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Desirable 'degenerates'

Massive find of hidden art in Munich shines bright German Expressionist light on WAG collection

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A billion-dollar trove of art that was secretly hidden away in Munich for over 70 years has shaken the art world, and the reverberations are being felt here in Winnipeg.

German tax inspectors discovered the stash of about 1,400 paintings, engravings, woodcuts and prints, which includes long-forgotten works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, among others, in February 2012, but kept the find secret until earlier this month.

In a report from The Associated Press, German investigators said the find includes pieces the Nazis classified as "degenerate art," art that didn't meet the quality standards of the Nazi government, and either seized from German museums or purchased for bargain-basement prices from Jewish collectors who were trying to flee the country.

Enter the Winnipeg connection.

Storm and Spirit: The Eckhardt-Gramatté Collection of German Expressionist Art, is a display of 88 German Expressionist paintings, etchings, woodcuts and lithographs, most of which date back to the First World War and the years just following.

The WAG exhibition also has many pieces that were classified by the Nazis as "degenerate art," including works by Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Oskar Kokoschka, whose pieces were also discovered in the Munich art hoard.

Most of the exhibition's artwork was collected over the years by two of Winnipeg's biggest backers of the arts -- Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Grammaté and Ferdinand Eckhardt.

Eckhardt-Grammaté lived in Berlin early in the 20th century with her first husband, Walter Grammaté -- whose works form the backbone of the Storm and Spirit exhibition -- and knew other German Expressionist artists and traded and bought works from them at the time before Walter died in 1929.

Eckhardt, an art historian, studied the Grammaté collection after Walter's death and eventually married Sophie-Carmen. In 1953, they moved to Winnipeg, where he would head up the WAG until 1974 and was integral in establishing the building where its exhibits are housed today. He retired in 1974 and died in 1995.

The Eckhardt-Grammaté Foundation donated the collection to the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2009.

"In one fell swoop... the Winnipeg Art Gallery was catapulted into the top tier of German Expressionist collections in the country. That's pretty amazing," said Oliver Botar, a University of Manitoba art history professor who specializes in early 20th-century central European modernism.

German Expressionist art was inspired by famous pieces such as Edward Munch's The Scream and by many works by Dutch master Vincent van Gogh, Botar said.

They were further influenced by the artists' experiences during the First World War. Grammaté, for instance, was a medic on the German front lines, and his distorted images of humanity are considered a hallmark of the genre.

"German artists, even before the war, were interested in the dark underbelly of life," Bator said. "Then came the First World War, which was a catastrophe for everybody."

Botar singled out Grammaté's works as highlights of the exhibition, most notably Die Beichte (The Confession).

"Each one of them is a masterpiece in its own right," he said. "The Confession is really one of the important paintings of the 1920s."

Another highlight of the WAG's exhibition is a portfolio of eight prints by Austrian artist Egon Schiele.

"Eighty of these portfolios were produced, not a great number," said Andrew Kear, Storm and Spirit's curator. "What is unique about the WAG collection is that the entire portfolio is fully intact."

Kear said most of the other Schiele portfolios were broken up and sold piece by piece, and that to his knowledge, only the Museum of Modern Art in New York has another one of the fully intact portfolios.

"It was one of the little gems, the little discoveries in the collection," Kear said.

The exhibition, and likely the Munich art trove, will be the topics of conversation and presentations at an international symposium on German Expressionist art the gallery is hosting on Friday, Nov. 15, beginning at 9 a.m. Tickets, $55 for members, $75 for non-members and $40 for students, are available through the gallery.

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 14, 2013 C3

History

Updated on Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 12:27 PM CST: Fixed misspelled name

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