The Brilliant Utopian Artist Condemned by the Nazis

The art and life of Otto Freundlich

Christopher P Jones
5 min readSep 14, 2023

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Komposition (1941) by Otto Freundlich. Gouache on paper. 63.5 × 42.3 cm. Private collection. Image source Wikimedia Commons

When the Nazi Party opened its infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition (Entartete Kunst Ausstellung) in Munich in July 1937, its purpose was to lambast an entire generation of modern painters and sculptors.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels at the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich in 1938. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The exhibition included 650 artworks by more than a hundred artists, most of them German. It was an attempt by the party to erase the legacy of modern art from the annals of German high culture. To incite further disdain among the attendees, the gallery walls were adorned with aggressive slogans — “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul” and “Nature as seen by sick minds”.

Yet there was one artist whose work was made a special example of. On the front cover of the exhibition guide, a photo of Otto Freundlich’s sculpture “Der neue Mensch” (The New Man) appeared in a graphic close-up.

Exhibition guide to the Degenerate Art Exhibition with Otto Freundlich’s sculpture “Der Neue Mensch” on the cover. Image source Wikimedia Commons

It was a brilliantly modern, unflinching sculpture: an abstract head that strains with optimism and strength, yet also with the awkward naivety of a newly hatched chick. Since the war, it has never been seen and is assumed to have been destroyed.

The sculpture had been made by Freundlich in 1912. The oversized stone head was carved under the influence of Cubism and Picasso’s experiments with the human form. As an artist, Freundlich was an avid consumer of modern influences. Yet his Jewish heritage and socialist leanings marked him out as an ideal target for the Nazi dictatorship.

Hundreds of thousands of Germans would see the catalogue, which was published in Berlin in 1937 to accompany the exhibition when it toured multiple German cities until 1941. The carving was perhaps the perfect example of modern art’s challenge to conventional ideals of beauty — and therefore the most ruthlessly defamatory image to display in the exhibition catalogue.

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