Friedrich Flick, who made his fortune as an arms supplier to the Nazis during World War II, once presented old master paintings to Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring as a birthday gift. Now his grandson, Friedrich Christian ("Mick") Flick, 60, has loaned his own art collection, worth about $300 million, to the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlins contemporary art museum, run by the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz of the Federal Republic of Germany. "The Friedrich Christian Flick Collection" opens Sept. 21, 2004.
This looks like a generous gesture for Germanys capital -- Berlin does not have its own major contemporary art collection, but rather must content itself with exhibiting selections on loan from important private collectors like Erich Marx and Egidio Marzona. But it is still an explosive matter. On the eve of the exhibitions opening, which comes complete with a speech by German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, there continues to be discussion in the German press about the problematic loan. Flick had initially intended to build a new museum to house the collection in Zürich, but that plan fell through due to his controversial family history.
The collector, whom the New York Times characterized as "the wealthy grandson of a notorious Nazi war criminal" -- more than 60,000 slave laborers, among them prisoners from Auschwitz, Gross Rosen and Buchenwald, worked for the Flick enterprises -- has even been criticized by his own sister, Dagmar Ottmann. Several weeks ago, in an open letter in Die Zeit, she claimed that the collection should be shown only after a complete refurbishment of the familys history during the 1940s and later. Unlike her brother, she has given a large amount of money -- in the millions of euros -- to Germanys compensation fund for slave laborers. Flick has never paid into the fund, having decided instead to create his own foundation against xenophobia, racism and intolerance.
"I distinguish between guilt and responsibility," Flick said in an interview. "I deeply regret the countless victims of the Third Reich and the harm that was done. But I cannot carry guilt for something that happened generations before me. One cannot inherit guilt. Responsibility one can indeed inherit and I inherited it, as a German and as a member of the Flick family. This responsibility I took when I founded the foundation against xenophobia, racism and intolerance and started it with ten million euros." As Thomas Ramge explained in his recent article "Total War, Total Profit" in Die Zeit, Flicks grandfather never paid into Germany's fund for former slave laborers, because he felt it would have been a confession of guilt.
Flicks brother, Gert-Rudolf Flick, criticized him for using the familys name; Flicks brother and sister insisted that he call the collection not "Flick-Collection" but "Friedrich Christian Flick Collection" to make it clear that it is not a family collection.
Several months ago Salomon Korn, vice president of Germanys Central Jewish Council, blamed the German government for its cooperation with Friedrich Christian Flick: "We are dealing with a kind of whitewashing of blood money into a socially accepted form of art property, and it is more than questionable why the federal government is supporting this."
The first part of the presentation, which runs through January 23, 2005, is a selection of 400 works by Martin Kippenberger, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Duane Hanson, Jason Rhoades, and many other artists. It will cover more than 140,000 square feet of exhibition space, encompassing the whole museum and the converted Rieck-Hallen, an annex adjacent to the main building. During the next seven years, the display will rotate regularly, so that more than 2,000 works of contemporary art from Flicks collection can be shown. (After Jan. 23, 2005, the works from the Flick collection will appear exclusively in the Rieck-Hallen.)
Flick began collecting in the 1980s, but in recent years he has been advised by the influential gallery owner Ivan Wirth, who is a partner in the Zürich- and London-based gallery Hauser & Wirth. Many of the artists in Flicks collection are represented by Wirth, and also by David Zwirner, with whom Wirth runs the New York gallery Zwirner & Wirth.
Flicks collection is for the most part contemporary -- Bruce Nauman figures largely -- but there is also quite a bit of Dadaist work, such as that by Kurt Schwitters. Following the Dada tradition, Flick purchased works by Marcel Broodthaers and Dieter Roth. He owns paintings by Georg Baselitz, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, and as well as by artists from the following generation, such as Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen. Bernd and Hilla Becher and the so-called Becher School of photography--Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth--are also included in the collection.
Setting aside the political discussion, Flicks contribution to the Berlin art scene may not be as generous as some have made it out to be. While Flick, whose net worth is reported to be in the neighborhood of $500 million, paid the complete 7.5 Million Euro cost of the conversion of the Rieck-Hallen, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, which runs the Hamburger Bahnhof, must pick up all the operational costs. And the collection, which includes many big names in contemporary art as well as some younger, cutting edge artists, is only on loan for seven years. What will happen after this seven-year period is unclear; Flick could withdraw his art. So far he has not donated a single work of art to the museum. Flick profits from the exhibition in that the value of his art will go up because of its presentation at the Hamburger Bahnhof. In other words, while Flick has portrayed his loan as an altruistic gesture, it may also be a bit vain. It is, after all, partly financed by German tax money.
For its part, the Hamburger Bahnhof hopes that the Flick collection will help bolster its image, making it a more significant part of the international contemporary art scene. But the "Friedrich Christian Flick Collection" is also evidence of German museums increasing dependence on collectors. In the past, more state funding was available for developing museum collections.
And while the Hamburger Bahnhofs curators can rearrange the collectionat least over the next seven yearsthey of course had no say in its contents. It is doubtful that they would have any input in developing the collection if it stays for longer than that. Friedrich Christian Flick buys to suit his own taste, and has his own art advisors. Should Flick decide to simply remove his collection after the loan period, it seems unlikely that the museum will be able to afford to fill the Rieck-Hallen with art of a similar caliber, since there is simply not enough money to do so. There is also the possibility of Flick selling pieces from his collection -- three years ago, German collector Hans Grothe sold works by Thomas Demand, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and others, while they were on loan to the Kunstmuseum Bonn.
Die Zeit asked for comments from several artists whose work is included in Flicks collection. In response to the collectors repeated statements about wanting to brighten the dark connotations of his family name by loaning his art for public view, German artist Thomas Struth asked, "Why didnt he pay into the fund for slave laborers? And why didnt he consider donating parts of his collection to the National Gallery (of which the Hamburger Bahnhof is a part)?" Gerhard Richter told the newspaper that he is not so familiar with the Flick collection, and that people like to mention all the well known artists it includes. "It only shows how quickly and easily a so-called top class collection can be assembled. With some money everybody could do it. When Herr Flick loans his collection to Berlin for seven years, many treat this as a gift to the nation. The moral side of the whole story, insofar as it can be separated from the esthetic side, is also only disgusting to me."
Wolfgang Tillmans and Luc Tuymans, both of whom have work in the collection, went somewhat easier on Flick. Tillmans said he finds the way of attacking the collector "exaggerated", but also does not understand why Flick did not pay for the slave laborers fund. And Tuymans said, "The bigger problem is the German state, which wants to decorate with art at any cost, and forgets completely to ask about the past."
Hans Haacke, whose work is not represented in the Flick collection, contrasted Flicks situation with that of German tobacco company heir Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who has long financed research about German history, and has dealt with the history of his family during the Third Reich. Haacke told Die Zeit that, had Flick acted similarly, there would not be any criticism of the show. "But as things stand," Haacke said, "the whole subject is very unappetizing."
The Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz promised to discuss the matter in several events during the shows opening days. The exhibition will be accompanied by a free newspaper that features an in-depth conversation between Flick and the curator, Eugen Blume. According to a press release from the Stiftung, the conversation "focuses on the individual aspects of this unusual collaboration. Here Friedrich Christian Flicks family history plays a special role." As the Frankfurter Rundschau recently pointed out, the Stiftung, having accepted the loan, is now in the curious position of having to support the collectors attitude. The Stiftung recently commissioned a study on Flicks family history.
As the exhibition opens, the presentation of Flicks collection is still a very sensitive matter, one that has long been underestimated, and in some cases even ignored, by German politicians and the Stiftung. Many who have criticized this situation, including Flicks siblings, have suggested that it would have been better to present the family history to the public, perhaps in the form of a publication or an exhibition, before showing Flicks art collection.
As it is, with Flicks glamorous collection opening this week, there is much bitterness in the air some of the slave laborers are still alive, and it is impossible to ignore their pain, and the pain of their descendants. Last Thursday, Jens Jessen wrote in Die Zeit, that Chancellor Schröders speech at the opening should refer explicitly to the implications of the symbolism of Flicks loan and its acceptance by the German state. Jessen wrote that the chancellor should also address the descendants of the victims of forced labor.