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.transcultaa.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 regime 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 regime. 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

Scroll Up