Commentary Magazine


The Fate of Otto Freundlich:
Painter Maudit

What with Pascin, Modigliani, Simeon Solomon, and even Soutine, the Jewish artist as an artist maudit has been an all too familiar figure in modern times. Here Edouard Roditi uncovers another, and one who deserves to be better known.

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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?

An article in the January 1955 issue of the Paris periodical Le musée vivant discusses the work of Otto Freundlich’s friend Alfred Reth, a Cubist who had exhibited close to a hundred paintings in the famous Berlin exhibition of Der Sturm in 1913, an event as important in the history of modern art as New York’s legendary Armory Show. Like Freundlich, who was also one of the stars of the Berlin exhibition, Reth has somehow failed to maintain, since then, the reputation among dealers, critics, and collectors that he seemed already to have established. The vaguely Marxist and moralizing critic of Le musée vivant concludes, quite rightly, that Reth’s present obscurity can be attributed to his constant refusal to allow himself to be taken up by any of the “capitalistic” art dealers who, in recent decades, have become rich by publicizing and selling the works of those producers of art in whose future they had been able to invest. There had indeed been painters, such as Gustave Moreau in 19th-century Paris and Louis Eilshemius or Florine Stettheimer in recent years in New York, who were never pressed by the need to sell their works. Deprived of the publicity of one-man shows and of auction-room competitiveness, these artists have not always obtained the kind of recognition that their work actually deserves. Freundlich, desperately poor throughout the three and a half decades of his productive life, somehow managed to achieve, in this one respect, the same effect as his most wealthy colleagues. Much as unemployment is a macabre parody of the bored leisure of the idle rich, so was Freundlich’s social and economic alienation, whether in Germany or in Paris, always a grim travesty of the chic and well-heeled bohemia in which Gertrude Stein entertained Picasso or Matisse in her elegant Left Bank home, and in which a Kahnweiler or a Rosenberg grew rich by marketing the production of artists whose confidence they quite properly enjoyed.

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Otto Freundlich was born in 1878 in Stolp, a provincial center on the Baltic Coast of Eastern Pomerania that has now been annexed by Communist Poland. His father was a prosperous merchant whose household aped the standard of living of local landed gentry. His mother died when he was still very young, and his father remarried. Otto hated his stepmother and soon developed many of the neurotic symptoms of the deprived child. After 1900, when he went to study art history in Munich, he became increasingly estranged from his family. The frequency of mixed marriages among his siblings indicates that they may all have identified their instability with their alien Jewish heritage and sought assimilation among Gentile Germans. Be that as it may, Otto Freundlich himself married several times and seems never to have sought happiness with a Jewish woman; of traditional Judaism, he retained at best but a few vague notions, barely more detailed than those of his non-Jewish friends. On his memories of an unhappy boyhood he never wasted any nostalgic sentiment.

After moving for a while from Munich to Florence, Freundlich began, at the age of twenty-seven, to feel the urge to be a creative artist rather than an art historian. Instead of studying in an academy of fine arts, however, or with an accepted master, Freundlich devoted his next two years to a kind of solitary study and research that was better suited to his uncompromising and unsociable nature so rarely prone to comply with any tradition or convention and to tolerate the tastes and style of another artist.

Though Freundlich subsequently attributed his extreme hardness of hearing to an illness which occurred on his return to Germany after 1914, his deafness may actually have developed as a psychosomatic manifestation of his hatred of his fatherland and his refusal to communicate in German with other Germans. When the architect Wilhelm Gropius, after the First World War, offered Freundlich a professorship at the Bauhaus in Weimar, this honor which would have assured him fame as an associate of Klee and Kandinsky was scornfully refused because Freundlich preferred to starve in isolation in Paris. As early as his first appearance among the Paris Cubists in 1908, Freundlich managed moreover to establish and maintain this isolation. One of the results was to condemn his work to almost complete obscurity.

Haunted from the very start by considerations of the true rather than of the beautiful, he began to paint, in addition to a few figurative and generally allegorical compositions, purely constructive and two-dimensional arrangements of irregular patterns, generally broken up in flat patches of bright contrasting colors but also, at times, of graded shades of the same color, varying from the palest blues, for instance, to the darkest blue-black. Nor did Freundlich ever abandon, after that, the principles of this art which avoids naturalism without limiting itself exclusively to non-objectivity, and eschews Impressionism, though without sacrificing color. Throughout his productive years, he continued to paint occasional figurative compositions, and it is sometimes very difficult to date his works according to their subject, their style, or their range of colors.

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When Freundlich moved to Paris in 1908, he was almost penniless. At once, he was drawn to the circle of early Cubists around Picasso and Apollinaire. Among Freundlich’s unpublished papers, we find an autobiographical fragment about these early Paris years. He seems to have been introduced to the iconoclasts of Montmartre by the collector Wilhelm Uhde and by Rudolf Levy, the Berlin Fauvist painter, who also died subsequently in a Nazi concentration camp. Of the “illusionist” art of the Impressionists, Freundlich speaks rather contemptuously, praising Picasso for having been one of the first to liberate painting from the slavery of perspective. A gallery in the Rue Laffitte in Paris was one of the first to show Freundlich’s work, and he was then invited to exhibit, in 1911 and 1913, in the Amsterdam Kunstring with other experimental artists of the Paris school as well as in New York’s Armory Show. Vaguely associated with Delaunay and the short-lived Orphist school, Freundlich seems to have shared, for a while, the “synchromistic” theories that distinguish the work of the American painters Stanton Macdonald White and Russell Morgan.

But Freundlich, who was a literalist of the two-dimensional canvas and forbade himself a third dimension in all of his paintings, never limited his experimental activity to painting. As early as 1909, he began to produce sculpture too, a “Man’s Head” and, in 1910, a “Woman’s Head” that was followed by two monumental plaster heads that he exhibited at the Sonderbund show in Cologne. After the First World War, he added mosaic, stained glass, engraved glass, and tapestry to his existing techniques of self-expression. Throughout his life, he also wrote constantly about art, long prose diatribes full of philosophical and political implications that for the most part have remained unpublished.

In 1914, in a rare moment of luck, Freundlich managed to escape internment as an enemy alien in France and returned to Germany. As soon as he was able to find his bearings, he became very active in a number of pacifist and leftist groups, amongst artists and writers who, in Berlin, were subsequently prominent in the Spartacist movement at the end of the war. With Georg Grosz and Ludwig Meidner, he was a regular contributor of vignettes and line drawings to Franz Pfempfert’s more Anarchist than Communist periodical, Die Aktion, which was also publishing the early writings of Ludwig Rubiner and Gottfried Benn, of Lunacharsky, who was soon to be the commissar of culture and education in Soviet Russia, and of the poet Johannes R. Becher, who was destined, over twenty years later, to become a cabinet minister in Russian-occupied East Germany.

During these war years, Freundlich also managed to acquire in Berlin, the Rhineland, and Switzerland a few enlightened patrons, who subsequently bought his works at regular intervals and kept him alive for the next twenty years. Joseph Feinhals, a Cologne businessman, was perhaps the most faithful and generous of them, accumulating through the years a large collection of Freundlichs that were all destroyed, with the notable exception of a great mosaic, “Genesis,” in an air raid during the Second World War. In these years of feverish protest that often neglected to be prudent, Freundlich also acquired a few obscurantist enemies to whose unrelenting hatred he owed, some dozen years later, the doubtful honor of providing unwittingly the cover design for the catalogue of Hitler’s traveling exhibition of “degenerate art” in 1934. With Chagall, the Expressionist painter Ludwig Meidner, and the sculptor Haizmann, Freundlich thus shared the honor of being one of the first victims of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda in the field of modern art.

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In 1924, Freundlich obtained permission to settle in France again as an artisan specialized in stained-glass windows and mosaics. He seems to have failed to find a satisfactory adjustment, either politically or psychologically, in postwar Berlin. Eternally in revolt against anything that reminded him, even subconsciously, of parental authority, whether against all that was German or all that smacked of any tradition, he could feel happy only in a city like Paris where, without ties of family or nationality, he was able to ignore the presence of fellow citizens who lived a less bohemian life or had deeper roots. In the 20’s, he exhibited regularly at the Salon des Indépendants and devoted a lot of attention to the somewhat ephemeral politics of the art world, joining and denouncing, in turn, a number of various groups or schools. He was active, for instance, with Ben Nicholson, Alexander Calder, Albert Gleizes, Herbin, Moholy-Nagy, Wolfgang Paalen, Alfred Reth, and Kurt Seligmann, in the Abstraction Création group in 1931; in the group of the Galerie Renaissance and, with the painter Valensi, in the Musicalist group. Freundlich also exhibited in Holland, Switzerland, and England, at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery in London. In 1938, Jeanne Bucher celebrated his sixtieth birthday in Paris by giving him a one-man show, from which a large triptych was purchased by subscription and presented to the Jeu de Paume museum, whose collection became, after 1945, the nucleus of the Musée de l’Art Moderne. Jankel Adler, Hans Arp, Braque, Derain, Gleizes, Gropius, Max Jacob, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Léger, Lipschitz, Picasso, Herbert Read, and Wilhelm Uhde were among the sponsors of this subscription, the appeal for which was sent out by a committee that included the novelist Alfred Doeblin and the Surrealist painter Max Ernst. As part of the ill luck that dogged Freundlich throughout his life and even after his death, this triptych was mislaid during the wartime evacuation of the Paris museums and has never been located again.

Freundlich continued to work in Paris, in his ground-floor studio in a backyard of the Rue Denfert Rochereau, near the Luxembourg Gardens, until 1939. The street has now been renamed, rather appropriately considering Freundlich’s pacifist and leftist opinions, after the novelist Henri Barbusse; the studio can still be visited, at Number 38, and contains a jumble of unsold or unfinished works that are jealously and none too wisely guarded by the artist’s widow, herself an abstract painter, Kosnick-Kloss. When the Second World War broke out, Freundlich was interned by the French as an enemy alien, but was able to escape from his camp when the Germans approached. He found refuge with his wife in Saint Paul de Fenouillet, in the Eastern Pyrenees, and remained near there from 1940 to 1943, undergoing extreme privation but continuing to draw, paint, and write. When he had to register as a Jew under the Vichy regulations, he wrote a personal letter of protest to the highest local authorities, whereas most other Jews in this area tried to pass unnoticed, avoided registration, or got themselves false papers. Little wonder that the local Nazis and their French henchmen found him so easily when they began to round Jews up for deportation to Eastern Europe. He was arrested in a tiny mountain village, Saint Martin de Fenouillet, and removed in March 1943 to the Drancy concentration camp near Paris, from which he was immediately deported to the Lublin-Maidanek extermination camp in Poland. He died on his arrival there, barely Surviving the dreadful trip. He was sixty-five.

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Since 1946, a number of Paris galleries have sought to revive interest in Freundlich’s work, and retrospective exhibitions of his work have also been given at the Salon des Indépendants in 1947 and, in 1949, at the Sao Paulo Museum in Brazil. An attempt is also being made to collect, edit, and publish some of his many writings on art, only a few scattered examples of which were printed during his lifetime, in Die Aktion, for instance, and in Cahiers d’Art.

These writings, all in German, indicate how much Freundlich relied, in his thought as well as in his art, on direct personal experience and meditation rather than on learning acquired as a student or a disciple. He takes nothing for granted, practically never quotes any sources, and usually writes as if quite unaware of any previous discussion of the problem that happens to obsess him. His opinions thus have the curious awkwardness of an autodidact’s ruminations consigned to paper on a desert island, then enclosed in an old bottle and cast out to sea: “The essence of a curve is the expression of a sense of direction in motion. In itself, an angle is negative: it has neither volume nor substance. A curve is caused by substance which expands its energies in one or more directions.” Of this kind of very Germanic wrestling with words and concepts, Freundlich has left us page upon page, all unpublished; as one now reads these fading manuscripts, one often wonders whether the author was at all aware of the numerous contradictions they contain.

Like the self-taught philosopher Constantin Brunner, who was his contemporary, Freundlich was an enthusiastic reader of Spinoza. But he seems to have interpreted the lens-grinder of Amsterdam as a kind of egocentric mystic and never as a systematic thinker who drew on his readings of the many other philosophers whom he had studied. Quite alienated from the fashionable society of art patrons, critics, and magazine editors for whom the great Picasso puts on a non-stop show, Freundlich was almost asocial, more concerned with self-expression than with communication, a striking example of the sheer “cussedness” of much modern art that isn’t specifically Parisian. If there are “peintres maudits” in our age as there were “poètes maudits” in Verlaine’s, then Otto Freundlich must be classed with Kurt Schwitters, Alexis von Jawlensky, and a couple of others who were destined to become famous only after their death because they were unsociable if inventive spirits who failed or refused to find critics or dealers to handle their public relations and their business.

All of Freundlich’s writings indicate that he was more interested in his own subjective initiation, as an artist through his own work and as an adept in a philosophy of life that inspired him, than in elucidating any objective structures in the society in which he lived. An ardent believer in the identity of the artistic and the social revolution, he concentrated all his hopes in a somewhat simple Communist faith of the kind that was frequent among bohemians of his generation; he would indeed have been utterly shocked had he lived to witness, in our age, the triumph of Socialist Realism and the banning, wherever Communism now prevails, of the kind of individualistic self-expression to which he himself was dedicated.

It is perhaps in his monumental figurative mosaic, “Genesis,” now to be placed in the new theater of Cologne, that Freundlich’s mystical conception of the universe and of life is most clearly expressed. The individual patch of color, as in a painting by Seurat, here loses its identity completely for the sake of a purpose much more vast; each color thus survives only as one of the many metamorphoses of light, of the light that pervades all of Freundlich’s work, with very few exceptions, much as it does most of William Blake’s too. This very mysticism, so Germanic in many respects, since Blake, too, derived it from Swedenborg, is what gives Freundlich’s work at times a brooding pathos alien to the spirit of the School of Paris; his own is one of dedication to a single idea, and is almost akin to cultism or monomania. Freundlich did not realize that the artist’s Own conceptions and tastes need not be, merely because rejected today by the crowd, inevitably those of a wiser and less unjust future. Never as urbane, as brilliantly versatile as Picasso, Freundlich appears to have been a kind of tragic hermit of the modern movement in art; he is now a reproachful Banquo’s ghost haunting many museums, exhibitions, and art histories from which he is still unjustly excluded. In his own lifetime, he remained convinced that he was a victim of all sorts of prejudices inherited from an evil past of economic exploitation and tyrannous traditionalism, all of which were doomed to disappear in a social revolution. Blind to any virtues of the past, unsuccessful and unhappy in the present, he placed all his hopes in the future. To Cubism and the abstract movement in art, he remains, in many respects, what Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames was to the movement of the Naughty 90’s .

For all his Marxism, Freundlich continued to be profoundly religious, unaware as ever of all contradictions in his own thought and life. But he was religious in an individual and fundamentally heretical manner. Among his unpublished writings, there is an essay where he affirms that “Religion has nothing at all to do with God. A man may be religious without believing in God.” Of this kind of iconoclastic theism so characteristic of many of the self-taught “hommes révoltés” of 20th-century bohemia, Otto Freundlich remains, with Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, and a few others, a striking example indeed.

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The Dutch critic Michel Seuphor, who lives in Paris, has observed that Otto Freundlich was never, strictly speaking, a Cubist, since his compositions are of small plane surfaces without any suggestion of volume, in fact examples of a kind of harlequin or “patchwork quilt” art that is as alien to traditional easel-painting as it could possibly be. In one of his writings, Freundlich explains his reasons for adopting his somewhat literalist conception of the picture as a strictly two-dimensional pattern that must eschew the illusion, except by a very Stylized analogy, of a three-dimensional reality: “I am convinced that the social freedom towards which we are striving cannot be attained if we are not capable of granting its freedom to the whole visible world. That is why I have refrained, as a painter, from relying on my eye, which has become, as an organ, a mere serf. I no longer record the expressions and manifestations of the freedom of all men, all things, and everything visible on the basis of the impressions that reach me through my eyes, since they are no longer capable of perceiving anything that has to do at all with freedom.”

To identify the artist’s reconstruction of the visual world with his absolute freedom from any sensual perception, this is already a strange notion on the part of one who claims to be a firm believer in Spinoza, one of whose basic tenets was “Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu” (“Nothing enters the mind unless through the senses”). To explain away this discrepancy remained nevertheless within the range of a logically consistent idealistic philosophy. How Freundlich ever hoped, however, to reconcile these beliefs of his as an artist with Lenin’s materialism, this is indeed a mystery of the kind that illustrates the curiously unphilosophical faith of the decades between 1910 and 1940, of the era when one could still honestly identify revolution in politics with revolution in the arts, economic progress with moral improvement, the liberation of the individual from all that seemed to constrain him psychologically with the liberation of whole social groups and nations from economic or political shackles, when it was possible, in one and the same breath, to proclaim an absolute faith in Communism, Cubism, the twelve-tone scale, Surrealism, psychoanalysis, and theosophy.

In his unpublished memoirs of his life as a painter in Paris before the First World War, Freundlich gives us a curiously self-centered interpretation of the limitations that inspired Picasso, in those years, to break with the “illusionist” tradition of Impressionism: “Although Picasso had restored unity to the picture surface by liberating the means of painting of the older school from having to serve the object-in-itself and the space-in-itself of perspective, thus forcing values to become functions and subordinating these functions to a principle of surface architecture, there yet existed, at that time, a recognition that even these values-in-themselves could be condemned as part of the heritage of illusionism and a demand for the functions of pure surface, without anything beyond it and limited to itself, as the only possible element, without any compromise, for a pictorial structure that is purely one of surface.”

In 1908, before Piet Mondrian and all the more recent abstract painting, this was a very original and revolutionary conception of the nature and purposes of a painting as distinguished from a three-dimensional static sculpture or a mobile. As a theorist, Otto Freundlich was thus one of the most unorthodox among the artists of his iconoclastic generation, a man of the same category as Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. As a painter, he remains the author of a number of truly impressive compositions that rank easily with those of Mondrian and Kandinsky, and are clearly superior to those of Herbert Bayer or Jean Hélion. In his life, he displayed many of the currently recognized symptoms of sheer genius: an impressive and almost abnormal head that is well portrayed, with its heavy features and gloomy expression, in a lithograph by Otto Dix, an earnestness of purpose, a sense of dedication, a contempt for the past, and a childish faith in the future. But he lacked the sense of criticism that would have made it easier for him to communicate all that he felt and thought; above all, he lacked the quality of elegance or taste that enables an artist and his works to fit into a society that satisfies its prestige needs through the arts.

Freundlich’s tragic fate tends to suggest that sheer genius, in modern painting, may no longer be enough, that an artist who rejects all the past may thereby be depriving himself of communication with future generations too; in fact, that prudence must temper, in art as well as in life, the promptings of a talent that might easily become too iconoclastic, too egocentric, too humorless, or too unsociable if left to itself.

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