Exile as a topic in the arts

Painting: Felix Nussbaum, Grieving couple
Felix Nussbaum: Grieving couple, 1943
Felix-Nussbaum-Haus Osnabrück

Exile as a topic in the arts

Das Buch wird, in einer möglichst dramatischen, abwechslungsreichen Form, von den Schicksalen vieler – teils berühmter, teils unbekannter – Exilierter berichten. Es soll, ausser unserem Text, auch Dokumente von den „Helden“ des Buches selber enthalten; mit „Dokumenten“ meine ich: Tagebuch-Notizen, oder Briefe an uns, oder kurze Autobiographien. 

[The book will, in the most dramatic and varied way possible, recount the fates of many – some famous, some unknown – exiles. It is also to contain, aside from our text, documents from the ‘heroes’ of the book themselves; by ‘documents’, I mean: diary notes, or letters to us, or short autobiographies. (ed. trans.)]

Klaus Mann, letter to Heinrich Mann, 26 March 1938

From 1933 on, exile from the regions controlled by the Nazis put artists from all disciplines in the situation of a forced new beginning, and their creative responses to this new beginning varied widely. Those who were able to confront their exile as an object for artistic reflection perhaps took up the struggle to also penetrate the trials of flight, internment and exile intellectually, and perhaps also comment on them politically. Many artists formulated fierce criticisms of the unjust regime that forced them into emigration. Artistic self-assertion abroad was not infrequently from the perspective of witnesses and admonishers, and artists in exile were often directly involved in the resistance against Nazi Germany. Others retreated into the private sphere. Not all artists who were forced into exile necessarily became politicised. Those artists who were apolitical before they fled sometimes remained so in their country of destination. Still others “retained their belief in the myth of Germany as the ‘land of poets and thinkers’ and therefore held the view that good art is always the best politics,” as Jost Hermand summed it up (Kultur in finsteren Zeiten, p. 213).

Those artists for whom exile was the starting point of creative work were confronted with manifold questions: What subjects and forms did they select, who were their audience – and that impulses did the new environment give them? The majority of artists that went into exile after 1933 chose metropolises as their new residences. They took their new sanctuaries as an opportunity to approach them artistically, often from a critical distance, often “mistakenly”, as Theodor W. Adorno once stated about the life of intellectuals in emigration.

The social conditions in the country of destination often became the topic of artistic work just as much as the causes of exile in the country of origin. After 1933, works were created that dealt intensively with the situation in Germany, which conceptualised utopias and also reacted to the War from 1939 on. The committed advocacy of a “different Germany”, although this term defined no clear course of action, united many artists and people in the cultural sector in exile.

The effects of exile can usually be picked up from the edition or production history, or from the exhibition locations for visual artists, and in many cases these stem from networks and joint initiatives in the countries of exile. In the field of literature, it was and remains a central question whether one publishes in the language of the country of origin or in the language of the host country: Is one addressing the original readership in a country that one had to leave, or the exile community, or is one trying to reach a new target group in the new environment? The tie between artist and public must be continuously re-formed, and this is often only achieved by way of detours, or not at all, and the reception in the home country is often completely cut off for years. What effect does this have on the content of the art production itself?

Even today, altered working conditions following emigration make it difficult for many artists to follow their vocations in the accustomed way. However, in many cases forced emigration can provide an impulse for the artistic career if the conditions in the country of destination are suitable – that is, publication opportunities, grants, art prices and an interested public.