Otto Freundlich, Spherical Body, 1925, Pastell, Private Collection, Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

Otto Freundlich:
Cosmic Communism

February 18 – Mai 14, 2017

He is one of the most orig­i­nal ab­s­tract artists of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Near­ly for­ty years af­ter the large ret­ro­spec­tive, the Mu­se­um Lud­wig will now pre­sent the oeu­vre of Ot­to Fre­undlich (1878–1943). With around eigh­ty ob­jects, the ex­hi­bi­tion traces the work, thought, and life of an artist who pro­duced not on­ly paint­ings and sculp­tures but al­so stained-glass win­dows and mo­saics, and who in a search­ing re­flec­tion on the lead­ing art move­ments of his time found his own path to ab­s­trac­tion—be­fore be­ing margi­nal­ized by the Nazis, de­nounced as “de­gen­er­ate,” and ul­ti­mate­ly mur­dered as a Jew.

This dis­crim­i­na­tion and erad­i­ca­tion of both Fre­undlich and his work have marked the artist’s re­cep­tion to this day. Many of his works were de­stroyed in Ger­many un­der Na­tio­n­al So­cial­ism. His Großer Kopf (Large Head), which the Nazis re­pro­duced on the cov­er of their guide to the En­tartete Kunst (De­gen­er­ate Art) ex­hi­bi­tion in 1938, re­mains his most fa­mous work even to­day. This ret­ro­spec­tive de­mon­s­trates that the Nazis not on­ly fal­si­fied the ti­tle of the work (they gave it the ti­tle “The New Man” by which it is still known to­day), but even the sculp­ture it­self: at least at one venue on the De­gen­er­ate Art tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion they pre­sent­ed a crude copy in place of the orig­i­nal.   The Mu­se­um Lud­wig is now pro­vid­ing vis­i­tors a chance to en­coun­ter Fre­undlich’s en­tire oeu­vre and places it at the cen­ter of con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous art-his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ments. It be­gins with the heads he drew and sculpt­ed around 1910 and fea­tures his lit­tle-known ap­plied art­works along­side his sculp­tures, paint­ings, and gouach­es. More­over, it of­fers in­sights in­to Fre­undlich’s writ­ings, in which he po­si­tioned his work in its so­cial and artis­tic con­text.  

Fre­undlich, who lived in Paris from 1924 on­ward, was friends with many of the lead­ing artists of his time. An ap­peal to the French state to buy one of his works in 1938 was signed by Robert and So­nia De­lau­nay, Al­fred Döblin, Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, Pab­lo Pi­cas­so, and many others. His sin­gu­lar de­vel­op­ment was char­ac­ter­ized by his ini­tial close en­gage­ment with the ap­plied arts. Through car­pets, mo­saics, and paint­ed glass he cont­in­ued the me­die­val tra­di­tion of the guilds, which he linked with a col­lec­tive art of the fu­ture. In the lu­mi­nous flat sur­faces of old church win­dows, he saw a way to over­come the lim­i­ta­tions of a plas­tic art con­ceived of in terms of the con­tours of the ob­jects.  

With his own ap­plied art­works and above all his ab­s­tract pie­ces, Fre­undlich took this ap­proach even fur­ther. For him, ab­s­trac­tion ex­pressed a rad­i­cal re­ne­w­al that went far be­yond art. For in­s­tance, the curved patch­es of col­or in his paint­ings re­flect the con­cept of space in Ein­stei­nian physics, with which he was fa­miliar from an ear­ly age. Still, over­com­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tio­n­al­ism al­so had a so­cial di­men­sion for him. As he saw it, ev­ery form of ma­te­rial per­cep­tion was perme­at­ed with pos­ses­sive­ness and thus out­dat­ed: “The ob­ject as the an­tith­e­sis to the in­di­vi­d­u­al will dis­ap­pear, and with it the state of one per­son be­ing an ob­ject for another.”  He al­ways viewed the har­mony of the col­ors in his paint­ings in the con­text of the greater whole. The Com­mu­nism, for which he fought, sought to abol­ish all boun­daries “be­tween the world and the cos­mos, be­tween hu­man be­ings, be­tween mine and yours, be­tween all things that we see.”  

The ret­ro­spec­tive brings to­gether nu­mer­ous loans. One of the finest ob­ject­s—and a cen­ter­piece of the ex­hi­bi­tion—­comes from Cologne: the im­pres­sive mo­sa­ic Ge­burt des Men­schen (Birth of Man, 1919), which mirac­u­lous­ly sur­vived Na­tio­n­al So­cial­ism and World War II hid­den away in a shed. In 1957 the Ci­ty of Cologne in­s­talled it in the new­ly con­struct­ed opera house. Yet al­though the piece was al­ways ac­ces­si­ble to the public, it gra­d­u­al­ly drift­ed in­to ob­s­cu­ri­ty. Now it will be on view at the Mu­se­um Lud­wig as a ma­jor work by the artist, and for the first time in the con­text of his en­tire oeu­vre.   The ex­hi­bi­tion was con­ceived by Ju­lia Frie­drich at the Mu­se­um Lud­wig. Af­ter Cologne, it will be pre­sent­ed from June 10 to Septem­ber 10, 2017, at the Kun­st­mu­se­um Basel. It was or­ganized in co­op­er­a­tion with the Musée Tavet-Dela­cour in Pon­toise, which holds Fre­undlich’s es­tate.  

The ex­hi­bi­tion is un­der the pa­tro­n­age of the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment Com­mis­sion­er for Cul­ture and the Me­dia Moni­ka Grüt­ters. It has re­ceived gener­ous sup­port from the Art Men­tor Foun­da­tion Lucerne, the Kul­turs­tif­tung der Län­der, the Land­schaftsver­band Rhein­land, and the Fre­unde des Wall­raf-Richartz-Mu­se­um und des Mu­se­um Lud­wig e.V.

Cu­ra­tor: Ju­lia Frie­drich

We ex­tend thanks to our part­n­ers: