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Exhibition of German 20th-Century Sculpture on View at Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum

Cambridge, MA,

“Making Myth Modern” examines how German artists adapted myths to express contemporary concerns

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The Harvard University Art Museums present Making Myth Modern: Primordial Themes in German 20th-Century Sculpture, a tightly focused exhibition of seven sculptures by Franz von Stuck, Renée Sintenis, Max Beckmann, Gerhard Marcks, Bernard Schultze, and Joseph Beuys at the Busch-Reisinger Museum from July 14 through December 30, 2007. This exhibition brings together for the first time important sculptures from the Busch-Reisinger Museum’s permanent collection and includes some of the foremost German artists from the turn of the century to the early 1980s. The works employ mythological themes to address broad subjects such as creation, nature, and gender relations. But after a closer look, it becomes clear that these interpretations also strongly reflect the artists’ personal lives and the turbulent history of 20th-century Germany.

The exhibition is organized by Solveig Köbernick, 2005–2007 Michalke Curatorial Intern at the Busch-Reisinger Museum and Ph.D. candidate in the department of History of Art at the University of Leipzig, Germany. “I was inspired by the exceptional sculptures by well-known 20th-century artists in the Busch-Reisinger collection, and the remarkable way they deal with mythological themes. I wanted to understand why these artists turned to myths to express themselves,” said Köbernick. “I was also interested in the fact that artists who were renowned painters like Franz von Stuck or Max Beckmann were overlooked as sculptors. For example, one understands the work of artists such as Bernard Schultze much better by examining the relationship between sculptures and paintings in his work. My hope is that by focusing exclusively on sculpture, this exhibition will illuminate the importance of that medium in German 20th-century art.”

With the introduction of Romanticism in the late 18th century, the perception of myths changed dramatically as they began to be considered as symbols of deeper truths and the primal unity of the world. This important shift in perception freed myths from their traditional iconography and opened the door for more individualized interpretations and the creation of new myths. From this point forward mythological figures became mirrors of the artists’ states of mind and contemporary historical conditions. This makes the examination of the artists’ use of myths in 20th-century Germany so compelling, given Nazi persecution of modern artists, the Third Reich’s ideological misuse of myths, and the cultural and political transformation in the country after the Second World War.

The works in the exhibition encourage the exploration of sculpture in German 20th-century art through the study of different approaches by artists to material, form, and surface — from Franz von Stuck’s bronze sculpture of around 1900, already pointing towards an abstraction of form, to Bernhard Schultze’s colorful, biomorphic, and surrealist-influenced relief sculpture of the 1960s, and Joseph Beuys’ minimalist-influenced and readymade-looking, but highly designed sculptures of the 1980s.

“We are always looking for ways to use the collections to their fullest potential, especially to educate and illuminate,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “These works have not been chosen simply based upon their aesthetic appeal, but carefully selected by Solveig to encourage a dialogue about their role in the history of contemporary German art and their impact on society.”

Featured Works
Making Myth Modern contributes to the increasing scholarly and public interest in the role of myths in 20th-century art and in the medium of sculpture. It examines how German artists over the course of eight decades interpreted myths, and how their personalized myths reflected German history and artist’s concerns. The interpretations of myths became as multifaceted as the artists’ works. In his sculpture Amazon (1897), Franz von Stuck identified himself with a mythological figure in order to position himself as a successful artist within the turn-of-the-century German art world, whereas Renée Sintenis adapted the Daphne (1930) figure to reflect her status as a successful female artist in the late Weimar Republic. Max Beckmann’s powerful sculpture Adam and Eve (1936) demonstrates the search for basic truths of life in a time of increasing political pressure by the National Socialists. The desire for a new beginning following the exploitation of myths in the Third Reich is reflected by Gerhard Marcks’ Prometheus Bound II (1948), and Bernhard Schultze’s sculpture Migof Bloody and Blooming (1965) is an example of his attempt to create a wholly new myth. In Pala (1983) and ELEMENT (1982), Joseph Beuys used myths to stimulate environmental engagement and express the idea of creative and spiritual energy in his work.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a brochure featuring 12 color reproductions, an essay by curator Solveig Köbernick, and a checklist.