Controversies Germany

Archives cast a shadow over revered state museum director

Correspondence between Bode Museum namesake, Wilhelm von Bode, and his protégé Hans Posse shows race was an issue

Wilhelm von Bode, around 1905, and the Bode Museum which was renamed in his honour in 1956

BERLIN. Research presented in Berlin for the first time at the end of last year has tarnished the reputation of Wilhelm von Bode (1845-1929), the former director general of the Kaiser Friedrich-Museum, now called the Bode Museum. It was renamed after Bode in 1956 when the Communist East German government decided to shed the museum’s imperial name. Bernhard Maaz, the director of Dresden’s Gemälde­galerie Alte Meister and Kupferstich-Kabinett, revealed in a lecture marking 50 years of the national museums’ central archive (Zentralarchiv der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin), that Bode—despite his respect for the artist Max Liebermann and the fact that his museum was subsidised by a number of German-Jewish sponsors—displayed strong anti-semitic tendencies in his letters to Hans Posse, a protégé of Bode who was appointed director of Dresden’s Gemälde­galerie Alte Meister in 1910.

Maaz quoted some of Bode’s correspondence in his lecture at Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie. In a letter to Posse in 1927 Bode wrote: “I have one serious reservation about your candidate [Nikolaus Pevsner, applying for a scholarship at the Kunst­historisches Institut in Florence], which I have indeed already expressed openly to you: his race.”

Bode has traditionally been viewed with a certain amount of reverence within the Berlin museum sector, although art historians may already be familiar with Bode’s anti-semitism from reading his memoir, Mein Leben (published posthumously in 1930), in which, for example, he denounces what he calls the Verjüdelung (increasing Jewish­ness) of German social and professional circles in 1918, after the end of the first world war.

Unfortunately, Bode’s viewpoint reflects the attitude of the vast majority of Germany’s ultra-conservative bourgeoisie of the period. The fact that the “candidate” in this case, Pevsner, was to become a key figure in art history, shows that excellence was powerless in the face of the prevailing anti-semitism.

It is the ambiguity of both Bode’s and Posse’s character which is intriguing. Although Posse backed students like Pevsner, he was later to become Hitler’s envoy for the Sonderauftrag (special commission) set up in 1939 to amass an art collection for the planned Führermuseum in Linz. For Posse’s role in the assembly of the collection—which included works seized from Jewish collectors—later generations discredited him as an art historian.

But, according to Maaz, Posse’s role needs to be re-evaluated as he made significant achievements prior to his recruitment by Hitler, including a comprehensive overhaul of Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie. In 1926 he staged an international exhibition presenting the avant-garde as the valid German art form of its time. The show featured works by Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, among others.

A large selection of works in his Galerie Neue Meister, then part of Dresden’s Gemälde­galerie, were confiscated by the Nazis for being “degenerate” and Posse was forced into retirement in 1938. Hitler rehabilitated him for his own purposes, perhaps, Maaz suggests, because his promotion of “degenerate” art made him susceptible to coercion. “Posse probably thought that if he could not do anything for modern art then he would devote himself to building a museum of old masters,” said Maaz.

A book devoted to the correspondence between Bode and Posse is slated for publication this year.

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