Otto Freundlich: between the cracks

Otto Freundlich (1878-1943, 64).

Between the cracks: pioneering German Modernist painter/sculptor, but now overlooked, eg, mystifyingly, by MOMA’s big 2013/14 “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition.



Otto Freundlich is an odd fish, an apparently awkward outsider, of Jewish extraction, born and raised in Germany but whose career and life became enmeshed with France, who left a handful of front rank pioneering Modernist works, but who as a Jew was betrayed by French collaborators and gassed by the Nazis in 1943.

His overall oeuvre was narrow, succumbing to relentless geometric abstraction, his art motivated by a vague didactic utopian sensibility, but his few signature works, especially the large 1911 abstract painting, are memorable.

Curiously he is now largely forgotten, overlooked in conventional histories, to the extent that – strikingly – he was completely ignored by the MOMA’s comprehensive 2013/2014 exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925”. Not one mention.

But by any reckoning his iconic large (2 x 2m) 1911 oil painting, Composition (now hanging at Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris) is an historically pioneering abstract work, given its date (alongside Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia and Delaunay), its size, and its distinctive abstraction motif. Also it was painted in the then heart of contemporary art, in Paris, alongside now famous other relevant artists.

Three factors have worked against his ex-post recognition?

First, his pioneering contribution was restricted to a handful of works (the 1911 painting and some sculptures). Then for some reason, beyond WW1, for over 20 years his painting retreated to variations on “mosaical” coloured geometric abstraction.

Second, though he was widely connected in the art world, in Germany and Paris, and keenly pursued his art, thought and wrote about art, he largely worked alone, operated mainly on the edge of the wider art community, did not engage readily. Thus he also generally struggled financially. However he was acknowledged by many well known artists, particularly later in France, like at the June 1938 Paris exhibtion.

Third, a significant portion of his output was lost, destroyed by the Nazis, some through bombing of Germany in WW2. Also, in Paris a large museum owned triptych was lost during WW2.

Sadly during WW2 he was gassed by the Nazis. After a difficult war in France as a Jew, undergoing periodic internment, in early 1943 he was denounced by collaborators, arrested and railed by complicit French authorities to a Nazi death camp in Poland, dying the day he arrived, 9 March 1943.


Abstraction was the heart of Freundlich’s art. But his painting oeuvre is oddly narrow.

In 1911 (age 33) he executed his striking large two metre square abstract Composition. He apparently thought about this work, basing it on “the curve”:Freundlich took the view that “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.” The painting embodies a new “cosmic ethic”(Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris).

 Thereafter all his paintings were variations on colourful “mosaical”, patchwork geometric abstraction and generally small, none of them as large as the singular 1911 work.

Freundlich worked in various other media, especially sculpture (but only a handful of works), also mosaics, stained glass and carpets.

And he wrote a lot, publishing in various journals.

Coming from an actively Leftist political mindset, and actively engaged with many relevant contemporary art groups, Abtsraction-Creation, Freundlich intended his art to have constructive socio-political meaning and purpose and therefore no particular aesthetic relevance. But though he was well connected with the Left the purpose of his art for him – ie the ubiquitous abstraction – was not overtly political (as it was say for artists like Dix and Grosz ) but rather socio-spiritual, centred on promoting a quasi-religious future-oriented utopian communism, freed of “possessiveness” and people being “objects’.

Thus he was keen on Spinoza, was religious but not conventionally. “Religion has nothing at all to do with God. A man may be religious without believing in God .” He seems to have been influenced too by German mysticism, by Swedenborg.


He was born in then Prussia (in Stolp, today Slupsk in Poland, on the Baltic Coast of Eastern Pomerania), moved to Berlin, initially studied dentistry (!), then art. June-August 1905 he walked over the Alps to Florence, stayed till November, back to Munich January 1906, thence back to Florence October 1906 to January 1907.

He returned to Berlin, thence to Paris in 1908 (what a time), to Montmartre, to the famous artists’ boarding house there,, Bateau Lavoir, meeting Picasso, Braque, Gris, Derain and Apollinaire etc.

July 1908 he returned to Munich, but was back to Paris 1909, to Montparnasse (settling there March 1913) and Montmartre (where the Clovis Sagot gallery organised a show).

1909 he attended an artist colony in Fleury-en-Bière in the forest of Fontainebleau, but returned Berlin January 1910, joined the Berlin Secession, returning Paris in autumn 1910.

In Berlin 1911 with the Neue Sezession group he met Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (founder of Die Brücke) and also the historian Wilhelm Niemeyer, the Hamburg art historian Rosa Schapire, and collector Josef Feinhals from Cologne.

1911 back in Paris he now met with sculptor Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, and Modigliani. November, he began work on his famous sculpture Der neue Mensch, acquired 1912 by Musee de Hambourg..   

1913 he participated in the famous Berlin exhibition of Der Sturm.

1914 he worked at Chartres Cathedral, helping to restore the north tower “For five months I was prisoner of the world at Chartres and I have emerged marked for ever…”.

War in 1914 forced a return to Germany. He became political after WW1, a member of the Left wing /socialist November Group (Novembergruppe) along with Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch etc).

During WW1 he worked in the health service but stayed active in art with friends like Raoul Hausmann (also in the anarchist artists group Kommune ), Hannah Höch and those in the Dadaist circles of Berlin.

November 1919 he organised a Dada show in Koln, with Max Ernst.

He gained patrons during the war, like Cologne businessman Joseph Feinhals whose collection was alas destroyed in WW2.

1922 showed with Artistes Progressistes de Düsseldorf.

1925 he returned to Paris, reacquainted with Picasso, Braque, Derain and Max Jacob. There he showed regularly at the Salon des Indépendants.

May 1928, he began his monumental sculpture, Ascension, finished in the summer of 1929 and showed at the Abstrakte Kunst und Surrealismus exhibition in Zurich.

1930 he joined the “Cercle et Carré” (Circle and Square) abstraction group in Paris, founded 1929 and which mounted a big exhibition April 1930 at Galerie 23. He then joined Abtsraction-Creation (eg with with Ben Nicholson, Alexander Calder, Albert Gleizes, Herbin, Moholy-Nagy, Wolfgang Paalen, Alfred Reth, and Kurt Seligmann), which absorbed Cercle et Carré.

These groups consciously differentiated from Surrealism and the post WW1 return to representational art, like Classicism.

1934 he participated in the Salon des Independants in Paris, began seeking French nationality with support including Georges Braque, but was unable to raise enough money and was denied.

The Nazis came to power January 1933 in Germany, later condemned his work which was included in the 1937“ Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) show.

In Paris he joined Union of Artistes Allemands (Union of German Artists, or Freier Künstlerbund, founded autumn 1937, with Max Ernst, Hans Hartung etc

In June 1938 Gallery owner Jeanne Bucher-Myrbor organized an important exhibition of his work just before his 60th birthday. Over 20 friends and artist colleagues (including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Andre Derain , R. and S. Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Walter Gropius, Fernand Léger, Max Jacob, W. Kandinsky, J. Lipchitz, P. Picasso, S. Tauber-Arp, and Max Ernst) signed an appeal to the French government to purchase two works for the National Museum of Modern Art in order to support the destitute artist.

Until 1939 he worked in a ground-floor studio in a backyard of No. 38 Rue Denfert Rochereau (now Rue Barbusse), near the Luxembourg Gardens.

September 1939 as a German national he was interned in France, with fellow Germans, Max Ernst, Wols, and Springer. Numerous artists signed an appeal of support, including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Andre Derain , R. and S. Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Walter Gropius, Fernand Léger, Max Jacob, W. Kandinsky, J. Lipchitz, P. Picasso, S. Tauber-Arp, and Max Ernst.

Between September 1939 and March 1942 he was detained in about 9 establishmnts.

On release in February 1940 he declined advice to emigrate to Switzerland and was detained again mid May 1940, released 20 June. Now he took refuge in the eastern Pyrenees at Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet. But foolishly attracted attention by protesting at having to register as a Jew. In 1942 he was hidden by a farm family in Saint-Martin-de-Fenouillet. He was betrayed and arrested on 23 February 1943. Railed via Drancy in Paris to Majdanek (Poland) on 4 March, he was murdered the day he arrived, 9th March 1943.

2017 Otto Freundlich: Cosmic Communism”, exhibition, February 18 – Mai 14, 2017; Mu­se­um Lud­wig, Cologne

Selected works………..


1911. Composition 200 x 200cm, Musée d’Art Moderne (MAM) de la Ville de Paris.

COMMENT: This is a pioneering abstract image, using an unusual abstract style, by the artist’s own words based on the “curve”, “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.”).

It was completed in the early days of the emergence of abstraction, alongside the now famous names like Mondrian and Kandinsky, and other pioneers like Delaunay and Kupka and Picabia, but executed by an artist very few know.

The abstraction patterning could be construed as organic or even mineralogical.

MAM (Paris): This early abstract painting by Otto Freundlich (1978-1943), painted in Paris in 1911…. contemporary with the paintings that established abstraction by Kandinsky, Kupka and Delaunay. Composition (1911), which is a perfect square, is a pivotal, large-scale work, typical of the passage from expressionism to the early phase of abstraction. In this painting… observation of nature is the point of departure for new “representations”. Freundlich took the view that “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.”.


1912 ‘Large Head’ / Großer Kopf (labelled The New Man / Der Neue Mensch by the Nazis), plaster, 1.39m high.

COMMENT: Owing to its provenance this became Freundlich’s most famous work. Thus it was included in the Nazis infamous 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition and publicised by being featured on the cover of the catalogue.


1923, Head (Self Portrait)


1930, Composition, oil on canvas, Musées de Pontoise


1931, Composition, oil on canvas, Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal,


1933, Mein roter Himmel (My Red Heaven),


  1. 1941. Rosette II (La Rosace II), gouache on cardboard.



The GREAT EUROPEAN REFUGEE DEBATE – DON’T GIVE UP! HISTORIC OPPORTUNITY? (Update 2): Cologne and beyond – get the facts and face them!

ad16-01 14 malevich 1916 Suprematist composition

Kazimir Malevich 1916 Suprematist composition (blue rectangle over purple beam) 88 x 70.5cm, private collection




(Update 2)

Cologne and beyond – get the facts and face them!


Michael Bradley in the ABC’s The Drum (Thursday 13th January 2016, link appended below) makes a very good point re the New Year’s Eve Cologne crowd sexual assaults.

Mainstream media and commentators seem embarrassed by the apparent facts, reluctant to say much beyond reporting the apparent facts:

·         The culprits appear to be mainly of North African / MidEast background.

·         The culprits also appear to be mainly drawn from the recent (2015) influx of refugees arriving via Greece.

·         The assaults were not random and appear to have been at least partly co-ordinated via social media.

Opinion from the Right and Far Right on the other hand has been quick to pounce, to use the apparent serious criminal behavior to justify their strident opposition to migration to Europe by Muslim refugees.

It’s always essential to get the facts, face them, and act appropriately.

Yes the facts, if verified, are serious, and a problem.

BUT the facts here do not necessarily appear to threaten, jeopardise the long term opportunity for Germany / Europe/ the World from refugee, unless they are allowed to.

The apparent constructive news in Germany is that crime rates by the existing resident Muslim population in Germany, ie excluding the recent big influx, are not much different, or worse, than for other relevant population segments.

So any crimes committed by people among the recent Muslim refugee influx is a separate problem, and to be dealt with.

This means police action to identify, charge and prosecute offenders.

And it means actively working with refugee representatives to discourage any further similar offences. This means dealing with, confronting, the alleged matter of sexist attitudes by MidEast men, including evidence of these regressive attitudes in collective behavior in crowd situations.

So the big challenge for the German Federal Government, and all relevant Government authorities, and for all the relevant Muslim organisations in Germany, is to work constructively so as NOT to allow Cologne to de-rail grasping the longer term collective opportunity.

The EUROPEAN REFUGEE DEBATE (UPDATE): Looks bad after Cologne? But don’t give up. There’s historic opportunity here?


Maybe there’s another narrative? (continued)


 FEATURED IMAGE: Kazimir Malevich 1916 Suprematist composition (blue rectangle over purple beam) 88 x 70.5cm, private collection

SUPPORTING IMAGES: Peter Blume. The Rock, 1944–1948, oil on canvas, 146.4 x 188.9 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago; Edgar Degas, 1890, Russet landscape, pastel over monotype, 30 x 40 cm, private; Fernand Léger, 1913 Contrast of Forms (Contraste de formes), oil on burlap, 98.8 x 125 cm, Guggenheim Museum, New York; Fernand Léger, 1948-49 Leisure (Homage to Jacques-Louis David), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.



Easy to get downhearted? As Roy Orbison sang once.

And easy to lose Perspective, sight of the Opportunity.

Yes NYE Cologne was ugly. Not near as bad as Bataclan et al, but ugly, given also it follows so soon after the recent refugee influx, and that this influx has apparently contributed culprits.

One clear problem is the cohort apparently responsible, Delinquent Foreign Young Men, ie recently arrived socially challenged young men, bringing a moronic anti-social mindset from wherever. This group is very different say to Young Families. And largely different to most young Muslim men already living in Germany?

But it’s early days



We need to keep perspective, an eye on pathbreaking historic opportunity.

Europe has an inherent, systemic demographic problem. Ageing population structures.

And Islam has a major problem, shaking off the Islamist fanatics feeding off the wholesale violent disruption in the MidEast.

Successfully integratng 1-2 million more Muslims with plus 80 million Germans is a major opportunity for both sides, and for greater Europe and world beyond.

Germany gains a shot of enterprising youth.

And the mainstream Muslims gain a meaningful measure of Peace and Prosperity, and a defusing of the fanatics.

So IF it works it sends a huge signal to all Muslims everywhere, and the world.

But “working” means acceptance by the refugees of the liberal, pluralistic Western model, including respect of the rule of law, and the separation of religion and State.

But yes it will not be easy, yes there are major transitional issues – like New Year’s Eve Cologne, like the risk IS will infiltrate the influx, like language, like “behavioural culture”, like gaining job skills -, so yes it needs careful management and resources, by all sides concerned, and over some years, not months.

And this especially means moderate Muslims in Germany (at levels, private citizen to all relevant collective organisations) and Europe working to achieve workable integration. Events in the MidEast have allowed the fanatics to hijack their religion. So they have a vital interest in working with all relevant authorities to make integrating the refugee influx work.



There is an excellent comment on the German reaction to New Year’s Eve Cologne by Anna Sauerbrey (An editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer), see Germany’s Post-Cologne Hysteria, Anna Sauerbrey, New York Times, JAN. 8, 2016. In particular she notes the Left and Right factions in Germany have been quick to pass judgement, before all the facts are in.

She summarises the challenge of integration: “Integration will fail if Germany cannot resolve the tension between its secular, liberal laws and culture and the patriarchal and religiously conservative worldviews that some refugees bring with them.”.

And asks is Germany going about it the right way:”The real question we should be asking is not whether there is something inherently wrong with the refugees, but whether Germany is doing an effective job of integrating them — and if not, whether something can be done to change that.”



The prize is historic rapprochement between the West and moderate mainstream Islam.

So perhaps here there is a trap for the Islamic fanatics, the violent radical dreamers of a new Caliphate? Such dreams for Europe and beyond can backfire because the wealthier and freer regions like Europe will have strong meaningful appeal to many Muslim refugees, not just for food and shelter, and for economic opportunity, but importantly too for the much freer religious and political atmosphere offered, especially longer term, especially for the now young children when they grow up



The big risk is that as after WW1 the moderates (Western and Muslim) lose out to the extremists on both sides, the Islamists and the “fascist” Far Right.

Thus for the dangers here read Robert O. Paxton (Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University) recently: January 7th, 2016 on Project Syndicate, “Is Fascism Back?” Who knows one or two things about Fascism in France and Europe in the 20th C.



1/ End of the day most average people from whatever religious or political context do not favour terroristic violence of whatever stripe as part of their daily fare. They mostly prefer a quieter life, focussed on family and work, as well as whatever religious activity fits.


2/ There is clear evidence (especially in the West) that rising education and affluence undermines religious zeal, and even detaches many from meaningful regular religious observance, though the pattern varies.


3/ Whether we like it or not, the results of the recent “bbots on the ground” Western military intervention in the MidEast and nearby (Iraq 2003, Libya 2011) have been disastrous.

Yes a couple of dictators were removed but at an unimaginable and ongoing cost. It has unleashed a torrent of violence:

a/ it wrecked existing national power structures, however unpalatable these were to the Western democratic model,

b/ it exposed the underlying profound Shia-Sunni sectarian fissure, now exploited by extremists on all sides, and which fissure importantly has national characteristics as well as religious, which thus now sees Iran and the Saudis squaring off, and each supported by / overseeing various proxy extremist sub-groups, IS, Hezbollah etc.

c/ it has directly promoted the rise of Islamist extremist violence in the MidEast and in the West, committed intranecinely among themselves, and committed by both sides against the West.

4/ Thus widespread current violent fanaticism is not inherent in Islam, and rather relates directly to the complex total MidEast situation, especially including the West’s long term episodic interaction with the region, which has allowed violent fanaticism to take root and spread.


LESSONS FROM HISTORY: A case study. Ancient Rome

There is relevant insight here in Mary Beard’s new history of old Rome (“SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”, Profile, 606 pp).

Ancient Rome’s singularly disproportionate impact on affairs then remains never far from attention today.

But Rome’s major achievement, and the reason it was so successful in expanding, was not military proficiency or aqueducts but ideas, in particular its “inclusiveness”.

Rome grew not just by conquest but by then consolidating, but bargaining constructively with the losers: you join the team and work for us (as soldiers and farmers) then you share in the growing pie, ultimately as “citizens”. As Tacitus wrote in Agricola: the Romans, ‘they make a desolation and call it peace’.

This radical notion, applying even to many slaves, was missed by the clever Greeks.


In probing the future there is a temptation to project trends, as if they are immutable. As if there will be no countervailing response.

And also to misread lessons from history.

Also there are big surprises, negative and positive.

Happy surprises like: 1/ the post WW2 outcome for West Europe?! 2/ The fall of the Wall. 3/ the outcome of the Balkans War in the 1990s! This success, after appalling bloodshed, was cited by some in supporting the 2003 Iraq War. But the underling reality was far different to the MidEast.

Unhappy surprises like: 1/ outcome of the 2003 Iraq War, and countless other wars.