A picture that I bought last week in my local auction room features a portrait of a 71-year-old Jewish gentleman, balding, with a grizzled grey beard and oval wire-rimmed glasses. Please note that any possible resemblance between him and this blogger is entirely coincidental. Anyway, I’m only 70 years old.
What originally attracted me to the picture was not so much the subject but the artist. But now I find that I like the picture too.
It’s an engraving, number 17 of an edition of 50, signed in pencil by the artist and dated 1921. The sitter is Professor Eugen Goldstein, born in 1850, which made him 71 years of age when the portrait was made. Here’s what Wikipedia says about him:
“Eugen Goldstein (5 September 1850 – 25 December 1930) was a German physicist. He was an early investigator of discharge tubes, the discoverer of anode rays, and is sometimes credited with the discovery of the proton.
“Goldstein was born in 1850 at Gleiwitz Upper Silesia, now known as Gliwice, Poland, to a Jewish family. He studied at Breslau and later, under Helmholtz, in Berlin. Goldstein worked at the Berlin Observatory from 1878 to 1890, but spent most of his career at the Potsdam Observatory, where he became head of the astrophysical section in 1927. He died in 1930 and was buried in the Weißensee Cemetery in Berlin.”
If your opinion is that due to millennia of persecution and antisemitism, Jews are routinely deprived of receiving credit for doing anything useful or good, then you might automatically suspect that history has been unfair in crediting the discovery of the proton not to Eugen Goldstein but to Ernest Rutherford, an Anglican. To form my own view on this issue, I tried reading up on protons but rapidly found that any comparison between me and Professor Goldstein doesn’t extend to an understanding of physics. On balance my impression is that Rutherford would probably win the contest after a penalty shoot-out.
A wholly opposite opinion to that described in the last paragraph was held by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. They believed that Jews were generally responsible for the woes and evils of the world, and particularly for those of Germany. One of their special bugbears was modern art, which they thought was “a swindle – a dangerous lie perpetuated by Jews, communists, and even the insane to contaminate the body of German society”. It follows that they objected violently not only to the existence of Professor Goldstein, but also to that of my picture and of its artist. And they would have objected violently to my existence, too.
The artist who drew the Goldstein portrait was Ludwig Meidner, a German Expressionist painter and printmaker, a Jew born in Bernstadt, Silesia (today Bierutów, Poland) in 1884. I hadn’t heard of Meidner until the picture caught my eye, and wasn’t sure about the term “Expressionism” either. So I resorted (again) to Wikipedia. Expressionism was:
“a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists have sought to express the meaning of emotional experience rather than physical reality.
“Expressionism developed as an avant-garde style before the First World War. It remained popular during the Weimar Republic, particularly in Berlin. The style extended to a wide range of the arts, including expressionist architecture, painting, literature, theatre, dance, film and music.
“The term is sometimes suggestive of angst.”
Looking at Meidner’s portrait of Professor Goldstein in the light of the above definition, it seems at first quite straightforward to get what Expressionism is all about. No-one would call it a pretty picture. It’s a wrinkles-and-all depiction of an old bloke who doesn’t look all that happy. Is that Expressionism?
But if you think about it, lots of artists throughout history have drawn glum-looking old geezers, so does that make them all Expressionists? I don’t think so. Rembrandt made innumerable drawings and engravings of old men, as in the example on the right, but I’m not sure that if you were an art historian you would count Rembrandt amongst the Expressionists.
It seems from this that I’m no better at understanding about Expressionism than I am about protons – but it is unarguable that there was a group of early 20th century German artists and their followers who were called (and called themselves) the Expressionists. Meidner is usually categorised as having been among them, at least in the earlier part of his career.
Here are some facts about Meidner’s life, mostly filleted from Sotheby’s website and from a publication by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
He started out as an apprentice to a stonemason, but in 1903 left for Breslau (now Wroclaw) to study at the Royal School of Art. Two years later he relocated to Berlin, getting work as a draftsman and fashion illustrator. In 1906 –’07 he was in Paris, where he met and befriended fellow artist Amedeo Modigliani. Returning to Berlin in 1907, Meidner lived as an archetypal starving artist until 1911 when he came to the notice of the established artist Max Beckmann, who gave him some financial support.
“It was at this point that Meidner’s signature style truly flourished; although not associated with a specific group, he produced portraits and landscapes in an Expressionist manner, with many of his landscapes later being categorized as “apocalyptic” due to their catastrophic, chaotic tone and subjects of devastation. These uncanny compositions have been interpreted through both Meidner’s interest in biblical prophecies, as well as through the deteriorating political and social climate of Germany in the years preceding World War I.”
In 1916, Meidner was drafted into the German Army, where he served as an interpreter, and in 1918 he had his first solo exhibition in Berlin. In the post-war years, he taught at the Atelier for Painting and Sculpture, and his style became more realistic and naturalistic. He produced large numbers of etchings, including portraits of men of letters and other celebs, and lots of self-portraits. During this period, he became a socialist activist and a prolific writer of political manifestos, journalism, essays and “lyrical expressionistic prose”.
After Hitler came to power, Meidner understandably felt vulnerable as a high-profile Jewish socialist Expressionist artist. Any one of the foregoing adjectives would have been enough to get him into serious disfavour with the Nazi authorities, and the combination was potentially deadly. He moved to Cologne in 1935, and then in 1939, with the help of the British artist Augustus John, he fled with his family to England. He was interned on the Isle of Man until 1941, and then took menial jobs to support himself and his family and his art in London. In 1951 he moved back to Germany, and in the following years gained recognition and status. He died in Darmstadt in 1966.
From a historical perspective, what has given Meidner’s current reputation perhaps its greatest boost was the inclusion of a number of his pictures in the notorious Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition mounted by the Nazis in Munich in 1937. The exhibition comprised pictures and sculptures seized from German galleries, and was designed to display, deride and ridicule modern Expressionist and abstract art, which embodied the opposite of the Nazi ideals of purity and racial perfection, and thus demonstrated the degeneracy of its Jewish and/or communist creators.
“The Degenerate Art Exhibition included works by some of the great international names – Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky – along with famous German artists of the time such Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde and Georg Grosz.
“The exhibition handbook explained that the aim of the show was to ‘reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them’.
“… The exhibition was laid out with the deliberate intention of encouraging a negative reaction. The pictures were hung askew, there was graffiti on the walls, which insulted the art and the artists, and made claims that made this art seem outlandish, ridiculous.”
Ironically, for an exhibition which invited visitors to be appalled and horrified at the art on display, the show turned out to be a great success. You can see some newsreel film of the crowds here (starts from 9 minutes 22 seconds). More than a million visitors flocked in to get a chance to see some real art, many of them finding that it provided a more satisfying alternative to Nazi art displayed elsewhere, comprising idealised, kitsch, Aryan images of perfect blonde nudes and soldiers, and all produced by artists approved by the Reich.
The principal objective of the organisers of the exhibition was to show that degenerate art was produced by Jews and Bolsheviks as part of their vile plot against the German people. But in fact, only six of the 112 artists whose work was included were actually Jewish. Meidner was one of the six.
His etching of Professor Goldstein wasn’t included in the Degenerate Art exhibition, and as far as I can ascertain it wasn’t among the 16,000 works of art confiscated from galleries throughout Germany. Some of these were sold at auction in Switzerland (showing that the Nazis weren’t unaware that this art, however degenerate, still had potential to generate income); some were passed to dealers for private sale; and many were burnt.
Thousands – perhaps millions – of other artworks were stolen and looted from Jews and other persecuted private owners during the period of Hitler’s rule. Which is why, for surviving pictures by German expressionists, including Ludwig Meidner, provenance matters.
If you have read my book Random Treasure (and if you haven’t, I urge you to do so without delay; copies can be purchased here) you are aware of my views about provenance, which are set out in detail in Chapter 2. I argue that despite what might be said in countless daytime and peak-time TV programmes about antiques, the question of provenance isn’t of the least importance for the vast majority of antique objects bought and sold in the market.
However, a major exception to this generality is where an artwork is by an artist such as Meidner, much of whose output was subject to confiscation, theft or destruction. In these circumstances, it’s important to ask
- how and why any remaining examples of the artist’s pre-1939 works have survived, and
- whether there is any case for them to be properly restituted to former owners (or their descendants).
In other words, before I can in good conscience hang my new picture on my wall or sell it on, I need to be satisfied that I have full right and title to it. Fortunately there are online databases listing lost and looted works of art, and I have had a quick look through them just in case anyone has laid claim to number 17 in the edition of 50 copies of the 1921 portrait of Professor Eugen Goldstein by Ludwig Meidner.
So far I haven’t found my picture (or any other copy from the same edition) on any list, which is reassuring. But on the other hand, I don’t have any idea where the picture was or to whom it belonged between 1921 when it was engraved and printed, and 6th October 2015, when it appeared as Lot 9 in an auction sale run by Chiswick Auctions, London, where it was estimated at £300-£400 but was unsold. And then I don’t know what happened to it until it re-appeared at my local auction in Edinburgh on 5th January 2019 and was knocked down to me for £80.
While I’m assuming that I own this picture, part of the reason why I’m writing this blog is to state in public that if any person or institution has a better claim to ownership than I have, then it will give me the greatest pleasure to hand it back to you. Granted that it’s easy for me to say this because I got the picture cheap and it wouldn’t do me much financial damage to lose it. It’s easy to be generous and magnanimous when:
- there’s a vanishingly small possibility that anyone might come forward with a claim; and
- it wouldn’t cost me much even if someone did come forward.
But would I be so open-handed if, for example, it was the Elgin Marbles?
The fact that I bought the portrait of Professor Goldstein for a mere £80 doesn’t mean that Meidner’s works are without value. In Britain he is not a household name, but make no mistake, he’s an important artist. One of his big apocalyptic oil paintings sold at Sotheby’s New York recently for more than $14 million. His work can be found in many major collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and LACMA. And his archive and a large collection of his drawings, etchings and paintings are headline items in the Frankfurt Jewish Museum.
I have been trying to track down some of the other 49 copies which Meidner made of his portrait of Professor Goldstein edition, but have so far only been able to trace number 4, which is in the collection at LACMA. Just 48 more to find – unless of course, they were all lost or destroyed during the War, in which case my picture is very much rarer than it would otherwise be.
Does that mean it’s worth a fortune? I rather doubt it. It’s difficult to find auction prices for comparable works by Meidner, but I’m fairly confident that by using an appropriate auction house I could re-sell my picture for a reasonable multiple of the sum that I paid for it. However, it’s more likely that the price would be expressed in hundreds of pounds than in thousands or millions.
Anyway, in the short time I have owned it, and partly thanks to having worked quite hard on the research needed for this piece, I have become rather attached to my Meidner. I think it will be a keeper. Hitler says it’s degenerate, and that’s a good enough recommendation for me to hang it proudly on my wall.
 Degenerate Art: The fate of the avant-garde in Nazi Germany, ed. Stephanie Barron, LACMA, Harry N Abrams, New York, 1991. Available online at https://archive.org/stream/degenerateartfa00barr/degenerateartfa00barr#mode/2up, pp 298-300
 Sotheby’s, op. cit.
 LACMA, op. cit.
3 thoughts on “Degenerate”
Another fascinating read about an interesting piece with a mysterious history. Please keep buying things and writing about them!!!!
Thank you dsembrebon. Glad you like the blog. I certainly will keep buying things. Can’t stop myself!