Emil Bührle’s Modernist Art Collection Dazzles Zürich: Impressionism to Picasso

Diane Dewey
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V. van Gogh, Sower at Sunset (1888)

 If you seek, without success, to diffuse the notion that art collectors historically secure trophy artworks without regard to underlying theory or cohesion, or if undeterred, you crave the sublime rush of particular examples by the most important 20th century European artists, or if your urge is simply to alleviate the chill of a nether gray day in Zurich, then you too will relish the E.G. Buhrle Collection on exhibition at Kunsthaus Zurich through 16 May 2010. The experience is like warm butter on dry toast, a cradled sunbeam on an otherwise bland expanse of travertine, asphalt and concrete. 

Industrialist and Collector, E.G. BuhrleBombshells include four paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in experimental styles, (The Sower, 1888; Blossoming Chestnut Branches, 1890; the Bridges at Asnieres, 1887; and a late self-portrait.) Three monumental Water lilies by Claude Monet encase you in their mossy lushness, installed as if their own private glade. Interspersed throughout Old Master and Impressionist landscapes that play alchemically with light are disarmingly resonant portraits: the dappled, Little Irene by Auguste Renoir; the wild, Portrait of a Man by Franz Hals; the hyper realist, Hipplyte-Francois Devillers by J-A-D Ingres; and in an echo all its own, the full-length, Portrait of Madame Camus by Edgar Degas. American collectors like Albert Barnes in Philadelphia and Duncan Phillips in Washington, D.C. concurrently focused their collecting on prototypically modern French painting after the Impressionists: Emil Buhrle was simultaneously compelled to unearth their underpinnings. His diverse collection expounds upon one idea; that each work stands out as a heightened example or radicalized position of the artist’s perspective at the time. An artwork points the way backward and yet moves forward, becoming consciously pivotal, and setting off a chain of epiphanies in the viewer, no matter how seasoned. Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mme. Camus (1869)

 In the ‘short introduction’ to the collection, a term embraced by Hortense Anda Buhrle, the collector’s daughter, in her preface for the booklet accompanying the exhibition – complementing the three volume catalogue published in 2005 – Lucas Gloor explicates this neo-linear concept: “While Impressionism remained ‘the point of departure and leitmotif’ of Buhrle’s collection to the last, it is nonetheless revealing to observe the direction in which it developed…The idea of a historical development of art, which overcame the results of the past through constant progress and thus provided the prerequisites for the work of following generations, assumed an entirely new topical dimension after the Second World War. At this time, Abstraction appeared to be bringing art history ever closer to its professed objective, and retrospectively reassessed the achievements of the past. Hence, without extending his collection to include the art of the immediate present, Buhrle began to encircle its core with masterpieces in which tendencies of the historical avant-garde became palpable.” 

Upon sight of the Berlin National Gallery’s Impressionists works in 1913 – acquired against the opposition of Kaiser Wilhelm II – Emil Buhrle pinpointed his fixation. The works seized not only his imagination and his will to determine from where they had evolved and to where they would proliferate, but his ambition to possess the compass. 

Paul Gauguin, The Offering (1902)

 Despite that signal wish, the collector’s trajectory was not entirely pure, becoming overlaid with irreconcilable ambiguities that were historical, personal and institutional. Buhrle’s time, (1890-1956), was bracketed by two world wars, the second of which brought him scrutiny, a rhetorical state acquittal of his art purchases as good faith, then restitution – followed by repurchase of several seminal works. Economic forces within his own métier as an arms manufacturer supplying both the Allies and by Swiss warrant, the Germans, caused a disconcerting schizoid. Buhrle’s promised gift to the Kunsthaus Zurich materialized in the form of a new wing completed just after his death, an occasion that prompted not his slightest indication as to the dispensation of the collection. Charlotte, his widow and their children honored the notion of public exposure and created the Foundation E.G. Buhrle Collection in 1960. Adjacent to the Zurich home where Emil Buhrle had stored his works, the foundation was robbed in February, 2008 of four masterpieces – Paul Cezanne’s, Boy in a Red Waistcoat, Edgar Degas’, Count Lepic and his Daughters, Vincent Van Gogh’s, Blossoming Chestnut Branches and Claude Monet’s, Poppies Near Velheuil.  The latter two paintings seemed electrically charged, however unheralded their installation in the exhibition; the destiny of first two works remains, to the authorities, unknown. 

Yet even this world class level of intrigue cannot obscure the central impulse of the exhibition: that you will be moved, from one place in your head to another by its revelations; that there will be emotions – suppressed in the museum’s chambers – of elation, of seduction, of velvety touching tenderness, (Paul Gauguin’s, The Offering for example), of disturbance, profundity and delight. Until you are left with a buttery wonder at the magnitude of the Foundation E.G. Buhrle Collection Zurich, contemplating its metaphysical imprint, its shimmering beauty and its almost inconceivable evolution in this world, until it is time to return to the gray, cold day outside. 

© Diane Dewey, Contributing Writer 

Visit Collection Buhrle at www.kunsthaus.ch/en

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