Jewish Museum in Prague
Painting, Graphic Art, Drawing and Photographic
curator: Michaela Hajkova
The art collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague has been an integral part of the Museum's holdings since its founding in 1906. Initially it was seen primarily as an iconographic supplement to the other collections. It contained mainly portraits of prominent figures from Jewish history, religious and social life, as well as illustrated documentation of Jewish sites (synagogues, cemeteries, ghettos).
The largest amount of acquisitions to the collection was recorded during the existence of the Central Jewish Museum (1942-1945). The responsibility for looking after the collection and its development was in the hands of Dr. Josef Polák (the founder of the East Slovak Museum in Košice) until his arrest in the summer of 1944. He also endeavoured to protect confiscated artworks that had been brought together primarily in the Treuhandstelle warehouse at Dlouhá Street 5 in the Old Town of Prague. After his deportation, the collection was looked after by the later director of the Jewish Museum, Dr. Hana Volavková.
The rapid growth of the collection in the war-time years resulted in a broadening of its thematic range. Within the collection there gradually emerged what is now a quite unique group of Jewish portraits from the Emancipation period of the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia. The art collection also acquired artworks from confiscated private collections which became an important testimony to the activities of Jewish collectors of Bohemia and Moravia (for example, the Dr. Emil Freund Collection). With respect to the pre-war orientation of the art collection, this aspect was quite an innovation. It may be assumed that works from private collections were incorporated into the Museum's collections ostensibly on the grounds that they could be protected from further confiscation and be returned to the original owners after the end of the war. As it turned out, however, it was not possible to return all the objects to the original owners, not only because many of the owners had died in concentration camps, but also because, in many cases, there was no-one to make a restitution claim on the basis of inheritance.
The immediate post-war period saw further developments in the collection. In 1946 - 48/49 certain artworks were returned to their original owners or heirs on the basis of the then Restitution Act, although this naturally involved only a small fraction of the collection. The collection was affected in a fundamental way when ownership of the Jewish Museum was transferred to the State in 1950. At the time, artworks that were demonstrably the most valuable from a financial perspective were marked out as "property that cannot be restituted" and earmarked for sale via the then state enterprise Antikva. Other works were selected for the National Culture Committee and transferred into the administrative hands of the National Gallery in Prague.
No major expansion of the collection occurred during the 1950s - 70s. Apart from a few isolated acquisitions which may be considered of importance (for example, a group of Weiss and Beers family portraits, the so-called "circumcision screen" and a few canvases by Georg Kars), the collection was not developed in any significant way. Things did not improve until the second half of the 1980s which saw a number of major acquisitions - for example, a group of paintings and drawings by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.
There were no unequivocal improvements, however, until after the transfer of the Jewish Museum to the Federation of Jewish Communities in 1994. It is only after this time that it is possible to refer to a systematic acquisition policy that is focused both on collecting material of relevance from an iconographic perspective and on developing already existing groups of works by individual artists. The Museum's art collection currently comprises some 2,500 easel paintings (canvases, wooden boards, works on cardboard, underpaintings on glass), some 7,500 drawings, graphic artworks and single-page manuscripts on parchment (ketubbot, tablets) and several intaglio matrices. The collection includes works from the late 18th century to the present. Portraits from the whole of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries comprise the largest body of work within the collection of easel paintings (mostly oils on canvas). The collection features works by, for example, Antonín Machek, Jakub Schikaneder, Bedřich Havránek, Otto Guttfreund, Emil Orlik, Bedřich Feigl, Ludwig Blum, Georg Kars, Robert Guttmann, Jakub Bauernfreund, Ender Nemeš, Maxim Kopf, Egon Adler, and Max Ernst.
In view of the fact that the majority of these works were confiscated between 1941 - 1945, the Jewish Museum in Prague is devoting a great deal of care to provenance research. Objects with verifiable data on their original owners have recently been selected as part of a detailed research on a catalogue of war-time acquisitions. These include paintings, drawings and graphic artworks which were returned to the Jewish Museum from the depositories of the National Gallery, where they had been housed on the basis of a decision of the Communist Government from 1950. Apart from a few exceptions, they were never exhibited and little interest was shown in their provenance. A list of these works of art, including photographic documentation, is available on this site and on the website of the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic (http://www.restitution-art.cz). In the event that a legally based restitution claim is made with respect to these or other works in the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague, the Museum is prepared to return the works to the original owners or their heirs.