© Fotostiftung der Schweiz, Gotthard Schuh

«We’re asking about profit, morality, money and rescue.»

Eva Reifert on the exhibition «Castaway Modernism»

In Octo­ber 2022, the Kunst­mu­se­um Basel ope­ned the exhi­bi­ti­on «Casta­way Moder­nism. Basel’s Acqui­si­ti­ons of ‹Dege­ne­ra­te› Art.» The exhi­bi­ti­on shows works purcha­sed by the Kunst­mu­se­um in 1939 after Nazi Ger­ma­ny con­fis­ca­ted them from its muse­ums and put them up for sale. The Kunst­mu­se­um Basel bought some of the works in an auc­tion in Lucer­ne and others in Ber­lin – and began to form an important coll­ec­tion of modern Euro­pean art. Dr. Eva Rei­fert, cura­tor of 19th cen­tu­ry and clas­si­cal moder­nist art at the Kunst­mu­se­um Basel, spo­ke with Dr. Nao­mi Lubrich about an exhi­bi­ti­on topic which final­ly found its moment.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Eva, you have wan­ted to exhi­bit the 1939 ‹dege­ne­ra­te› art purcha­ses for many years. Has its time final­ly come?

Eva Rei­fert: I star­ted pre­pa­ring the con­cept in 2017/18. In 2021, Tes­sa Rose­b­rock, the head of the new pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch depart­ment, joi­n­ed me to work on the exhi­bit. We took our time to think through the topic tho­rough­ly and to struc­tu­re and plan the pre­sen­ta­ti­on. We are lucky to be able to dis­cuss this topic in Switz­er­land in an open and enga­ged con­ver­sa­ti­on. The pro­ject fits our time. 

NL: What types of art were clas­si­fied as ‹dege­ne­ra­te›?

ER: Nazi Ger­ma­ny used the term ‹dege­ne­ra­te› arbi­tra­ri­ly for any­thing that did not suit the regime’s world view. The Nazis defa­med art that appeared too modern or was not in line with the party’s ideo­lo­gy, for ins­tance works of expres­sio­nist, dada­ist, sur­rea­list, cubist and fau­vist art. ‹Dege­ne­ra­te› dele­gi­ti­mi­zed works by artists favor­ed by the Wei­mar Republic’s libe­ral art poli­cy, by Jewish artists and works with Jewish and poli­ti­cal subjects.

NL: What kind of an impact did the acqui­si­ti­ons have on the Kunst­mu­se­um Basel?

ER: The 21 works acqui­red in 1939 set the Kunst­mu­se­um on a new cour­se. They laid the foun­da­ti­on of the coll­ec­tion of modern Euro­pean art, which then grew in the fol­lo­wing deca­des thanks to loans, dona­ti­ons, and acqui­si­ti­ons. Wit­hout the acqui­si­ti­ons of that time, the Kunst­mu­se­um would not have beco­me what it is today.

NL: What ques­ti­ons would you like to lea­ve the audi­ence with?

ER: An ‹opi­ni­on wall› at the cen­ter of the exhi­bit traces the his­to­ri­cal dis­cus­sions about pro­fit, mora­li­ty, money and res­cue. We dis­play the key docu­ments but allow the visi­tors to form their own opi­ni­ons. At the end of the tour, we hope to lea­ve them with argu­ments that are com­plex and den­se, and an under­stan­ding of the situa­ti­on. I’m inte­res­ted to hear what the view­ers think after their visit – we invi­te them to post their feed­back and ask ques­ti­ons on our web­site. For tho­se who want to dis­cuss the topic in per­son, we offer dia­log tours in which par­ti­ci­pan­ts can ask ques­ti­ons. And at the end of the exhi­bit, we pre­sent the cor­re­spon­dence bet­ween Paul West­heim, a Jewish art cri­tic, and Georg Schmidt, the direc­tor of the art muse­um at the time, which the visi­tors can lis­ten to as an audio collage.

NL: I’ll defi­ni­te­ly have a lis­ten. Eva, thank you very much for your insight!

verfasst am 09.12.2022