Until January 2023, a statue of Urania – the classical muse for astronomy – will stand in the doorway of the Akademie der Kunst in Pariser Platz. The sandstone sculpture is in a sorry state. Her graffitied head has been roughly fixed back into place, her nose and fingers are missing and, over the years, people urinating have dissolved the fragile sandstone at her base. Once, she stood proudly above the stately entrance of the AdK’s original building on Unter den Linden. But for the past 120 years, she has been hidden away – left to disintegrate in a corner of Schöneberg’s Kleistpark.
It is believed the art collection lost three-quarters of its original holdings.
After a tip-off from a friend, Anna Schultz found the sculpture buried beneath a heap of shrubs and bushes. “But we didn’t want to clean her up,” explains the co-curator of Provenance Research, the latest exhibition at the AdK. “She is a perfect symbol for the consequences of war and what happens to artworks over time.”
From the identification of Nazi-looted art to the rediscovery of the AdK’s own lost collection, the aim of Provenance Research is to showcase the processes and methods involved in tracing the location and ownership of artworks. Revealing the meticulous and often tedious detective work that goes into finding long-forgotten items, the exhibition is a potent reminder that the history of art often leads back to tales of brutality and human loss.
That sense of moral ambiguity makes for a compelling exhibition, with even the AdK itself put under the spotlight
In one of the first rooms, a small, oblong sketchbook once belonging to the German artist Max Liebermann is displayed in a glass vitrine. Found in the AdK’s own collection, it is currently in the process of being reconstituted: “It was likely obtained under duress. We got in touch with the heir in America and let her know that we are very willing to return it,” says Schultz. The sketchbook bears the distinctive stamp his widow, Martha Liebermann, put on all the artist’s unsigned works. In 1943, shortly before she was due to be deported to Theresienstadt, Liebermann took her own life, having suffered tremendous cruelty at the hands of the Nazis.
The AdK has good reason to be so invested in the subject of provenance. To safeguard the state institution’s art collection during World War II, many of its most valuable paintings were stored in the Reichsmünzen (the mint), which was believed to be the safest place in Berlin. “Of course it wasn’t: it was looted and damaged heavily during the war,” Schultz explains. Other works were stored in three stately homes in Silesia, where they were found by so-called Russian trophy brigades and taken to be stashed in the vaults of the Pushkin Museum. It is believed the art collection lost three-quarters of its original holdings.
The sheer variety of exhibits at the show can make it feel a little cursory – the DDR’s little-known confiscation of artist’s estates alone would merit a whole exhibition. Yet that expansiveness allows the curators to highlight otherwise unknown stories – such as the thrilling discovery of a book from Walter Benjamin’s personal library. For decades, it was presumed the Gestapo had destroyed everything they’d found in the exiled philosopher’s Parisian flat.
Unsurprisingly, it is the paintings that hold the most tantalising provenance clues. In October 2019, the AdK found out a fragment of a 1790 painting by Peter Ludwig Lütke – presumed destroyed in 1955 – was up for sale at a German auction house. A key piece of evidence was a black-and-white image from an early 1906 catalogue. Whoever saved it from destruction “is either a saviour or a thief, because all we can say is that he didn’t obtain it legally,” says Schultz. That sense of moral ambiguity makes for a compelling exhibition, with even the AdK itself put under the spotlight for once submitting to Nazi demands, wilfully withdrawing works from exhibitions and vacating rooms so that Albert Speer, the architect of Adolf Hitler, could set up his sprawling white model for Germania – a reminder that this enthralling show deals with a past that is, in fact, remarkably entwined with the present.
- Provenance Research is on show at the Akademie der Kunst, Pariser Platz, until 22.1.23. For more information visit their website here.