Posts Tagged ‘Thyssen provenance’

Thyssen Provenance à la Terlau or The Art of Academic Ineptitude

With a delay of 10 months following the publication of Johannes Gramlich’s book on „The Thyssens As Art Collectors“, the first official review, written by Dr Katja Terlau, a German art historian specialising in provenance research, has now finally appeared on the Sehepunkte review platform, as well as in the art magazine Kunstform.

What is most shocking about this piece is that the reviewer on three separate counts fails to appreciate the fact that the collections of Fritz Thyssen and of Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (and later Hans Heinrich) were two completely separate collections, describing them instead as one collection. One can only hope that Dr Terlau operates with more care in her general provenance research work, while one is also left wondering about the standards of „Sehepunkte“ and „Kunstform“ for publishing such a misleading assessment!

In general terms, this is a glowing review of a book said to be written by an „independent historian“, „supported by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Thyssen Industrial History Foundation“. That is, one presumes, as independent as Katja Terlau herself, who in 2001, with the support of the same Fritz Thyssen Foundation of Cologne, organised a colloquium entitled „Museums in the Twilight Zone – Purchase policies 1933-1945“, at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne.

Dr Terlau describes, in a gushing manner very akin to that of Johannes Gramlich himself, the Thyssens as a „renowned“, „successful“, „influential“, and „preeminently cross-linked“ family, who acquired a „magnificent“, „outstanding“, „high quality“ collection through the „passion“, „love“ and „special feeling“ of its members (not because the latter is true – it’s not -, but because the Thyssens are super-rich and major academic sponsors, which tends to leave people supremely dazzled and gullible).

Dr Terlau’s faculties of critical analysis sink to the lowest possible level when she enthuses how Heinrich Thyssen paid „ca. 50 million Reichsmark“ between 1926 and 1936 „alone“ to buy „over 500 paintings“. Meanwhile, she leaves the explanations by Gramlich that Heinrich’s heir Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza quietly disposed of at least 125 of those paintings, in the 1960s and 1970s, unmentioned. Or the fact that many experts at the time of Heinrich’s first exhibition in Munich in 1930 were highly critical of his collection, estimating anything up to 400 paintings to be of questionable quality.

There are a few redeeming features too, for instance when Dr Terlau quite rightly criticises the fact that so few of the actual art works are described by Gramlich sufficiently precisely to make an accurate identification of the works possible at all. She also accuses him of mentioning art inventories without ever citing from them, and of using sources that are well out of date and totally behind the current level of research!

Dr Terlau goes on to criticise Gramlich’s evaluation of the Thyssens’ Rodin marble sculptures and ceramic art in particular as „very questionable“, although it remains unclear what exactly she means by this. No explanation is forthcoming. She also objects to him failing to „take into account the object of the art trade in a more concrete manner“, while stating „this trade depends on many factors and personalities and is very difficult to grasp“ – again leaving the reader at a loss to understand what exactly is the point she is trying to make.

However, her statement that Gramlich’s assessment „the Nazis’ appropriation of art can be compared to the growing interest in art of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century“ „seems very disconcerting“ is a description that chimes very much with the feeling experienced by ourselves when we first read the passage in Gramlich’s book.

It is a shame that Dr Terlau has not seen fit to include in her review more of the „very disconcerting“ elements of Gramlich’s book, such as the Thyssens taking advantage of the disbanding of Jewish collections or their abuse of art for personal aggrandisement as well as tax avoidance, to name but a few. On top of which comes, of course, the morally questionable partial source of the wealth used for the art purchases (arms manufacture, forced labour).

On the whole, Dr Terlau recommends Johannes Gramlich’s book as „distinguished“ and as forming „a broad basis for many further research approaches“. However, as far as Thyssen is concerned, it can be assumed that it is not academia, but the „influential“ and „preeminently cross-linked“ Thyssens and their organisations, with their essential control over relevant source material and their financial power, who will be deciding on that.

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