Otto Mueller’s Zwei Zigeunerinnen*mit Katze (Two Gypsy** Girls with a Cat, 1926/27) is one of the best-known paintings in the collection of the Museum Ludwig. It takes a perspective that has been customary in Western societies for centuries: the view of Sinti and Roma women as the ultimate other, exotically feminine, animalistically tantalizing, contrasting with civilization and as ignorant of its achievements as of its constraints. This perspective—and that of modern-day viewers of the painting—has been able to retain a certain innocence in part because Mueller’s art was banned by the Nazis and the German genocide of the Sinti and Roma people made Mueller’s well-meaning exoticization seem comparatively harmless.
With a new presentation in the permanent exhibition, the Museum Ludwig will now intervene in this view and relieve it of its supposed innocence. From November 2, 2019 to March 1, 2020, the documentary Att vara zigenare (Being Gypsy**, Sweden, 1970, 47 min.) by Peter and Zsóka Nestler will be installed opposite to Mueller’s painting. Like many of Peter Nestler’s films, this one deals with visual art, including works by Otto Pankok, a contemporary of Otto Mueller, who captured the hard life of the Sinti and Roma in countless charcoal drawings. The Nestlers take this as a starting point for their film. In long takes they feature accounts by survivors of the genocide and their families and trace their current misery to the 600-year history of persecution and social isolation, which culminated in the extermination camps. The film is an equally sober and appalling assessment of the situation of the Sinti and Roma in post-Nazi Europe.
The juxtaposition of painting and film tests how our view of art can be expanded to include historical, social, and political aspects without resorting exclusively to art-historical patterns of explanation or biographical details on the artist. The aim is to start with the depiction, the pictures, their effect and use. The confrontation of image and counter-image opens up a space in which questions about representation, experience, the power of definition, and responsibility can arise.
Peter Nestler, born in 1937 in Freiburg, is one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of our time. His work is highly regarded internationally (the director Jean-Marie Straub called Nestler the most important filmmaker in post-war Germany). It remains little known in Germany. This is due in part to the fact that Nestler emigrated to Sweden in 1966: after his film Von Griechenland, which presaged the path to military dictatorship two years before it was established, he no longer received work from West German television. He then went on to work for Swedish television. Many of his films have been made in collaboration with his wife Zsóka.
** This racist word has conveyed negative and exoticizing stereotypes for centuries. It is inextricably linked to the exclusion, expulsion, persecution, and murder of the Sinti and Roma and perpetuates a discriminatory view of people. Nevertheless, we are leaving it in the title of the work. As a museum, we cannot change works—neither racist depictions nor racist titles. We can point to the social violence and oppression that artworks reflect or themselves inflict and make this visible in the exhibition. Peter and Zsóka Nestler consciously used the term in 1970 to expose the violence that it entails. Their film begins with the words: “Those whom we call ‘gypsies’ call themselves ‘Roma,’ which means ‘people.’ Many of them feel afraid when they hear the word ‘gypsy.’ They fear it could all happen again."