Degenerate Art

Edition Memoria

von Thomas B. Schumann

Starting in 1933, the National Socialists drove half a million people from Germany into exile because of their Jewish heritage or political leanings. Ten thousand intellectuals and artists of all disciplines were among those affected, including Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, Max Reinhardt, Marlene Dietrich, Elisabeth Bergner, Billy Wilder, Walter Gropius, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin. Around one thousand visual artists were forced to emigrate.

Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag, Modeentwurf 1953, Aquarell und Tusche auf braunem PapierZoom image
Margarete Berger-Hamerschlag, Modeentwurf 1953, Aquarell und Tusche auf braunem Papier

In most cases, exile brought with it a whole host of problems, namely permanent instability, hardship and despair. It was a constant struggle for physical as well as psychological survival, each story more tragic than the next. “The natural span of existence was cut short for more than a few emigrants,” wrote exiled author Gabriele Tergit. “Their lives ended in concentration camps, in the ocean, as a result of suicide. No gravestone honors their memory.”

The material and immaterial hardships for those in exile by no means stopped after the collapse of the Third Reich. They were not called upon to help rebuild West Germany and Austria politically and culturally, because the order of the day was economic revival and repression of the past. So most of the exiled artists and their work remained unappreciated after 1945. “Emigration is for life” (Georg Stefan Troller) and “The journey into exile is the journey of no return” (Carl Zuckmayer) is how two of those affected put it.

Creative Aftermath

Exile by the National Socialists was an intellectual and cultural bloodletting, the likes of which had never before and have not since been seen in a society, and its effects linger today – many of the artists who emigrated have disappeared from our cultural memory. This is particularly true for visual artists, many of whom – with the exception of a few famous names such as Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, George Grosz and Max Ernst – were relegated to undeserved obscurity after 1945, when abstractionism and Art Informel prevailed.

This is the subject of the exhibition “German Artists in Exile 1933–1945,” which features works from Thomas B. Schumann’s extensive literature and art collection “Memoria.” Inspired by an encounter as a student with Thomas Mann’s widow Katia, who kept in close contact with many exiled writers (from Günther Anders and Elias Canetti via Irmgard Keun and Walter Mehring to Albert Vigoleis Thelen and Armin T. Wegner), he delved into the topic of exile and has for many years focused intensively on the subject as the collector, author and publisher of Edition Memoria. He received the Hermann Kesten Prize for his work in 2017. Schumann is also a passionate advocate for the establishment of a Museum of Exile.

The artists featured in the exhibition, such as Charlotte Berend-Corinth, Arthur Kaufmann, Lotte Laserstein, Rudolf Levy, Josef Scharl, Eugen Spiro and Julie Wolfthorn, worked as successful artists in Germany up to 1933. Under the Third Reich, they were prohibited from working, and their art was declared “degenerate.” The National Socialists confiscated and destroyed their works. The artists themselves were forced to emigrate or – if they took too long to decide – deported to concentration camps and murdered.

Artistic Diversity

While the exiled artists were typically free to practice their art abroad – albeit under difficult circumstances – their work had often transformed. “The bitter lessons of history left them with a quieter, more ‘objective,’ more precisely observant artistic formal language.” This is how art historian Brigitte Schad characterized the works in the Memoria collection in 2013. “The result was a multifaceted, painterly range of work that cannot be subsumed under the term ‘style’ but rather draws its appeal from the breadth of the artistic forms of expression.” In terms of subject matter, the artists focused – for the sake of saleability – on portraits, still lifes or landscapes.

The reality of life in exile was extremely difficult for many artists.
The expressionist Ludwig Meidner, for instance, kept his head above water by washing corpses in London for a time; Albert Reuss, after being released from internment in Mousehole, Cornwall, painted his “works of loneliness,” as he called them, until the end of his life, but he was ignored by critics and the public; Curt Singer committed suicide in Paris in his mid-thirties…

This exhibition is not merely about tragic biographies, however. It is above all about aesthetically stimulating and inspiring works of art. It gives visitors the opportunity to finally recognize significant artistic creations and their creators who were left in the shadows for far too long, and it demonstrates with numerous examples that “even lesser known exiled artists created works of astonishing quality” (Brigitte Schad).


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