Working and being productive in exile

Letter: Kurt Schwitters to his wife, 1941
Letter from Kurt Schwitters to his wife Helma dated 30 May 1941. He wrote telling her about his working situation during internment in England: "You won’t believe what good pictures I’ve been able to paint here in the camp."
Foto: Brigitte Borrmann, Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover

Working and being productive in exile

Das waren die Emigranten: der Prokurist aus Bielefeld, der dachte, er hätte Aussichten auf eine Stellung in einem großen Warenhaus. Da war der bekannte Rechtsanwalt aus Berlin, der träumte von einem Angebot eines Konzerns. Den berühmten Herzspezialisten erwartete eine umfangreiche Praxis. Der Schriftsteller glaubte einen Kontrakt in der Tasche zu haben, der ihm die Aufführung seines Stückes auf dem Broadway sicherte. Da war der große Schauspieler, dem die Karriere in Hollywood winkte.

Aber es kam anders, ganz anders.

[They were typical of many emigrants. The businessman from Bielefeld, who believed he had good chances of gaining employment in a large department store. Then there was the famous lawyer from Berlin, who dreamed of receiving an offer from a large company. The well-known heart specialist expected to take on his own surgery. The author who believed he had a good connection that would secure him a run on Broadway. And then there was also the great actor who was just waiting for Hollywood to call.

But things turned out differently, very differently. (ed. trans.)]

Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, Die Farm in den grünen Bergen, 1949

Our image of the artist living in exile is often associated with the names of successful and well-known figures. But this is misleading, because making it as an artist in exile means overcoming a great many hurdles and many don’t make it.

For artists in particular, the circumstances in which they can produce their art in exile are completely new. They depend on a market for their art, on a public and on public tastes. They need people who support them, people like gallery directors and publishers who can distribute their work or public events like concerts or theatre performances. In many cases, going into exile meant finding a new public, writing in the language of the receiving country and adapting to the market conditions there. It is difficult for artists to find their way into and around the art business in a receiving country because the marketability of art works depends on a number of factors. How artistic quality is assessed can differ from country to country and praise from the critics is by no means a guarantee for economic success or recognition within a certain culture. The combination of country of origin and receiving country and the issue of a shared cultural heritage are also matters of significance in this respect.

In addition to this, artists face the problem or challenge of gaining access to the art business in the receiving country. Many aspects play a role here, which do not necessarily have anything to do with artistic quality: for example, being able to adapt to certain customs and the new language, being able to gain access to important places and having the right contacts.

Only seldom are artists able to continue their work where they left off, and they often have to prioritise commissioned work over artistic independence. There are numerous examples of this among those who were forced to live in exile outside of the Nazi sphere of influence from 1933 to 1945: one political graphic designer, for instance, worked as a book designer for travel guides, while many critical writers ended up writing scripts for Hollywood and Jewish actors even played Nazis in American anti-Nazi propaganda films. At the same time, networks and mutual support among those living in exile were vital to continuing their artistic work. By setting up their own publishing houses and other channels for publication as well as cultural associations, those in exile also created structures that helped against isolation and aimed to provide them with employment opportunities and publicity in the receiving countries. However, going into exile can also lead artists to cease their previous artistic activities completely. If artists are unable to find a way into the cultural scene in their exile country, for example, they may have no choice but to take on any kind of work just to earn a living and survive.

The impact of exile and migration on the artistic process also gives rise to a great many questions when we look at contemporary artists living in exile; for example, how easy it is for artists to enter and find acceptance in the cultural scene of the receiving country.