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Rediscovering modernism

March 24, 2012

A joint German-Polish exhibition in Mülheim an der Ruhr entitled "Hunting Down Modernism - Forbidden Art in the Third Reich" presents works which were once described by the Nazis as "degenerate."

Arthur Kaufmann "The Spiritual Exile"
Image: VG-Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012

Arthur Kaufmann's painting "The Spiritual Exile" depicts in an almost documentary fashion 38 writers and composers, filmmakers, musicians, actors who had to flee Germany in the 1930s. Like students posing for a yearbook picture, they stand side by side: Albert Einstein and Berthold Viertel, Arnold Zweig and Fritz Lang, Erika and Thomas Mann. In the background of the triptych, on the left side, is a Nazi flag. On the opposite side, the star-spangled banner of the United States, and in-between an ocean liner.

The National Socialists' aggressive persecution of artists whose works did not conform to their ideology culminated in 1937 with the infamous Munich exhibition called "Degenerate Art" in which a collection of modernist artworks was displayed, accompanied by texts deriding the works. By that time, many German artists who had the means to do so had already left the country. Many of those who stayed in the country were persecuted and killed, driven to suicide, or gassed in concentration camps.

Some of the best minds of the epoch stood for the avant-garde and new forms of experimentation and creativity, as well as social critique. The Nazis unleashed all of their hatred on them.

Two women holding a painting
Judith Schönwiesner (left) and Beate Reese display "A Game of billiard" (1919) by Waclaw WasowiczImage: Lothar Kornblum / LVR

A bi-national project

"Hunting Down Modernism - Forbidden Art in the Third Reich" is the appropriate title for the exhibition at the Mülheim Art Museum. It is part of the "Year of Poland and North Rhine-Westphalia 2011-2012."

"What is new is that the German curator of the exhibition designed it together with her colleague from Poland," said museum director Beate Reese. "Two people from two countries got together to conduct research and perhaps write a common history."

The exhibition, which was previously shown in Krakow, is remarkable in two respects. First of all, the curators succeeded in presenting a structured and scientifically sound overview of a difficult epoch in art history, which includes many loose ends and abrupt changes. At the same time, the exhibit sheds light on a wide circle of visual artists, writers and musicians and not only on the best-known figures.

Thre people standing next to a sculpture
Beate Reese (left) standing next to "The Female Head" by rudolf BellingImage: Lothar Kornblum / LVR

Forgotten artists

Few people nowadays have heard of Florenz Robert Schabbon, who took his life in 1934. Or Lotte B. Prechner who fled to Belgium and went into hiding. Or Julius Graumann who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.

Two women standing next to a sculpture
The exhibit was curated jointly by Monika Rydiger (left) and Judith SchönwiesnerImage: Lothar Kornblum / LVR

The exhibition also includes painting by celebrated artists such as Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein, or Ludwig Meidner and Max Ernst. One can see the books of Thomas Mann and Else Lasker-Schüler, or listen to compositions by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. But the true gems of the exhibition are the many less familiar figures.

The goal of the "Year of Poland-North Rhine-Westphalia" was to showcase the collections that are based in the German state.

"We wanted to show that NRW is a culturally rich region," said the German curator Judith Schönwiesner.

The curators relied primarily on the extensive collections of exiled art by private collector Gerhard Schneider from Olpe and the Solingen Foundation for Ostracized Art. However, other museums in the region contributed objects from their collections. So did Polish museums.

Two women holding a painting
Reese and Schönwiesner with Lotte B. Prechner's "Jazz Dancer" (1929)Image: Lothar Kornblum / LVR

"All the artists that we show were in some way persecuted by the Nazis or their works were banned," Schönwiesner said.

But in Mülheim one can also see works of art that were created in exile.

"We wanted to broaden our perspective on the period of exile and to show how artists dealt with the changes in their life abroad," she said.

Author: Jochen Kürten / tt
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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