Regenerate Art

From beneath Berlin's streets archeaologists have unearthed a reminder of Nazi oppression

Karen Horn

They dreamed of medieval settlements but woke up in Nazi Germany. In the historic centre of Berlin, archaeologists have been excavating the ground in front of the “Rotes Rathaus” since October 2009, taking advantage of the planned extension of an underground line. In a war-destroyed city like Berlin, full of rubble, a power shovel is unavoidable for accessing the lower layers, which might tell stories of the 13th century. Imagine the surprise of the workers when, one day in January 2010, off the bulky shovel fell a delicate bronze head — an Expressionist sculpture, a work of a much more recent past, transformed by damage, covered in grey and green patina, blind with corrosion, vulnerable and ever more moving. It wasn’t a unique event. Seven months later, a whole set of sculptures turned up in one corner of what must have been the cellar of the former Königstrasse 50. After another two months, four other works were unearthed in a different corner.  

All 16 sculptures have now been identified. The first object found proved to be Edwin Scharff’s bust of the actress Anni Mewes (1921), which careful renovation has restored almost to its original beauty. There is also a fragment of Emy Roeder’s Pregnant Woman (1918) — the conic terracotta body is lost, but the intensity of the earnest face, peaceful and mourning at once, with traces of soot on the cheeks, seems even more disturbing. There are the unrestored remains of Otto Freundlich’s bronze Head (1925), a painful symbol of the artist’s cruel end in the Majdanek concentration camp. There is Karl Knappe’s Hagar (1923), covered with blisters, clinging on to her child; Marg Moll’s Dancer (1930), lacking her evocative hoop and apparently seeking protection; Naum Slutzky’s ultramodern female bronze bust (before 1931); and less than half of Karel Niesrath’s terracotta Simpletons: the poor man lost both his female companion and his head. 

The general public hardly remembers those names. But they once were famous, so much so that the Nazis judged all their sculptures “degenerate art”. Together with some 20,000 other objects, they were confiscated from public museums from all over the Reich. The plan was to sell as much as possible abroad and to destroy the rest. Whether the demand was weak, or whether Nazi connoisseurs tried to keep something for themselves, a large stock remained in Berlin, in the basement of Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda. Ironically, the Nazis’ scrupulous documentation of the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937 has made identification easy. 

But why were these sculptures found in the rubble of Königstrasse 50? After much detective work, art historians found a letter showing that the apartment on the third floor had indeed been used by the Nazis as a secret depot. Hundreds of objects must have been stored there, most of which — paintings, wooden sculptures — were destroyed when the building, hit by a bomb during an Allied raid in 1944, burnt and collapsed. Only the 16 survivors have triumphed over the Nazi ban, and their scarred appearances tell a deeply moving story. Under the title Verlorene Moderne (Lost Modernism), they are currently on exhibition in Hamburg and will then travel to Munich and abroad.

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