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Inventur At Harvard: Taking Stock Of German Art

Hermann Glöckner, "Spatial Refraction of a Rectangle | Räumliche Brechung eines Rechtecks," 1945–46, copper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch Reisinger Museum, Promised gift of Kathrin Presser-Velder and Markus Michalke, Munich, in honor of Gisela Michalke © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photograph © Johannes von Mallinckrodt.


by James Foritano

Our quintessential American humorist Samuel Clemens — better known under his pen name, Mark Twain — upon hearing that his obituary had appeared in a prominent newspaper, is reported to have announced from his own public podium: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” It was equally assumed that when the Second World War came to an end, of sorts, in the year 1945, with 55 million people killed, a goodly portion in infamous extermination camps, that the fragile bloom of German art had also died with them.

The thesis of “Inventur — Art in Germany, 1943-55,” an exhibition currently at the Harvard Art Museums’ special exhibition rooms on the third floor, is that this assessment is also an exaggeration, of sorts.

The title “Inventur” comes from the title of a sonnet written by a former German soldier, Günter Eich, while he was living out the war in an American POW camp. It’s basically a list or inventory of his meager possessions: “my cap, my overcoat, my tumbler, my tin plate, etc.,” but one stanza mentions an intriguing possession and practice: “The pencil’s the thing I love the most: By day it writes verses I think up at night.”

Those “verses” sent curator Lynette Roth off on a five-year-long hunt in modern-day Germany to discover whether any sparks of creation literature between 1943 and 1955, albeit in the darkness of what small privacies at the time passed for studios, could yet be unearthed, assembled and exhibited as “art.”

There were no places or groups that advertised themselves in the Third Reich as “hot-beds of artistic creation,” since to be personal and original was a crime, so one had to choose an unlikely place — the unlikelier the better.

The Dr. Kurt Herberts and Co. lacquer factory in Wuppertal seemed an ideal venue in which to test the properties of lacquers and new synthetic paints. Herberts himself was indulgent. And if an occasional bomb blew in the windows of his factory, neither it, nor its experiments, were a target. “Lacquer…? Come on!”

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