The power of archives lies not only in their documentation of events to be remembered, but also in the archives they hold of stories that some might otherwise prefer to forget. While researching her recent exhibition at Kunstverein München, “No River to Cross,” artist Bea Schlingelhoff unearthed a disturbing document from 1936 which stated that non-Aryans could not become members of the association. Following the formation of the Reich Chamber of Culture in 1933, which promoted Nazi ideals, such amendments were common throughout Germany. Arguably the nadir of this cultural oppression was the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition, an iteration of which took place in the building where the Kunstverein München now stands.
For “No River to Cross,” Schlingelhoff filled the entire space with dark green rectangles of varying sizes painted on the bright green walls of the gallery. These rectangles, explains the text of the exhibition, are spaces reserved for the 650 Modernist works of art seized by the Nazis from 32 German museums, which were shown and defamed here during the “Degenerate Art” exhibition. By painting the rectangles in a darker color, the artist also echoes the interstices that appeared on the walls of looted museums.
While many buildings in the city have historical ties to the fascist regime, the Kunstverein München bore no markers of its own affiliation until Schlingelhoff installed four permanent plaques on the facade, naming the only female artists who were included in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition: Maria Caspar-Filser, Jacoba van Heemskerck, Marg Moll and Emy Roeder. As with many of Schlingelhoff’s works, the significance of the project extends beyond the dates of the exhibition. Before the show, Schlingelhoff also proposed an amendment to the statutes of the Kunstverein, in which the institution “asks forgiveness for its collaboration with the Nazi regime […] and recognizes its substantial share of responsibility for the injustices committed by the Reich Chamber of Culture ”. By exhibiting both his initial handwritten proposal, supplemented with modifications by director Maurin Dietrich and curator Gloria Hasnay, and the final version of the statutes, which was adopted by majority, Schlingelhoff exposes the internal workings of the museum, which cannot than being as progressive as its members.
Founded in 2015, the Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism is another successful example of a Munich institution recognizing the importance of commemoration. In 2019-2020, the center, which is on the site of the former Nazi Party headquarters, hosted the historic “Tell Me about Yesterday Tomorrow” exhibition – curated by Juliane Bischoff, Nicolaus Schafhausen and Mirjam Zadoff – which showcased works by more than 30 contemporary artists in dialogue with the museum’s permanent collection, highlighting the complex relationship between historical atrocities and the current rise of the alt-right. In November, the museum permanently installed the work of artist Michaela Melián Memory loops (2010), an audio work comprising 300 German tracks and 175 English tracks based on transcriptions of historical and recent accounts of victims of the Nazi regime in Munich. About the project website, visitors can listen to the different stories by clicking on a city map. Designed as a virtual monument, the work provides a space in which Holocaust victims and their families can commemorate their losses without having to travel to Germany again.
Originally founded as Haus der Deutschen Kunst in 1937, a museum showcasing German art aligned with Nazi politics and ideals, Haus der Kunst has arguably the strongest connection of all cultural institutions in Germany with fascism. The museum has approached its past in several ways, including decades of public debate over whether the building should be completely demolished. In 1992, however, the state of Bavaria voted to preserve the institution as a foundation, allowing a series of directors – from Chris Dercon and the late Okwui Enwezor to current director Andrea Lissoni – to develop thoughtful formats that constantly challenge in question the past of Haus der Kunst in the process of recollection and recovery.
As the city where the Nazi Party was founded in 1919 and which Adolf Hitler called the “capital of the movement,” Munich’s ties to the terrorist regime are more evident than anywhere else in Germany, explaining why museums feel the responsibility to address this story. However, as contemporary witnesses to World War II gradually diminish as racist and anti-Semitic tendencies multiply across Germany, I hope that these sensitive responses to the country’s dark past, which are more important than ever, can soon to be seen elsewhere too.
Main picture: Bea Schlingelhoff, Four artists from the exhibition ‘Degenerate Art’ in Munich, 2021, installation view, Kunstverein München. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein München eV; photograph: Constanza Melendez