About the collection
The visual art collection currently contains as many as 18,000 objects spanning the last third of the 18th century to the present day. The collection comprises paintings, drawings , prints, photography, new media, and sculptures, among which there are some rather unique sets, such as the collection of portraits from the period of Jewish emancipation in the Czech lands and the collection of children’s drawings from the Terezín Ghetto. The the Jewish Museum’s collections, visual art has seen the greatest growth over the past years as yearly dozens of new objects have been acquired in the form of purchases, bequests, and gifts.
The collection in numbers
The visual arts collection at present comprises 2200 easel paintings (on canvas, wood board, cardboard, underpainting on glass), 14,400 works on paper (drawings and prints, including 4387 children’s drawings and 2922 drawings from adults in the Terezín ghetto), approximately 1200 photographs, and 267 sculptures. The collection’s artworks come from the latter part of the 18th century to the present. Portraits from the 19th to first half of the 20th centuries make up the most numerous type in the set of easel paintings (chiefly oil on canvas).
The collection’s history
The so-called picture collection (today’s visual arts collection) has been an integral part of the JMP’s collection since its founding in 1906. At the beginning the collection was conceived primarily as an iconographic complement to the other collections, thus its name. It largely comprised portraits of important persons in Jewish history and religious and community life, visual documentation of Jewish landmarks (synagogues, cemeteries, ghettos) in the Czech lands, and illustrations of Jewish, for the most part biblical, history.
The greatest number of objects came into the collection during the period of the “Central Jewish Museum” (1942–45). This growth was a result less of a targeted acquisition program than an operation to save the confiscated works of art amassed in the warehouses of the Treuhandstelle (a special department set up by the Nazi authorities in the Prague Jewish Community on October 13, 1941, to oversee the liquidation of property after their owners had been deported from Prague and the surrounding area). Until his internment in 1944, this effort was led by the art historian and former director of the East Slovak Museum in Košice, Dr. Josef Polák (1886–1945). After he was deported, his work on the collection was continued by Dr. Hana Volavková (1904–85), an art historian and postwar director of the Jewish Museum.
The thematic range of the collection was expanded as a consequence of the its rapid growth during the war years. This gave rise to the rather unique set of portraits from the period of Jewish emancipation in Bohemia and Moravia, and the collection also obtained paintings and works on paper from confiscated private collections, which gradually formed a kind of gallery of the tastes of Jewish collectors and art aficionados (a particular characteristic of this “gallery” is that it consists only of artwork that had been designated “degenerate art” – the classical works of Old Masters were off limits to the curators for inclusion in the Jewish Museum’s collection as they were either earmarked for sale via specially licensed businesses or were selected as suitable for museums and galleries in the territory of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia).
Even though no written documentation exists, it is evident that the objects from private owners were included in the Jewish Museum’s collection as a way to save them from further appropriation and to safeguard them for later restitution to their original owners after the war. Yet when the war ended, it unfortunately became clear that a great many of the objects could not be returned to their rightful owners as not only did they not return from the camps, neither did anyone else who could claim them as an heir. Thus numerous works of art remained in the Jewish Museum’s collection.
The immediate postwar period brought further flux to the collection, though this time it was the shrinking of the collection through restituting objects. Returning property to owners was de facto initiated straightaway in 1945 when a systematic mapping out of the provenance of individual art objects was undertaken. Between 1946 and 1948 several art objects were returned to their original owners or to surviving family members under the conditions stipulated in Act No. 128/1946 Coll. The seizure of power by the Communists in February 1948 virtually halted all restitution efforts and made it impossible to consummate restitution cases already underway.
While restitution was frozen, other art objects came into the JMP’s collection that had yet to be catalogued and no one had claimed. These objects had been stored in a warehouse located in the synagogue in Prague’s Vinohrady district. The synagogue had been severely damaged at the very end of the war by Allied bombing.
The collection was significantly impacted immediately after the nationalization of the Jewish Museum in 1950. On the basis of a financial appraisal the most valuable objects were designated “nonrestitutable property” (escheat) and thus monetized or transferred to the collections of other state institutions. The official rationale for this arbitrary removal of artworks from the Jewish Museum’s collection was to settle putative outstanding debt to the state accrued during the period of national administration that was established over the Museum’s property assets in May 1945 and remained in effect until the inevitable nationalization.
The result was the loss of 174 art objects from the Museum’s collection. Some of these objects were transferred to the National Gallery in Prague by order of the National Cultural Commission (a state agency organizing the poorly documented redistribution of the seized works of art and cultural objects between the separate state-owned collections, state agencies, and newly established exhibits in various mansions), or they were sold off via the state controlled enterprise Antikva. From the 1950s to the 1970s for all intents and purposes the collection did not expand. Apart from a few isolated acquisitions that could be considered notable (for example, a set of portraits of the Weiss and Beer families, a circumcision screen, and a smaller set of works from Jewish artists who lived in Prague prior to the war), the collection was not augmented. This situation changed in the mid-1980s when the Jewish Museum managed to acquire a number of interesting works, such as the set of paintings and drawings by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.
The transfer in October 1994 of the Jewish Museum in Prague back into the hands of the Czech Jewish community as represented by the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic brought a marked improvement in the overall situation of the collection in terms of its care, its growth, and in the provenance research of the individual objects. A new systematic acquisition program was established that focused on procuring relevant visual artworks as well as supplementing the work of artists already in the collection. At the same time, the Jewish Museum was able to resume the postwar restitution efforts and begin to map the losses incurred over the past forty years.
Artists who have their work represented in the collection are: Antonín Machek, Jakub Schikaneder, Bedřich Havránek, Ignác Pereles, Adolf Wiesner, Emil Orlik, Georg Jilovský, Richard Pollak-Karlín, Hilda Pollaková, Otto Guttfreund, Herbert Masaryk, Bedřich Feigl, Ludwig Blum, Otto Flatter, Georg Kars, Pavel Fleischmann, Robert Guttmann, Jakub Bauernfreund, Endre Nemeš, Emil Arthur Pitteramnn-Longena, Maxim Kopf, Richard Schroetter, Lotte Radnitz-Schroetter, Egon Adler, Ernest Neuschul, Eugen von Kahler, Max Oppenheimer, Max Ernst, Alfréd Justitz, Friedl Diecker-Brandeis, Ilona Singer, Hella Guth, Grete Passer, Mia Münzer, Salomon Salomonowitz, Leo Fitz, Robert Piesen, Pavla Mautnerová, Aleš Veselý, and many others.
The set of drawings made in the Terezín Ghetto during 1941-45 is truly unique. The majority were created by professional artists, including Franz Peter Kien, František Zelenka, Bedřich Fritta, Karel Fleischmann, Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, Charlotta Burešová, Malvina Schalková, Moritz Müller, František Mořic Nágl, Hilda Zadikow etc. The set also contains the work of amateur artists, and they have an undeniable documentary value.
The small set of historical photographs in the collection offers a cross section of the work from photo studios based predominantly
in Bohemia and Moravia spanning the period from the very beginning of photography to the first years of the German occupation.
The set also includes some rare examples made with daguerreotype, ambrotype, and pannotype processes.