BY Jan Kedves in Features | 10 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 23


Simon Elson's new biography of the overlooked art connoisseur Max J. Friedländer

BY Jan Kedves in Features | 10 MAR 16

In der Bildgalerie im Obergeschoss des Alten Museums nach dem Umbau von 1884, Wood engraving after a drawing from Ernst Henseler, undated, courtesy: bpk

When David Bowie died in January,  it took less than a day for his Berlin fans to call for Hauptstraße – the Schöneberg street where Bowie lived between 1976 and 1978 – to be renamed David-Bowie-Straße. Berlin is fond of such campaigns to commemorate its heroes: a successful 2008 initiative by the local left-wing daily newspaper taz renamed a section of Kochstraße in Kreuzberg Rudi-Dutschke-Straße, after the socialist figurehead of West Berlin’s 1960s student movement. The potential for such initiatives to offer symbolic compensation, not least for historical injustices, was picked up in the new video by Berlin music producer Daniel Haaksman, Rename the Streets (2016): with a swiping hand gesture and some digital postproduction, Haaksman renamed Nachtigalplatz, a square that still bears the name of the German colonialist Gustav Hermann Nachtigal, Mandelaplatz.

Why this preamble? Because Max J. Friedländer is a historical figure who more than deserves to have a street named after him in his native city of Berlin – ideally in Mitte, not far from Museum Island. Perhaps Simon Elson’s book Der Kunstkenner. Max J. Friedländer. Biografische  Skizzen (The Art Connoisseur. Max J. Friedländer. Biographical Sketches. 2016) will renew public awareness of Friedländer, an art historian and museum director, born in 1867 in  Berlin, who died in 1958 in Amsterdam. Reading Elson’s thorough, well-researched biography, it certainly seems unfair that only Friedländer’s boss Wilhelm von Bode has his ‘own’ museum and a street on Museum Island named after him.

Bode was director general of Berlin’s royal museums from 1905 to 1927. But who was Friedländer? The middle son of a family of Jewish jewellers, when he set off from his parents’ house on Dorotheenstraße, just round the corner from Museum Island, for school at the Friedrichswerdersches Gymnasium, he would often walk in the opposite direction, to the Gemäldegalerie or the Kupferstichkabinett where he would stand  in awe in front of German and Dutch Old Master paintings. Elson describes Friedländer as a misfit totally in thrall to art who in 1887, when deciding to study art history (in Leipzig, Munich and Florence), could hardly have hoped to be able, one day, to work as a Prussian civil servant in  a museum. Because he was a Jew, and Jews – although ostensibly ‘equal’ before Prussian law – had little chance of entering the civil service.

Rudolf Schulte im Hofe
Bildnis Max J. Friedländer
Courtesy: bpk,
Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe,
Wolfgang Pankoke

Yet the surprising fact is that Friedländer did, becoming director of the Kupferstichkabinett in 1908, which he transformed from a study cabinet into a small, regularly exhibiting museum. In 1924, largely due to the support he received from Bode, he became director of the Gemäldegalerie (where, among other things, he explored new approaches to art education including film screenings and ‘speaking machines’). Under Bode’s supervision, Friedländer  began as early as 1897 to acquire new works for Berlin’s museums – at a time when artworks were not yet so expensive and when, with a little luck, you could still find ‘a Rembrandt in the tram, a Vermeer in a shop window’ (as Elson notes). Friedländer’s museum career coincided with the emergence of the international art market, with the beginning of long distance travel, and – importantly  for the circulation of art – with the rise of photography: until the end, Friedländer would tolerate ‘only simple black-and-white pictures that never try to blur the distinction between themselves and the original with deceptively perfect reproduction’.

From the book’s 400 pages (plus 100 pages of notes) we learn, among other things, that Friedländer was distantly related to Aby Warburg, creator of the Mnemosyne Atlas, whom he considered ‘art blind’  (Elsbeth Oppenheimer, a niece of Warburg’s, had married a nephew of Friedländer’s). Above all, however, Elson has collected a number of acquisition-related stories worthy of a detective novel: in 1910, for example, he bought Hugo van der Goes’s famous altarpiece The Adoration  of the Magi (c.1470) from the Spanish convent of Monforte at auction, prompting the Spanish government to deploy the gendarmerie to prevent its export. Only in 1913, after much diplomacy, was it intimated to Friedländer that he was free to pick up his purchase (he had already paid for it: 1,022,544 Reichsmarks). He managed ‘to hide the picture from the angry population, carrying it off at night on an ox-drawn cart’. Today, it is still in the collection of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

At this point I’m reminded, as a German reader today, of the controversial amendment of the Cultural Assets Act proposed by Secretary of State for Culture Monika Grütters due to come into effect in the first half of 2016. It mandates stricter export controls on artworks of ‘national importance’. Critics of it fear ‘creeping expropriation’ and the destruction of the German art market, while supporters welcome the protection of ‘Germany as a cultural nation’. But the exact meaning of ‘national importance’ is unclear. Is it to be defined  in terms of the material value of an artwork? Or in terms of its power to shape national identity? (The latter presumably requires it to be publically accessible rather than kept in a safe.) Much of what the ‘cultural nation’ is proud of today originally came into its possession under dubious circumstances: ‘Was it not Germany’, Elson duly asks in his book, ‘that once plundered Dutch, British, Spanish and Italian “stocks of art” for its expanding museums and the drawing rooms of its private collectors?’

Hugo van der Goes, Anbetung der Könige, Teil des Monforte-Altars, c.1470, Courtesy: bpk, Gemäldegalerie, SMB / Jörg P. Anders

While making it plain that Friedländer was involved in this plunder, Elson also shows that his motives for travelling to auctions in Spain, London and New York were not nationalistic or patriotic. ‘Patriotism is the cheapest type of self-image’, wrote Friedländer in his Erinnerungen und Aufzeichnungen (Memoirs and Notes, published in 1967), written in exile in Amsterdam where he had immigrated early in 1939, at the very last moment. In 1933, he had been driven from office by the Nazi ‘Aryan paragraph’ and ongoing anti-Semitic defamation, as when he was called a ‘picture smuggler’ by the official Nazi Party publication Deutsche Kultur-Wacht. Forced out of public office and now a gentleman of private means, he began to draw up expert reports for collectors and to write books. On Art and Connoisseurship, still considered a classic in the literature on art and museums, was published in 1942 by Cassirer in London, only appearing in German after the end of World War II (Von Kunst und Kennerschaft, Zürich: Oprecht, 1946).

In Amsterdam – ‘having fled from Hitler but not having escaped the fascist art trade’ – Friedländer was still regularly contacted by agents of the Hitler regime until shortly before the end of World War II with requests to verify artworks from confiscated Jewish collections. He could hardly resist such commandeering of his expertise, as he enjoyed the personal protection of Hermann Göring (the Netherlands was occupied and Amsterdam had, after many deportations, been declared officially ‘Jew-free’). The commander in chief of the German Air Force was a greedy and ruthless art hoodlum; in 1939, he paid just 1,500 Marks for one of the pictures originally acquired by Friedländer with his own funds and donated to the Gemäldegalerie during his time as director. Being forced to contribute to the bloody sell-out of a collection he had helped to build himself must have pained Friedländer incredibly. He never set foot on German soil again, not even in 1953 when he was awarded one of the country’s highest honours, the Knight Commander’s Cross. Why, then, does Berlin still not have a Max-J.-Friedländer-Straße?

Translated by Nicholas Grindell.

Der Kunstkenner. Max J. Friedländer. Biografische Skizzen by Simon Elson has just been published by Verlag  der Buchhandlung Walther König.

Jan Kedves is a writer, editor and author of Talking Fashion. From Nick Knight to Raf Simons in Their Own Words (Prestel, 2013). He is based in Berlin.