Marie Macks's interpretation of Peter Ludwig in KunstIntern 1990:7.

Features Art and Ownership in Eastern European Art History

When it comes to art museums in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, ownership is an especially loaded issue that continues to bring out new skeletons from its closeted past. Ludwig’s gigantic art collection, consisting of some 50,000 artworks, came into being because of his goal of inscribing himself into the future of art history.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW Vol VII:2-3, 2014 p 83-86.
Published on on October 20, 2014

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Although the art collector Peter Ludwig hardly ever bought works from artists’ studios, during one of his visits to Moscow in the early 1980s, long before the Soviet Union dissolved, he did precisely that while visiting the artist Eduard Steinberg. Initially, the artist responded to the offer made for his paintings with clear disappointment, “Mr. Ludwig, you can have them for nothing!” We don’t have further details about that first encounter, but we do know what followed: Ludwig turned red and left the room. Upon his return a little bit later, Ludwig was willing to negotiate over the price of Steinberg’s paintings. . . . The collector’s right-hand man, Wolfgang Becker, who joined him on many trips to the Soviet Union, recalled him uttering about the artist later, “All respect to Steinberg — he really made me feel ashamed!”

Becker told me this story in his attempt to convey the ruthless character of the West German collector and his methods of collecting.1 Peter Ludwig spent more than 50 years of his life assembling an art collection that is now scattered around the world in museums and foundations bearing his name. For instance, the paintings that Ludwig bought from Steinberg now belong to his museums in Aachen, Cologne, St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Budapest.

Ludwig’s gigantic art collection, consisting of some 50,000 artworks, came into being because of his goal of inscribing himself into the future of art history. As he himself attested, collecting on the scale that he and his wife did was bound up with “vanity” and the desire to create “a monument” to themselves.2 However, what makes his practice particularly interesting is the fact that many of the museums that were erected as memorials are located in the former territory of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. To some degree, Ludwig’s ambitious project resembles the global extension of the Guggenheim museums, which has included new museum buildings in such cities as New York, Venice, Bilbao, Berlin, and Abu Dhabi. However, unlike the corporate broadening of Guggenheim since the 1990s, which happened long after the American collector Peggy Guggenheim had passed away, the network of Ludwig Museums was a part of Ludwig’s strategy of collecting contemporary art. In comparison with the Guggenheim story, much more has remained unknown about the Ludwig museum network, which mushroomed from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s, in line with the collector’s ambitions.

West Germany,  where Ludwig lived, and the Soviet Union, where he collected art, presented utterly different contexts for the social operation of all forms of professional cultural practice. In the wake of the “economic miracle”, the visual art scene in Germany was booming in the late 1970s and early 1980s — numerous new museums and galleries were opening, artists could produce and exhibit their work, collectors and public museums were their main commissioners. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, lacked a local art market, and private collectors did not exist; the sphere of exhibition organization and the means of artistic work were distributed and effectively controlled by the totalitarian state. Although resistance to this system continued to exist in various forms, as I will show, cracks existed in its maintenance as well. What interests me in particular for the purposes of this article is, first, what did these important differences of context mean for the movement of art in the broader geographical context during the Soviet era, and, second, what can we learn from these differences that has practical relevance today? The example of Peter Ludwig permits a discussion of both these issues and brings the different contexts together in one collection.

Ludwig in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc

Peter Ludwig (1925–1996) had collected contemporary art long before he turned to the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain in the late 1970s. As a unique combination of businessman and art historian, Ludwig had defended his doctoral thesis on the work of Pablo Picasso in 1950 at Mainz University. After his studies, he took over the chocolate business from of his wife’s father Leonhard Monheim and turned it into a prominent chocolate producer in the whole of Europe. It was known for brands such as Triumpf, Mauxicon, and Lindt & Sprüngli. At the same time, Ludwig continued to collect art. On his home turf, he was particularly well known for his outstanding collection of American Pop Art, which toured West Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Although it was internationally celebrated as the collection of Peter and Irene Ludwig, it was mainly Peter who bargained for good prices and bought the works for their collection; Irene’s role was to maintain an archive at their Aachen home on the artists and artworks present in the collection.

Certainly, their collection wasn’t the only one assembled from the Soviet Union. Collectors such as Norton Dodge, who later donated his collection to the Zimmerli museum in New Jersey, George Costakis, whose Soviet art collection is now part of the Thessaloniki museum, and the Cologne-based private collectors Kenda and Jacob Bar-Gera offer other important examples of those whose collections consisted of artworks that had been  smuggled abroad. Each of these collections has its own story. Nevertheless, Ludwig stands out for his unique model of collecting, in which he pursued two parallel agendas. One involved collecting art from local artists, and the other was establishing new museums in prominent locations. Ludwig’s interest in the Eastern Bloc began in his stomping grounds in Germany, where he started buying and showing art from the GDR. In Germany, this was very controversial. The collector’s path to the Soviet Union was smoothed in the late 1970s by the Bonn-based Soviet ambassador to West Germany, Vladimir Semyonov.

Semyonov, who invited Ludwig to visit the Soviet Union for the first time in 1979, was a collector himself. As a result of their friendship, Ludwig took several trips to St. Petersburg and Moscow during the 1980s, visiting artists’ studios and establishing connections with the political elite. In return, Ludwig showed Semyonov ’s collection in his museum in Cologne in 1980.

In Germany,  the community of professionals and media were critical of these activities. A cartoon representing Ludwig’s plans in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) is a good example of the tone of this criticism. In the image we see the collector in a showroom filled with portraits of Lenin. Ludwig is depicted with his chest covered with a series of official awards, a clear indication of collaboration with the Soviet political regime. His plans, recorded by a dictaphone, which Ludwig reportedly carried with him on all his trips, mock Ludwig’s naming policy — ridiculing his plan to rename the Hermitage “Palais Ludwig” and Leningrad “St. Ludwigsburg”. This image exposes Ludwig’s methods of collecting art from the Soviet Union, and brings forward the politically biased nature of his practice, which was closely tied to the political establishment.

The image appeared as an illustration for the article “Ludwigsland, Ludwigslust” by Joachim Riedl in the art magazine Kunstintern, vol. 7, 1990.

First a collection as a gift, then a museum

Ludwig had initially sought to open a new museum in Moscow, where he held long negotiations with the Pushkin Museum. However, when the negotiations proved fruitless, a compromise was reached: the establishment of the Ludwig Museum in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, which opened in 1996. The collector’s model of museum-making, which followed the same principles in most cities, is worth noting. According to this model, Ludwig first proposed a collection of about 100 artworks to the recipient government as a “gift”. In return for his generous gesture, the collector expected the establishment of a new state-funded structure that would bear his name. He always identified a museum beforehand that would receive his gift and established personal connections with the museum staff.

Since the gift Ludwig offered included Western art, which was in short supply, he was generally celebrated and looked up to by the art-hungry audience whose communication with the West had been largely cut. One of the first Ludwig museums in the Eastern Bloc opened in 1989 in the Budapest National Gallery. Later it was followed by museums in Beijing, St. Petersburg, and Havana. However, this form of lobbying with the political and cultural elite made Ludwig directly dependent on official structures, and although it was not entirely impossible for him to collect so-called underground (or unofficial) art via the Ministry of Culture, the major part of his collection from the Soviet Union consisted of works realized by artists belonging to the Artist’s Union and favored by the Communist Party. According to Wolfgang Becker, who served as the long-time director of Ludwig Museum in Aachen, he bought many of these works “in order to make his way into the system”.

The treatment of  the Western collector by the Soviet authorities exposes a contradiction that expresses the hypocritical logic and the parallel rules for foreigners and locals that had come to coexist in the Soviet system by the 1980s. The German historian Waltraud Bayer, who has researched the history of private collecting in the Soviet Union in her book Preserved Culture (2006), suggests that art collecting operated in a gray zone: although not exactly a crime, the ownership of valuable objects could carry real dangers. Beyer cites several examples of court trials of collectors on the basis of fabricated accusations, and cases of plundering and stealing from collectors’ homes in Moscow and Leningrad up to the end of the 1970s.3 Yet Ludwig’s collecting practice was not only tolerated but in fact supported by the authorities. In line with this contradictory logic, the art historian Ekaterina Degot makes an important distinction between unofficial and official means of distribution, as opposed to official and unofficial art or artists, which has remained a dominant narrative about Soviet era artistic practice.4 Furthermore, Ludwig museums continue to flourish, unlike Guggenheim museums, some of which have recently been shut down.

Contemporary legacies of ownership

Most Western European art museums nowadays have started to rethink the relevant geography and integrate a more global approach into their practices of collecting and exhibiting; both recent and older Eastern European art is gradually being integrated into Western artistic practice. Yet this has also raised the questions, how should ownership, which the Soviet system forcefully and violently intended to abolish in favor of collectivism, and its paradoxes and contradictions be depicted, and how can the contexts of artworks be publicly transmitted in a meaningful and informative way? This leads us to an even bigger question: what, in fact, does the absence of ownership mean in relation to practically half of the 20th century (1945–1990) of European history? During these nearly fifty years, Western European artworks did not make their way to Eastern Europe, with very few exceptions. Eastern European artworks, on the other hand, were sold to the West for decades, forming the basis of outstanding collections such as those of Ludwig, Costakis, and Dodge. In effect, the parallel politics of ownership created a situation in which researching the art history of Eastern Europe becomes practically impossible without knowledge of Western European collections, where many of its outstanding works of resistance are concentrated and continue to be maintained — in a new context where they have become a source of new kinds of projects of colonization through a combination of knowledge and materiality.

Disputes over ownership are usually kept separate from the public history on display in art museums. As museum visitors, we are hardly ever told about these matters. But past ownership relations, as I have shown through the example of the Ludwig collection, actively continue to shape our experiences in art museums and our knowledge of history, even if we remain largely unconscious of the fact.

Let me cite  one more recent example to pinpoint how the paradoxes of ownership inhabit art museums today. When Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea,5 the exhibition in the Allard Pierson museum in Amsterdam compiled from the treasures of Crimea, was supposed to close down, the news spurred the demands by Russia that the treasures be returned to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg instead of the museum collections in Crimea which had loaned the pieces. During the exhibition period, Russia had annexed Crimea and claimed the right to determine its future. Consequently, the Allard Pierson museum decided to keep the exhibition open for an additional three months in order to settle the ownership dispute in collaboration with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although the results of this dispute remain yet unknown, this serves as a reminder of the way in which art and its confiscation continue to be involved in contemporary wars. In the meantime, the biannual contemporary art show Manifesta, which was originally launched in an attempt to bring the two Europes closer together, continues to be held in the Hermitage, despite an international wave of boycotts. The show has attracted international attention and added a good deal of the gloss of the contemporary art world to the museum, veiling its actual complicity in the operation of the state.

Besides being vessels of intentional meanings, all artworks are also carriers of unintended and often accidental encounters, circuits, and exchanges like the one between Steinberg and Ludwig. These stories may live on in oral knowledge and be the subject of folklore, but most museums that I know tend to keep these stories to themselves. When it comes to art museums in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, ownership is an especially loaded issue that continues to bring out new skeletons from its closeted past. New ways need to be found to share these stories not just with art historians, but with the audiences as well. ≈


1  Author’s conversation with Wolfgang Becker, former director of the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, April 20, 2013.

2 David Galloway, “Report from Germany. Peter Ludwig: Appetite for Art.” Art in America, Summer, 1983, 41.

3 Waltraud Bayer, Gerettete Kultur: Private Kunstsammler in der Sowjetunion, 1917—1991 (Wien: Turia + Kant, 2006), 280–82.

4 Barbara M. Thiemann, “Interview with Ekaterina Degot”, in (Non)Conform: Russian and Soviet Art The Ludwig Collection 1958—1995, edited by Barbara M. Thiemann (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 2007), 152.

5 The exhibition was displayed at the Allard Pierson Museum February 7—August 31, 2014.

  • by Margaret Tali

    Mobilitas plus postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts. Current research deals with the complex memories of WWII in the Baltic States in practices of contemporary art and documentary film.

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