As is the case with all public collections, the Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, regards the study and presentation of the history of its holdings as a vital goal. In this exhibition we seek to show the public what makes up our internationally outstanding collection of modern masters at the Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, and how their works came to be part of it as art that the Nazi dictatorship officially considered undesirable in the German Reich. At the same time, this angle on our collection provides a backdrop for asking questions about the circumstances that ultimately led to great losses regarding cultural legacy for German museums and private collectors too. Some of these works also found their way to the Museum of Fine Arts, Berne.
An incentive for the choice of title for the exhibition was the historically momentous and well-researched auction that took place in June 1939 at Fischer Gallery in Lucerne: “Gemälde und Plastiken moderner Meister aus deutschen Museen” (Paintings and sculptures of modern masters from German museums). Since 1938, a law was in force in the German Reich allowing the seizure of art deemed degenerate. It retrospectively legitimated the confiscation and decimation of much of the modern masters collections in German museums, as was ruthlessly carried out from 1937 onwards. What was vilified and rejected in the German Reich as “degenerate art” was designated as “works of modern masters” in Switzerland and offered for sale. To make it clear: there is no such thing as “degenerate art.”The term was coined by the Nazis in their censorship of modernist trends in art. In citing the term in the exhibition title, the Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, is, of course, referring to its historical usage. In the eyes of the museum there can be no question of the existence of a “degenerate art” and never was; it has always, since its very beginnings, actively engaged with contemporary art and its manifestations in the respective epochs. Although the term has this pernicious background, in the discussion we seek to initiate it sums up all the irrational arguments directed at modern art. We are not embracing this line of argumentation as our own, and instead it is our goal, through it, to illustrate the struggle for acceptance of modern art, of the works which are today among the Berne’s Museum of Fine Arts’ greatest treasures.