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Provenance Case Study: Proun 2 by the Russian artist El Lissitzky

Case Study

The Russian Jewish artist El Lissitzky gave the name “Proun”, an abbreviation of the Russian words meaning “Project for the establishment of a new art,” to a group of his abstract works. Proun 2 was one in a total of 46 oil paintings, drawings, and watercolors by Lissitzky that the Städtisches Museum fümlr Kunst und Kunstgewerbe (Municipal Museum of Fine and Applied Arts) in Halle, Germany, purchased in 1929.(1) At an undetermined date before 1937, the Halle museum loaned it to the Hanover Provinzialmuseum (also known as the Landesmuseum).

Alexander Dorner (1893–1957), the director of the Hanover Provinzialmuseum until his forced resignation by the Nazis in 1936, recollected that Mondrian’s Composition with Blue and Lissitzky’s Proun 2 were displayed in the museum’s groundbreaking Abstract Gallery (Abstraktes Kabinett) designed by Lissitzky in 1927–1928.(2) A 1958 Art News article by Ella Winter quotes a letter from Dorner’s widow, stating that “the Lissitzkys you refer to hung in the Abstract Gallery; [the gallery] was destroyed by the Nazis while my husband was opening the first Munich exhibition in London. When he returned he found that unique and beautiful room dismantled and himself accused of promoting ‘degenerate’ art. The Lissitzky on loan was sold . . . and is now in the Philadelphia Museum.”(3)

The “EK” (Entartete Kunst) confiscation inventory number 14283 is stamped on a label on the back of the painting. It is not certain where the painting was stored after confiscation. Four prominent German dealers were appointed to market the inventory of confiscated works, including Karl Buchholz. Buchholz, owner of the Buchholz Gallery in Berlin, was the mentor and pre-war partner of Curt Valentin (1902–1954), who named the New York gallery he opened in 1937 in Buchholz’s honor. Valentin, a German citizen, left Germany in 1937 to go into exile but maintained contact with Buchholz, with whose help he was able to acquire much of the art that established him as a major New York dealer of modern art.(4)

Albert Eugene Gallatin, the pioneering American collector of twentieth-century art, purchased both Lissitzky’s Proun 2 and Mondrian’s Composition with Blue for his Museum of Living Art in New York from Curt Valentin’s Buchholz Gallery on August 24, 1939, knowing that they had come from the Hanover Provinzialmuseum.(5) In 1952, Gallatin bequeathed his collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Hanover Provinzialmuseum is now known as the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum; the modern art collections are housed at the Sprengel Museum. The Städtisches Museum in Halle was later incorporated into what is now known as the Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg Halle. The Moritzburg museum in Halle is aware of the present whereabouts of the painting, one of some 200 works lost to the “degenerate art” campaign of 1937.(6)


  1. See Andreas Hüneke, Die faschistische Aktion “Entartete Kunst” 1937 in Halle, Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg Halle, 1987, p. 38, no. 42; Im Kampf um die moderne Kunst: Das Schicksal einer Sammlung in der 1.Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts, exhibition catalog, Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg Halle, [1985], p. 48 and p. 52; and Peter Nisbet, ed., El Lissitzky 1890-1941, (exhibition catalog, Busch-Reisinger Museum), Cambridge, MA, 1987, listed in Proun inventory, no. 14, p. 160.
  2. Samuel Cauman, The Living Museum: Experiences of an Art Historian and Museum Director, Alexander Dorner, New York, 1958, p. 55, repr. p. 62 and p. 63, respectively (both horizontally). For discussion and photographs of the Abstract Gallery as installed, see Cauman, pp. 100-103, and Alexander Dorner, The Way Beyond 'Art', New York, 1958, pp. 114-116.
  3. “Lissitzky: A Revolutionary Out of Favor,” Art News, April 1958, p. 63.
  4. Lynn Nicholas, Rape of Europa, New York, 1994, pp. 3, 24; Nancy Yeide, et al., AAM Guide to Provenance Research, Washington, D.C., 2001, pp. 239, 290.
  5. Dated receipt in PMA Archives, Gallatin files.
  6. See the book by Hüneke, cited above, which is published by the Moritzburg museum in Halle.