Ausschnitt aus einem Selbsporträt von Ludwig Meidner

Ludwig Meidner (1884 − 1966)

Avant-garde artist and orthodox Jew

Ludwig Meidner is considered to be one of the most important representatives of urban Expressionism. However his work is also marked by his in-depth exploration of the Jewish religion as well as his experience of exclusion and persecution after 1933, and of exile in England.

The Expressionist

Diese Ölgemälde von Ludwig Mediner ist ein Selbstporträt mit Palette und Pinseln, 1922
Ludwig Meidner, self-portrait with color palette and brush, 1922 © Ludwig Meidner-Archiv, Jewish Museum Frankfurt

Ludwig Meidner’s expressionist works are characterised by their spontaneous dynamic gesture and were consequently regarded by contemporaries as the epitome of Expressionism. "Everything he does is expression, outburst, and explosion.”

Meidner’s expressionist paintings and drawings centre on big city dynamics, as well as catastrophes and the end of the world. At the outbreak of World War I, as the imagined catastrophes of what are referred to as his Apocalyptic Landscapes seemed to become a horrible reality, Meidner increasingly turned to religious themes. His expressive figures hover between ecstasy and despair.

In the early 1920s, Meidner declared his renunciation of Expressionism. He wrote: "Yes, we have worshipped art too much, wooed it too passionately with our soul – now it is worn out and used up." He then confronted religion and art–"true art", which alone can provide answers to the whole question of meaning.

Despite his departure from the "false path of Expressionism", Meidner basically remained an expressionist his whole life. This means that even his later work continued to focus on the inner experience. Despite the fact that his stylistic means changed, dramatic and emotional moments are also found in his later art; little is composed and construed –everything is felt and experienced.

Ludwig Meidner, Eine autobiographische Plauderei, 1923

"There is nothing I enjoy doing more than filling large sheets with compositions of figures or occurrences from the sacred writings. Planting a corpulent Zealot in the space so that the little clouds float around his curly beard!"

Artist and Devout Jew

In the mid-1920s, Meidner’s religious search for meaning culminated in a return to Judaism. He organized his daily life in accordance with traditional rules and also explored the Bible and Jewish tradition more intensively in his art.

Prayer, that is, the individual encounter with the creator, assumed a key role in Meidner’s own religious practice and for his religious representations. His works focus fully on this inner encounter, whether he portrays headstrong prophets or fervent individuals at prayer in a religious service. Picturesque genre scenes or Eastern European shtetl motifs, in contrast, are fully absent from Meidner’s works.

Emigrant

While in exile, Meidner produced primarily drawings and watercolour paintings, scarcely any oil paintings. This is typical for emigrant artists who were often unable to afford canvas and oil paints. Despite the disheartening impoverishment and lack of acknowledgement as an artist that characterized Meidner’s life in London, artistically these years are nonetheless regarded overall as highly productive.

Meidner wandered extensively through the streets of London, tirelessly recording his impressions in his sketch books. In the British internment camp, he portrayed hundreds of his fellow internees. Meidner also created extensive cycles in watercolour with humorous or grotesque images in which he commented on the times that were out of joint. Finally, in England he created a cycle of drawings on the persecution of Jews in Europe, which he observed from afar with an increasing sense of horror.

Returning Emigrant

In 1952, Meidner accepted the invitation of a friend and visited Hamburg. The friendly reception he received there and the interest shown in his art were the deciding factors in his return. In August 1953, Meidner returned to Germany definitively. He first settled in Frankfurt, his choice of location being largely for practical reasons. One significant reason, among others, was the issue of compensation, which the Hessian government arranged for him unbureaucratically. He also had the opportunity to live in a Jewish retirement home here. Else Meidner categorically refused to return to Germany and remained in London.