6000 artworks - Ismar Littmann's collection

Published on: 13 / 12 / 2009

Authors of this entry:
  • Magdalena Palica

Ismar Littmann was born in 1878 in Groß-Strehlitz (presently Strzelce Opolskie). In 1902 he passed the doctoral exam in law, four years later he settled in Wroclaw, where he opened a solicitor-notarial office in the Schweidnitzer-Straße (presently ul. Świdnicka). Littmann’s fondness of collecting artworks appeared probably fifteen years after he had settled in the city.

That was the right time for collecting artworks, since during the war they were relatively cheap. Mainly the works by eminent German impressionists, like Corinth, Liebermann or Slevogt, were purchasable for reasonable prices. Within over a dozen years, as Littmann had been carrying out his collector’s passion, he collected over 6000 artworks; therefore, as Deborah Asher Stone justly noticed, he must have acquired more than one artwork per day! As Ruth Haller, Littmann’s youngest daughter, mentioned, “The whole flat was filled with paintings, there was no empty space anywhere (…). In the dinning room the walls were covered with works by Corinth and my eldest brother had Otto Mueller's paintings in his room”. The pictures adorned the collector’s judicial office as well; an archival photo has been found, in which, behind the collector’s desk a landscape by Lovis Corinth can be seen hanging. Littmann’s collection, begun in 1916, gained reputation in short time – yet in 1928 the steel industry tycoons from the family Krupp, offered for it 1 800 000 DM (which would have equaled about 15-20 million $).

An imposing artworks' register, whose amount reached 5800 points, was listed by Littmann himself. The prints were inscribed in chronological order, following the sequence of their purchase. The second preserved register includes paintings and watercolours which, to the Littmann’s order, were listed by a n art historian Bernhard Stephan. Many artworks in Littmann’s property were acquired from artists personally. This regards mainly the artists linked to the Wroclaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, both its professors (Otto Mueller, Alexander Kanoldt or Carl Mense) and students (e.g. Isidor Aschenheim). Many of then were visitors in Littmanns’ spacious flat, located in a town house in the Eichbornstraße 4 (presently ul. Ksawerego Druckiego-Lubeckiego), among them was Mueller, who had secretly painted a nude of the collector’s daughter – Eva. Littmann’s contacts were not at all limited to the Wroclaw’s milieu. He kept corresponding with many artists, among them with Corinth and his wife Charlotte, with Käthe Kollwitz and Max Liebermann. From Emil Nolde personally, he purchased a picture entitled “Boxwood garden”.

The large Littmann’s collection included of more than 600 works by Lovis Corinth, among them 13 paintings. As regards the amount of pieces in Littmann's collection, at the second place were works by the mentioned Jewish artists, linked to the Wroclaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, i.e. by Heinrich Tischler and Isidor Aschenheim. Littmann belonged to the amateurs of paintings by artists linked to the notable group “Die Brücke”. Among them were Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller, the collector’s close friend. A significant part of the collection was constituted by the works by expressionists, among them Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Barlach and Paul Klee. Another contemporarily significant artistic trend, whose representatives’ works Littmann collected, was the so called New Objectivity. Its representatives were Karl Hofer, Alexander Kanoldt, Carlo Mense, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz. Of minor interest in the collection were works by French artists, however among them were works by representatives of the French realism (Henri Fantin-Latour, Édouard Manet), impressionism (Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne) and fauvism (André Derain, Maurice Vlaminck, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy). In Littmann’s collection also the works by leading cubists, among them Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris couldn't lack, whose two still-life paintings the Wroclaw’s collector possessed. However, since the end of the 1920s, Littmann’s ambition was, for his collection, which had so far adorned his family flat and his office, to become accessible for the public. In 1929 Littmann lent numerous works from his collection, for an exhibition of contemporary art, which took place in Silesian Museum of Fine Arts. In the same time he began seeking for exposure place that would allow the permanent exhibition of artworks from his collection, to the Wroclaw’s public. First steps in this direction were made in spring 1930, when more than fifty paintings, coming solely from Littmann’s collection, were used for decorating Mr. and Mrs. Neissers’ villa, designed by Hans Griesbach. In this exposition the Wroclaw’s visitors could admire works by famous artists, like Maurice Utrillo, Juan Gris or Robert Delaunay. More works form Littmann’s collection appeared in the Neissers’ villa in 1933; a large amount of works by Otto Mueller became then accessible for the public.

The economic crisis of the 1930s affected Littmann also. Yet in 1931 the collector consulted the director of the Berliner Nationalgalerie Ludwig Justi, a close friend of him, in point of selling works by Käthe Kollwitz and Lovis Corinth. In March of the following year, the collector decided to capitalize over 200 works in Paul Graupe's auction-house in Berlin. In November of the same year the collector decided to sell his other artworks. The bidding took place in the Wroclaw’s auction-house Kunstkabinett.

The period of economic collapse prevented Littmann from continuing his activity as art collector. The permanently worsening financial conditions forced the collector to raise a large loan from the Wroclaw’s Sparkasse, having mortgaged the paintings exposed in the Neissers’ villa. In 1933, as the Nazis overtook the rule, some of the Jewish jurists were deprived the rights for their profession. So far it hasn’t been possible to find out, whether those restrictions also affected Littmann, but even if not, his career situation worsened seriously. In the same time, contemporary art, regarded by the new government as “degenerate art”, suddenly lost its value, as a result of which the banks ordered the immediate mortgage repayment. Having been put in desperate situation, Littmann committed suicide by taking a poison.

After the collector’s death on September 23, 1934, his wife Käthe and his eldest son Hans, decided to sell 156 artworks to Berlin, to offer them on aution in Max Perl’s House. They were supposed to be bidden in February 1935. Two days before the planed auction, Gestapo had commandeered 64 works by contemporary artists (among them the works from Littmann’s collection), from depositories, because of their “Bolshevik” or “pornographic” tone. The artworks were devolved to Nationalgalerie in Berlin, in order to determine, whether they had any value. The contemporary museum’s director selected from that group 18 artworks, among them two preserved pictures by Mueller from the Littmann’s collection. The remaining ones, regarded as “degenerate art” were burned down in 1936. One year later, in 1937, an exhibition entitled “Entartete Kunst” was opened in Munich, where among more than 600 presented artworks, the visitors (2 millions of them visited the exhibition) were able to watch four paintings from Ismar Littmann’s collection.

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Hans Littmann, after his father’s death, while immigrating to the U.S., took the collection’s inventories, as well as a few hundreds of artworks. The artworks from the former Littmann’s collection, housed in depositories of the Wroclaw’s museums, after the collector’s death were overtaken by the state. Having in memory the tremendous extent of Littmann’s collection, one can’t stop thinking about the fate of artworks from this collection. As is known, from 1932 the collection was slowly being diminished by sales. But even if all the artworks had been sold off on auctions that took place that year, their amount wouldn’t have exceeded 700 pieces. On auction in Max Perl’s House, after the collector’s death, would have been offered the further 200 ones. If this amount had been supplied by artworks, which were nationalised and by a few hundreds of objects, which were transferred by the collector’s son to the U.S., the total amount of them still wouldn’t have reached even a half of Littmann’s collection. What could have therefore happened to the remaining three thousands?

The article bases on a book by Magdalena Palica, Od Delacroix do van Gogha. Żydowskie kolekcje sztuki w dawnym Wrocławiu, Wrocław 2010 [in the press]

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