Otto Freundlich, enemy of the Nazis

Artist, Jew, Communist: Exhibition in Cologne: Otto Freundlich, Enemy Image of the Nazis. The Nazis had also declared war on modern art. The history of the painter and sculptor Otto Freundlich shows how successful they were at times. Not only he himself was destroyed, but also a large part of his art.


The NS sensors were granted a particularly perfidious triumph: Freundlich’s best-known work to this day is the sculpture of a head – for the simple reason that it was emblazoned on the cover of the exhibition guide to the Nazi show “Degenerate Art”.

After a long time there is now another attempt to snatch Freundlich from oblivion: The Museum Ludwig in Cologne presents his work in one of the most important exhibitions of this year (February 18 to May 14).

There are three good reasons why you should watch this show. First of all, there are simply beautiful pictures to be seen.

The radiance of these abstract works – a total of 80 exhibits – has a clear source of inspiration: as a young man Freundlich took part in restoration work in the cathedral of Chartres with its famous glass windows – nowhere is there a more beautiful blue than here. The rush of colour influenced his whole life. Freundlich created paintings, mosaics, tapestries, glass windows and sculptures.

You can enjoy the exhibition without knowing anything about Freundlich

The exhibition also opens up Freundlich’s world of ideas to visitors, and that is its second big plus. Freundlich (1878-1943) saw himself as a political artist.

But unlike Otto Dix, George Grosz, or K├Ąthe Kollwitz, you don’t see it immediately because his art is abstract. He coined the term “Cosmic Communism” for it. Freundlich tried to combine his Chartres experience with his political convictions: Everything is fluid, everything is interconnected, there are no hierarchies.

The third reason for the visit is the biography of Otto Freundlich, a Jew, communist and modern artist who was the perfect enemy of the Nazis. In the 1930s they confiscated 14 of his works, among others for the travelling exhibition “Degenerate Art”. They depicted the 1.40 metre high monumental sculpture “Big Head” – based on the stone statues of Easter Island – on the front of the accompanying booklet. They also gave the sculpture the invented title “The New Man”.

  • During research for the exhibition, a young trainee at Museum Ludwig discovered that the Nazis eventually replaced the sculpture with a clumsy replica, perhaps because the original had broken down.
  • In any case, it disappeared.
  • The replica was very different from the original, perhaps the head was to be given a supposedly “African” appearance in order to correspond even more to the racist ideas of the Nazis.

France since 1924

Freundlich, who had lived in France since 1924, realized after the German invasion that not only himself but also his art was in great danger. On a few pages he left behind a list of key works sketched with a quick stroke, some of which, as he knew, no longer existed. It is a moving Holocaust document. Also to be seen in the exhibition: Colors and palettes of the artist, which were discovered decades later in his tiny hiding place in a Pyrenean village. Betrayed by a neighbor, he was deported to the Sobibor camp in 1943 and murdered; his exact date of death is unknown.