16 Apr 2020

There are numerous objects in the Kunstmuseum Basel that can be perceived as controversial, depending on one's point of view. Among them are works by Jean-François de Troy and Cindy Sherman. These include, for example, the works Degenerate Art from the acquisitions of 1939.

If you visit the Collection of Classical Modernism on the second floor of our Hauptbau, you will find that outstanding works by German artists of the early 20th century are represented in an unusual density. A large part of these came to Basel in 1939, when museum director Georg Schmidt purchased a fabulous collection of 21 works of "Degenerate Art" for the Kunstmuseum – their stories are also described as part of the presentation Collection Moments. They had previously been confiscated from German museums and were intended for sale abroad. Georg Schmidt skilfully juggled between the offers of various intermediaries in Berlin and the famous auction in Lucerne to achieve the best possible result for the Kunstmuseum Basel.

In order to finance the purchase, however, he was dependent on a special loan from the Basel government. Of course, there were critical voices that emphasized that the existing national debt prohibits such a loan. In addition, Swiss art would be neglected in the project, and in general the museum should concentrate more on existing values, i.e. on Old Masters. But Schmidt argued that the modern museum building that had just opened in 1936 needed to be filled with appropriate content, and the excellent quality of the works on offer at attractive prices spoke in favor of this purchase from Germany. Schmidt's persuasive argument was the Basel map: for the Kunstmuseum Basel, this was a unique opportunity to achieve international standing at a single stroke in a field in which the museum had previously been completely lacking, namely Classical Modernism. Major works by renowned artists were for sale, including Franz Marc's Animal Fates or Oskar Kokoschka's Windsbride, but also Paula Modersohn-Becker's Self-Portrait as Half-act with Amber Necklace II or Lovis Corinth's last painting Ecce Homo. Schmidt assured that Basel could prove its progressive spirit for all times with an extensive purchase. And he should be right: Several works from this collection are among the absolute highlights of the collection today.

In addition to the strategic expansion of the collection, Schmidt also pursued a cultural-political idea, namely a commitment to branded art. He wanted to set an example by exhibiting this banned art directly behind the German border as worthy of a museum and giving it a new home. In the end, the purchase was celebrated as a "rescue operation" and Georg Schmidt as an "escape helper".

Yet despite this exemplary nature, one cannot help but notice that the Kunstmuseum Basel quite obviously benefited from a precarious situation. And the point of criticism that was internationally discussed at the time, that one could not buy art from Germany because the proceeds would be used for armaments purposes, surprisingly did not seem to play a major role in the discussion in Basel. Georg Schmidt only mentions in passing that one exchanges eternal cultural assets for rapidly aging cannons. Thus, from today's perspective, it is certainly possible to take a critical look at this unique and significant moment in the history of the collection – as the Kunstmuseum Basel will do in a major special exhibition in 2022.

Author: Seraina Werthemann, art historian and art mediator