The Conditions of Interpretation: A Reception History of The Synagogue by Max Beckmann
The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it.
-Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1936, second version)
The question to ask of pictures from the standpoint of poetics is not just what they mean or do but what they want – what claim they make upon us, and how we are to respond. Obviously, this question also requires us to ask what it is that we want from pictures.
-W.J.T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (2004)
Hermeneutics has long been the coin of Beckmann studies. Thick with fish, candles, kings, and crescent moons, the frequently arcane pictures of this modern painter are almost preternaturally disposed to interpretation. Art historians on both sides of the Atlantic have asked and answered the question that Beckmann’s pictures consistently pose: what do they mean? His well-known Departure (1932, 1933-35) triptych provides a fitting object lesson (Fig.1). According to the American art historian Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Departure is “an allegory of the triumphal voyage of the modern spirit through and beyond the agony of the modern world.”1 It is also, as the German art historian Reinhard Spieler has argued, a paradoxical representation of humanity’s iniquities and virtues that, it is both tempting and precarious to claim, masquerades as an indictment of the then-nascent Third Reich.2 Beckmann himself left the interpretive doors open, albeit to those who shared the same “metaphysical code,” when he wrote: “One can only say that Departure is not tendentious, and that it can apply to all times.”3
What is remarkable about the many persuasive interpretations of Beckmann’s work is that they have been earned despite the limitations of the art historical method his figurative paintings seem to invite, namely iconography. Codified by Erwin Panofsky in the mid-twentieth century, iconography “concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.”4 The risk in simply decoding those signs and symbols, of converting a visual code into plain text, domesticates Beckmann’s pictures, depriving them of their formal power by creating a conventional (and therefore rigid) one-to-one relationship between symbol (fish) and meaning (fertility).5 To be fair, this approach is often used productively as a starting point in analyses of Beckmann’s pictures. But when iconography is the alpha and omega of an art historian’s method, it can overwhelm the ineffable quality – embedded in the picture’s formal properties – that summoned the viewer in the first place.
More ambitious than the iconographers, however, are the Beckmann scholars, including Spieler, who have – consciously or not – employed Panfosky’s concept of iconology. They are more ambitious because they build on the iconographers’ application of literary or thematic knowledge to a given motif by considering the artwork’s production within a broader cultural context. This enables the iconologist to approach a more “synthetic” – as opposed to “analytic” – interpretation of the artwork’s formal qualities as an expression of its “intrinsic meaning or content.”6 Somewhat paradoxically, it assumes that although the artwork is a historical artifact, its meaning is immutable and unified, waiting to be discovered by the interpreter. Put another way, Panofsky’s method assumes the artwork to have symbolic meaning,7 which transcends the historical conditions of its production as well as the conditions of its interpretation.
Consider Beckmann’s lesser-known painting of The Synagogue (1919) (Fig.2). Like Departure, it is a figurative painting that through the careful, yet disorienting arrangement of forms and subjects invites the viewer to ask questions. Why is this apparently realistic cityscape at the same time so distorted? Why is it nearly bereft of human presence, and who are those miniature, costumed figures at the center of the painting? What does the cat represent? What does it mean for this German artist, a nonbeliever who was raised Protestant, to have depicted a Jewish house of worship? At first glance, The Synagogue is a picture that works symbolically; it appears to promise a unified, transcendent meaning that can be clarified through interpretation. But its apparent symbolic condition is evident less in its symbols (the synagogue, the merry figures, the cat, etc.) than in the way in which Beckmann constructed pictorial space. His canny application of Renaissance-style linear perspective is evident in the composition’s plunging orthogonal lines, which create an illusion of spatial depth that is reassuring in its denial of the picture plane, its recourse to the atemporal ideal of a more perfect world.
In this way, The Synagogue seems to have anticipated Panofsky’s attribution of “spiritual meaning” to what became the title of his 1927 essay “Perspective as Symbolic Form.” Therein he asserted, with help from Ernst Cassirer, that perspective “may even be characterized as…one of those ‘symbolic forms’ in which ‘spiritual meaning is attached to a concrete, material sign and intrinsically given to this sign’.”8 But my Panofskian interpretation of The Synagogueas a painting of symbolic import shoulders a certain anachronism. It applies an understanding of a symbolic system – one that had a particular meaning in Quattrocento Florence, for example – to an early twentieth-century depiction of a German cityscape. Keith Moxey has pointed out that the use of Panofsky’s notion of perspective as symbolic form “in a diachronic system of interpretation serves only to privilege the Renaissance above all other periods under consideration.”9 In this case, Panofsky’s notion cannot itself adduce the meaning(s) of The Synagogue as a historical artifact.
Upon closer inspection, The Synagogue’s attenuated orthogonals start to quiver and buckle, eventually surrendering to the picture’s artifice. For Panofsky, perspective as symbolic form relied on the very conditions of its unifying function, that is, the disavowal of the picture’s material support.10 And yet this it is precisely what Beckmann emphasized when he positioned his friends’ house cat on the threshold between the fictive spaces of the picture and the fact of its canvas support. The picture’s relationship to – its existence in – time becomes apparent in the viewer’s awareness of a connection between her present tense and the embalmed historicity of the image. The Synagogue starts to behave allegorically, in opposition to the symbol’s transcendence. Allegory’s temporal contingency, or what Paul de Man dubbed “the rhetoric of temporality,”11 yields in Beckmann’s painting a wider variety of interpretive possibilities across time. Put differently, The Synagogue wants its viewer to collaborate rather than decode. It wants her to bring her perspective to bear on her understanding of the picture, what Hans Robert Jauss calls the viewer’s “horizon of expectations” (Erwartungshorizont), her cultural assumptions and worldview in a particular moment and place in time.12
My role in this essay, however, is less that of a viewer than of a historian or a Wissenschaftler in the German academic tradition. I am more interested in documenting the archival evidence of The Synagogue’s reception, the conditions of its interpretation. In so doing, I forego my own interpretation of the picture and in its place offer a reception history, one that excavates the painting’s meanings accrued in the intersubjective relationship between it and its viewers over time.13 This study tracks The Synagogue’s rapport with its viewers across four chronological episodes wherein particular qualities or potential uses of the painting become ascendant: Postwar Poetics (1919-1921); Prescient Picture, Historical Document (1945-1964); Art and Politics (1972); Formalist and Pedagogical Uses (1972-present). Admittedly subjective, my decision to select these episodes was nonetheless contingent on an empirical judgment that a critical mass of evidence (e.g. a concentration of primary sources) could constitute an episode worthy of study.14 Each episode has a distinct sensibility determined by its protagonists and the evidence of their interactions with the painting. The former are a diverse lot that includes the artist and his critics, his collectors as well as a museum director, curators and art historians, journalists and pedestrians, museum educators and students. The latter, equally diverse, includes memoir passages and art criticism, letters and telegrams, newspaper articles, exhibition photographs, and a poster as well as an art historical essay, an exhibition catalogue, and several interviews.15 Emphasizing various modes of engagement with the object over time, this reception history (uncommon in Beckmann studies) privileges interpreting the evidence of the episode over that of the painting qua painting. It understands The Synagogue not as a rarefied object, but rather a historical agent. My ultimate aim is to demonstrate The Synagogue’s radical authenticity, that is, its unique capacity to both assert and elicit its historical testimony.16
Postwar Poetics (1919-1921)
On a Monday morning in late September 1919, Beckmann hosted a visitor in his Frankfurt studio, which was located just south of the Main river in the city district known as Sachsenhausen.17 Beckmann moved to Frankfurt in the autumn of 1915 following nearly a year of active duty as a medical orderly on the Eastern and Western Fronts.18 Like many of his peers, he suffered a nervous collapse in the war and was furloughed to Strasbourg to convalesce in the summer of 1915; his commanding officer then dispatched him to Frankfurt.19 Eventually the conversation that late September morning in 1919 turned to this modern city of medieval provenance. Beckmann’s visitor was Reinhard Piper, a friend, colleague and collector of his pictures as well as the founder of the publishing house, R. Piper & Co. Verlag in Munich.20 He inquired after Beckmann’s artistic plans, to which the painter allegedly replied: “I want to paint landscapes again. For example, the synagogue over there, with its green cupola and the moon above in a green evening sky. The whole thing has to look quite festive (feierlich).”21 An ambivalent term denoting both joyous celebration and dignified ceremony, feierlich conveys Beckmann’s relationship to the building, its site, and Frankfurt in the months following the end of World War I. What did he see sur le motif?22
When Beckmann referred to the synagogue “over there,” he meant the relatively new synagogue on the Börneplatz in the heart of Frankfurt’s historic Jewish quarter (Figs.3 and 4).23 It lay just north of the river and east of the city center, a brisk thirty-minute walk from Beckmann’s studio. As Christiane Zeiller has demonstrated, Beckmann’s sketchbooks reveal his practice of drawing in situ, often on the street; three sketchbooks from this Frankfurt period feature several cursory studies of and a more developed sketch for The Synagogue.24 His subject was one of four synagogues in Frankfurt at the time, a handsome red brick building that was designed by the Berlin architect Siegfried Kusnitzky and erected between 1881 and 1882. Kusnitzky dressed the synagogue’s corner façade in rusticated masonry, measured fenestration, and a graceful monumentality reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance.25 He crowned the medieval turret-like structure that joined these perpendicular walls with a copper cupola whose near-eastern silhouette gave the synagogue an exotic profile amidst the ordinary apartment and shop facades on the Börneplatz.26 The sight of so striking a synagogue in the company of vernacular neighbors must have struck Beckmann as picture worthy.27 His elevated perspective28 through a window from the north side of the Börneplatz afforded a sidelong view of the synagogue and three apartment buildings that presided over the triangular city square.29 Assuming Beckmann started the painting sometime in September 1919, it took him about four months to complete; in one of his sketchbooks at the time he declared the picture “finished Christmas 19.”30 That he sought to accent the festive sensibility of this vista seems fitting given the synagogue’s elegant mien in an otherwise pedestrian cityscape. It might have represented a kind of orthodox spiritual safeguard against Frankfurt’s modern hurly-burly as well as the simmering urban violence and growing anti-Semitism that afflicted Germany after the armistice and end of World War I.
Wartime and post-war attitudes toward Jews in Germany were fraught with complications and contradictions. In August 1914 many Jewish and gentile German citizens alike rushed to war in defense of the fatherland. Just two years later, however, the War Ministry conducted the so-called Jewish census, or Judenzählung. Performed ostensibly to combat anti-Semitic rumors of “Jewish shirking,” the census was designed to determine whether more Jewish Germans than others were evading military service.31 However well intended, it had a grievous affect on the political and social status of Jews in Germany by stoking fear and resentment among non-Jewish German soldiers and civilians who sought a scapegoat for their wartime suffering at the hands of corrupt government and military officials.32 As a veteran as well as a friend of Heinrich Simon, the well-connected publisher and chief editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung, Beckmann was almost certainly familiar with these debates. This mainstream newspaper was against the census and the risky consequences of asking after a soldier’s religious affiliation.33 The November 1918 armistice and subsequent Revolution intensified social unrest throughout Germany and initiated a protracted period of inflation. Frankfurt saw its share of demonstrations, strikes and plundering in the months following the armistice, primarily due to rampant unemployment.34 A radical, if limited strain of anti-Semitism – one based on a foundation of latent anti-Semitism that infected many Frankfurt citizens – accompanied this postwar unrest,35 despite (or perhaps because of) the civil rights Jews had enjoyed in Frankfurt since 1864.36
Neither these social circumstances nor the Börneplatz synagogue’s civic function, and the community it served, likely had a direct bearing on Beckmann’s decision to capture its likeness in paint on canvas. Still, they raise questions about his relationship to and attitudes toward Frankfurt’s diverse Jewish community. Beckmann’s social circle included members of the Jewish-German cultural elite in Frankfurt. For example, he cultivated a professional and personal relationship with the art historian and museum director Georg Swarzenski, who in 1919 purchased Beckmann’s 1917 Descent from the Cross for the Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt (Fig.5).37 And according to Beckmann’s second wife Mathilde “Quappi” Beckmann, Heinrich Simon and his wife Irma were “among Max’s best friends.”38 In fact, in the first half of 1919 Beckmann lived temporarily with the Simon’s along with the journalist and writer Benno Reifenberg.39 Beckmann attended Simon’s regular Friday salon (Freitagstisch) that was, according to Reifenberg, frequented by “the better part of Germany’s intellectuals.”40 One member of the Freitagstisch described Beckmann as “an errant artist, a stranger.”41 This description is not out of step with Reinhard Piper’s characterization of Beckmann, about whom he devoted a chapter in his memoir, first published in 1950 and again in 1964.42 Therein Piper recounted a conversation from one of several visits to Beckmann’s studio in 1919 during which he quoted the artist having said the following regarding Frankfurt’s Eastern European Jewish population.43
I believe in Germany, because I believe in myself. I am a German through and through. The numerous Jews in Frankfurt don’t bother me in the least. On the contrary, these black-clad, industrious people are in many respects quite beneficial for us.44
Whether Piper transcribed Beckmann’s statement verbatim in the artist’s presence or filtered it through his memory days, months, or years later is impossible to verify.45 The statement exists. The question is how do we interpret it? Piper provided some guidance in the preface to his memoir, wherein he speculated that a sense of the times may well emerge in the details of his encounters, in the “many small occurrences” he recorded.46 Though no small occurrence to our eyes, Beckmann’s statement assumes a different tone when placed in the context of immigration debates in Frankfurt during and after the war. From the end of the nineteenth century, Eastern European Jews (Ostjuden) immigrated to Germany in large numbers to escape economic hardship and violent persecution.47 Wartime populations of Ostjuden swelled with the influx of Eastern European Jewish laborers (recruited and forced) as well as refugees and war prisoners.48 On November 1, 1919, Germany’s Interior Minister Wolfgang Heine issued a controversial edict that allowed Ostjuden to remain in Germany; his detractors within the government and among civilians were outraged that resources would be spent on foreigners while German nationals suffered in the post-war economic crisis.49 In the context of this debate, Beckmann’s statement suggests a tolerant, if “slightly ironic” tone toward the Ostjuden in Frankfurt,50 where they tended to be low- and mid-level merchants and salesmen as well as craftsmen and manual laborers.51 Compared to the assimilated German Jews in Beckmann’s social circle, the Ostjuden, frequently clad in the traditional black caftans of Hasidic Judaism,52 were generally more conservative and observant. Many of them lived in the Jewish quarter,53 where Beckmann would have encountered them on his visits there to sketch the Börneplatz synagogue.
When Beckmann first exhibited his portrayal of The Synagogue in April 1921 at the Frankfurt Art Association (Frankfurter Kunstverein), his critics perceived a provocation and tension in the picture that inspired a range of responses.54 The first review appeared soon thereafter in the Frankfurter Zeitung and was filed by the critic and art historian Wilhelm Hausenstein. His appraisal began in this way: “The first impression is one of penetration, something absolutely piercing.”55 Hausenstein’s argument that Beckmann was a nihilist as well as an “intransigent naturalist” (ein intransigenter Naturalist) was, he contended, evident in the artist’s pictures, which “groan under the torture of their [pictorial] order.”56 What they needed was a bit of Schubert, he wryly suggested, attributing to Beckmann’s pictures a powerful synaesthetic effect. The downturned megaphone hanging from telephone wire in The Synagogue’s upper right corner conjured for Hausenstein the sense of “imprisoned noise as in Münchhausen’s frozen coach horn.”57 His readers were undoubtedly familiar with the eighteenth-century Baron von Münchhausen’s misadventures, popularized by Gottfried August Bürger.58 This literary parallel highlighted the fantastic qualities of Beckmann’s otherwise realistic scene. More significantly, Hausenstein did not so much describe what he saw as what he heard, or did not hear. It was a remarkable verbal/literary approximation of the picture’s quarantined aurality. It is unclear whether the leap of faith that his characterization required was one that his readers were willing to make in the absence of an illustration,59 but it likely got a few through the doors to see the show.
Siegfried Kracauer, the Frankfurt School journalist, writer, and sociologist who would become known for his analyses of popular culture and film in Weimar as well as Nazi Germany, penned a four-page essay on Beckmann’s newest paintings for the autumn 1921 issue of Die Rheinlande, a quarterly journal, based in Düsseldorf, for German art and poetry.60 His précis of Beckmann’s career and review of recent pictures opened with a bleak reflection on the artist’s Descent from the Cross, a dessicated painting that expressed the lingering catastrophe of World War I (see Fig.5). On this evidence, Kracauer declared Beckmann “an artist of our time,” in whose pictures “the pain of contemporary humanity is effectively embodied.”61 A discussion of The Synagogue arrived on the last page and was accompanied by a reproduction of the painting. Kracauer wrote:
The ground shakes, the temple heaves, and with them sink the tenements and factories… Everything that our civilization has created is ripe for destruction. The light-posts, streetlamps, advertising columns, and wooden fences are pulled into a dance of destruction while the gramophone steadily amplifies dreadful street songs, that render mute each scream for mercy and may thus sound sweet to the ears of Hell’s princes.62
Like Hausenstein, Kracauer was attuned to the picture’s uncanny sound effects, but placed them within a familiar urban environment that anticipated disaster, an apocalypse in potentia. What is more, Kracauer’s early training as an architect with Jewish roots in Frankfurt revealed his familiarity with the cityscape depicted in The Synagogue.63 And yet he dwelled less on the real-world referent than on the contradictory effects of Beckmann’s sign. Kracauer’s description of the painting was at once symbolic and allegorical,64 a poetic description that was symptomatic of a society in crisis.
The third critic to review The Synagogue at the time was Benno Reifenberg. As Beckmann’s former roommate in early 1919, Reifenberg may well have seen The Synagogue in advance of the 1921 exhibition, if not in-progress in Beckmann’s studio. Revealing an intimate knowledge of the picture as well as the city, Reifenberg published his interpretation in the third volume of Ganymed,65 a cultural yearbook dedicated to visual art, poetry, music, and theater that Hausenstein and Julius Meier-Graefe co-edited.66 Reifenberg’s essay was not an exhibition review per se, but rather a reflection on Beckmann’s current painting in troubled times. “The war restored the painter to reality, to new subject-matter,” wrote Reifenberg referring to the catalytic impact of the war on Beckmann’s creative transformation, evident in painting such as Night (Fig.6).67
Regarding Night, completed in early 1919, Reifenberg continued: “The war continued to fester, eating away at humanity…do you believe the war is over, is history? The war continues.”68 On The Synagogue, which was illustrated in the article in a black-and-white reproduction, his language turned allusive and poetic:
Well it was finally time to again venture back into the streets, even though it at first seemed as if the only street on earth were Friedrichstraße, which was “hell.” No one, however, could go for a walk beyond the “hustle and bustle” of the city. At night after closing time, hat pushed back, one could discover all kinds of things there. For example, the red synagogue with the verdigris cupola. Everything was quite remarkable: these carefully overlapping lantern posts, advertising column, a small pull cart. Even the striking contours of a tomcat. The houses, boxes with many window eyes, stand around something that people call a plaza. A slab of pavement, around which runs a path, is contained by a wooden fence. There is order in such a plaza. A human order. It is not fundamentally a rational order, like that which grows from a tree or the line drawn by distant hills.
It is rather like the order of honeycomb cells, only these cells do not border one another in a regular manner; they jostle one another, they thrust their shoulders forward, and draw back wall by wall, the ones who stare while the others blink ambivalently out their windows. Here and there a lamp burns and casts its false light into the twilight. However, one suddenly senses the devilish calm in this square. It is nearly emptied of people. Are the doors bolted shut? Why are the stores closed? What is happening here? The sky twitches with all of its stars in a coppery surge; is everything really okay here? Oh no, it’s not time to steal away upon secret paths through painted streets into nature, into the open, into idyll. Let’s go into the rooms. Who’s hiding there? What kind of men inhabit such rooms? We want to meet them, our fellow citizens, to grab them by their coat lapels and look into their eyes.69
By introducing anonymous actors – citizens of Frankfurt – into his account of The Synagogue, Reifenberg verbalized its visual entreaty to its immediate recipients in a way that recalled Beckmann’s 1918 credo: “I hope we achieve a transcendental objectivity out of a deep love for nature and humanity. (…) Perhaps this age will help me.”70 But the utopian optimism that characterized many likeminded texts from the months before and immediately after the armistice was notably absent from both the painting and its initial reception. As Reifenberg and his colleagues noted, The Synagogue possessed a magical, even ominous quality that was at once unmistakable and invisible. This must have been acutely familiar to contemporary viewers for whom the violence and suffering of the war persisted in the social and economic crises of the early 1920s. In this sense, Reifenberg’s fraught description objectified his horizon of expectations, his lived experience of and attitude toward the site at that time.71
From the vantage point of poetics, these three descriptions exemplify an ancient rhetorical mode known as ekphrasis, that is “the verbal representation of visual representation.”72 Two kinds of description characterize Reifenberg’s passage; his impersonal inventory of the painting’s various props gives way to a description of their unsettling effect. He enters the painting via its main thoroughfare and proceeds to describe Beckmann’s Frankfurt cityscape and its eerie landmarks as if they were real.73 Moreover, he writes first in the past and then in the present tense, suggesting an intimate familiarity with the painting’s contracted pictorial space and topography. Reifenberg’s ekphrasis thus constitutes an interpretation of The Synagogue that understood its uncanny reality as central to its meaning.
Reifenberg’s poetic language departed from the formalist discourse that characterized modern art criticism in Germany at the time.74 In this case, ekphrasis in the service of modern art criticism revealed neither iconophilia nor iconophobia,75 but rather the inadequacy of formalist interpretations to account for the artwork’s magnetic inscrutability. The matter of form qua form was incidental in these three discussions of The Synagogue, a not uninteresting relegation given the formalist praise lavished on Night, Beckmann’s break-through painting.76 For although elsewhere in their texts all three critics explicitly addressed and applauded Beckmann’s formal transformation from Berlin Secessionist to “intransigent naturalist” (per Hausenstein), they each forsook formalist interpretation in favor of poetic descriptions that variously reconciled the picture with the contemporary trauma of lived experience. Reifenberg’s ekphrasis in particular amounted to an allegorical reading of The Synagogue that recognized the painting’s relationship to its temporal circumstances as both rhetorical and intrinsic. Put another way, his interpretation was the first to concretize the meaning of The Synagogue as not merely timely, but prophetic – a significant reading given what was to come in the next decades.
Prescient Picture, Historical Document (1945-1964)
What does it mean for an artwork – or, for that matter, an artist – to be prophetic? The notion of the artist as prophet is a modernist trope that had special currency in Germany. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in late 1911, Wassily Kandinsky wrote metaphorically of society as a great triangle. In “The Movement of the Triangle,” he proclaimed: ” In every segment of the triangle are artists. Each one of them who can see beyond the limits of his segment is a prophet to those about him, and helps the advance of the obstinate whole.”77 This belief in the artist’s capacity to elevate the masses through spiritual edification was one that the critic and art historian Paul Ferdinand Schmidt reiterated in 1919 with respect to Beckmann. He argued that “the true artist is a prophet of his time and not “topical”; his art emerges out of the deep and true religious layers of social consciousness.”78
This attitude may have hastened a particular view of Beckmann’s depiction of The Synagogue. In 1963, Benno Reifenberg wrote an essay entitled “Max Beckmann in Frankfurt” in which he repeated much of what he said in 1921 about The Synagogue, but with a noteworthy addition: “I’ve always believed that Beckmann had a premonition that this plaza would one day lie horribly empty.”79 In addition to arguing for the artist’s spiritual clairvoyance, Reifenberg’s terse comment demonstrated an inability to reconcile events of Germany’s recent past with the picture’s form and subject. In the two decades following the end of World War II, poetic description gave way to interpretations of the painting as a prescient picture as well as a historical document. In explicit and implicit ways, these interpretations were shaped by the cultural politics of Germany’s emerging Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or the “struggle to come to terms with the past.”80
Perhaps Reifenberg’s more significant reflection on The Synagogue’s troubling prescience came in his 1949 essay on Beckmann entitled “Work and Life” featured in a monograph on Beckmann he co-wrote with Hausenstein.81 Reifenberg’s analysis of the painting takes up ten sentences, six of which he borrowed from his 1921 essay in Ganymed. He wrote:
At the time, [Beckmann] painted “The Synagogue” (1919), an impenetrable, clotted structure with carefully painted thin colors akin to the many pictures from this period that resembled stained-glass windows. There stood the red building with the verdigris cupola on the plaza held together by a wooden fence. The houses spaced around it stare, [while] others blink equivocally out of their windows. “Here and there a lamp burns and casts its false light into the twilight. However, one suddenly senses the devilish calm in this square. It is nearly emptied of people. Are the doors bolted shut? Why are the stores closed? What is happening here?” These questions that were posed with respect to this picture in 1921 (in the journal Ganymed) found an answer seventeen years later when the synagogue was burned to the ground; today only the emptiness of the plaza remains.82
Reifenberg’s readers likely knew the event to which he alluded. The Kristallnacht – or Night of Broken Glass – claimed the Börneplatz synagogue as one of its many victims in the early morning hours of November 10, 1938 (Fig. 7).83 The consequences of the violence against German Jews were particularly brutal in Frankfurt. Three days prior, Herschel Grünspan, a German-Polish Jew living in Paris and former student in Frankfurt, shot Ernst vom Rath, an official in the German embassy in Paris who also happened to be from Frankfurt.84 Grünspan had been desperate to learn more from an uncooperative Rath about the fate of his family who were among the 2,000 Jews of Polish descent that had been recently deported to the German-Polish border.85 Rath died of his wounds on November 9, becoming a pretext to both spontaneous and organized acts of violence against Jews, their homes, and their communities across Germany. When it was over, nearly all of Germany’s synagogues were either completely destroyed by fire or damaged beyond repair, not to mention the destruction of innumerable Jewish businesses, homes, and cemeteries. At least ninety-one Jews were murdered in that forty-eight hour period and some 26,000 were arrested including countless Frankfurt Jews, 2,621 of whom were soon thereafter deported to the concentration camp in Buchenwald.86 This reign of terror had a chilling affect on the citizens of Frankfurt, many of whom, according to eyewitness accounts of the burning of the Börneplatz synagogue, appeared immobilized by the violence against their Jewish neighbors.87
Through his allusions to the Kristallnacht in his two postwar analyses of The Synagogue, Reifenberg moved from a poetic description to what was, in effect, a semiotic analysis; the signifier remained the same, but the signified changed because the cultural and historical context had changed. Although he repeated elements of his 1921 ekphrasis, Reifenberg offered a new way of thinking about The Synagogue that emphasized its historicity as an object and as a sign. The destruction of Frankfurt’s Börneplatz synagogue and its Jewish population constituted a macabre answer to the questions he believed the inscrutable painting posed in 1921. Reifenberg acknowledged that bleak reality when he concluded his 1949 analysis in this way: “…today only the emptiness of the plaza remains.”88 He thus exemplified Jauss’ assertion that meaning unfolds historically in the dialogue between artwork and viewer, or to paraphrase: when we interpret a text or picture we often ask questions that it did not yet need to answer in its own time.89 The prophetic dimension of Reifenberg’s new interpretation reflected and also helped constitute a cultural reality of Vergangenheitsbewältigung that was beginning to emerge in postwar Germany.
This preoccupation with the painting’s prescience also marked Ernst Holzinger’s efforts to acquire The Synagogue for Frankfurt’s Städel Museum (Fig. 8). As Director, Holzinger had long desired The Synagogue. Numerous letters and memos between 1951 and 1972 attest to his determination in an often thwarted, but ultimately successful effort to acquire the painting from Herbert Kurz. A successful industrialist from Wiesbaden, Kurz bought The Synagogue in around 1936.90 He loaned it to five exhibitions in the fifties and early sixties and, starting in 1951, had an arrangement with the Städel to store the picture between shows along with other works in his collection.91 Holzinger hoped that Kurz would one day either donate or sell it to the Städel Museum. In a letter to Kurz from 1960, he described the painting as a “Frankofurtensie,” a kind of souvenir or collector’s item with special ties to Frankfurt’s history.92 Holzinger continued:
Because of its subject, the picture is an important ‘Frankofurtensie,’ a memorial, if you like, to the old Frankfurt. Thus we also hope that someday, when you are able to part with it, you would like to give it to Frankfurt. I trust that we would be capable of arranging a purchase at any time.93
In a subsequent letter to Kurz from 1961, Holzinger contended that were The Synagogue to enter the Städel’s collection, it would be “an eternal reminder of the burning down of the synagogue in the Kristallnacht.”94 As interpretations of the painting, his arguments of persuasion relied on the sense of presience that Reifenberg also attributed to The Synagogue. In the coming years, Holzinger built on that assumption a disciplined and complex case for acquisition, one that understood the painting as an important historical document.
Holzinger arrived in Frankfurt before World War II at a time that The Synagogue appeared to anticipate and that recent scholarship has shed new and important light on.95 In 1938, Holzinger became Director of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut after Hanns Swarzenski recommended him for the position that his father – Georg Swarzenski – was forced by the Nazis to abdicate.96 Beginning in 1949,97 Holzinger also presided over the Städel’s Städtische Galerie, a publicly funded institution founded in 1907 by the elder Swarzenski primarily to showcase modern art.98 Between 1936 and 1937, the Städtische Galerie saw its exemplary collection of modern art – including ten paintings by Beckmann – confiscated in the Nazi’s campaign to purge German museums of what they dubbed “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst).99 After the war, like many other directors of German museums (including those in Cologne, Karlsruhe, Essen, and Wuppertal),100 Holzinger began to rebuild the Städel’s modern collection, placing an early emphasis on Beckmann’s paintings.101 He admired Beckmann’s work and knew him personally, having visited the exiled artist in Amsterdam in April 1941.102 Between 1951 and 1959, he acquired five of Beckmann’s paintings either through restitution or purchase.103
Holzinger nonetheless emerged from the war as an ambivalent figure. In April 1933, a few months following Hitler’s rise to power, he applied for membership to the National Socialist Party while he was a conservator at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich; but in the time it took to vet his allegiance, a moratorium on membership was announced, and Holzinger had by then become disillusioned with the Party’s ideology.104 He never became an official Party member. In 1941, however, three years into his tenure as Director of the Städel Museum, he was appointed by the “Cultural Chamber of the Reich” (Reichskulturkammer) in Berlin to be an “Authority for the Securing and the Utilization of Cultural Assets from Jewish Ownership for the Purposes of the Reich.”105 Between August 1941 and the end of 1943, Holzinger prepared some fifty-five appraisals of confiscated artworks that argued for their retention for sale to either German or foreign museums or private collectors.106 On the other hand, it was in this role that he salvaged and after the war repatriated the art collection of Alfred Oppenheim, who had fled Germany for England in 1939.107 What’s more, Holzinger clandestinely stored Carl Hagemann’s extensive collection of Expressionist art, saving it from confiscation by Nazi authorities.108 The jury is still out on Holzinger’s wartime actions, which are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile.109 And yet the evidence suggests that he acted less out of ideology than out of his deep commitment to art. To be sure, his postwar correspondence regarding The Synagogue suggests a more unequivocal figure, whose discretion, persistence and shrewd aesthetic judgment hastened that painting’s acquisition.
Holzinger quietly began fund raising for The Synagogue in 1963 when he appealed for a special grant from Frankfurt’s Department of Science, Art, and Education (Amt für Wissenschaft, Kunst und Volksbildung). In a letter to City Councilman (Stadtrat) Karl vom Rath, Holzinger offered an explicit appeal: “The extraordinary historical importance of the painting for Frankfurt is unquestionable. Its high artistic status has been splendidly and definitively proven over the years and more recently in the [Städtische] Galerie.”110 The emphasis he consistently placed on the painting’s historical value was throughout supported by a tacit affirmation of the painting’s singular formal qualities. A pupil of the Swiss art historian and pioneer of formal analysis Heinrich Wölfflin, Holzinger wrote his 1927 dissertation at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich on an early period of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut production. In pictures from this period, Holzinger identified the artist’s precocious ability to harmonize corporeal forms within flat spatial planes.111 The Synagogue’s taut integration of both these qualities in a single picture – for example, the witty connection between the cupola’s tumescent drum and its pinnacle that just scrapes the top of the flat picture plane – must have appealed to Holzinger. For example, the cupola’s drum is tipped back slightly and strapped in by its pinnacle set parallel to the picture plane. Holzinger later aptly identified the onion dome as the painting’s “key form” (Schlüsselfigur).112
But if Holzinger ever composed a Wölfflinian argument for The Synagogue’s acquisition, it is not contained in his papers in the Städel Archive. Rather, when it came to building his case, he underlined the painting’s subject matter rather than its formal properties, even though it was precisely the ways in which Beckmann rendered the Börneplatz synagogue that activated its historical associations. The painting’s subject matter and the uncanny manner in which it was rendered uniquely qualified it for Frankfurt, whose diverse Jewish population and culture were once as vital as their annihilation under Hitler was devastating. Were it to assume its proper place in a public collection, Holzinger argued, The Synagogue would be a powerful testament to and reminder of that loss. In this regard, Holzinger was even more explicit in his letter to Rath from June 14, 1963.
No other artist has created such effective, artistic documents of this ominous historical period than Beckmann. The Synagogue is one such document. The building was set afire and destroyed in the Kristallnacht – it was the main synagogue of the Israelite community. One suspects that as he painted the picture, Beckmann foresaw this threatening and impending destruction.113
This was an especially timely, even shrewd argument as evident in a newspaper article tucked into Holzinger’s correspondence regarding The Synagogue. Just two days before he wrote this letter in June 1963, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungran a full-page article that consisted of excerpts from newly released and collected documents from the Nazi period pertaining to the oppression of Jews in Frankfurt.114 According to the newspaper’s editor, this powerful new collection “dispense[d] with explication and allow[ed] the documents to speak for themselves. They were difficult to obtain.”115 Likewise Holzinger avoided interpreting The Synagogue solely for its artistic merits, viewing it instead as a historical document and perhaps as a vehicle for collective Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
Plans for a possible sale began in earnest sometime after Christmas 1962, when Kurz finally expressed his readiness to sell the painting to the Städel.116 Negotiations with Kurz peaked in the fall of 1963 and early winter months of 1964. Having succeeded in persuading Rath, Holzinger also required the cooperation of other city officials since the acquisition would come through the Städtische Galerie. And while Kurz did not name a price, Holzinger assumed he wanted at least 200,000 DM (then roughly $50,400) for the painting, based on its then current insurance value approved by Kurz the previous year.117 This formidable price tag, which exceeded the Galerie’s annual acquisition budget, required Holzinger to ask the city’s Cultural Committee (Kulturausschuss) for a special allowance that was neither easily nor quickly approved.118 These protracted deliberations irritated Kurz, who was known for being “a somewhat difficult man.”119 Between September and December 1963, Kurz retracted, reinstated, and retracted his offer again. Holzinger responded on December 2 to Kurz’s decision as “a hard blow,” its effect “catastrophic.”120 In the meantime, funding was at last approved for the painting’s acquisition on January 13, 1964, but Kurz remained obstinate: “the painting is not for sale and I expect its immediate return. Money for this painting will not be accepted.”121 Holzinger conceded defeat on January 21 in a letter that was by turns angry and, in its conclusion, inconsolable.
How could your denial not hit me hard, deeply and personally, but also in my professional duties and in my relationship to the city of Frankfurt? How should I be able to take this lightly? The picture belongs to no one more than Frankfurt, as Beckmann would have wished; I therefore wanted it more than any other for Frankfurt and not out of ambition. Now it must leave Frankfurt again under such extremely sad and supremely depressing circumstances.122
Fearing a possible sale of The Synagogueto MoMA, Holzinger made a powerful, but futile last-ditch effort to keep the painting in Germany by applying for its protection under a law against the emigration of German cultural patrimony.123 His letter to the Hessian Cultural Minister (Hessischen Kultusminister) is a summary of all the arguments he had theretofore marshaled in support of the acquisition. He wrote:
The main synagogue in Frankfurt was burned down on November 9, 1938. It is the only German synagogue that in modern times has been immortalized in a picture by a great German artist, and in such an undeniably grand manner. Immediately after the picture was created in a most vital period, Benno Reifenberg commented on it in the Frankfurter Zeitung; [he says] it gives the impression that a catastrophe was imminent. It came to pass – the synagogue was burned down. Beckmann had already needed to leave Germany. There can be no doubt that the painting is a Frankofurtensie of the highest order. It is equally legitimate to characterize the picture as a national treasure because it belongs to German history, because it testifies to the foreboding power of a great spirit vis-à- vis the future, because it thus becomes a historical document, and because it was created by one of the most significant German painters of the twentieth century.124
Citing, among other reasons, a strict interpretation of the law and a reluctance to protect twentieth-century artworks, the presiding judge denied Holzinger’s request.125
Holzinger’s rejoinder to Kurz and his appeal to the Hessian Cultural Minister are apparent enough. But the motivation behind them can only ever be surmised, however tempting it is to read them as expressions of Holzinger’s failed attempt at expiation for his, then secret, wartime transgressions. Whether he sought this sort of redemption we cannot know, but the question of redemption nonetheless looms in the background of this particular episode in The Synagogue’s reception history. It creates a new condition for interpretation that assumes the profundity of historical experience. In this way, Holzinger made the not uncommon assumption that art has the power to redeem, “to master the presumed raw material of experience.”126 But, as Leo Bersani argues, such an assumption mollifies historical experience. Indeed, The Synagogue seemed to activate historical experience in the analyses of its interlocutors in the 1960s. In this postwar period, the painting’s subject matter appeared to anticipate the Holocaust’s devastation and its mute and prescient forms offered no reassurance; the painting denied the legibility and unity demanded by redemption. For Holzinger as well as Reifenberg, it offered not an escape from but a constant and necessary reminder of the war.
Art and Politics (1972)
Paradoxically the matter of The Synagogue’s prophetic quality and the role it was obliged to perform in both public and private discussions of Germany under the Third Reich waned as the possibility of a successful acquisition by the Städel increased in the early seventies. This was in spite, or perhaps because of, the 1967 publication and widespread success of The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, co-authored by the Frankfurt-based psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich.127 The Inability to Mournoffered the German public a socio-psychological diagnosis of its denial of the immediate past, an argument that resonated among West German intellectuals as well as adherents of the 1968 protest movements, many of whom were born or came of age after the war.128 By the early seventies, new advocates for The Synagogue took over from Holzinger. In the renewed efforts to acquire the painting for the Städel Museum, these advocates needed The Synagogue to address Frankfurt’s cultural politics by appealing to a number of different and not always compatible audiences.
With Herbert Kurz’s death in June 1967, acquisition negotiations were re-opened.129 In February 1970, Kurz’s son gave Holzinger the option to purchase the painting for 750.000DM (then roughly $207,000), an amount based on an offer his mother had received from an American dealer.130 Perhaps out of deference to her late husband’s original commitment to sell the painting to the Städel, Annemarie Kurz agreed to give Holzinger a second chance. Blanched by the new price tag and reluctant to undertake singlehandedly the acquisition again, Holzinger recognized that a new strategy was required. He enlisted several individuals in this renewed effort, chief among them was Hilmar Hoffmann, Frankfurt’s newly appointed City Councilor of Cultural Affairs (Kulturdezernent) (Fig.9). The result was a campaign for the acquisition of The Synagogue – the so-called Aktion Synagoge – one modeled on the Basel Kunstmuseum’s successful public fundraising campaign in 1967 to purchase two paintings by Picasso.131 Like the organizers of this Picasso Aktion, Hoffmann and his team faced the daunting task of raising what, to some, was a nearly insurmountable figure. Representing the annual appropriation budget for acquisitions in 1971, 250.000DM were recommended early on from the city’s Cultural Committee (Kulturausschuss) in charge of funding for the Städtische Galerie, but the remaining 500.000DM would have to be raised through various kinds of donations.132
It was not Holzinger, but Hoffmann who largely conceived of, managed, and executed this ambitious plan, which was successfully realized in 1972. In contrast to Holzinger’s discrete and relatively uncoordinated negotiations of 1963-64, the Aktion Synagoge was a populist and highly disciplined public campaign.133 Hoffmann was at the time in his mid-forties and had come to Frankfurt with a background in theater and film as well as public service.134 A member of the liberal SPD, the then ruling party in Frankfurt, he possessed the energy, experience, and political acumen necessary to realize this ambitious undertaking. Hoffmann’s mantra “Culture for All” (Kultur für Alle) encapsulated his belief in the essential role of culture in a democratic society and in his commitment to bringing art to the people through meaningful dialogue across society as a whole.135
The Aktion Synagoge thus put Hoffmann’s theories into practice, prompting one journalist to refer to the enterprise as so much “art propaganda” (Kunstpropaganda).136 The two main events of the Aktion occurred in the early summer of 1972. Hoffmann and his team orchestrated a series of public happenings designed to raise money and call attention to their cause. They took place on the Hauptwache, a large plaza and site of the baroque guardhouse at the center of Frankfurt, which was and remains one of the city’s most trafficked plazas for pedestrians and subway commuters alike. It provided Hoffmann’s populist agenda with a dynamic public forum (Fig.10). For three Saturdays in June and the first in July, local politicians and celebrities took turns on the Hauptwache to help persuade the public to support the campaign. And on the Aktion’s final Saturday, three British prog-rock bands – Warm Dust, Emergency, and Raw Material – were slated to serenade the audience on the Hauptwache.137
On the other side of the river from June 10 through July 9, the Städel Museum hosted an exhibition that placed The Synagogue in the context of Beckmann’s career and Frankfurt history (Fig.11). Organized by Christian Lenz and Margret Stuffmann, two young art historians and curatorial assistants at the Städel, this small but concentrated exhibition was arranged in a semicircle on temporary walls.138 The Synagogue was installed alone on a wall in the middle of the room, and according to one journalist, in a manner that was “altar-like, reminiscent of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna in Dresden and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in Paris.”139 Thus the painting’s authenticity and ritual function, however secularized, remained in tact. Meanwhile posters featuring a color reproduction of The Synagogue behaved in ways theorized by Walter Benjamin. These posters launched the painting into “situations which the original itself [could not] attain” and ostensibly liberated “the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual.”140
Instrumental to the political objective of this two-part Aktion was the production and sale of a poster for 10DM (or about $3.20) (Fig.12).
Although this part of the fund drive may have appeared naïve (it ultimately raised a mere 25.000DM), its more powerful function could not be measured in Deutsche Marks. One city official described it as “the vehicle of the Aktion.”141 The poster featured a color reproduction of The Synagogue with a caption that indicated where the painting could be seen during the Aktion: “The painting is on view in a special exhibition at the Städel Museum from June 10 to July 7, 1972.”142 Below the caption, the following text exhorted:
Citizens of Frankfurt!
In 1919, Max Beckmann painted the synagogue on the former Börneplatz in Frankfurt’s Israelite community. It was burned to the ground by the National Socialists in the 1938 “Kristallnacht.”
For Frankfurt, this is the most important Beckmann-painting. Currently in a private collection, it must stay in Frankfurt; it belongs to all its citizens. Beckmann’s “Synagogue” is a unique document:
– of a historic district in Frankfurt
– of the hardship after World War I
– of a foreshadowing of the events that claimed millions as horrible victims
– of Max Beckmann’s work in this city until 1933 when, as a “degenerate” artist, he was chased out by the National Socialists.
Secure this picture as a document of your history!
Buy this poster and make possible the purchase of the painting.
City of Frankfurt am Main – Departmental Head of Culture
Donation Account 615, Postal Savings Bank, Frankfurt am Main “Aktion Synagogue”143
The poster was ubiquitous in Frankfurt that summer. For the duration of the Aktion, it was available for purchase not only on the Hauptwache and at the exhibition in the Städel, but also in other museums, galleries, libraries, and bookstores in Frankfurt. More than its fundraising ability, the poster’s utility lay in its capacity to stimulate public debate. This was essential to Hoffmann’s mantra of “Culture for All.” Following the Aktion, he even claimed that the opportunity to see the original at the Städel Museum was available only to an elite few.144 In one sense, the painting of The Synagogue– the centerpiece of the Städel’s special exhibition – could not alone condition what Benjamin referred to as a “simultaneously collective experience.”145 It was the poster that helped the painting reach a wider audience by placing its technologically reproduced surrogate in new contexts, “on advertising columns, in shop windows, in subway stations, [and] in various public institutions.”146 But the poster’s advantage over the painting did not, as Benjamin speculated, educe an entirely progressive response.
Through the poster, The Synagogue entered the political discourse in Frankfurt and was reported on and debated by many journalists in the media.147 The painting’s reproduction in the upper half of the poster constituted a rhetorical argument for The Synagogue’s costly acquisition, one that was consistent with its ritual function in the museum. That the poster was designed so that the reproduction and the exhibition-related caption could be shorn from the text suggests the importance of the painting’s desired ritual function.148 But it was the exhortative text that clarified the painting’s desired political function. An early draft reveals language that explicitly linked style and content: “Max Beckmann’s picture is realistic, it is political.”149 The final text, drafted largely by Lenz in the early months of 1972, shared with its precursor a conciliatory recourse to the past.150 Eduard Beaucamp, an art critic writing for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung at the time, upbraided Hoffmann and his team for their strategy of manipulating the public. The Aktion exposed “the duplicity and hypocrisy of overt cultural propaganda (Kulturpropaganda)” by cynically appealing to the public’s guilty conscience.151 Even before the Aktiontook place, another journalist expressed skepticism over the perceived political message of the proposed acquisition, which was alleged “to be an act of reparation” but was more like “a small band-aid on a bad conscience.”152 Perhaps in anticipation of more such skepticism, Hoffmann enlisted none other than Alexander Mitscherlich to help correct the public’s inability to mourn by purchasing a poster.153 Jewish voices in the media received this message of reconciliation favorably.154 Some Beckmann scholars took it a step further by arguing that the acquisition could also atone for the Nazi’s misdeeds against Beckmann, namely driving him into exile in 1937 and confiscating his pictures from public collections.155 Nonetheless, the skeptics, who objected neither to the painting per se nor to the political argument as such, questioned the decision to couple so charged an image and topic with so formidable a sum.
On Monday, June 10 following the first Saturday of the Aktion, journalists from local newspapers reported a range of responses from the public, who encountered an unlikely pair alongside Hoffmann selling posters on the Hauptwache (see Fig.9). Hermann Josef Abs, the Honorary Chairman of Germany’s Deutsche Bank and also Chairman of the Städel Administration, stood alongside Frankfurt’s newly sworn-in socialist Mayor Rudi Arndt. The alliance underscored the financial and political realities and contradictions of the Aktion that was not lost on some passers-by. They questioned how their cash-strapped city could afford to pony up for such an expensive painting when schools and hospitals were underfunded.156 A commentator on a local radio program added that the money raised would be better spent on artworks by living artists.157 Still others wondered whether the asking price was an exaggeration of the painting’s true value, a product of art speculators that included Kurz’s heirs as well as their art dealer advisors.158
The Aktion’s political spectacle was dramatized further by the old covered wagon that served as the poster’s point of sale and discussion on the Hauptwache (Fig.13). Commandeered from a local production of Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children, the wagon had its original function renewed in this piece of contemporary epic theatre. Its anachronistic presence on the Hauptwache generated what Brecht might have referred to as a “distancing effect” (Verfremdungseffekt) that attracted some onlookers and incited others, who were outraged by the painting’s cost. After the Aktion, Lenz confirmed in his article for the local Frankfurt Kunstzeitung that “in general, the price caused quite a stir.”159 For his part, Brecht (by way of Benjamin) believed that an artwork’s past, indeed its ontological necessity, was erased by its market value because that value transformed the work of art into a commodity.160 Hoffmann wanted and needed it both ways. He believed it to be a work of art that would – through reproduction – galvanize and inspire Frankfurt’s citizens. At the same time, however, his efforts assumed The Synagogue to be a commodity worthy of potential donors and his own herculean efforts. While encouraging the populist rhetoric of the Aktion, he privately and actively sought the financial support of Frankfurt’s most affluent and prominent citizens through a protracted behind-the-scenes letter-writing campaign. A draft of one such form letter revealed Hoffmann’s definition of the painting as “a meaningful document of Frankfurt history and, in addition, an excellent artistic example of German Expressionism for the city’s art collection.”161 This exercise in cultural Realpolitik paid off on September 20 when Hoffmann announced that Jürgen Ponto, Chairman of the Frankfurt-based Dresdner Bank, had written a check for 100.000DM, which brought the total donations plus city funding to 750.000DM.162 This news arrived too late for Holzinger, who died suddenly on September 8 while on vacation in Switzerland.163 On October 18, 1972 The Synagogue entered the Städel’s permanent collection.164
In his 2003 memoir, Hoffmann reflected on the events of 1972. He wrote: “…above all [the Aktion Synagoge] was a four-week public discussion of the picture’s visionary content…and of the harmful relationship between art and its market.”165 It is difficult to gauge the veracity of the former given the emphasis in the press on the latter. The leading advocates for The Synagogueand its acquisition were powerful municipal and corporate interests in dialogue with a public that was generally sympathetic to the painting, but deeply skeptical of its asking price mingled with the arguments made on its behalf. The previously ascendant qualities of the picture’s poetry and its prescience were either irrelevant or taken for granted in this civic debate. Given the public’s horizon of expectations in a political climate that demanded accountability from and integrity in its leaders, the painting itself was marginalized. Ironically it was the poster that ultimately realized the primary objective of the Aktion, whereas, and not without irony, The Synagogue became an almost phantom presence.
Formalist and Pedagogical Uses (1972-present)
In the months and years following the Aktion, The Synagogue saw its political role in the public arena transformed to support an art historical argument and speak to new and younger audiences. Its acquisition by the Städel hastened a return to the object that stressed its authenticity compromised in the poster sale. Shifts in the viewer’s mode of perception privileged the painting’s morphological qualities and demanded a direct encounter with the original work of art. In this last and most recent episode in The Synagogue’s reception history, three individuals – an art historian and two museum educators – repositioned the painting’s agency to generate new meanings.
Christian Lenz emerged from the Aktion wearing two hats. As an art historian, he maintained his scholarly commitment to The Synagogue. In 1973, he published a twenty-one-page essay entitled “Max Beckmanns »Synagoge«” in the Städel Jahrbuch.166 At the same time, he became an advocate for art education reform based on his experience in the Aktion when he shared his insights in the Frankfurt Kunstzeitung article published in the fall of 1972. The 1973 essay set a high bar for scholarly, single-picture analyses of Beckmann’s oeuvre, and was divided into four distinct parts – formal and iconographic analysis, urban and religious themes, political dimensions, and conclusion. It was also quite different from the journalistic tone and substance of his much shorter article in the Kunstzeitung. For the Städel Jahrbuch he wrote in an academic style and offered an analysis of the painting that understood its formal qualities as its primary evidence. In order to contextualize the puzzling and mysterious effect of the painting’s form, Lenz relied on the “evidence (pictures, written statements) of the painter and his contemporaries.”167 And while he appreciated the contemporary tendency to read the painting prophetically, he dismissed such anachronistic interpretations as unscientific.168 At its core, Lenz’s analysis of The Synagogue was formalist. In the essay’s final pages he wrote: “From this examination it appears that the particular significance of the picture cannot precede from but emerges first in form.”169 Like Holzinger before him,170 Lenz stressed the high quality of the picture and ranked it among masterworks by Picasso and Klee.171
By contrast, his Kunstzeitung article was considerably more engaged with contemporary politics and society. Though pleased that the Aktion achieved its ultimate goal, Lenz was less upbeat than Hoffmann, perhaps because he was more attuned to the anemic public response to the exhibition and corresponding lectures.172 Lenz asked: “Why is it that the donations were so arduously solicited, that the lectures and the exhibition were so poorly attended, and that so few posters were purchased?”173 Such deficiencies, he concluded, were symptomatic of the public’s poor visual literacy and indifference to art “caused by an inadequate educational system and inadequate art history.”174 In short, Lenz blamed the schools and its teachers for a public of philistines. He could have also pointed to the irony of the poster’s effectiveness. On the one hand, it raised the Aktion’s profile by generating public and media discussions, which arguably attracted the most generous donors. On the other hand, the poster appeared to have eroded the painting’s singularity, its aestheic power and its vital historical testimony spelled out in the accompanying text. What the Aktion demonstrated was that the public and even private debates were not about the painting at all, but rather the cultural politics of the day. Lenz helped redirect the public discourse back to the painting. In his Kunstzeitungarticle, he exhorted educators “to develop the analogic thinking” skills of their students through new arts education initiatives.175 This informal mandate was taken up at the Städel in decades to come, specifically in conjunction with The Synagogue.
In early November 1988 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Kristallnacht, the Städel opened a small but fine exhibition with an allusive subtitle: »Die Synagoge« von Max Beckmann: Wirklichkeit und Sinnbild, or Reality and Symbol. It was installed in a small room off of the main permanent collection gallery that housed Expressionist paintings and featured The Synagogue flanked by a selection of Beckmann’s works on paper as well as didactic texts and archival photographs of the Börneplatz synagogue in situ.176 This pedagogical exhibition was the first of its kind at the museum and was conceived of and curated by the Städel’s Head of Education at the time, Susanne Kujer.177 Although nominally commemorative, the exhibition aimed to “move into the viewer’s field of vision a variety of central themes in the analysis of the picture.”178 Iconography served as a foundational method of analysis with the lengthiest chapter in the exhibition catalogue devoted to deciphering the following signs in the painting’s “symbolic language” (Symbolsprache): cat, funnel, advertising column, cupola, cross, triangle/Star of David, moon, glass sphere, and balloon.179 Each sign here was translated with respect to the thing it denoted in the real world as well as its symbolic meaning within the painting, thus establishing the exhibition’s titular link between reality and symbol. For example, the black-and-white cat is identified as Titti (Ugi and Fridel Battenberg’s house cat) and characterized as a “mysterious idol, a sphinx – knowing and unmoved.”180 Kujer promised: “An interpretation is reached through Beckmann’s characteristic mode of representation and symbolic language with the help of the iconographic method.”181
But the exhibition offered students at a variety of levels, most of whom were born after the 1972 Aktion, something more than an interpretive exercise. Essential to the exhibition’s objective was the viewer’s sustained observation of the original work of art. The first impression was especially important, because “the representation of the painting’s motif does not comply with our viewing habits.”182 This immediate disconnect, one might say alienation, awakened in the viewer a critical awareness of a postmodern condition. By locating “the instructional content in the student’s horizon of experience,”183 Kujer gave the young viewer permission to integrate into her analysis of the painting her growing knowledge of art and, perhaps more importantly, visual culture. Kujer argued that The Synagogue activated “the broadening and differentiation of [the student’s] perception and knowledge” and “the development of an ability to think critically vis-à-vis the environment and the appearances of visual culture including art itself…”184 This heuristic method was, in a way, consistent with Beckmann’s rules of engagement. Referring to his Departure triptych in February 1938, he insisted that in order for viewers to arrive at an understanding of the painting, they must do so through “their own inner collaboration… (…) It can speak only to people who consciously or unconsciously carry within them the same metaphysical code.”185
In other words, viewers must be open to what the picture wants by trusting what they want from it in return. This rapport requires practice and awareness. It also assumes a reconciliation of the personal and universal, the individual and collective. And while Beckmann could not have anticipated his future viewer’s changing modes of experience and perception, his insistence on this sort of self-conscious dialogue between an individual viewer and an original work of art lends itself to some contemporary viewing practices.
In 2009 one of the Education pages on the Städel Museum’s website provided a visualization of how The Synagogue has continued to foster such a dialogue (Fig.14). The photograph showed five high school-aged students standing before the painting installed in the museum’s permanent collection galleries.
In the center middleground and seen from behind, a student vigorously gestures at the painting, her right hand a blur. She wears a black t-shirt with small white letters that spell out “Städel Museum,” signaling her role as student docent, while the others are shown variously engaged with the discussion. A young man on the left appears mid-sentence and a young woman on the far right listens attentively while two female viewers, also on the left, appear engaged in their own casual conversation. According to the text to the right of the photograph: “Students serve up Art” (Studenten servieren Kunst). In word and image, it constituted an advertisement for a program at the Städel entitled Studentenfutter. Literally “fodder for students,” Studentenfutteris slang for gorp or trail mix, but in this context implied that looking at and discussing art provides educational nourishment. Every third Thursday of the month students and young professionals were invited to engage in an informal dialogue about a specific artwork or theme in the museum’s collection moderated by a pair of art students: “pose any question, take contrary positions, learn something new, and initiate conversation.”186 The jocular informality of the photographed encounter with the painting, in tandem with the colloquial tone and expressions of the text, stands in marked contrast to the sobriety of earlier receptions of The Synagogue.
This approach, a sort of participatory history of art in step with recent trends in contemporary art, was one of several strategies that Chantal Eschenfelder as Head of Education at the Städel Musem devised to engage with the public, especially younger audiences. Following Kujer’s example, Eschenfelder foregrounded The Synagogue in these efforts. According to Eschenfelder, the painting’s historical dimensions played a role among many in the kinds of informal discussions visualized in the website photograph.187 From a pedagogical perspective, encounters with the painting were designed to be loose and open-ended insofar as the institution neither expected nor enforced an official interpretation.188 The student docents were encouraged to “activate the viewer’s own perception,” which often began with a description of The Synagogue’s “diagonal streets, distorted perspective, threatening atmosphere, as well as its palette.”189 These elements thus became facts in the mind of the viewer, facts that assumed a greater significance because they were self-generated and not imparted by an expert.190 In a way, this interpretive strategy puts the viewer in the position of asking herself what W.J.T. Mitchell proposes in one of the epigraphs to this essay, that is not only to ask what claim The Synagoguemakes upon her, but also what it is that she wants from the picture.191 In the case of The Synagogue, this can only assume the ontological necessity and historicity of the original artwork, for which there can be no substitute.
By way of conclusion, I would like to return here to Lenz’s exemplary essay on The Synagogue from 1973, to a particular passage toward the end of that text. He wrote:
As a result of observation, the particular meaning [of The Synagogue] cannot precede the process of its creation, but rather emerges first in that process. It is already apparent that the things in the picture cannot be verbalized through taught historical and art-historical references. In this way, then, the painting does not reflect private, political, or religious affairs. These affairs are not pictorial and cannot therefore be reflected. However the painting cannot simply be determined through itself. Instead, Max Beckmann created out of his experiences and with his imagination something that amounts to a new position.192
That Lenz made no mention of Beckmann’s critics, of Holzinger, of Hoffmann and the 1972 Aktion is arguably not surprising. These historical actors and what they required of The Synagoguewere ultimately anathema to his understanding of Beckmann and this intriguing but vague “new position” he attributed to the artist. Lenz maintained that anyone could have painted a picture of this Frankfurt synagogue that would have been “historically interesting” to, for example, historians of architecture or of Jewish history; but, he continued, it was Beckmann’s unique “mode of representation” that rendered such speculation moot.193
He seems to suggest that the painting’s “particular meaning” may only be earned in the process of observation that, in a sense, reproduces the painting’s creation. It amounts to a tantalizing transaction that is conditioned by a deep reverence for the artist and the formal qualities of The Synagogue itself.
My investment, however, in this reception history has been to claim for The Synagogue a radical authenticity that obviates the need for the sort of interpretive mastery that Lenz seems to endorse in his essay. By radical authenticity I mean, pace Benjamin, something more than an artwork from which a copy is technologically generated. Far from being compromised in the 1972 poster sale, the historical testimony contained within and encouraged by The Synagogue has supported new ritual functions that rest on the singularity of Beckmann’s painting in time and space as well as on its formal properties. Through its logical yet skewed perspective, its muted yet colorful palette, its harmonious yet dissonant composition, The Synagogue constantly renews itself in the social spaces it activates. This history began in the mind of the artist, who experienced Frankfurt and its diverse Jewish community anew in his revisioning of the Börneplatz. Through their poetic descriptions of The Synagogue that alluded to the contemporary trauma of post-WWI Frankfurt, Beckmann’s critics aired real social anxieties in the rarefied context of contemporary art criticism. After World War II, The Synagogue became important for what it signified, grim historical realities augured by its prescient forms and sensibility as acknowledged by an art critic and a museum director. But in the years following 1968, The Synagogue’s ritual and political potential became clear as city officials utilized the painting to stimulate public debate about the role of art in society and the relationship between art and its market. More recently, two museum educators have created forums permitting the painting’s formal attributes and historical textures to work on the viewer simultaneously. “The uniqueness of the work of art,” Walter Benjamin claimed, “is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition. Of course, this tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.”194 In mapping the social spaces activated by this strange picture over the past ninety years, I have identified viewers whose varied encounters with Beckmann’s painting yield larger insights about what it is we want from pictures. In the case of The Synagogue, I believe that desire comes close to grace. According to Lenz: “Artworks are witnesses to the artist’s conflict with the world.”195 The same might be said of the viewer.
My initial encounter with The Synagogue was in February 2001, when I embarked on my first study of the painting for a graduate seminar in art history. In the months prior to and following September 11 of that year, I kept a color reproduction of the painting taped to the wall of my home office in Brooklyn. During that period, my understanding of the picture deepened in ways I do not yet fully understand. In one way, this image of a city contracting in the wake of an un(fore)seen, but palpable trauma approximated my experience of a city that was at once familiar and unfamiliar, reassuring and discomfiting.