Commentary Magazine

Article Preview

The Fate of Otto Freundlich:
Painter Maudit

- Abstract

Among the sixty or more Jewish painters and sculptors who died as victims of Nazi extermination policies and were represented, in February 1955, in the commemorative exhibition organized in the Galerie Zak in Paris by the Musée d’Art Juif, Otto Freundlich was the only Cubist, in fact one of the very few whose work reveals an awareness of the more modern trends that lead to Surrealism, to abstraction, and beyond. Yet Freundlich, two weeks later, was not represented at all in the commemorative exhibition of the Epoque Héroique of Cubism that Waldemar George, the official historian of the Paris School, had organized in the Galerie de l’Institut; none of the other “Cubists of the first hour” seemed, however, to have been forgotten, and even Alfred Reth, though not mentioned in the catalogue, had been added as an afterthought and was represented by one large painting.

A conspiracy of silence seems indeed to have doomed the work of Otto Freundlich, a moody and friendless German Jew from Stolp in Eastern Pomerania, to an obscurity from which several fruitless attempts, in recent years, have failed to salvage him. Among the early Cubists who lived in Montmartre before 1914 and associated with Picasso in the heroic years when the mythical “bateau lavoir” was anchored, like Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, on the heights of the Rue Ravignan, only Freundlich now seems to obtain no recognition at all in the world of private collectors, of art dealers, of critics, and of museum directors. After Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Modigliani, Marcel Duchamp, and Jacques Villon, Metzinger, Delaunay, Herbin, Lhote, and Survage are now being remembered again, mentioned in histories of art, and represented in many major collections. In spite of his undeniable mastery of a style that has acquired the prestige of anything consecrated by sheer time, in spite of his obvious originality and seriousness of intent, and his personal contribution towards the evolution of art from Cubism to two-dimensional non-objective painting, Freundlich indeed failed to assure himself—even after his tragic deportation from German-occupied France to Eastern Europe and his death in the gas chambers of a Nazi extermination camp—of the kind of recognition granted to almost every other painter of this group, which has by now acquired a kind of Olympian status in the history of modern art. Why is it that the rediscovery of the many German moderns banned from the museums and galleries of the Third Reich, of Lovis Corinth, Emil Nolde, Carl Hofer, of Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, and Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, has failed to attract any serious posthumous attention to the scattered works of one who was a personal friend of both Picasso and Kandinsky, of Kurt Schwitters as well as of Piet Mondrian?

About the Author