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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


You feel the historical identity of different places in Germany to a much greater extent than in England, except possibly in London. And the reason probably is that Germany was not until 1871 a single country but an aggregate of principalities. They each made their own way and they own their history.

You feel this in the ancient reaches of Wurzburg, with the great cathedral consecrated by Charlemagne in 731. Even a narrow focus on artistic heritage gives this sense: this is the city of the great sculptor, Tilman Riemenschneider; of secular and religious buildings by one of the greatest architects, Balthasar Neumann; of Tiepolo's frescoes; of Tintoretto's Cruxificion in the Stift Haug; of work by Cosmos Damian Asam, the first person to paint a solar eclipse; of the baroque Furstengarten (wonderful today, the roses in bloom) and the Rococo Hofgarten.

Emy Roeder in 1924 (c)Museum im Kulturspeicher

Emy Roeder grew up in Wurzburg. Born in 1890 to a respectable family of merchants, she had a "sunny childhood in our old house on the market." This was the Wilhelmine Germany of Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest: “I'm for wealth and a grand house, a very grand house, where Prince Friedrich Karl comes for the shooting, either elk or capercaille, or where the old Kaiser will call and have a gracious word for the ladies, even the young ones. And when we're in Berlin, I'll be for court balls and gala evenings at the opera...”

But Emy was for none of these things. In the city of Tilman Riemenschneider, she decided to become a sculptor. Given the ubiquity of the great man's work, she would have had daily exposure to his mastery - but she had the confidence of youth.

In 1910, she started her serious studies at the Kunstakademie in Munich and, I think, there she discovered the artistic inner eye that directed her life. The traditionalism of the Kunstakademie did not feed her vision, so she went to study with a sculptor with whose work she had sympathy. This was the expressionist sculptor Bernhard Hoetger, but she quickly found that he was himself a follower of others and his principal muse became hers – Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Modersohn-Becker had died in 1907 but the influence of her work lived on - as did the inspiring artists' colony that she had helped establish in Worpswede on the flat, chill marshes edging northern Germany. Emy Roeder went there in 1914 and did find inspiration: her Bust of a Girl with its Modersohn-Becker-like figure was something of a breakthrough. It was reproduced full-page in Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, and her reputation began to grow.

Bust of a Girl 1914 (c)Alfred Kuhn

In 1915, Emy left Hoetger and moved to Berlin, seeking something more in the heady circles of Kathe Kollwitz and two of the founders of the earlier expressionist movement Die Brucke - Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff. By the end of the war, she was still dissatisfied and went back to what seemed her artistic home at Worpswede, where she spent the bitter, starving winter of 1918-19 "entirely alone". It was an important time for her:

“The harshness of this country and its people was a starting point for much of my later work. In Berlin I sought my own way, but felt a new strong yearning for that country.... In the pregnant women, who in the depths of winter wrapped themselves tightly in black shawls as they strode over the endless plains of the moors, and in beasts, who nursed their young maternally, there I first experienced the cosmic unity of all being”.

Pregnant Woman 1919 (c)Alfred Kuhn

Returning to Berlin in 1919, she found a city in revolutionary ferment and this girl from a Fontane novel joined the Novembergruppe, a collection of artists who wanted to “put their art at the service of a socialist society” and create a German utopia:

Our watchword is: LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY!...We regard it as our most sacred duty to dedicate our greatest strengths to the construction of a new free Germany....We hold it to be our special duty to gather all valuable artistic talents and to turn them to the public good.... We are not supporters of any party or class in itself, but human beings …..... We send our brotherly greetings to all cubist, futurist and expressionist artists who share our sense of destiny and responsibility, with the wish that they will join us.

The following year she married the sculptor Herbert Garbe in whom she found "artistic liberation" and "the harmony of her life”. Helped by her participation in the November Group exhibitions, her reputation grew. In 1920 Alfred Kuhn published two articles about her work. This recognition was important: Kuhn was editor of Kunstchronik und Kunstmarkt and the leading scribe of contemporary art in Germany. His monograph on Emy in the following year was a stepping stone in her career: the Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe acquired Pregnant Woman and in 1923 her work was shown in New York.

Emy grew as an artist. She learned wood carving and produced the remarkable expressionist bas relief below.

By 1931 she was significant enough to participate in the Frauen in Not (Women in Need) exhibition in Berlin:

The greatest victim of our times is woman. She is weighed down by a three-fold-fate, as worker, wife, and mother. Constricted by prohibitions and prejudices, persecuted by the power of the state and the ill-will of her neighbours, she is with her body involved in a frightful struggle against the laws and ideas of a foundering social order and its obsolete moral code. The present lack of employment completes her fate. In truth, her "biological tragedy" has for some time become a sociological tragedy. Still, woman is not powerless; she has strength in numbers. This exhibition should proclaim, educate, raise consciousness, in order to strengthen the will to help overcome these conditions.

Emmy in 1941 at her exhibition in Florence (c)

Thanks in part to Alfred Kuhn's championship of her work, Emy was now showing with Barlach, Beckmann, Dix, Hoch, Schmidt-Rottluff, and Kollwitz. Through Kuhn's patronage, her career had become intertwined with the extraordinary artists of this period and moved with them in a renaissance of creativity - unfortunately, towards the edge of a cliff.

Kuhn was Jewish and did not leave Germany. In 1939, the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment would mark him down as undesirable. No publishing house would touch his work and the Gestapo had him under surveillance. He would die in the following year, likely by his own hand. But over the previous two decades he had fixed Emy in the firmament of progressive art, and with the rise of the Nazis she too was cut down.

By 1937, the Nazis were attacking degenerate art. Twenty thousand works were removed from public galleries and 724 of them were made into a special show: Emy was now a 'degenerate' like Klee, Kokoschka, Dix, Kandinsky, Max Beckmann, Nolde and Georg Grosz. As the artist Adolph Hitler explained it: "works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence will never again find their way to the German people".

The photograph below shows how "The pictures were hung askew, there was graffiti on the walls, which insulted the art and the artists, and made claims that made this art seem outlandish, ridiculous." The Entartete Kunst organisers even used actors to wander about loudly criticising the pictures.

Emy fled the Nazis – not far enough. She went to Florence, where she was interned by the Allies and spent the war as overseer of the bathhouse in a women's prison camp. Here she drew the figures of the women as they showered – and after the war worked them up into sculptures. She continued to work until her death in 1971 – but so much of the creative output of her first 50 years has just disappeared. There is only one work in a gallery in the United States, for example. If it wasn't for Alfred Kuhn's monograph, we would not even have photographs of much of her past work. So, Wurzburg can take a proprietary pride in two of Germany's greatest sculptors, but only one can be fully celebrated.

A short biopic of Thedor Fontane made by someone riding an electric bike - There is a lot about what Fontane liked to eat.

A lecture on expressionist art in Germany 1905 - 1937 from San Diego Museum of Art -

Silent footage of the Entartete Kunst in Munich 1937 -

PBS film discussing the Degenerate Art exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York -

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