Visual arts

Photograph: exhibition in London in 1938
Twentieth Century German Art, exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London 8 July 1938. The exhibition, first planned under the title "Banned Art", showed works by 60 artists who had already left Germany.
Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Fotoabteilung, © Max Beckmann Archiv

Visual arts

Wenn man dies alles – den ganzen Krieg oder auch das ganze Leben nur als eine Scene im Teater der ‚Unendlichkeit‘ auffasst, ist vieles leichter zu ertragen –

[If one perceives of it all – the entire War or even life as a whole – as a scene in the theater of ‘infinity’ it is much easier to bear – (ed. trans.)]

Max Beckmann in his diary, 12 September 1940

Artists who expressed their sympathy for communist groups and ideals in the Weimar Republic were already subjected to Nazi persecution at an early stage and this led to the first waves of emigration from Germany. Others who had still held out in Germany, but who already had to deal with repression and professional bans (Berufsverbot) because they belonged to the avante-garde movement, realised in 1937 (at the latest) the danger they faced if they stayed in Germany, when the Nazis organized their propaganda exhibition against what they referred to as “Degenerate Art” (”Entartete Kunst”). Many left the country, some tried to continue their art in secret and hold on to their artistic convictions in an “inner emigration”. The decisions taken by painters, graphic artists and sculptors did not follow any specific pattern, and could only be understood later in consideration of different artistic life histories.

How did the political situation in Germany affect the personal situation of visual artists? The flight into exile and, with it, the breaking off of professional and private ties was a hard step to take for most artists, and the difficulties already began when considering and choosing a new place to live and work, initially in Europe and Turkey, and then increasingly in the United States of America. However, many did not have such a choice. Emigration often involved leaving works behind, if these had not already been confiscated or destroyed. Once abroad, the next step was to find new ways to practice their art, to find new opportunities to work, exhibit and sell. This generally meant developing entirely new production processes, new ways of communicating their works of art and selling them. Even artists who had been very well-known and successful in Germany or Austria often faced insurmountable difficulties here. While solo exhibitions were often not possible, projects like the exhibition Twentieth Century German Art (originally planned as “Banned Art”) which took place in London in 1938 became even more important. The large European cities, and increasingly the USA, offered opportunities to teach at academies of art.

Are their common themes and styles as a result of experiencing exile? In investigating the effect of exile on the contents of paintings, other visual works of art and sculptures, researchers have identified an accumulation of contents that are politically and socially critical, something that can also be found in literature that was written in exile. While centres of abstract or minimalist art also emerged, in the USA for example, it is nevertheless not possible from today’s point of view to identify a common direction that one could designate “exile art”. In order to work against their isolation, to support one another and meet up socially, at least organisationally, artists came together in associations and organisations like the Free German League of Culture in Great Britain (1939) or the Collective of German Artists in France (1936), both of which counted well-known artists among their members.

For artists who left the German Democratic Republic to enter the Federal Republic, or for those from other countries of origin, for whom Germany was and is a receiving country, the manifold, lively art market here plays an important role for artists who want to gain a foothold here.