Pro­ven­an­ce Rese­arch in Slo­ve­nia: An inter­view with Bar­ba­ra Murovec

The Slo­ve­ni­an art his­to­ri­an Bar­ba­ra Muro­vec is a spe­cia­list in art of the ear­ly modern peri­od and twen­tieth cen­tu­ry in Cen­tral and South-Eas­tern Euro­pe. In her spe­ci­fic dealings with pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch and the EU HERA pro­ject Trans­Cul­tAA she has recent­ly expe­ri­en­ced a rejec­tion wit­hin the frame­work of Slo­ve­ni­an (rese­arch) poli­cy, which has had serious per­so­nal con­se­quen­ces. She descri­bes her expe­ri­en­ces in an inter­view with Mei­ke Hopp, chair­per­son of Arbeits­kreis Pro­ve­ni­enz­for­schung e.V.

MH: Dear Bar­ba­ra, the pionee­ring EU HERA pro­ject Trans­Cul­tAA (Trans­fer of Cul­tu­ral Objects in the Alpe­Adria Regi­on in the 20th Cen­tu­ry) con­duc­ted from Sep­tem­ber 2016 to Octo­ber 2019 is the first inter­na­tio­nal pro­ject dealing with the trans­fer of cul­tu­ral objects bet­ween Ger­ma­ny, Aus­tria, Ita­ly, Slo­ve­nia and Croa­tia over the ent­i­re twen­tieth cen­tu­ry. What does pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch signi­fy for you and what are your experiences?

BM: No art his­to­ri­an dealing with mova­ble cul­tu­ral objects can igno­re pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch. The histo­ry of the pla­ces of ori­gin and sto­rage of an art­work is recor­ded in all muse­um docu­men­ta­ti­on and cata­lo­gue essays. As a rese­ar­cher in art histo­ry of the ear­ly modern times con­cer­ned with the trans­fer of cul­tu­ral objects, it seems to me some­ti­mes that the term pro­ven­an­ce (rese­arch) has focu­sed too exclu­si­ve­ly on con­fis­ca­ti­ons that occur­red in the Nazi era. At the same time, I con­si­der it extre­me­ly important to pro­per­ly address one of the most sen­si­ti­ve and com­plex aspects of art histo­ry, which is also bound up with other disci­pli­nes (histo­ry, law, eco­no­mics, etc.). Art his­to­ri­ans can find ans­wers and, tog­e­ther with poli­ti­ci­ans, ide­al­ly “cor­rect” or at least make up for injus­ti­ces. In theo­ry at least this would seem to be desi­ra­ble. In prac­ti­ce, howe­ver, the ans­wers and inter­pre­ta­ti­ons we have offe­red as a result of our sys­te­ma­tic rese­arch in the pro­ject are appar­ent­ly not (yet) wel­co­med by Slo­ve­ni­an poli­ti­ci­ans and stakeholders.

MH: How did the Trans­Cul­tAA pro­ject come about and what is its aim?

BM: The pro­ject was desi­gned first to trace and recon­struct the histo­ry of cul­tu­ral objects sei­zed in the Alpe-Adria regi­on in the twen­tieth cen­tu­ry, gain insights into dis­pla­ce­ments, in which – apart from artists, art his­to­ri­ans, dea­lers and collec­tors – aut­ho­ri­ties and insti­tu­ti­ons were also invol­ved. Second, we wan­ted to under­stand the appro­pria­ti­on of art for poli­ti­cal, natio­na­listic and pro­pa­gan­da pur­po­ses. The frame­work was out­stan­ding: sub­mis­si­ons were invi­ted by the Euro­pean Com­mis­si­on wit­hin the HERA (Huma­nities in the Euro­pean Rese­arch Area) pro­gram­me on the the­me “Uses of the Past”. The pro­ject was plan­ned in Vil­la Vigo­ni, whe­re rese­ar­chers from three coun­tries (Ger­ma­ny, Ita­ly, Slo­ve­nia) – from the Zen­tral­in­sti­tut für Kunst­ge­schich­te (ZI) in Munich, the Fran­ce Ste­le Insti­tu­te of Art Histo­ry at the Rese­arch Cent­re of the Slo­ve­ni­an Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces and Arts (ZRC SAZU) in Ljub­l­ja­na and the Kunst­his­to­ri­sches Insti­tut (KHI) in Flo­rence – orga­ni­zed a work­shop. The princi­pal inves­ti­ga­tor team was alrea­dy for­med in Vil­la Vigo­ni, con­sis­ting of Chris­ti­an Fuhr­meis­ter (ZI Munich) as coor­di­na­tor, Dona­ta Levi (Uni­ver­si­ty of Udi­ne), Lje­r­ka Duli­bić (Stross­may­er Gal­le­ry HAZU, Zagreb) and mys­elf (ZRC SAZU, Ljub­l­ja­na). We were hap­py to be able to bring on board the Aus­tri­an Com­mis­si­on for Pro­ven­an­ce Rese­arch as an asso­cia­te part­ner, fol­lo­wed by others, inclu­ding the Slo­ve­ni­an Rese­arch and Docu­men­ta­ti­on Cent­re JAS. We orga­ni­zed joint archi­ve visits, exhi­bi­ti­ons, sum­mer schools, work­shops and con­fe­ren­ces. A joint­ly com­pi­led collec­tion of archi­val mate­ri­al resul­ted in an online Source Edi­ti­on, and in a few mon­ths the pro­ject mono­graph will appe­ar in Böhlau Ver­lag (details of the pro­ject at https://​www​.trans​cul​taa​.eu/).

MH: What is the signi­fi­can­ce of the pro­ject in terms of rese­arch into the his­to­ri­cal move­ment of cul­tu­ral objects in Slovenia?

BM: A par­ti­cu­lar focus of the Trans­Cul­tAA pro­ject was the trans­fer of art­works during the Second World War, when Slo­ve­nia was part of Yugo­s­la­via and was occu­p­ied by Ita­ly, Ger­ma­ny and Hun­ga­ry. I was qui­te exci­ted at the pro­spect for Slo­ve­nia, not only regar­ding the pos­si­bi­li­ty of net­wor­king with Wes­tern rese­ar­chers, espe­cial­ly for the group of young Slo­ve­ni­an art his­to­ri­ans, but also as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a tho­rough com­pa­ra­ti­ve stu­dy of Slovenia’s past and its ent­i­re art sys­tem in the twen­tieth cen­tu­ry. Expres­sed in more ambi­tious terms, I was inte­res­ted in deve­lo­ping an objec­ti­ve aca­de­mic approach to the tota­li­ta­ri­an appro­pria­ti­on of art and hence of con­tri­bu­ting to the demo­cra­tiz­a­ti­on of socie­ty – not in terms of inter­pre­ting histo­ry but of obtai­ning a bet­ter under­stan­ding of its com­ple­xi­ty in order to enab­le who­le genera­ti­ons to face up to this trau­ma. Rese­arch about and insights into the impli­ca­ti­ons of class, nati­on and owners­hip ques­ti­ons are just as important for suc­cess­ful­ly com­ing to terms with the past as the pre­ser­va­ti­on and pre­sen­ta­ti­on of records and docu­men­ta­ti­on (e.g. in databases).

MH: In order ulti­mate­ly to resti­tu­te the works of art?

BM: Of cour­se, the recon­struc­tion of the­se pro­ces­ses also makes it pos­si­ble to resti­tu­te objects, but the prio­ri­ty for me was to rai­se public awa­reness of the role of art­works as (sym­bo­lic) capi­tal for the Alpe-Adria regi­on. It is only with this awa­reness that poli­ti­ci­ans can adopt laws on the­se sen­si­ti­ve issu­es and free sta­te insti­tu­ti­ons of their reluc­tance to deal with pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch. To give an idea of this dilem­ma. In 2014 the Slo­ve­ni­an government still repor­ted that the­re were no art­works in sta­te-owne­d/­pu­blic collec­tions that had been sei­zed pre­vious­ly by the Nazi occu­p­y­ing aut­ho­ri­ties (see United Sta­tes Depart­ment of Sta­te, The JUST Act Report, March 2020, p. 170). But in fact Nazi loo­ted art from 1941 to 1945 remai­ned in Slo­ve­ni­an muse­ums after the war. The sei­zu­res even con­ti­nued in 1945, as one tota­li­ta­ri­an régime repla­ced ano­t­her. This could exp­lain why pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch was not sup­por­ted in Slo­ve­nia at all, but to claim that the­re is no Nazi loo­ted art is patent­ly false.

MH: You inti­ma­ted ear­lier that the­re were pro­blems. What effect did the situa­ti­on in Slo­ve­nia have on your rese­arch project?

BM: Pro­blems are to be expec­ted in any inter­na­tio­nal pro­ject on an issue as sen­si­ti­ve as this. In Ita­ly, for examp­le we had dif­fi­cul­ties in gai­ning access to the archi­ve of the Soprin­ten­den­za archeo­lo­gia, bel­le arti e paesag­gio del Friu­li Vene­zia Giu­lia in Tri­es­te and the docu­men­ta­ti­on stored the­re on art­works from church­es and public buil­dings in Slo­ve­ni­an Istri­an cities (in par­ti­cu­lar Koper/Capodistria and Piran/ Pira­no), which in 1940 belon­ged to Ita­ly. The Ita­li­an group hea­ded by Dona­ta Levi was nevertheless able to work extre­me­ly suc­cess­ful­ly, par­ti­cu­lar­ly on the trans­fer of cul­tu­ral objects during the First World War and the sei­zu­res of cul­tu­ral objects in Tri­es­te. Not only was the clo­se coope­ra­ti­on mutual­ly bene­fi­cial, but we also lear­ned how to over­co­me pro­blems. The Trans­Cul­tAA pro­ject was recei­ved very posi­tively in all part­ner coun­tries. Croa­tia even made its restric­ted archi­ves acces­si­ble. The trans­na­tio­nal and coope­ra­ti­ve aspects of our rese­arch pro­ject also recei­ved a lot of reco­gni­ti­on, for examp­le from the Czech Repu­blic, Ser­bia, Fran­ce and the USA. It was not until 2019 that the pro­ject sud­den­ly had serious con­se­quen­ces for me per­so­nal­ly. Whe­re­as I thought the com­pre­hen­si­ve archi­ve fin­dings and my know­ledge of his­to­ri­cal mecha­nisms and con­ti­nui­ty would make it pos­si­ble for me to make a fun­da­men­tal con­tri­bu­ti­on to estab­li­shing pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch into Slo­ve­ni­an collec­tions, what hap­pen­ed was that I lost my posi­ti­on first as direc­tor of the Fran­ce Ste­le Insti­tu­te of Art Histo­ry at the ZRC SAZU in Ljub­l­ja­na and then (in the pro­cess of trans­fer­ring the Trans­Cul­tAA pro­ject to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mari­bor) as pro­fes­sor at the Insti­tu­te of Art Histo­ry in the Phi­lo­so­phy Facul­ty in Mari­bor, which I had hel­ped to found in 2009.

MH: Why? And what does that mean for pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch in Slovenia?

BM: Rese­arch into Nazi loo­ted art in Slo­ve­nia is pro­ble­ma­tic becau­se of the sub­se­quent Com­mu­nist régime. Parts of the Slo­ve­ni­an popu­la­ti­on still iden­ti­fy – some­ti­mes open­ly – with the Com­mu­nist acti­vi­ties in the first years after the war. In the name of Com­mu­nism, pro­per­ty and cul­tu­ral assets were con­fis­ca­ted and natio­na­li­zed – some­ti­mes with ter­ri­ble cri­mes being com­mit­ted against the owners of art­works, e.g. the mur­der of Fer­di­nand Attems, owner of one of the most important baro­que collec­tions in Bis­tri­ca Cast­le in Slo­vens­ka Bis­tri­ca (Win­disch Feis­tritz), to whe­re he had trans­fer­red pain­tings from Graz during the Second World War. Attems was Slovenia’s first doc­tor of fores­try and hel­ped Slo­ve­nes during the war. But as a “Ger­man” and mem­ber of the Sty­ri­an Kul­tur­bund (Cul­tu­ral Asso­cia­ti­on) he was sen­ten­ced to for­ced labour and mur­de­red with his wife and eldest son in win­ter 1946 by mem­bers of the OZNA (Odjel­jen­je za zašti­tu naro­da / Depart­ment for People’s Pro­tec­tion of Com­mu­nist Yugo­s­la­via). The new government sei­zed his collec­tion, stored it in the Federal Collec­tion Cent­re (like the Collec­ting Points in Ger­ma­ny, but with qui­te an oppo­si­te mis­si­on and agen­da), from whe­re art­works were dis­tri­bu­t­ed to the Natio­nal Gal­le­ry and other Slo­ve­ni­an muse­ums and archi­ves. Some might also have ended up in pri­va­te ownership.

MH: Only a tiny frac­tion of the Jewish popu­la­ti­on of Slo­ve­nia sur­vi­ved the Holo­caust. What hap­pen­ed to their expro­pria­ted pro­per­ty? Was the­re any resti­tu­ti­on after the war?

BM: Jews (and their descen­dants) were vic­tims of opp­res­si­on twice over in Yugo­s­la­via, first by the Nazis and then by the Com­mu­nists. After the war, the few sur­vi­ving Jews once again found them­sel­ves among enemies. The collec­tions sei­zed by the Ger­mans remai­ned in the muse­ums. And the­re was the pro­blem of staff con­ti­nui­ty in public insti­tu­ti­ons. Franz Basch/Franjo Baš, direc­tor of the muni­ci­pal muse­um in Mari­bor, par­ti­ci­pa­ted first in the Nazi sei­zu­res and then, after the war, obtained/collected art­works sei­zed and natio­na­li­zed by the Com­mu­nist government. The pro­per­ty of a Jew mur­de­red in Ausch­witz cal­led Kohn­stein was given to Baš in Sep­tem­ber 1941. After the war his descen­dants had no access to docu­men­ta­ti­on on the sei­zed works of art. Alt­hough they clai­med com­pen­sa­ti­on for war­ti­me los­ses, none of the works were retur­ned, as far as I know, becau­se the details cited by them in their loss report did not tal­ly with tho­se in the offi­cial list of sei­zed objects. Indi­vi­du­al cases like this one need to be urgent­ly inves­ti­ga­ted in order to ascer­tain why the resti­tu­ti­on did not take place and to what extent con­ti­nui­ties like the one descri­bed abo­ve play­ed a role in the­se processes.

MH: Against this back­ground and in this com­plex situa­ti­on, is it not incredi­b­ly dif­fi­cult to over­see and eva­lua­te the roles of the indi­vi­du­al actors?

BM: An assess­ment of the role of actors such as Baš is, of cour­se, dif­fi­cult, but it is for that very rea­son that we should be allo­wed to talk about and inves­ti­ga­te it today. But what hap­pen­ed in 2019 with Trans­Cul­tAA and also with ano­t­her important pro­ject, the Digi­tiz­a­ti­on of Jewish Heri­ta­ge of Slo­ve­nia (rese­arch coope­ra­ti­on bet­ween Isra­el and Slo­ve­nia), is a sign of cen­sor­s­hip and mani­pu­la­ti­on of aca­de­mic rese­arch, acts that are in fact typi­cal of post-tota­li­ta­ri­an regimes. What is almost incom­pre­hen­si­ble to me is the silence and even coope­ra­ti­on of wit­nes­ses and aut­ho­ri­ties (even today). My col­leagues abroad reac­ted qui­te dif­fer­ent­ly to my dis­mis­sal. I am very gra­te­ful for the inter­na­tio­nal sup­port and hos­ting invi­ta­ti­ons I have recei­ved and for the pos­si­bi­li­ty of tal­king here about my experiences.

MH: But Slo­ve­nia is not the only coun­try in Eas­tern Euro­pe whe­re the­re is litt­le or no poli­ti­cal sup­port for pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch and whe­re it seems almost impos­si­ble to estab­lish it.

BM: I can only speak for Slo­ve­nia, but a cri­ti­cal assess­ment of the (shame­ful) func­tions that artists and art his­to­ri­ans ful­fil in times of war and cri­sis just to con­so­li­da­te poli­ti­cal sys­tems is qui­te bey­ond the ima­gi­na­ti­on of tho­se who grew up after the dis­in­te­gra­ti­on of Yugo­s­la­via and the decla­red demo­cra­tiz­a­ti­on of socie­ty in Slo­ve­nia. The col­lap­se of Yugo­s­la­via in 1991 show­ed, howe­ver, how the sup­pres­sed pro­blems, des­pi­te the sup­po­sed “bro­ther­hood and unity” clai­med by the pro­pa­gan­dists, could lead to the bloo­diest con­flicts in Euro­pe sin­ce the Second World War, an expe­ri­ence that must not be repeated. This is ano­t­her rea­son why I find the Trans­Cul­tAA pro­ject so valu­able; for the first time, we had Euro­pean funds to inves­ti­ga­te on an inter­na­tio­nal sca­le the con­se­quen­ces of expro­pria­ti­on and trans­fer of cul­tu­ral objects for our Euro­pean socie­ty – and in (South-)Eastern Euro­pe the­se con­se­quen­ces are par­ti­cu­lar­ly grave.

MH: The Ber­lin-based rese­ar­chers’ asso­cia­ti­on Arbeits­kreis Pro­ve­ni­enz­for­schung e.V. cur­r­ent­ly has 355 mem­bers from Aus­tria, Fran­ce, Ger­ma­ny, the Nether­lands, Switz­er­land, the UK and the USA – but none from Eas­tern Euro­pe. Also no repre­sen­ta­ti­ve from Eas­tern Euro­pe was invi­ted to a hea­ring in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment in Brussels last Decem­ber on “Cross-bor­der resti­tu­ti­on claims of works of art and cul­tu­ral goods loo­ted in armed con­flicts and wars”. What do you think needs to chan­ge and what would you like to see hap­pen to pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch in Eas­tern Europe?

BM: One of the aims of the Trans­Cul­tAA pro­ject was to estab­lish net­works bet­ween Slo­ve­nia and cur­rent (Wes­tern) Euro­pean pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch, par­ti­cu­lar­ly, of cour­se, with the rese­arch in Aus­tria and Ger­ma­ny, who as the two for­mer occu­p­y­ing powers were main­ly respon­si­ble for the trans­fer and loo­ting of art­works during the Second World War. We wan­ted to crea­te a basis for a Euro­pean initia­ti­ve on the sei­zu­res by Com­mu­nist governments in Eas­tern Euro­pe (inclu­ding East Ger­ma­ny) after 1945, com­pa­ra­ble to the 1998 Washing­ton Princi­ples for Nazi loo­ted art. Here, too, the idea was to main­tain a neu­tral his­to­ri­cal “distance” through rese­arch and awa­reness-rai­sing so as to pro­vi­de assi­s­tance in dealing with sus­pi­cious (muse­um or pri­va­te) collec­tions and ulti­mate­ly to find fair solu­ti­ons. As long as muse­ums remain silent and cover up the facts, sub­stan­ti­al pro­ces­ses, which are essen­ti­al if Euro­pe is to be an open, just and demo­cra­tic con­ti­nent, will be fur­ther blo­cked, and the­re will be a reluc­tance to do anything. Becau­se a “cor­rec­tion” of the past is not pos­si­ble, and the­re is no ide­al solu­ti­on for “repa­ra­ti­on”, the­re can be no pro­gress in pro­ven­an­ce rese­arch, par­ti­cu­lar­ly in Eas­tern Euro­pe, without poli­ti­cal sup­port. Ins­tead of intimi­da­ting rese­ar­chers, inter­na­tio­nal coope­ra­ti­on should be fos­te­r­ed so that we can learn from each other’s expe­ri­en­ces. We must stop insis­ting on divi­ding Euro­pe into East and West: we can do so much with joint pro­jects. That’s why it’s so important – par­ti­cu­lar­ly for future genera­ti­ons – to con­ti­nue this rese­arch with other part­ners in Ger­ma­ny and Aus­tria (Ber­lin, Vien­na and Graz, for examp­le). In spi­te of the per­so­nal con­se­quen­ces for mys­elf, I the­re­fo­re think that the Trans­Cul­tAA pro­ject was a very important first step. I am very gra­te­ful to the many col­leagues and insti­tu­ti­ons abroad for their sup­port and look, I hope jus­ti­fia­b­ly, with opti­mism to the future. I am loo­king for­ward very much to spen­ding six mon­ths as a guest rese­ar­cher at the KHI in Florence.

MH: That is a very admi­ra­ble atti­tu­de. Apart from net­wor­king with inter­na­tio­nal col­leagues, what other bene­fits of the Trans­Cul­tAA pro­ject would you like to pur­sue further?

BM: The gre­at thing about the pro­ject was that so many young rese­ar­chers and stu­dents were invol­ved. They par­ti­ci­pa­ted, for examp­le, in semi­nars inves­ti­ga­ting pro­ven­an­ce of art­works from Slo­ve­ni­an Moder­nist exhi­bi­ti­on sei­zed in 1941 in Ptuj (Pettau) and pre­sen­ted the results at a con­fe­rence. Their enthu­si­asm show­ed how valu­able it is to fos­ter the awa­reness of young genera­ti­ons of this issue. Towards the end of the pro­ject it also beca­me clear to me how important and fruit­ful it will be to make direct use of the methods of the digi­tal huma­nities for future docu­men­ta­ti­on, rese­arch and pro­ces­sing of the social trau­mas that we Euro­peans car­ry in us and that are repeated­ly mani­fes­ted in our cul­tu­re, regard­less of which side our foref­a­thers belon­ged to as nati­ons, repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of social clas­ses and ideo­lo­gies or as individuals.

MH: Thank you, Bar­ba­ra, for the­se frank insights. I wish you all the best for your future projects.

Prof. Bar­ba­ra Muro­vec is an art his­to­ri­an. She is princi­pal inves­ti­ga­tor in the HERA pro­ject Trans­Cul­tAA, taken over in 2019 by the Rese­arch and Docu­men­ta­ti­on Cent­re JAS in Ljub­l­ja­na and exten­ded cost-neu­tral­ly until Novem­ber 2020. Cur­r­ent­ly, she is a DAAD Fel­low at the Zen­tral­in­sti­tut für Kunst­ge­schich­te in Munich.

Prof. Mei­ke Hopp is an art his­to­ri­an and pro­ven­an­ce rese­ar­cher. Sin­ce Novem­ber 2019 she has hea­ded the depart­ment of Digi­tal Pro­ven­an­ce at the TU Ber­lin. She is also chair­per­son of Arbeits­kreis Pro­ve­ni­enz­for­schung e.V.

First publis­hed in the News­let­ter of the „Net­work of Euro­pean Resti­tu­ti­on Com­mit­tees on Nazi-Loo­ted Art“, Sep­tem­ber 2020: Newsletter_Network_Nr 7_2020-09