Sunday, February 14, 2010

Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet: The Bührle Collection

                Van Gogh: Blooming Chestnut Branches

Late on a February afternoon in 2008 three masked gunmen walked into a villa on Zürich's affluent Zollikerberg, ordered the few staff and visitors to lie on the floor and walked away with four paintings. The world’s biggest art theft, worth nearly 180 million dollars, was over in minutes.  A week later two of the paintings, Vincent van Gogh’s Blooming Chestnut Branches (above) and Claude Monet’s Poppies near Vétheuil (below), were found in the back of an abandoned car not far from the crime scene.  The other two masterpieces, Edgar Degas’ Ludovic Lepic and His Daughters and, the pride of the collection, Paul Cezanne’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat have vanished without a trace.

              Monet: Poppies near Vétheuil

The old villa above the lake had housed one of the most precious private art collection’s in the world, that of the E. G. Bührle Foundation.  The foundation has kept its collection closed since the robbery, that is, until this weekend when the collection, in almost its entirety, went on exhibition in its new home, Zürich’s Kunsthaus, under the title “Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet”.  The giant exhibition kicks off the Kunsthaus’ centenary and runs until 16th May.  Then the collection will disappear again until it reopens permanently in a new extension of the Kunsthaus, designed by David Chipperfield, in 2015. At that time Zürich will become one of the world’s greatest cities for Impressionism, second only to Paris.

My advice is don’t wait until 2015.  The line for tickets today was long , but the exhibition is a big one and I found it to be surprisingly uncrowded.  Then again, it is ski vacation week in Zürich, so most of the locals will have been on the slopes.  But what a collection this is: a small number of Venetian and Dutch precursors of impressionism, all the greats of the 19th century French artworld – Delacroix, Ingres, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley, Signac, Courbet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, as well as the Nabis, Fauvists, Cubists and the School of Paris, - this exhibition could rightly be called the signature representation of impressionism and 20th century French modernism.  Only French symbolism, represented by a single small Odilon Redon, is lacking. This is an exhibition of ‘ahs and oohs’ as one comes face to face with the likes of Van Gogh’s The Sower (not to be confused with the version in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam), Renoir’s The Source, Cezanne’s Self-Portrait, three of Monet’s giant Water Lilies, Braque’s Violin Player, not to mention the Bonnards, the de Vlamincks, the Picassos. And the arrangement of paintings allows for surprises. Where else will one find the opportunity to admire an Ingres portrait flanked by a Frans Hals portrait on one side and a Renoir portrait on the other, all stared at by a couple of Courbet portraits?

                                             Van Gogh: The Sower

                                        De Vlaminck: Barges on the Seine

Renoir: Little Irene

                                                     Gaugain: The Offering

                                                    Modigliani: Nude

The collection was put together by local art lover and businessman E. G. Buhrle, who unfortunately earned his money manafacturing and selling weapons.  The early years of the Cold War were particularly good for business and found Mr. Bührle investing huge amounts of his profits in his art collection.  He had earlier made a killing buying “degenerate” art from the Nazis. 

This exhibition makes Zürich most definitely worth a detour this spring.

Still missing Ludovic Lepic and His Daughters by Degas


  1. At a conference this weekend, I gave a paper about what happened to the degenerate art that was purged from public German collections from 1933-1937. Mostly we were discussing the Banned German Art Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London, held in 1938.

    But the auctions held in Lucerne were very important, as you noted. I hope Mr Bührle, who invested his ill-gotten gains into his great art collection, is being suitably punished in the next world. He may have made a killing buying degenerate art from the Swiss auctions at fire-sale prices, but think of the alternative - Old Masters being destroyed on bonfires.

  2. How fortunate you are to be able to soak up such a masterful feast! Wish I could hop a plane and come enjoy it as well. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Yes, I realise that I am exceedingly lucky.

  4. This review wets the appetite. I have to admit to comparing the Buhrle "Poppies" with the one in the Musee d'Orsay for the purpose of showing that even Monet painted the same motif with varying degrees of success. (No reference intended to the serial works.)

  5. Hi Paul, Matthew sent me your link from China. You both must have too much time on your hands! I haven't seen this exhibition yet. We planned to go to the vernissage but the weather was terrible, and since then we have been in Amsterdam. The Van Gogh museum was one of the highlights. Only back now to continue with my Chinese studies and writing ZIWA web reports. By the way, do you need to credit your sources for these images? Have a good week. Julia Newton.