Modern German Art for Thirties Paris, Prague, and London: Resistance and Acquiescence in a Democratic Public Sphere.

Author:Haxthausen, Charles W.
Position:Essay - Critical essay


Modern German Art for Thirties Paris, Prague, and London: Resistance and Acquiescence in a Democratic Public Sphere

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. 359 pp.; 6 color ills., 86 b/w ills.

With this book Keith Holz proposes to offer "one model to conceive of the history of modern German art differently." He takes as his topic the activist communities formed by "degenerate" leftist and liberal German artists who fled Adolf Hitler's Germany and sought refuge in the democratic capitals of Prague, Paris, or London. It is not his purpose to relate yet another "history of artists," fashioning biographical narratives "rendered all the more compelling by the displacements and hardships brought on by cataclysmic historical circumstances." Many such individual histories have been written, devoted to major figures of the Weimar art world--and of modernism--such as Max Beckmann and Paul Klee. By contrast, Holz focuses on "the discursive and institutional settings in which artists worked and lived" (p. 283) in those three cities. The result is indeed a different model--one might call it a political history of art--that privileges collective political action over individual aesthetic achievement, explicitly political subject matter over "autonomous" art.

It is therefore hardly surprising that most of the principal figures in Holz's account are artists largely forgotten today--the Prague art academy professor and painter Willi Nowak, for example, or, in Paris, the emigre graphic artist Max Lingner and the exiles Eugen Spiro and Heinz Lohmar. They and others equally or even more obscure played an instrumental role in the political activities of their respective exile communities. (Spiro's papers, seized by the Nazis and today housed in the state archives in Berlin, served as a major source for Holz.)

Of canonical artists, Holz's history most prominently features John Heartfield and Oskar Kokoschka; Max Ernst, who had moved to Paris in 1922, also participated in the activities of the exile community there. Heartfield and his brother Wieland Herzfelde fled Berlin for Prague in April 1933, where Herzfelde reestablished his Malik Verlag, which included the magazine AIZ (Arbeiter-illustrierte Zeitung), for which Heart-field continued to make his brilliant anti-Nazi photomontages, albeit for a now drastically smaller readership. The political deterioration in Austria led Kokoschka to relocate to Prague a year and a half later. Although Kokoschka kept aloof from exile activists in Czechoslovakia, strangely, they named their organization, Oskar-Kokoschka-Bund, formed in December 1937, after him. We are never told why; perhaps it was to valorize their own efforts by association with the name of a major artist. Moreover...

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