Emil Georg Bührle
1890-1956, entrepreneur and art collector
Emil Bührle, 1956

1951-1956: International entrepreneur – international collector

Emil Bührle expands his enterprise into a diverse corporation, and his holdings include participations in companies in Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Chile and India. Anti-aircraft systems manufactured by Oerlikon Bührle’s subsidiary Contraves in Italy and Sweden are deployed by various NATO powers. Pilatus Aircraft Ltd in Stans develops a series of training aircraft for the Swiss Army. There are successes with the manufacture of civilian products such as braking systems, office machines, textile machines and plastics. In 1953, extensive plants are constructed for Oerlikon Tools and Arms Corporation of America in Asheville (North Carolina). In October 1956, Emil Bührle celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon with the employees of the company headquarters.

The number of works acquired increases by leaps and bounds, and now amounts to about 100 pictures and sculptures each year. Frequent trips abroad enable Bührle to purchase works – frequently entire groups of pictures – from a small circle of leading dealers in New York, London and Paris: Paul Rosenberg, Germain Seligmann, Georges Wildenstein, Max Kaganovitch and Frank K. Lloyd. Bührle has a particularly trusting relationship with Arthur Kauffmann in London and Fritz Nathan in Zurich. In June 1954, Emil Bührle gives a presentation with slides at the University of Zurich entitled Vom Werden meiner Sammlung (On the genesis of my collection), in which he describes his own historic position within the critical reception of French Impressionism and describes the art-historical principles according to which he selected the older works in his collection. At the same time, Bührle includes precursors of his own day’s abstract painting by acquiring works by the Fauves and Cubists. He also continues to collect gothic sculpture, particularly from the Lake Constance and Alpine regions.

Following a referendum, construction of the exhibition hall on Heimplatz donated by Emil Bührle to the Kunsthaus Zurich begins at the end of 1954. The benefactor’s collection is to be exhibited there for the opening, and Emil Bührle delays decisions regarding a permanent presentation of his collection in view of this project. Although he is generally generous when it comes to loaning pictures, he becomes more reserved with regard to the exhibition in Zurich.

From 1951 to 1952, Oskar Kokoschka paints a portrait of Emil Bührle. In 1952 and 1953, instead of the “Prize for Swiss Painting”, a competition for the “Prix Buhrle” is organised in Paris. Bührle does not make the selections himself as he would for his own collection, but appoints a jury consisting of representatives of Paris’s artistic life. The finalists are typical exponents of the “Ecole de Paris”, which is soon to decline in importance.

28 November 1956

Emil Bührle dies in Zurich, without having given any directions concerning the continued existence of his collection. From June to September 1958, the majority of Emil Bührle’s collection is exhibited in the newly opened wing of the Kunsthaus Zurich.