Back to Berlin

Decades after fleeing Nazi Germany, Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s founding director Karl Schwartz’s legacy is celebrated in Berlin

April 19, 2015 20:37
4 minute read.
Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin

EXTERIOR VIEW of the Martin- Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin.. (photo credit: JANSCH JIRKA)


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BERLIN – Unlike many other Jews in Germany in 1933, art historian Karl Schwartz had no illusions as he fled with his family from Berlin to Tel Aviv only months after opening the first Jewish museum in January of that year. Adolf Hitler was about to seize power in Germany, with Berlin becoming the seat of government of the National Socialist regime. Meanwhile, the mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, was urgently looking for an expert to build up his newly founded art museum and had Schwartz in mind after having met him during a public relations tour in Berlin in 1931. As a result, Schwartz became the founding director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1933.

During his time as director, Schwartz persuaded Jewish German collector Erich Göritz to send a large portion of his extensive art collection to Israel. Göritz’s collection included works by Edgar Degas, Max Liebermann and Oskar Kokoschka among many others, all of which remain in the museum’s permanent collection, saved from Nazi destruction.

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Now, 82 years later, as part of the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the establishment of German-Israeli diplomatic relations, Schwarz’s legacy has made its way back to Germany. The “Tel Aviv Museum of Art Visits Berlin” exhibition on show at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, opened on March 26 and will run through June 21. The exhibition consists of 72 works from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art collection.

The very fact that the exhibition is taking place at all is “impressive and moving,” said Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters at the exhibition opening. She pointed out that this is the first time that these works have been seen in Germany since World War II, and in some cases, the first time they have ever been seen in Germany – particularly in Berlin, the city from which the Nazi regime unleashed tyranny and barbarism across Europe.

“It is nothing short of a miracle that today countless bridges have been built across this abyss of German and European history,” Grütters stressed.

The exhibition showcases works from three major departments of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art: Modern Art, Prints and Drawings and Israeli Art.

“The installation endeavors to juxtapose works from these collections in unexpected ways, assembling them in new and intriguing relationships. The underlying concept is a dialogue between modern art and contemporary Israeli art, addressing personal, social and political issues,” says Suzanne Landau, director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Interspersed among the works by modern masters of the early 20th century such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Marc Chagall are nearly a dozen contemporary Israeli artists such as Yael Bartana, Guy Ben-Ner, Zoya Cherkassky, Nevet Yitzhak and Michal Helfman.

“We are extremely grateful that this exhibition can take place here,” said Gereon Sievernich, director of the Martin-Gropius-Bau. “Some of the works were made by German artists who, after 1933, were considered not to be...official [artists]... and were forbidden. So here we have some beautiful pieces that were collected at the time when it was difficult for these artists.”

The Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, designed in the classical Italian Renaissance style by Berlin architect Martin Gropius, officially opened in 1881 and was commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm I to house his newly acquired art and crafts collection. The museum was severely damaged in 1945 during the last weeks of World War II and later served as the backdrop for the Berlin Wall, remnants of which can still be seen today. In 1978, the reconstruction of the once grand museum began, and since its reopening in 1981 acclaimed exhibitions and retrospectives of renowned artists such as Ai WeiWei, Walker Evans, Anish Kapoor, Frida Kahlo, Man Ray and dozens of others have been shown.

For Landau, cooperation with the Martin-Gropius-Bau was a “thrilling experience.”

“This important collaboration reflects one of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s missions to develop ties with major museums abroad,” she says.

The preparation work for the exhibition provided a whole new perspective on the paintings in the collection.

As Ellen Ginton, the museum’s senior curator of Israeli art, explained during a press conference, “It suddenly highlighted the story behind the paintings.”

Upon entering the exhibition, one is immediately struck by the contrast between No. 24 (untitled) by Mark Rothko, a 1951 abstract painting in red, orange, black and white on one side of the room, and a video piece Untitled, by Palestinian-Israeli artist Raafat Hattab on the other. Like Rothko, who as young man was uprooted from Russia to the United States, so Hattab uses the image of planting an olive tree in between the tiles of Rabin Square in Tel Aviv as a symbol of the uprooting from his own homeland.

Hattab’s work seems to embody his own struggle to be of Palestinian descent but have Israeli citizenship.

The piece also deals with the concept of maintaining traditions and history in the modern age, showing the historical tree surrounded by a modern-day setting.

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