Museum’s Future Clouded by Chance Discovery: Swastika Hiding in Plain Sight

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JESTEBURG, Germany — In 1911, the Swiss artist Johann Bossard came across an empty property in the grasslands near this small town south of Hamburg. Inspired by the location, he purchased the land and together with his wife, Jutta, spent decades building his life’s great project: three esoterically shaped art-covered buildings and a landscaped garden. Since 1997, the site has been a museum known as the Kunststätte Bossard, and an off-the-beaten-path destination for fans of expressionist art and architecture.

But in 2017, Alexandra Eicks, an employee on the site, made a discovery that threw the project in a more sinister light. Ms. Eicks was preparing for a children’s art class when she noticed a geometric shape on the studio’s mosaic floor that nobody at the museum had seen before: a swastika. Because the tiles had been installed after the Nazis’ rise to power, it raised the possibility that the Bossards held more troubling views than had previously been known.

Three years later, the mosaic is at the center of a pointed debate in this pastoral corner of northwestern Germany. Activists are demanding the swastika’s removal, but the museum says the whole site is a “Gesamtkunstwerk” — a total work of art — that should not be altered impulsively, and that the symbol should stay so it can be used to educate visitors about the country’s past.

It has also prompted a broader discussion about what should be done with art created by Nazi sympathizers, and about whether an artwork’s cultural value should ever override Germany’s ban on Third Reich symbols.

The Kuststätte Bossard includes a large building containing the couple’s home and studio, as well as an adjacent churchlike construction known as the “art temple” and a separate studio. The buildings’ exteriors include countless figurative and abstract reliefs, including animal faces and organic shapes, and their interiors display numerous large-scale murals and sculptures pillars that reference Nordic mythology.

Bossard died in 1950, and his wife lived on the property until the 1990s, when she died at age 93. After her death, the site was turned into a museum. In a phone interview, Kai Kappel, a professor of art history at Humboldt University in Berlin, described the site as an “Expressionist Gesamtkunstwerk of special international importance,” that blends elements of art and architecture movements of the early 20th century, including Heimatstil, an architecture style emphasizing the use of local elements, and the Traditionalist School.

After the swastika was discovered, the museum incorporated research on the mosaic into a continuing investigation into the Bossards’ activities during the Third Reich. It concluded that, although Johann Bossard initially expressed support for the Nazis in the hope of advancing his career, he never joined the National Socialist party. He became a member of an association for Nazi educators, but later withdrew from the group.

The investigation’s results were presented in 2018, in an exhibition on the site and a two-book compendium, “The Bossards During the Nazi Period,” which suggested that Bossard was primarily interested in the symbol for its ancient roots, not its association with Nazism. But a recent decision by federal lawmakers to grant the institution 5.4 million euros, or around $6.4 million, to build an extension set off a new dispute.

Amid a debate on whether local authorities should contribute funding to the project, Jörn Lütjohann, a politician in the district assembly, seized upon the museum’s research and accused the institution of not sufficiently publicizing the artist’s pro-Nazi views.

He pointed out in the assembly that one of the books the museum published included correspondence by Bossard in which the artist expressed the wish that “there was a Jew I could blame” for his own failure to get a monument commission from the Nazi regime; in another text, Bossard described the Third Reich as “the most important turn in our people’s history.”

The debate was taken up by the national media, with Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, publishing an article with the headline “Tax money for the swastika.”

Mr. Lütjohann said in a phone interview that he viewed the swastika as “the keystone for the whole artwork.” He called for the museum’s expansion plans to be called off and for the swastika to be removed from the building, not only because it is illegal to display the symbol in Germany, but also for fear that it might turn the museum into a site of pilgrimage for far-right extremists.

Ivar Buterfas-Frankenthal, 87, a Holocaust survivor who lives a 10-minute drive away, learned of the swastika’s presence in the museum in June, and contacted the public prosecutors’ office, alerting them that a banned symbol was on display. The authorities asked the museum to cover the mosaic, and employees there have since placed a carpet over it.

In an interview in his home, Mr. Buterfas-Frankenthal said that he lost 17 family members to the regime represented by that symbol, and that he would not be satisfied until the swastika was removed or covered permanently. “For all I care, they can put depictions of sunflowers over it, or lobsters,” he said, adding that he was not a fan of Bossard’s art, regardless. “It’s all bad, anyway. Sorry, I need to say that.”

In an interview, Heike Duisberg-Schleier, the museum’s commercial director, explained that Bossard’s views were clearly problematic, but that many artists active during the Nazi period had questionable positions. “At a certain time, Bossard sympathized with Nazism, he wanted to gain advantages from it, but when that hope didn’t fulfill itself, he turned back to his art.”

She argued that the public debate around the museum had become oversimplified and added that the museum had not hidden anything, but rather been responsible for uncovering the quotes in the first place. She also explained that, as far as museum employees know, the site had never been visited by neo-Nazis.

“I don’t think they are our target demographic,” she said.

The museum is now commissioning an independent study into Bossard’s relationship with Nazism, with the extension plans frozen until the study’s completion. But Ms. Duisberg-Schleier was adamant that the swastika should not be hastily removed. “We have a teaching and communication mandate to deal with such a symbol, and put it in context and explain it critically,” she said, adding that the entire site is under historical protection, meaning that any alterations to the building would require the approval of the state heritage authority.

But she added that it might be time to shift the museum’s emphasis to focus more broadly on the role of artists during the Nazi period. “Nobody is asking the question of how you deal with artists who have questionable views, but are still being recognized for their art,” she said. “I think here we have an opportunity.”

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