Rider on the Beach (Le cavalier sur la plage)
• Franz Marc (1880-1916): The Blue Horses (Les chevaux bleus)
• Jules Pascin (1885-1930): Lunch room (Le déjeuner)
• Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): The Soler Family (La famille Soler)

These nine paintings constitue the «core» of the Musée des Beaux-Arts collections. Masterpieces classified as ‘national treasures’, they are also the most popular with the public, particularly the works by Chagall, Gauguin, Ensor and Picasso.

A second, national Belgian delegation, from the Acquisitions Commission for Fine Art, was also present in Lucerne. With a far more modest sum – BEF 100,000 - it left with six paintings ( Georg Brandes by Lovis Corinth, Portrait of Walter Mehring by Georges Grosz, Men at Table ( Hommes à table ) by Karl Hofer, The Hypnotist or Portrait of the actor Ernst Reinhold ( L’Hypnotiseur or Portrait de l’acteur Ernst Reinhold ) by Oscar Kokoschka, Flower Garden ( Jardin de fleurs ) by Emil Nolde and Young girl seated ( Jeune fille assise ) by Jules Pascin) destined for the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Antwerp and Brussels. The other buyers at the Lucerne auction consisted of dealers, collectors, experts and directors of American and Swiss as well as English, French, Dutch and Swedish museums.

Today, the works that were sold in Lucerne are scattered across the world in prestigious private and public collections. For the first time thirty of them will now be reunited and presented exclusively at La Cité Miroir in Liège.

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