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Art

Virtual exhibition reveals plight of artists in exile

What does it mean for artists and their work, if they must live in exile? The virtual exhibit, 'Art in Exile,' follows their stories to fill a niche in the German museum lanscape.

For artists and authors in many countries, censorship and persecution are part of everyday life: In dictatorships and totalitarian regimes they're not only viewed with suspicion, but are also tracked by the government.

"Art is the daughter of freedom," poet Friedrich Schiller once wrote. To practice their artistic freedoms, however, many artists must pay a hefty price: exile from their home country.

"I don't belong anywhere anymore, a stranger everywhere, and at best a guest," lamented writer Stefan Zweig in 1942. After the Nazis seized power, Zweig was forced to flee to London.

Vintage portrait of author Stefan Zweig first escaped Germany to live in England then later moved to the US. Photo stems from circa 1930 and uses digital coloring.
Photo: picture-alliance/akg-images

Author Stefan Zweig first escaped Germany to live in England, then later moved to the US

What happens to artists in exile? How does expulsion from their homes impact their work? The current online exhibition "Künste in Exil," or Arts in Exile, examines the question. Since the exhibition exists as a virtual collection in the Internet, it can be visited from anywhere at anytime.

'Museum of exile'

A museum specifically dedicated to exile art has been missing in Germany's cultural landscape, despite the fact thousands of writers, musicians, painters and other artists were forced to leave Germany during Nazi rule.

Nobel Prize-winning author Herta Müller, who herself fled communist Romania to seek asylum in Germany, wrote an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011, stressing the need for such a museum. The current exhibition, "Arts in Exile," brings together various institutions that deal with exile research, including universities, libraries and archives.

What is exile art?

The history of German culture isn't complete without considering the massive amount of exiles between the years 1933 and 1945.

"In the German-speaking context, nearly all significant writers or artist left the country during Nazi rule," said Dörte Bischoff, who teaches German literature at the University of Hamburg. Bischoff heads the Walter A. Berendsohn Research Center for German Exile Literature and is also part of the advisory board for the virtual exhibition.

But what exactly does the term "exile" mean? The story of exile can't be told in one general tale, but it is different for each artist. Some went into exile because they were threatened by the Nazis, others escaped because they didn't want to live in an unjust state. Still others were not able to practice their art because it was considered "un-Aryan" or "degenerate."

Exile literature, regardless of which era in which it is written, has distinct characteristics, said Bischoff. "While dictators and totalitarian governments seek to synchronize art, to force literary and artistic forms into an aligned and homogenized form, exile literature is diverse."

'Where I am is Germany'

Sylvia Asmus heads the German Exile Archive 1933-1945 at the German National Library, which is also participating in the exhibition. When asked about the exact idea of exile on which the exhibition is based, Asmus said, "We have not defined it." But rather, the site's visitors should decide for themselves.

To do this, the site offers various entry points - whether it's the biography of a certain individual, the various works of art, or exile in general. For now the site is only offered in German, but curators say an English version is in the works and should be released within the coming weeks.

Black and white portrait of Thomas Mann with glasses on and cigar in hand
Photo: ullstein bild

Thomas Mann fled to Califoria to escape the Nazis

Personal items, letters or works by the artists make up the heart of the exhibition. "These sorts of things can always be updated, and new references can be made for every object , so the visitor can slowly get a sense of what exile means," said Asmus.

Above all else, refugees experienced feelings of loss and helplessness. Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann (1875-1955) once said that his exile in California was "hard to bear." At the same time, however, he also believed, "Where I am is Germany. I carry my German culture within me."

In his application to enter the US, Mann listed "the political situation in Europe" as his reason, referring to the terror of Nazi Germany.

Exile then and now

Persecution and expulsion of artists are commonplace, even today. Thus, the exhibition is not limited to 1933-1945. "Exile isn't a historical topic, so it is quite important to consider the people in the present," explained Sylvia Asmus.

Herta Müller and Liao Yiwu , two authors in exile, hug eachother
Photo: Arne Dedert/dpa

Two authors in exile: Herta Müller and Liao Yiwu

As a result, exhibition visitors encounter the exiled Chinese writer Liao Yiwu, who has lived in Germany since 2011, or Romanian-German writer Herta Müller. In the coming months and years, the exhibition will continue to grow, presenting the tales and fates of artists in exile - especially of contemporary artists.

Perhaps at some point, art around the world can be created freely and that the exhibit "Art in Exile" won't have to feature any new examples of persecution. But until then, their work will be celebrated online.

DW.DE