Cornelia Gurlitt. A German Expressionist in First-World-War Vilnius

  • Ieva Šadzevičienė
Keywords: Cornelia Gurlitt, First World War, woman artist, German Expressionism, German artists serving in the Kaiser army


The artist Cornelia Gurlitt (1890–1919) served as a nurse in Kaiser’s army in Vilnius from 1915 to 1918. She was appointed to Vilnius Antakalnis hospital, one of the base hospitals of the Eastern front. Gurlitt was born into a well-off family: her father was an art historian, architect, and art collector. She was into contemporary ideas of women’s emancipation and sought to break loose from the norms of behaviour that society imposed on women. Although Gurlitt’s life turned out unduly short, she found herself in first-world-war Vilnius, spending all of her free time drawing, painting, or sketching: she embraced Expressionism not only as the means of artistic expression, but also as an existential philosophy. Her anxiety and inner contradictions were transformed into works characterised by twisted, roughly stylized forms, and broken lines. Gurlitt was first discovered by Hubert Portz, a German art collector and a gallery owner, later to become her biographer. This undeservedly forgotten artist is again in the spotlight of art historians as 138 artworks belonging to Gurlitt’s hand were found in 2012 among the so-called Gurlitt Trove collection in the apartment of her nephew Cornelius Gurlitt (the son of Hitler’s art collector Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelia Gurlitt’s brother). This study seeks to determine the place of Gurlitt as an expressionist artist among the women artists who were creating in Vilnius in the early twentieth century, and especially during the First World War. Gurlitt, a forerunner of modern art, was one of a kind; the other women artists related to the Vilnius school of drawing or the Art Society of Vilnius mostly created in the realistic manner, focusing on domestic scenes. Marianne Werefkin (1860–1938) was an exception and some similarities of the expressionist manner can be found in both artists’ artworks. During the years of the First World War, Gurlitt exhibited her artworks in Vilnius (1917) and Kaunas (1918) in the joint exhibitions of the Ober Ost artists. Gurlitt could and should be included in art history textbooks: her name and artworks should be presented together with other German expressionists, as well as in the art history of Lithuania of the early the twentieth century, because one of the most productive periods of Gurlitt’s creative life is related to Vilnius.