Monday, March 10, 2008

THE ECONOMICS OF OBSCURITY by Robert Bunkin

I’ve often wondered why certain artists are catapulted to fame, while others remain virtually unknown, despite the very high quality of what they produce. Individual tastes are complex and subjective, so there is no objective gauge for quality. However we make qualitative evaluations all the time, and there is consensus about some artists, even if we will find divergent opinions about that artist’s work. From these musings on the attention or lack of attention paid to artists of the past and present, I‘ve devised a fairly simple equation for an artist in the modern era: audacity + resources = success.

On a recent trip to Germany, I visited the Meidner Archive at the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt. I didn’t have an appointment with the chief archivist, and I wasn’t sure how public the material in the archive would be, only that it was the largest repository of the work of Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966), a leading German Expressionist painter, draftsman and printmaker, whose work I had long admired. I found it curious that monographs had been published in English on most of the major Austrian and German Expressionists, but I could only find one, long out of print book, in German, on Ludwig Meidner, despite the fact that he is acknowledged in most texts on Expressionism as a major figure. [1] Lately his work has appeared in surveys of German Expressionism and New Objectivity at the Neue Gallerie and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Still there has been no major monograph published about him in English, nor has there been a major exhibition of his work in an American museum. Unlike Christian Schad, an artist of comparable status whose work has been revived from obscurity by a renewed interest in Post-Expressionist painting in Germany, Meidner’s work languishes in relative obscurity. I asked myself, why is this so? In part, my visit to the Meidner Archive in Frankfurt answered this question.

When I arrived I explained to the person at the admissions desk that we’d come to the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt expressly to visit the Meidner Archive. She called the archivist on duty, and he had me come up to the third floor where the offices were. He spoke excellent English and was extremely cordial. He apologized for the fact that not much was viewable given that the Meidner paintings were all in locked storage, and that he could only show me a few works on paper, some prints and watercolors. Nevertheless we discussed Meidner’s work and his critical misfortune for about 45 minutes, during which time the archivist said that it is difficult to organize exhibitions of Meidner’s work as so much of the best pieces were scattered; many in private collections; and a lot of it was in the US and Israel.

For the vastness of its Meidner holdings (oils, watercolors, drawings and prints from all periods of his career), the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt had only one self-portrait on permanent display. There was nothing by Meidner on the walls of the Frankfurt Städelsches Kunstinstitut just across the Mainz River even though it has a major collection of Expressionist painting. In fact, I remember seeing very little of Meidner’s work in the German art museums I visited. There were several masterful paintings at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, some on loan from Frankfurt, but outside of this context there was almost nothing of his work to be seen. I’m not implying here that it was Meidner’s Jewishness that made his work disappear. Certainly that was a deliberate attempt by the Nazis, even so his work was displayed in the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937. Today, however, there is a conscious program in Germany to restore Jewish artists to their rightful place in the history of German culture. Max Lieberman’s work is very evident in German museums, and there is an entire museum dedicated to the murdered painter, Felix Nussbaum, in Osnabrück, his home town.

Meidner’s obscurity seems to have begun long before he died, even before the Nazi era-- in the 1920s, a period that should have been the height of his career. Most of the literature at that time gives the reader the impression that Meidner was already in a decline with his most vital works behind him. If one is familiar with Meidner at all, it is the apocalyptic cityscapes he painted just before the First World War, and his portrait of the Poet Max Hermann-Neisse, works of his early maturity. Certainly this period was Meidner’s most stylistically “radical”, with forms that are violently tugged, pinched and tumultuous.

The artist that comes closest to mind is another Jew, Chaim Soutine. Soutine was nine years younger than Meidner, and arrived in Paris in 1913, six years after Meidner left Paris to settle in Berlin, a city he much preferred. During his year in Paris, Meidner did befriend Amedeo Modigliani, who later became a close friend of Soutine, so although Soutine might have known of Meidner through Modogliani, we don’t know if Meidner was familiar with his younger contemporary, Soutine. We can speculate that had Meidner remained in Paris, among other expatriates, he might have become a “peintre maudit” like Modigliani and Soutine, but Meidner was a German and had no use for the niceties of Parisian bohemia. He preferred to starve in a Berlin garret. For him Berlin was the modern city par excellence.

So Meidner settled in Berlin to become the painter of the seething metropolis, with its excavations for the new U Bahn, buildings going up, new suburbs, gas tanks, frenetic pace, poverty and wealth cheek by jowl, nightlife, street bustle: the motifs that drew many modern painters. His gift for portraiture with a dose of caricature also made him one of the great visual chroniclers of Berlin café society…artists, intellectuals, performers, poseurs, art collectors, dealers and historians…all came under Meidner’s pen, brush or etching needle. Meidner’s interest in chronicling the people and his era was very much a part of the zeitgeist of Weimar Germany. Portraiture, cosmopolitanism and the demimonde were the themes of a younger generation, who were rejecting the primitive and emotive excesses of Expressionism in favor of a Neue Sachlichkeit, (New Objectivity). In this context Meidner could be forgiven for painting in a more realistic style and focusing more on portraiture. But he also began to lose a political edge in his work, and to become more involved with his Jewishness.

In 1923 he was probably at the top of his game, he was the designer of a feature film The Street, directed by Karl Grune, which is considered a classic of Expressionist urban cinema. A small monograph was published on him, part of a series on young artists. [2] He had solo exhibitions in some of the leading avant-garde galleries in Germany, starting with Paul Cassirer in Berlin, 1918 [3] and his graphic works were being published in portfolios. His prose was also published. [4] So why has history “cheated” him of his rightful place when even the Nazis gave him pride of place amongst the Jewish-Bolshevik-insane-degenerates in the Entartete Kunst exhibition that traveled through Germany between 1937-38?

Meidner, had married his former student, Else Meyer, in 1927, and they had a son, David in 1929. By 1939 it was clear that Germany was not going to be hospitable to this Jewish family (by now Meidner had become quite observant). They had to get out however possible. They finally succeeded in escaping to London, a city Meidner absolutely detested. Despite the
presence of many Jewish intellectuals who found refuge in London, Meidner could not, or would not adjust to this new land. Having survived the Holocaust with his wife and son, he decided to go back to Germany in 1953. He left his wife, Else, with whom he maintained an active, and often very tender correspondence. His son decided to live as a farmer on an Israeli Kibbutz. Living alone, first in an old age home for Jews in Frankfurt, then in Marxheim bei Hofheim/Taunus and finally in Darmstadt, where he died, he continued to be a prolific painter and draftsman. His work was exhibited nationally, and even on occasion, internationally, but he never regained the reputation he had in 1923.

In the year of Meidner’s death, Thomas Grochowiak published his monograph on Meidner. [5] Else, seventeen years his junior, died in London in 1983. The son washed his hands of his contentious, art-obsessed parents. I don’t know if he even had much to do with settling their estates. The archivist at the Frankfurt Jewish Museum told me that David Meidner did not want to be involved at all with the Archive of his parent’s works. Under such circumstances Meidner’s work had no defenders, no major collectors, no one to oversee the market for his work, no one to persevere to keep Meidner’s work visible in good venues. Meidner’s story also lacked the high tragedy of martyred artists, like Friedel-Dicker Brandeis, Charlotte Solomon, or Felix Nussbaum, even if he was arguably a much greater painter and certainly, an artist of greater stature before the Nazi period. One could say in retrospect that he made many bad decisions, among them that he sought a modicum of recognition back in Germany, the place that he knew, even if that place would have destroyed him, his art and his loved ones.

In relation to my equation: audacity + resources = success, Meidner is a case study. Meidner was never a rich man. At the height of his acclaim he lived very modestly. His work got more conservative, meaning more naturalistic, and also more personal, even mystical. He chose to become involved with explicitly Jewish themes, moving away from intellectual secularism, and refusing to distance himself from the very genes that, according to Nazis and their cohorts, would make him worthy of annihilation. He even denounced his earlier Expressionist work, despite the fact that he never really renounced expressionism. Many of the assessments that I’ve read of his post-1920 work have been negative, yet an examination of this work reveals a significant level of consistently strong work, well into his last years. A similar so-called deterioration has not made Kokoschka, Dix, Grosz or Schad’s work, just to cite a few artists, any less respected, even if only their “good period” works are generally the focus of exhibitions and monographs. Soutine, who had come from dire poverty, had the resources of several major collectors, principally Albert C. Barnes of Philadelphia, who made it possible for Soutine to live without major money worries from 1923 on. Paintings by Soutine are an important part of the collection of the Barnes Museum. Meidner lacked the resources that were available to these artists, and his work became less audacious. He just wanted to paint.

The point is that there’s nothing intrinsically about Meidner’s work that makes it unworthy of reconsideration; it’s a confluence of economic lapses. It costs too much to take an obscure artist out of the shadows, and if the artist’s story isn’t heroic enough, tragic enough, audacious enough, and the work is scattered, there’s no will to resuscitate.


[1] All these works were painted between 1912-13. In this brief period he founded Die Pathetiker in Berlin with painters Jakob Steinhardt and Richard Janthur. He also had ecstatic experiences during this period, which informed his art and writing.
[2] Eine Autobiographische Plauderei, Ludwig Meidner, Junge Kunst, Volume 4, Leipzig, 1923.
[3] 1918, Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover, 1919 J. B. Neumann, Berlin, 1922, Ferdinand Möller, Berlin, 1926, Richter, Dresden.
[4] Nacken das Sternemeer, 1918; Septemberschrei, 1920.
[5] Grochowiak, Thomas, Ludwig Meidner, Verlag Aurel Bongers, Recklinghausen, 1966.

1 comment:

lockemonda said...

Meidner's pencil portrait of his wife is quite remarkable, among the works you've posted. Your equation, audacity + resources = success, holds true in the case of Alice Neel. She certainly had the audacity (is one aspect of audacity charisma?), and though she had no monetary resources, her broad circle of literary and artistic connections eventually brought the collectors and museums to her door. Great essay!