The light is still on on an April evening in Zurich when historian Eric Keller stands in front of a painted red tank and says: “Kunsthaus and Buhrl belong together like a hill and an arch.” There is nothing left to hear from the Swiss national champion this evening. But it comes down to the agonizing big issues of the Swiss present, so to speak, down to the minute details – especially for Zurich.
The red tank is suspended in a small, crowded hallway not far from Heimplatz. It’s not just the Zurich Schauspielhaus, where uncomfortable Swiss theater maker Milo Rau brought Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” to the theater this weekend. But also the Kunsthaus, including the annex building that opened only last fall. Perhaps the city has never experienced a worse public relations disaster than it did then, in October 2021: The magnificent Chipperfield Building was built primarily to house the art collection of arms manufacturer Emil G. Bührle. There is no denying that this has a unique artistic value. But the fact that a publicly funded art museum now displays these photographs, which were purchased by an arms contractor who became rich with Nazi money, often from fugitive Jewish collectors—the Kunsthaus, the city, and the canton suddenly could no longer explain this convincingly. The opening of the extension thus became a symbol of the historical blindness of those involved – and a disaster for the city.
While the Burrell scandal was already raging, political theater maker Milo Rao came to town. The 45-year-old soon realized that this was also about Switzerland’s self-image: “I asked myself: What am I actually doing here?” He read about the discussions about Burley and looked at “all these fake fights”. Then Rao did what he always does: He took it head on.
Many of Buhrl’s paintings have been recovered from the descendants of their original owners as Nazi loot art
His account, as we shall soon see, is not just one freedom fighter, but many of them. Last but not least, the small scene in the gallery sets the stage for this display of freedom. Milo Rao brings different themes together. There is the historian Keeler, who has made it clear to everyone through his book The Contaminated Museum that many of Buhrl’s works are suspected of being Nazi loot art and that the descendants of the previous owners have restored these works. One of them attended that evening: Maeva Emden, granddaughter of the Jewish merchant Max Emden. She wants to work with the Bührle Foundation to find a “fair and equitable solution” to the Monet painting that was once owned by her family – so far to no avail. The woman who grew up in Chile says, “I don’t want another generation after me to deal with this image. I want this wound to be closed at last.” Then there’s the 80-year-old Irma Frye, an amateur actress in the Raw production of Tell. The woman in the pink blazer was a forced laborer at the Buhrl factory in eastern Switzerland in the 1960s – another Buhrl class that appeared only recently. “No one, neither from the Swiss authorities nor from the Burle family, has apologized for my stolen childhood and youth,” Frey says.
Milo Rau allied himself with another woman: Myriam Kahn, a Swiss-Jewish artist who is getting her paintings back from the Kunsthaus Museum due to the Borel scandal. She created The Red Tank and many other works are on show. Also two non-fungible tokens (NFTs), whose auction begins at the end of this dense evening. The money should come from the company sans-papiers in Zurich. “So you can at least try to do justice at the capital level,” says Milo Rao.