Chances are you’ve never heard of Milly Steger. In the 1920s, she was hailed among Germany’s finest sculptors. But then the Nazis deemed her work “degenerate,” and she never recovered her position in the art world.
Steger is among many obscure artists whose works are now on display at the new Center for Persecuted Art in Solingen, Germany. The museum memorializes artists whose lives and work suffered under Germany’s Nazi and Communist regimes. Some, like Emil Nolde and Paul Klee, are well known today, but the vast majority never bounced back. “1,600 [artists] were banned by the Nazi from museums, and 1,580 didn’t come back inside,” museum director Rolf Jesse Petrovich told Westdeutsche Zeitung.
The museum is the brainchild of journalist Hajo Jahn, who founded the Else Lasker Schüler Society in 1990. Jahn wanted to create an institution where Germans could explore the works of artists and writers suppressed over six decades of tyranny — first in Nazi Germany, then in the Communist era that followed. He created a charitable trust and formal petition to launch the center that received signatures from the likes of Salman Rushdie.
But it only became a reality years later after Jahn met with Rolf Jesse Petrovich, director of the Kunstmuseum Solingen. The Center for Persecuted Arts now contains two separate collections: the Gerhard Schneider Collection, which features 3,000 artworks by some 400 artists dating from between 1933 and 1945; and the Jürgen Serke Collection of works by artists including the Israeli comic artist Michel Kichka. The Center operates under the umbrella of the Kunstmuseum with funding from the local German government.
In an email to Hyperallergic, Petrovich explained that the museum plans to also add to its collection works by persecuted artists around the world, from China to Iran. “After World War II, Germany did not want to remember the young artists that had been harassed before 1945,” he said. “The coming generations should know about [these artists] and about the worth of democracy and freedom.”