January 11, 2018

Incredible and controversial “Degenerate Art” at the Kunstmuseum Bern

Contributor - Uli Van Neyghem

The news hit the art world like lightning in 2014: the Kunstmuseum Bern was made sole heir to the ‘Gurlitt art trove’, an unexpected and initially overwhelming gift that came with many questions and a huge responsibility.

The “Gurlitt art trove” comprises more than 1500 priceless artworks that were in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt (1932–2014), son of the German art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895–1956).

Degenerate art Bern

Cornelius Gurlitt caught the attention of customs investigators during a routine control and was put under surveillance because of suspected tax evasion. During razzias, the officials discovered an unbelievable treasure trove artworks. The case made international headlines and caused much controversy, as the artworks found consisted mostly of pieces that disappeared during the Nazi regime: Where did each piece originally come from and who owned them? Are there potential heirs? Under what circumstances did Hildebrand Gurlitt acquire them?

With the discovery of the art trove, numerous works by artists resurfaced that had been defamed by the Nazi regime as «degenerate» and whose whereabouts were a puzzle following their confiscation from German museums. The present exhibition, carefully curated by the Kunstmuseum shows a selection of 160 works of Modern Art from the ‘Gurlitt legacy’, that had been outlawed under the National Socialists.

They consist mostly of works on paper, featuring expressionism, contructivism and verism, with artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde or Paul Klee being represented.

Degenerate art Bern

The audio guide in English is highly recommended, as written explanations on walls and an interesting film about the ‘Gurlitt art scandal’ are in German only. Alternatively, there’s an interesting BBC Art, if you’d like to do more research prior to your visit.

The Nazi regime condemned as ‘degenerate’ and being ‘un-German’ in spirit all art and cultural movements that did not comply with its artistic ideals. New forms of art, like expressionism, dada, surrealism, cubism or Bauhaus all fitted into this category. Moreover, all art by artists with Jewish backgrounds was classified as ‘degenerate’. Literature, music or even architecture could be identified as such.

Degenerate art Bern

This fascinating exhibition examines the political processes which led to Modern Art being defamed as ‘degenerate’ and consequently being confiscated, sold or worse; destroyed.

Particular attention is being paid to the fate of artists who found themselves facing repressions and persecution.

The crucial historical events are placed in direct relationship with the figure of Hildebrand Gurlitt (Cornelius’ father) with all his contradictions, trying to put his role into context: was he the profiteer of Nazi regime or a fervent and passionate advocate of Modern Art, trying to save priceless works of art in times of a ruthless dictatorship?

Degenerate art Bern

The Gurlitt Legacy: ‘Degenerate Art’ – Confiscated and Sold


Kunstmuseum Bern

Hodlerstrasse 8-12, CH – 3000 Bern 7


Until March 4, 2018

Opening times*

Tuesday 10:00 – 21:00

Wednesday – Sunday: 10:00 – 17:00 (Closed on Mondays)

*may vary over holiday period


CHF 10 (Students: CHF 5, Children up to 16 years: free)

Highly recommended audio guide


Degenerate art Bern

Degenerate art Bern


Art Seen

ART SEEN is a regular segment on World Radio Switzerland’s Mid Morning Mix discussing exhibitions and art events going on throughout Switzerland.

For ART SEEN, Uli explores Switzerland and the neighbouring regions discovering original art exhibitions, hidden gems of museums, and cultural events. She shares her adventures, along with hot tips on nice places to eat and things to enjoy in connection with the visits.

About Uli Van Neyghem

When German-born artist Uli Van Neyghem moved to Switzerland 10 years ago, she had no idea that the move would lead her to gaze deep into the eyes of so many cows.

She depicted the personalities of the famous fighting cows of “Reines des Alpes” (Queens of the Alps) in a collection of portraits that she created for a femininity themed art fair, thereby giving a unique spin to the traditional motto.

As she did during her years living in Luxembourg, Uli uses her art to get to know Switzerland and to make it her home. She creates serene atmospheres using acrylics, sometimes incorporating a mixed media approach with collage, coal, and bitumen. Uli’s contemporary renderings of mountain animals show them melting into the background, as their living equivalents do in their rocky habitat. She creates lake scenes and still lifes, often with reflections of a translucent beauty. You can discover her art and get in contact with her through her website ulivanneyghem.com.

Uli Van Neyghem is also co-founder of Collaborative Art™, created by artist Stephanie Fonteyn, facilitating creative workshops, events, and team building events worldwide.


Article images by Uli Van Neyghem

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