Looking again – and again

19 Jan 2022

Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Shanghai: A project in art history shows that the modern art movement was a global phenomenon, and features virtual rambles in the cities where exiled artists found new inspiration.

New York Skyline

© picture alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library | Paul Brown

“The clouds took on the shapes of the hills of home/ on that summer evening in the foreign land” wrote Max Herrmann-Neisse as an exile in London, where he had lived since 1933. The poet from Berlin, like tens of thousands of others – including many artists – had fled National Socialist Germany and found refuge in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. “One of the consequences of the two World Wars and the dictatorships in the first half of the 20th century was that artists were scattered around the globe,” says LMU art historian Burcu Dogramaci. Her recent research demonstrates that the experience of forced emigration, and the cities in which they lived in exile had a more profound effect on modern art than previously thought.

In her project METROMOD, funded by the European Research Council (ERC), she and her colleagues explore the impact of these cities, and the networks of acquaintances in which the exiles moved, on their creative work. “Up to now, researchers have tended to focus on the countries they came from and those in which they settled. I regard this perspective as problematic, because the settings with which new arrivals were most likely to identify were the neighborhoods and cities in which they lived,” Dogramaci points out. This explains why her project views expulsion and exile from a city-centered perspective.

METROMOD focuses on six metropolises – London, New York, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and Shanghai. The choice of cities itself gives an indication of the issue with which Dogramaci is concerned. “Modern art did not emerge exclusively in the great cities of continental Europe – Vienna, Berlin and Paris. It was the product of an extraordinary diffusion of artistic talent, which itself gave rise to the synchronic emergence of disparate developments.” Traces of this phenomenon can be found on many continents. Large numbers of artists settled in Buenos Aires. Tens of thousands of people fled to Shanghai and the artists among them formed networks in the city. – And New York was not the only city in which photographers from Germany were to have a significant impact on the esthetics of their medium.

Guided tours of six cities

To recapture this remarkable combination of global dislocation and interaction, the interdisciplinary research team has incorporated the results of the project into a database, which enables the viewer to visualize the urban centers that received these emigrants, as well as their range of contacts, and the works they created in exile. The website invites interested viewers take virtual walks that follow the footsteps of emigrated artists in the cities in which they finally arrived. In addition, the site hosts an archive that links individuals, places and events with each other, and uncovers connections and relationships between both artists and cities. “We wanted to convey what we had learned in visual terms and find a contemporary format in which to present it. “We finally chose to use urban maps that allow the viewer to click on addresses. This has the great advantage that everything can be linked together,” says Burcu Dogramaci.

The guided tours of six cities can be undertaken either on the ground or interactively on one’s home computer. “We have linked text to the pictorial material, and the historical topics are illustrated with contemporary photographs. This underlines the fact that our perception of cities is always influenced by our impressions of contemporary urban life,” Dogramaci points out. In their search for the often hidden traces of emigration and immigration, the METROMOD team was intent on showing that “cities are made up of different temporal layers or horizons, which are not easy to discern”, says Dogramaci. She also emphasizes the productive collaborations between the members of her team during the research phase and the work in diverse archives, and she acknowledges the indispensable assistance provided by local specialists in each of the different cities.

As the lines quoted above suggest, Max Herrmann-Neisse’s strolls in London’s Hyde Park were occasions that were accompanied by acute homesickness (this is one of the themes featured in the London walk). Indeed, many of the artists who were forced to emigrate were plagued by feelings of loss, and the personal networks that they built up abroad were in many cases indispensable for their survival. The METROMOD project brings their fates to light and rescues their often forgotten works. In many instances, emigration brought a promising or successful artistic career to a sudden and brutal end. This is exemplified in the biography of the sculptor Jussuf Abbo. Forced to flee from Nazi Germany, he found himself in London, where he lived a marginal and often hand-to-mouth existence. He was sometimes unable to afford the tools he needed to continue his creative work, and destroyed much of what he had made when he lost his studio.

Naturally, the researchers led by Burcu Dogramaci wish to bring the results of their research to the attention of a broad public. “We hope to reach as many people as possible. After all, emigration and exile are topics of global importance,” she says. The project began in 2017, in the aftermath of the large-scale migrations of 2015 and 2016. Many exiled Syrian artists found a new home in Berlin. “Big cities still have an irresistible attraction for artists,” she says, and “one can draw many parallels between the situation today and that in the early 20th century. We can learn from the past how migrant communities were formed in cities. Conversely, we can observe phenomena in the present that have historical counterparts. Migrations are nothing new. The 20th century witnessed many migrations from European countries to far-flung parts of the world. We often forget that the contemporary flight and migration movements have a history.”

The METROMOD team is made up of its Director Prof. Dr. Burcu Dogramaci, Ekaterina Aygün, Mareike Hetschold, Dr. Rachel Lee, Dr. Laura Karp Lugo, Helene Roth and Mareike Schwarz.

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19 Jan 2022

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