Monday, June 21, 2010

The Cooperative for Proletarian Art

 Ludwig Meidner, Brass the Communist, 1920

The Cooperative for Proletarian Art (Genossenschaft für proletarische Kunst), founded in Berlin in 1920 by Friedrich Wilhelm Brass (above), combined the goals of a business venture with an organization of strictly social and political character. Among the members of the Genossenschaft were the already well-known masters of German Expressionism: Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Otto Mueller (see them here) as well as the artists of the new generation whose artistic career started after the end of the First World War. Among them were George Grosz, Ludwig Meidner, Karl Holtz (below), Erich Godal (below), Conrad Felixmüller, Walter Jacob, Walter Gramatté, Franz Seiwert, Arnold Schmidt-Niechiol (below) and others. 

 Karl Holtz, Unemployed, c. 1920

The Genossenschaft presented the newest trends of modern German art from Jugendstil  (Siegfriend Behrend) and expressionist artists from the group Die Brücke (Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel) to Dadaism (George Grosz). Despite different artistic views all those artists were united for a short time by the idea of "proletarian" art.

 Erich Godal, Rebellion, 1920

The founder of The Cooperative for Proletarian Art was Friedrich Wilhelm Brass. He was born in the Rhineside province of Prussia in the town of Krefeld in 1873. Brass’s undertaking in Berlin in 1920 was supposed to combine commerce and politics, apparently he hoped that in a situation of revolutionary uprising the new art would be demanded by the general working public. Brass was going to deal in mostly inexpensive printed graphic arts, considerable part of which had political and propagandistic character. However, the lack of substantial financial means had great effect on Brass’s plans. The Cooperative didn’t have its own exhibition premises. Brass managed to publish just the lithograph series Revolution by Erich Godal (above) and portraits of Karl Liebknecht made by Arnold Schmidt-Niechciol:

 Arnold Schmidt-Niechciol, Portrait of Karl Liebknecht, 1920

The Collection of The Cooperative for Proletarian Art  was brought to Russia in November 1920, when a Russian delegation returned to Petrograd from Germany. That delegation was headed by Grigory Zinoviev, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, who attended the Congress of the German Independent Social Democratic Party. It was the first international trip by any Soviet leader after the Revolution. Zinoviev was accompanied by Ilya Ionovich Ionov (1887-1942), a professional revoluationary who had spent many years in prison and exile. Ionov took great interest in art and literature and was writing poems. Ionov, who had access to Comintern’s money, bought all that Brass had as the property of The Cooperative. This is how the collection ended in Russia. Today, most of the collection is kept in the St. Petersburg Hermitage.

Erich Godal, Dance of Death, 1920

The Cooperative for Proletarian Art of Friedrich Brass was largely forgotten in Germany. During the fight against "degenerative" art the Nazi destroyed most of the Expressionists’ works that were stored in the museums of Germany. The history was also cruel towards the young artists who were cooperating with the Genossenschaft. Their biographies and the destinies of their works were closely intertwined with the devastating events of fascist terror in the field of art and war. They were prohibited, persecuted, their works were mercilessly destroyed by fires and bombings. That is why the value of the Genossenschaft’s Collection, preserved in Russia, is so high. It presents a unique image of the full and diverse artistic life in Berlin in 1920.

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