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An art world Schindler

In this exclusive report, CORINNA LOTZ tells the intriguing story of an art dealer who went on selling prohibited art under the noses of the Nazi high command. In 1918 Max Beckmann painted a disturbing scene of horror and upheaval, called Night. It was his reaction to the first world war and revolutionary upheavals which followed.

Night had a huge impact on a young art dealer called Günther Franke. He was to keep it on his study wall for many years.

At his Munich gallery at 46 Barerstrasse, Franke specialised in displays of first-class modern European artists such as Picasso, Braque, Ernst, Kandinsky, Klee, Leger, Masareel, Corinth, Munch, Van Gogh and Nolde during the 1920s and early 1930s.

Franke, who had an unassuming, modest personality, appreciated Beckmann's ability to express the harsh realities around him, whilst still retaining a poetic artistic vision. Beckmann dared to say shocking things in a bold, confident way. He was a master of the visual metaphor, an early magical realist.

As the Nazi horror grew in Germany, Franke found in Beckmann's interpretation of reality a kind of mental and emotional comfort. In turn, during the Nazi period, Franke ensured that Beckmann's work survived and provided the artist with an income.

Today, for the first time, thanks to the work of Friends of Beckmann Archive Society, the Bavarian State Gallery of Modern Art has acquired 300 letters between the artist and his dealer during the Hitler years. A selection of their correspondence, along with 29 paintings, will be on view in Munich for the next few months.

Like many of the modern school of painters in Germany, Beckmann was viciously persecuted by the Nazi regime. It wanted only art which satisfied its needs. For the public it wanted heroic figures which perpetuated racist myths or sickly sentimental kitsch. Privately the Nazi leaders stole great art from war booty for their personal use.

One top German art collector, Lilly von Schnitzler, had big canvases by Beckmann on the walls of her home, where she frequently entertained guests from the Nazi élite.

In 1937 work by artists who painted in an Expressionist style or belonged to the New Objectivity movement was confiscated from public collections. It was paraded before the public in the notorious "Degenerate Art" show held in Munich, by that time the capital of the Nazi movement.

Anything which did not conform to the most boring and safe traditional styles was held up as "evidence" of how people were being duped by curators who were wasting public money on them. Gallery directors and artists were denounced as Jews or foreigners who inflicted corrupting and worthless objects on unsuspecting Germans.

The art works shown at Munich's Haus der Kunst (Art House) were either burned or sold in Switzerland to boost the foreign reserves of the Hitler dictatorship. A long list of people were banned from showing their work.

Dr Christian Lenz, head of the Beckmann archives, told Socialist Future how on September 19, 1937, the day after "Auntie Emma" (Beckmann's ironic nickname for Hitler) denounced the "degenerates" at the Haus der Kunst, Beckmann and his wife left Berlin for Amsterdam. He was never to return to Germany.

Despite the Nazi terror, Franke found ways of saving the work of the artists he admired. Through Dr Hetsch, an official in the Berlin Ministry of Propaganda, he negotiated the exchange of "forbidden" canvases for more acceptable works by Romantic painters. He continued to deal in forbidden art in a back room of his gallery. He now had his premises in Briennerstrasse, a stone's throw from the Nazis' new mausoleum-style headquarters. Franke and his assistants displayed "safer" work in the window and front areas as camouflage.

Beckmann's son Peter, a Luftwaffe officer, brought back canvases from Holland to Berlin using military vehicles. Other paintings were transported to Germany by art historian and critic Bernhard Degenhart.

Only trusted friends were invited to Franke's summer house on the Starnberger Lake, south of Munich, to see the paintings and prints, and could make purchases. If anyone had betrayed him, his gallery and business would have been shut down, but no one did. Indeed, except for a short period in 1940, when Franke was drafted into the army but soon dismissed as unfit for combat, he continued to retain contact with Beckmann and other artists in his stable.

Early in January 1941 Franke travelled by rail to see Beckmann in Amsterdam. He returned to Munich with three paintings "rolled up in the luggage rack". He sent payments for these and other works, including one instalment of 1,000 Reichsmark.

In February 1944, the ever-loyal dealer celebrated Beckmann's 60th birthday with a private exhibition at his lakeside retreat. The war over, Franke decided to transport a lorry-load of paintings to a new exhibition space only to be arrested by the US military authorities and sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment for unauthorised transport of art works.

Finally, when he succeeded in staging the first major Beckmann show in Germany, in the summer of 1946, he was rewarded with success, as 45,000 visitors passed through the small gallery.

In a final ironic twist, Franke's donation of 30 Beckmann works was ceremoniously handed over to the Bavarian state in July 1973 at the Haus der Kunst, where 36 years earlier, Hitler's diatribe, transmitted by radio, had condemned the artist to exile.

Selected correspondence and documents from the Beckmann archives plus the 30 art works donated by the Franke Foundation are on view at the Bavarian State Gallery of Modern Art, (January 20 until April 2). Thanks for background information are due to Dr Christian Lenz of the Max Beckman Archive Society of Friends.

This article first appeared in Socialist Future