A Texas Petrochemical Engineer Is One of the World’s Most Admired Collectors of German Art
by Claiborne Smith
Eighty years after Adolf Hitler declared certain German works of art “degenerate,” the term “degenerate art” serves a social good that even Hitler would be forced to acknowledge is remarkably different than what he intended it to mean. The chancellor of Germany in 1933, Hitler was out to demonize the “primitive international scratchings” of modern artists that he and his political bedfellows felt didn’t reflect the “true Germanic spirit.” In 1937, the Nazis opened an exhibition in Munich of degenerate art, some 600 paintings, sculpture, books, photos and other art. At the opening ceremony of the German House of Art in Berlin that same year, Hitler dictated that
“From now on we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration….From now on—of this you can be certain—all those mutually supporting and thereby supporting cliques of chatterers, dilettantes, and art forgers will be picked up and liquidated.”
Some two million people attended the exhibit.
But as writer Irene Guenther points out in an essay in Broken Brushes: German Art from the Kaiser to Hitler, the long view of that exhibition is the crucial one: the Nazis humiliated German modernists at the time and destroyed some of their careers and lives, but they also ended up making martyrs of them.
Broken Brushes is a glimpse into Gus Kopriva’s collection of German art. Kopriva, whose wife is the artist Sharon Kopriva, has acquired some 2,000 prints that date from the 1870’s until the Third Reich. Piece by piece, Kopriva and his wife have salvaged the victims of a culture’s hatred, yes, but their collection has a deeper value than that: Because it comprises prints created so far before the Third Reich, it reveals German artists hinting at the madness their society was becoming before it actually did.
Kopriva started collecting prints from the date “when Germany was born,” as he says. That was 1871, when the various provinces and fiefdoms were forged into what we think of, more or less, as modern Germany. Even from that date, there are revelations of unease in German art, rebellion against the Kaiser, for example, and his strict, unforgiving notions of what constituted true art. As Kopriva’s collection advances into the 20th century, the prints depict more stridently anxious and jittery, unnerving scenes (it is intriguing to note, as Jim Edwards does in an essay in Broken Brushes, that as French Impression was flourishing, with its lush and seductive paintings, German Expressionism favored far more distraught imagery). Take George Grosz’s Löwen und Leoparden Füttern Ihre Jungen (Lions and Leopards Feed Their Young). It depicts a hoarding fatcat (money hugged to his chest, to drive home the point) across a table from an emaciated, yearning youth, with factory smokestacks churning in the background. Grosz created the print in 1921, when Germany’s international status was deeply degraded during the post-World War I period. But the print says something deeper about the way people treat one another, and how money can irredeemably scar our relationship to a fellow citizen.
Kopriva’s collection is a valuable insight to German history, of course, but the fact that it exists at all seems unlikely, to say the least. Kopriva is a petrochemical engineer from Houston, for starters. He has no formal training in art history. In a recent interview, I asked him how he first became drawn to collecting art.
A Conversation with Gus Kopriva
CLAY SMITH: You’re an engineer—I don’t hear about a lot of engineers also being art collectors. How did you first become involved in art?
GUS KOPRIVA: The only reason I’m interested in art is because of my wife. I was born in Germany; I essentially studied on my own and made myself proficient in European art history. My specialty is German works. You’re right that most engineers are not interested in art, unless they’re from families that teach art. And they don’t teach it in our [engineering] curriculum. In most cases, engineers are just not aware and so I know maybe two engineers in the country who have collections. The money is there, but they’re interested in other things.
I would go take these books and read about German art. And pretty soon I started reading more and studying and going to galleries all over the world. My job is a global job. I started buying art instead of stock. It’s a vice, but it’s a better vice. So the bottom line is, Sharon and I own 2,000 works on paper, most of them between 1900 and 1930, during the great Weimar Republic. So that’s how I got started. I’m still studying daily.
CS: What kind of an engineer are you?
GK: I’m a consulting, petrochemical engineer and I now work part time. It supports my art habit. Art is 90% of my current life. It used to be 20-80 when I was a full-time engineer.
CS: And you grew up in Germany?
GK: I was there until the second grade and my mother married an American soldier, so that’s how I ended up in America. I went to high school in Houston. My father was at Normandy and had an a air with my mother and I was the result. en my mother was working for the American army and met my stepfather, who is also American.
CS: It must be a bit like a detective case, finding these works…
GK: I started in galleries and then I acquired the work through auction houses and private dealers. And I’m still acquiring work, weekly. Some people do alcohol, some people do women, I do art.
CS: “Degenerate art” is a term people in general have heard about but there are fewer exhibitions about art from the Kaiser to Nazism. Why focus on that broader, longer period?
GK: Germany’s a very young country. Germany was hundreds of fiefdoms and provinces and countries that were bounded together in 1871. You had people speaking different dialects and fought each other, essentially, and formed what is now Germany, so I started it when Germany was born. And then I kept it up until the end of the war in 1945, but the majority of the collection is from 1910 to the end of the Second World War. After the First World War, the country was really reeling; it was a fertile breeding ground for great social art. It was like a perfect storm of social upheaval, political chaos, unbelievable inflation, and 3,000,000 unemployed troops after the war and in Berlin, you’re sitting there where you had your drugs and your alcohol and these artists were right in the middle of this.