German Avant-garde Art, Targeted by Hitler, Comes to Jerusalem

Avner Shapira
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'Evening over Potsdam,' by Lotte Laserstein (1930).
'Evening over Potsdam,' by Lotte Laserstein (1930). A quasi-secular evocation of Leonardo’s 'Last Supper.'Credit: BUS Sweden © / bpk / Nationalgalerie SMB
Avner Shapira

Three women, two men and a dog are frozen in place, seated around a large table with a white tablecloth, on a rooftop terrace after dinner. Behind them we glimpse the skyline of Potsdam, shrouded in gloomy clouds at dusk. The figures are introspective, and the heavy sense of unease and foreboding weigh on “Abend über Potsdam” (“Evening over Potsdam”), the 1930 painting by German-Jewish artist Lotte Laserstein.

“It is a masterpiece that captures the spirit of the times in Germany: The ‘Golden Twenties’ were now a thing of the past; what lay ahead was uncertain and potentially threatening,” says Dr. Dieter Scholz of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, as we gaze at the oversize painting by Laserstein. “It was painted at the height of the economic and political crisis of the final years of the Weimar Republic, on the eve of the Nazi rise to power.”

“Evening over Potsdam” is one of the major works on display in “Twilight over Berlin: Masterworks from the Nationalgalerie, 1905-1945,” a new exhibition at the Israel Museum.

The painting also inspired the title of the show, which opened last month. The earliest work on display was painted in 1905, the same year that a group of Expressionist painters formed a group called Die Brücke (The Bridge). The last is from 1945, marking the end of World War II.

Scholz, the co-curator of the show, says that the Nationalgalerie acquired Laserstein’s painting in 2010. “This is our latest significant acquisition in the realm of modern German classics. Her oeuvre had been largely overlooked, in part because soon after her career began, this Jewish artist was forced to emigrate from Germany to Sweden – where she remained after the war ended – but probably also because her work eluded the categories of an art history that focuses on stylistic innovation.”

Adds Scholz: “Laserstein’s pictures draw heavily on the traditional realism that runs like a red thread through the entire body of avant-garde art. But ‘Evening over Potsdam’ also radiates a special form of modernity, its melancholy seeming to anticipate the losses that went hand-in-hand with Germany’s violent history in the 20th century.”

Laserstein is one of five female artists whose work is included in the exhibition. Three of them – Käthe Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Hannah Höch – have previously received fairly widespread recognition. But Laserstein and another artist, Alice Lex-Nerlinger, are still not adequately known. Thus, alongside works by the great modern artists who were active in Germany in the early 20th century and are identified with the cultural prosperity of that period – including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann – this show also introduces several artists who have been expunged from public memory, mainly due to the destruction brought down by the Nazi regime on what its leaders considered “degenerate” modern art.

Co-curator Scholz, and the show’s curator, Adina Kamien-Kazhdan, of the Israel Museum, note that in “Evening over Potsdam,” Laserstein offers a quasi-secular evocation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”

“The composition of the two paintings is similar,” notes Kamien-Kazhdan, “but in place of Jesus in the middle of Leonardo’s painting, Laserstein painted a dreamy woman who is apathetic to the goings-on around her.”

If one considers the fact that most of the people who served as models in this work were German-Jewish friends of the artist, it can also be interpreted as a reflection of the undermined status of the Jews during the waning days of the Weimar Republic. This in turn reminds one of a party attended by well-to-do Jews, as described by British author Christopher Isherwood in his 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” one of the classic works about the Weimar era. At the party held at a villa near the Wannsee Lake in southwestern Berlin during the summer of 1931, on an evening that followed an important referendum, Isherwood considers the fact that, “However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is the dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch.”

The end of the fragile democracy of the Weimar Republic in 1933 also spelled the end of an era for Laserstein, who was born in 1898 to a Jewish family in Prussia. She studied at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts, and was a prolific portrait artist. Some of her subjects were women who, like her, fit the image of the Neue Frau that became popular during the Weimar period – a time when women achieved growing independence, were granted suffrage, were integrated into the workforce in jobs that had been considered manly, and even assumed a masculine or androgynous look.

Two such women, out on their own in a café, were featured in “Im Gasthaus” (“In the Restaurant”), a 1927 Laserstein painting that the Nazis considered “degenerate art.” Until her death, in 1993, the artist assumed the painting had been destroyed, as happened to numerous works of art confiscated by the Nazis. Following her death, however, it was discovered in the collection of a private collector and was sold at auction for 110,000 euros (about $118,000).

Laserstein continued to paint in her place of exile in Sweden, but was never able to recapture former glories. Nevertheless, since the start of the 21st century, her early work has attracted increased interest: A retrospective exhibition was mounted in Berlin in 2003; academic research on her oeuvre has been conducted; and in 2010, “Evening over Potsdam,” which belonged to a private collection, was sold to the Nationalgalerie for £350,000 (about $532,000).

‘Magnet for artists’

'Field-Gray Yields Dividends' by Alice Lex-Nerlinger (1931/1961). The original painting was lost.Credit: Andres Kilger / Nationalgalerie SMB

The 50 works of art featured in the Jerusalem exhibition mark two jubilees: 50 years of the Israel Museum and 50 years of Israeli-German diplomatic relations.

“We chose to show not only German artists, but also those from other countries who were active in Germany – which until the rise of Nazism served as a magnet for numerous artists,” says Kamien-Kazhdan. “You can find also the works of the Austrian Oskar Kokoschka, the Russian Wassily Kandinsky, the Swiss Paul Klee and the Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy – the latter three also taught at the Bauhaus school. This constitutes a historic reversal: The exhibition brings from Germany to Israel German art that was ill-treated by the Nazis but is now considered exemplary work which the Germans are proud to display in an Israeli museum. The works lend expression to the daring and power of art and culture, and to the fact that the avant-garde artists ultimately succeeded in overcoming the forces of repression.”

The show moves between the diverse groups and movements of that artistic golden age, starting with Expressionists, through the Dada and New Objectivity movements and, finally, to the Bauhaus artists. Some of the artworks reflect accelerated modernism and technological innovation, and many embody social and political criticism – primarily due to the trauma of World War I, the failed attempts to spark a communist revolution in Germany, and the economic crises that shook the Weimar Republic at the start and end of its regime.

The show, which runs until March 19, 2016, is accompanied by a catalog that features articles by Kamien-Kazhdan, Scholz, art scholar Dana Arieli and the late historian Boaz Neumann.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, one of the more prominent German artists at the turn of the 20th century, is represented by her 1906 painting “Kneeling Mother with Child at Her Breast.”

“This is one of many paintings in which she described mothers and children, a motif that in her eyes expressed fulfillment of the feminine ideal,” Kamien-Kazhdan explains. “The painting, in which the nursing mother seems to be taking part in a ceremonial ritual, is characterized by its exotic-primitive style, under the influence of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne.” A year after the painting was completed, Modersohn-Becker died at 31, just weeks after the birth of her only daughter. Thirty years after her death, she became one of the few women whose work was singled out for inclusion in the 1937 “Entartete Kunst” (“Degenerate Art”) exhibition mounted by the Nazis in Munich.

Another artist designated as degenerate was Höch (1889-1978), the only female in the Dada Berlin group. She was among the pioneers of photomontage art, and is also known for her dolls and collages. Like her colleagues in Dada, she expressed social criticism through many of her works of art. Two gorgeous paintings of hers appear in the exhibition, “The Mosquito is Dead” (1922) and “The Staircase” (1926), both of which feature the figurative style she developed following the breakup of the Dada group. The paintings, which seem like painted collages, combine objects and creatures that have no logical connection.

Höch, who spent the war years isolated on the outskirts of Berlin and only resumed her creative activity after the war, did not receive significant recognition until she was near the end of her life. “[G]radually she snuck into the canon,” wrote Brian Dillon in The Guardian following an exhibition of her work last year in London. “[S]cholars and curators have since belatedly recognized that she was both a key Dadaist and considerably more: a true pioneer of photomontage and a complex, funny critic of mainstream and art-world misogyny alike.”

'Kneeling Mother with Child at Her Breast,' by Modersohn-Becker (1906). 'Exoticprimitive style, under the influence of Gauguin and Cézanne.'Credit: Nationalgalerie SMB

As opposed to Höch and Modersohn-Becker, artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was never defined as degenerate, despite the socialistic and pacifistic spirit that infuses her works. Kollwitz, whose sculpture “Pietà,” from 1938, is featured in the new show, protested in her artwork against the suffering of the proletariat and the poverty-stricken.

Kamien-Kazhdan: “She was the first woman to be accepted as a member of the Prussian Academy of Art, but was forced to resign from it with Hitler’s rise to power, because she had signed a petition against him. Nevertheless, the Nazis were impressed with the way she portrayed the masses, and at times used her images in their propaganda, but without asking for her approval and without mentioning her name.”

Latter-day crucifixion

Like Höch and Kollwitz, artist Alice Lex-Nerlinger expressed social criticism in her work. She was born in 1893 into an upper-class family in Berlin, and during World War I studied at the Museum of Decorative Arts in that city. In 1919, she married the artist Oskar Nerlinger (whose work is also presented in the exhibition) and like him, in 1928 she joined both the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists and the Communist Party. She harnessed her skills to creating photomontages, photograms and posters that revealed a commitment to the class struggle and to women’s rights, and which denounced wars and capitalism.

The Israel Museum exhibition features Lex-Nerlinger’s “Field-Gray Yields Dividends” (1931). The original was lost, and the artist repainted it in 1961. In it, a dead soldier is shown entangled in a barbed-wire barrier, his deformed face visible behind his shifted helmet and gas mask. From a factory in the background, a column of tanks and ammunition carts drives diagonally into his heart, straight as an arrow.

“Lex-Nerlinger describes here the soldier as a modern victim of crucifixion,” says Kamien-Kazhdan. “She uses the image of the removed mask to look straight into the eyes of the pain and death, in order to condemn the militaristic nationalism and the capitalistic exploitation by the industrialists, who profited from the war.”

When the painting was shown in Berlin in 1932, it was targeted by a smear campaign by the National Socialist press, which described it as a gross insult to the war dead and a pathetic fabrication of Soviet propaganda. When the Nazis rose to power a year later, Lex-Nerlinger and her husband were under arrest for a short period, after which she ceased to engage in any and all artistic activity. Following the war, she and Nerlinger settled in communist East Germany, where she was a well-known graphic artist until her death in 1975.

In “Field-Gray Yields Dividends,” the curator explains, an attempt was made to give visual form to poison gas, which was first used in World War I, and which thereafter featured in the anxieties of that generation. “The soldier’s gas mask is partially lifted to reveal one eye aimed heavenward. His nose and mouth are exposed to the airborne pollutants embodied by the grayish sfumato of the painting, which raised connotations of how the gas was spread.” Perhaps it was this technique that caused one viewer to sink into a melancholy reverie about other cultural expressions of gas masks in the context of Germany in the first half of the 20th century. For example, it conjured up the children’s war game that is described in “Letters from an Imaginary Journey,” a novel written by Israeli author Lea Goldberg in 1937, partially based on her childhood experiences in Berlin and Bonn in the twilight of the Weimar period. The book’s protagonist talks about how troubled she was when she saw near her home in Germany “a group of little children playing a make-believe game of war. On the face of one of them was an old gas mask. I do not know how he got it. It was one of the most harrowing scenes I had ever witnessed. These small children already knew a thing or two about war. They’d already guessed that it wasn’t only bravery, that it was also death. Nevertheless, they were still enthusiastic about the game There will be more wars in this world. And these children, these pleasant tots they, like us, will destroy, will rape, will do evil.”

The German author Erich Kästner, who remained in Nazi Germany in spite of being ostracized by the regime, has also related to this juxtaposition of children and gas masks. In his diary, published after the war under the title “Notabene 45,”, Kästner described a macabre scene from Berlin: When he went to receive a gas mask, he found that the distribution center “was filled with dwarves. It was a group of acrobats whose members wanted to try on gas masks. The gray masks were too big for the dwarves, whose faces were like those of old people. Only a few of these garrulous ladies and gentlemen managed to find masks in children’s sizes. Others, whose heads were even smaller, tried on one mask after another. But none of them were completely airtight.

“None of the female workers who were busy helping people find the proper size, and who themselves looked like giants next to the midgets, were able to help. The majority of the dwarves were compelled to leave without a mask You could have laughed, but no one was laughing.”