Ever since the story broke, I’ve been fascinated by the tale of Cornelius Gurlitt. You may recall that in 2012, the reclusive, elderly German pensioner was discovered to be in the possession of hundreds of works of art by well-known artists, many of which were previously unknown or had been missing for decades. Authorities believed a significant percentage of the collection was either Nazi loot, or forcibly sold by Jewish collectors to Gurlitt’s father, one of the Third Reich’s preferred art dealers.
Gurlitt died yesterday at his home in Munich, a small, rented apartment which had once been crammed with an estimated 1,400 artworks by artists such as Chagall, Picasso, Canaletto, and many others. In February of this year it was revealed that Gurlitt’s country house, near the Austrian city of Salzburg, was filled with over 60 works by artists such as Monet, Manet, and Renoir. Because of questions regarding the provenance of the art in his possession, Gurlitt eventually agreed to turn over the collection to the German authorities for investigation. To the end Gurlitt remained convinced that all or most of the pieces would be determined to be rightfully his, and that his name would be cleared.
If you didn’t catch the superb article about Gurlitt in Der Spiegel a few months ago, interviewing him and detailing what is known about his life, it is very much worth your time. Not only is it a superb piece of journalism and extremely well-written (kudos to the English translator, as well), but it imparts a profound sense of a man both living outside of time, yet simultaneously imprisoned by it. One gets the sense that Gurlitt lived constantly in the presence of shadows, which were very real to him, so that in many ways these paintings were the physical embodiment of two diametrically opposed elements of his life.
On one hand, the art reminded him of all the family who had predeceased him, leaving him alone. His personal failures, and his inability to achieve much of anything with his life, hung about him as he got older, as he looked at the works of art he had inherited by default as the last man standing. In this Gurlitt at the end is vaguely reminiscent of the conclusion of di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard”, with the rotting “relics” and questionable art held on to by the now-decadent Salina sisters.
On the other hand, in some respects Gurlitt’s hoard acted not as an albatross, but as a cocoon. As the world around him changed, these familiar objects and the associations which he held with them, served to insulate him from reality. Whether looking through portfolios of Old Master drawings in his little apartment, or visiting a host of glowing Impressionist paintings at his house in the country, he could imagine that his life was still promising, and that his family was just in the next room or down the hall. They were all merely shadows by this point, yes, but in a way one supposes that they were comforting shadows, and he felt that they kept him safe from a world which he had been unable to come to terms with.
Gurlitt’s tale is an unfortunate one, for many reasons. If, as is suspected, it turns out that some or all of the art he possessed was not rightfully his, but rather was illegally expropriated from those who were later murdered by the state, then it will be yet another sad, horrid chapter in the history of socialism. It may take quite a long time for justice to be properly meted out, and at this late date one doubts that it will completely resolve the matter. There will almost certainly have to be some kind of government inquiry regarding the possibility of settlement, and that may take years.
Imagine what might have happened if, upon inheriting these works of art, Gurlitt had done the right thing and stepped forward. We would be reading a very different obituary today. By that one voluntary act of giving up this collection, and working to ensure that these pieces were returned to their rightful owners, Gurlitt could have achieved what eluded him his entire life: a sense of purpose. Instead of trying to hold on to these phantasms, if he had exposed them they would have lost their power over him. He might have spent his life trying to do good for others, earning the respect and appreciation he craved.
Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that if he had not been caught, Gurlitt would never have made his collection known to the authorities. The works might have been discovered later, upon his demise and the clearing of the contents of his homes, but then there would have been even fewer answers available to the authorities. Whether Gurlitt was guilty of any prosecutable offenses, or what he would have done at the conclusion of the government investigations, we will never know.
When he returned to Munich earlier this week, after a recent heart operation in Salzburg, Gurlitt came home to an empty apartment. It had been stripped of the art that had surrounded him his entire life. One wonders whether the thought that he would probably never see the collection again came upon him, and perhaps that realization is what caused Gurlitt’s heart to give up at last.
Whatever the cause, the man who lived so much of his life in the shadows, has now become one.