Art reflects evolving perspective on poverty | Arts | DW | 29.06.2011
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Art reflects evolving perspective on poverty

The causes of and reactions to poverty have changed over time, but the issue continues to plague humanity. Two German museums have documented these developments, depicting the life of the poor through the ages.

'Russian Beggar II' by Ernst Barlach, model in 1907, poured between 1932 and 1935

Some works, like 'Russian Beggar II' by Ernst Barlach, depict the suffering of the poor

It is a common sight in Europe's larger cities: a homeless person rummaging through a garbage can in search of something edible. And when Europeans turn on the television, they are regularly confronted with images of refugees and orphans. In the meantime, a heated debate is raging in Germany over unemployment benefits and abuse of the welfare system.

Poverty is just as much in discussion today as it was hundreds of years ago. However, what has changed is the way poor people are viewed by others. A double exhibition in the German city of Trier, presented by two museums - Stadtmuseum Simeonstift and Rheinisches Landesmuseum - shows how the attitude towards poverty has changed in Europe over the last 3,000 years.

Targets of mockery

The Rheinisches Landesmuseum tackles the topic as part of its "Poverty in Antiquity" exhibition. Archeological finds from Greece, Egypt and the area formerly occupied by the Roman Empire indicate that poverty in ancient times was considered abhorrent and self-inflicted.

'Beggar's Hand' by Katharina Fritsch, 2007

While its perception has changed, poverty remains a constant

To demonstrate that they were worthy of mockery, "the poor were presented as comical dwarfs who played with monkeys that were as big as them, or as people whose physical malformations and ailments made them end up on the street," explained Frank Unruh, one of the exhibition guides.


According to Unruh, wealthy citizens of the time had bronze figures like those he described and used them as decoration. "It's hard to fathom just how crass that society was," he added.

The highlight of the exhibition is a life-size figure depicting a drunken old woman with a jug of wine in her hands. It is a scene from an ancient wine festival. Such events were organized by local rulers, who "benevolently" allowed poor people to participate. The figure evokes sadness in the modern beholder, as it highlights the merciless way in which such people were treated.

Poverty in art

The Simeonstift museum houses the larger part of the exhibition - around 160 exhibits spanning from the Middle Ages until today. It includes paintings, sculptures, photos and installations from over 40 European museums, featuring well-known names like Pieter Bruegel, Max Liebermann, Karl Hofer and Pablo Picasso. The contemporary section highlights artists such as Karin Powser, Christoph Schlingensief und Albrecht Wild.


The exhibits are not organized chronologically, but thematically according to different perspective on poverty which have been prevalent in art throughout the ages: Documentation, Appeal, Ideal, Stigma and Reform. The exhibits document the long path from the time in which the poor were seen as abhorrent to the time in which their dignity was recognized.

Under the influence of Christianity, the poor gained their place in society based on the principle of charity. This caring, merciful attitude is depicted in works by Hans and Paul Vredeman de Vries and by paintings like "The Seven Acts of Charity" by Pieter Bruegel.

In the 20th century, a sense of responsibility for the poor developed.

"Here we mainly have works from the 1920s, by people such as Max Beckmann, Käthe Kollwitz, Ernst Barlach," explained Sonja Missfeldt, a curator at the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift. "All these are artists who dealt with the topic of poverty in a very socio-critical way. They questioned the allegedly golden 1920s, pointing out that life was not good for everyone at that time."

'The Seven Acts of Charity' by Pieter Bruegel

'The Seven Acts of Charity' by Pieter Bruegel: Christian values influenced attitude towards the poor

A question of trust

Still, the view that poverty is self-inflicted and that strangers and needy people should be approached with caution is still very much alive. This perspective is documented in the Stigma section, where caricatures show how certain groups of people, including religious communities, have been stigmatized.

A "Gypsy warning shield" from the 17th century, for instance, was meant to discourage people classified as Gypsies from crossing the border into a city where they were not welcome. According to Missfeldt, being foreign made them more suspicious.

"People have always had the tendency to be more trusting towards those they knew, and more likely to help them," she said, explaining that when someone was a poor foreigner, people were less likely to believe that their plea for help was genuine.

"This is a very current topic, and, as it seems, it has been a topic for centuries now," added Missfeldt.

Confronting reality

A beggar statue by Albrecht Wild, 2008

At least the impulse to throw coins at the artwork means the exhibition had an effect

An entire floor is devoted to the topic of fighting poverty. Various exhibits - such as the "The Courtyard of the Orphanage in Amsterdam" by Max Liebermann and a photo of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder receiving a reform proposal for the labor market - document various attempts to eliminate poverty.

At the very end of the exhibition is a figure that confuses some visitors. Leaning on the wall, almost completely tucked into a corner, is a beggar - a life-size statue by Albrecht Wild that looks astoundingly real. It is surrounded by coins that visitors tossed on the floor, thinking it was a real person.

Author: Gudrun Stegen / ew

Editor: Kate Bowen

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