Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU)

Modern Art and Exile

Experience of Forced Emigration and Its Effect on Modern Art
Author: Nicola Heidepriem,

"The clouds took on the shapes of the hills of home/ on that summer evening in the foreign land" wrote Max Herrmann-Neisse as an exile in London, where he had lived since 1933. The poet from Berlin, like tens of thousands of others—including many artists—had fled National Socialist Germany and found refuge in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.

"One of the consequences of the two World Wars and the dictatorships in the first half of the 20th century was that artists were scattered around the globe," says LMU art historian Burcu Dogramaci. Her recent research demonstrates that the experience of forced emigration, and the cities in which exiles lived, had a more profound effect on modern art than previously thought.

Modern art did not emerge exclusively in the great cities of continental Europe was the product of an extraordinary diffusion of artistic talent.
Prof. Dr. Burcu Dogramaci, Professor of 20th Century and Contemporary Art History, LMU Munich

City-Centered Perspective

In her project METROMOD, funded by the European Research Council (ERC), Dogramaci and her colleagues explore the impact of these cities on the creative work produced by exiles and on the social networks in which they moved. "Up to now, researchers have tended to focus on the countries they came from and those in which they settled. I regard this perspective as problematic because the settings with which new arrivals were most likely to identify were the neighborhoods and cities in which they lived," Dogramaci points out. This explains why her project views expulsion and exile from a city-centered perspective.

METROMOD - Global Metropolises, Modern Art and Exile

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Focus on Six Metropolises

METROMOD focuses on six metropolises—London, New York, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and Shanghai. The choice of cities itself gives an indication of Dogramaci’s focus. "Modern art did not emerge exclusively in the great cities of continental Europe—Vienna, Berlin and Paris. It was the product of an extraordinary diffusion of artistic talent, which itself gave rise to the synchronic emergence of disparate developments."

Traces of this phenomenon can be found on many continents. Large numbers of artists settled in Buenos Aires. Tens of thousands of people fled to Shanghai and the artists among them formed networks in the city. And New York was not the only city in which photographers from Germany were to have a significant impact on the aesthetics of their medium.

Following the Footsteps of Emigrated Artists

To recapture this remarkable combination of global dislocation and interaction, the interdisciplinary research team has incorporated the results of the project into a database, which enables the viewer to visualize the urban centers that received these emigrants, as well as their range of contacts, and the works they created in exile.

Strolling through global metropolises of exile...
...the walking tours connect sites of exilic artistic production and trace the migration of ideas.

The website invites interested viewers to take virtual walks that follow the footsteps of emigrated artists in the cities in which they finally arrived. The site also hosts an archive that links individuals, places and events with each other, uncovering connections and relationships between both artists and cities.

"We wanted to convey what we had learned in visual terms and find a contemporary format in which to present it. "We chose to use urban maps that allow the viewer to click on addresses. This has the great advantage that everything can be linked together," says Dogramaci.

Locating Modernities: Global Metropolises, Modern Art and Exile (METROMOD)

  • Project leader: Prof. Burcu Dogramaci.
  • Team: Ekaterina Aygün, Mareike Hetschold, Christina Lagao, Dr. Rachel Lee, Dr. Laura Karp Lugo, Maya-Sophie Lutz, Helene Roth, Mareike Schwarz
  • Institute: Institut für Kunstgeschichte, LMU Munich
  • Function of LMU Munich: Single application
  • Program: European Research Council, Consolidator Grant


Guided Tours of Six Cities

The guided tours of six cities can be undertaken either on the ground or interactively on one’s home computer. "We have linked text to the pictorial material, and the historical topics are illustrated with contemporary photographs. This underlines the fact that our perception of cities is always influenced by our impressions of contemporary urban life," Dogramaci points out.

In their search for the often hidden traces of emigration and immigration, the METROMOD team was intent on showing that "cities are made up of different temporal layers or horizons, which are not easy to discern," says Dogramaci. She also emphasizes the productive collaborations between the members of her team during the research phase and the work in diverse archives. She also acknowledges the indispensable assistance provided by local specialists in each of the different cities.

The project team (from left): Mareike Hetschold, Mareike Schwarz, Dr. Rachel Lee, Dr. Laura Karp Lugo, Helene Roth, Christina Lagao, Ekaterina Aygün, Prof. Burcu Dogramaci, and Maya-Sophie Lutz.

Feelings of Loss

As the lines quoted above suggest, Max Herrmann-Neisse’s strolls in London’s Hyde Park were occasions that were accompanied by acute homesickness (this is one of the themes featured in the London walk). Indeed, many of the artists who were forced to emigrate were plagued by feelings of loss, and the personal networks that they built up abroad were in many cases indispensable to their survival. The METROMOD project brings their fates to light and rescues their often forgotten works.

In many instances, emigration brought a promising or successful artistic career to a sudden and brutal end. This is exemplified in the biography of the sculptor Jussuf Abbo. Forced to flee from Nazi Germany, he found himself in London, where he lived a marginalized and often hand-to-mouth existence. He was sometimes unable to afford the tools he needed to continue his creative work, and he destroyed much of what he had made when he lost his studio.

Open Call for Fellows and Artist Residencies

The Käte Hamburger Research Center global dis:connect regularly offers fellowships and artistic residencies. Together with the ERC project METROMOD, the center has announced a six-month residency for an artistic project commemorating artists exiled from Munich during the Nazi period. A jury selected Franziska Windolf, who trained at the Royal College of Art in London (curatorial supervision: Mareike Schwarz). Windolf will implement her artistic project on commemoration in public spaces in various Munich districts in the spring of 2023.

Artist residency by GC:C+Metromod starts
Open calls for fellowships and artistic residencies

Parallels Between Today and the Early 20th Century

Naturally, the researchers led by Dogramaci wish to bring the results of their research to the attention of a broad public. "We hope to reach as many people as possible. After all, emigration and exile are topics of global importance," she says. The project began in 2017 in the aftermath of large-scale migration to Europe during 2015 and 2016. Many exiled Syrian artists found a new home in Berlin.

"Big cities still have an irresistible attraction for artists," she says, and "one can draw many parallels between the situation today and that in the early 20th century. We can learn from the past how migrant communities were formed in cities. Conversely, we can observe phenomena in the present that have historical counterparts. Migrations are nothing new. The 20th century witnessed many migrations from European countries to far-flung parts of the world. We often forget that the contemporary flight and migration movements have a history."

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