After almost 90 years, a watercolour by Expressionist painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) has returned to the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany. It was seized from the progressive museum during the Nazi government’s crusade against “degenerate” modern art in 1937.
Painted in 1911, Standing Woman Covering Face With Both Hands fills the page with the figure of a young woman battling with the magnitude of her inner thoughts – a theme Schiele’s portraiture often revisited. The piece was first purchased from the artist by the Folkwang Museum’s founder Karl Ernst Osthaus (1874-1921). Although Osthaus hailed from a wealthy manufacturing family, he chose to devote his vast inheritance to supporting Expressionism. He had amassed the largest collection of Schiele’s work by the time the artist died in 1918, including 13 other watercolours and one painting.
Defending the new wave of Austrian and German artists against conservative critics, Osthaus once declared “we have to face the works of these young artists without prejudice”. The Folkwang became a sanctuary for Expressionism, where artists could live and work in view of making a better life and improving society.
But in 1937, Standing Woman was confiscated as part of Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) self-declared war on modern art. Whilst progressive curators were replaced and liberal artists persecuted, more than 20,000 artworks were confiscated from more than 100 museums across Germany. Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), who oversaw the operation, ordered the seizure of around 1,400 works from the Folkwang alone.
By 1938, Goebbels announced that the museums had been “purified”. Much of the art seized was sold internationally to raise funds for military equipment. Nowadays, German museums have no legal claim to the art seized in the purge.
“Now and again, something surfaces,” explained Tobias Burg, curator of the Folkwang’s drawings, prints and watercolours collection. “You have to be quick. Fewer and fewer of these works are available on the market. Most are in museums.”
Schiele’s Standing Woman is the 25th confiscated work the Folkwang has re-acquired so far. The acquisition was financed through a multimillion-euro bequest from a local couple, who stipulated that the donation must be used to collect Expressionist art, and was aided by the Ernst von Siemens Foundation.
“German museums lost their modernity through the seizures. Buying back the confiscated art is recovering a piece of their identity,” said Martin Hoernes, the secretary general of the foundation. After celebrating their centenary last year, the Folkwang Museum remains optimistic that more confiscated works will eventually resurface for sale and make their way back home.