The Munich Artists’ Cooperative in the post-war period

Anke Gröner | 20 October 2021

The exhibition “‘Divinely Gifted’. National Socialism’s Favoured Artists in the Federal Republic” shows that the post-war careers of “divinely gifted” artists contradict the image of an art-political fresh start in the Federal Republic after 1945. Other artists who had also been successful in the “Third Reich” but were not on the list were often not inclined to break away from the artistic continuities of the Nazi period. Art historian Anke Gröner demonstrates this using the example of members of the Münchner Künstlergenossenschaft, or Munich Artists’ Cooperative.

The Münchner Künstlergenossenschaft (MKG) was founded in 1868 and was among the oldest and largest associations of artists in Munich. In 1938, like most of the Munich art associations, it was forcefully absorbed into the national-socialist Kameradschaft der Künstler, or Fellowship of Artists. Until this time, the chairman of the MKG had been the painter Carl Theodor Protzen (1887–1956). Like Protzen, the painter Carl Gerhardinger (1888–1970) had already been a member of the rather conservative MKG before the National Socialists took power.

During the time of the “Third Reich” both artists were quite successful, if not, however, as much as the so-called “Divinely Gifted”, among whose ranks they were not privileged to be counted. Both painters exhibited at the Great German Art Exhibitions (GDK) in Munich, which presented artworks in line with Nazi Party policy. Protzen had even shown his works in every GDK, where he earned a total of almost 29,000 Reichmarks (RM) through sales. Between 1937 and 1942, Gerhardinger took in the ample sum of 99,000 RM, but from 1943 on he was banned from the exhibition. For fear of the bombing, he had stopped submitting artworks, which the director of the House of German Art, where the exhibition took place, reported to the Reich Chancellery. Thereupon, Gerhardinger was prohibited from showing his works there. [1]

The double refounding of the MKG

After 1945, Gerhardinger used this prohibition to distance himself from Protzen, of all people, seeing himself as a supposed victim of National Socialism. In June 1946, Protzen, together with the painter Eduard Aigner (1903–1978), had re-established the Munich Artists’ Cooperative. In June 1948, a group of artists under Gerhardinger objected to the refounded cooperative and, in October of that year, founded a second MKG. [2] After attempting to mediate, the Bavarian Ministry of Culture pointed out that the clash about the “real MKG” could only be solved through civil proceedings, through which Gerhardinger was finally granted the right to the original name of the cooperative in 1951. And thus Gerhardinger’s “Royal Privileged Munich Artists’ Cooperative from 1868” and the “New Munich Artists’ Cooperative” of Aigner/Protzen continued to show their exhibitions one after the other rather than together in the now renamed “Haus der Kunst”, or House of Art, in Munich.

In both groups artists who had worked without restriction during the Nazi period were represented. The daily press organs were in agreement from the start that the Aigner-Protzen faction were conventional, but nonetheless produced reasonably up-to-date works. Even Protzen, who had painted above all landscapes during the Nazi period – and 29 works about the new autobahn –, dared to try his hand at the now popular abstraction and a mitigated form of Cubism. This was quite contrary to the Gerhardinger group, who continued to cultivate a naturalistic style and about which Fritz Nemitz wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) in 1950: “As a contribution to the artistry of the present, this venture is alien to today. […] And yet they are not without usefulness. They clearly open the eyes of the contemporary viewer to the standards of the past.”

The Deutsche Tagespost vehemently contradicted this opinion and went as far as to offer rather devious comparisons: “For want of a degenerate art there is now at least an unwanted art.” The art the SZ considered successful was called „extreme Modernity”. The newspaper also stated that “it is tantamount to the fascist control over art to prohibit such artists [those who were successful under National Socialism] from exhibiting their works.”

A flyer on the exhibition of the Gerhardinger group from March 1950 relegated contemporary art to the area of psychoses. Guido Joseph Kern (1878–1953), an artist whose works had been shown at the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, wrote that it was only thanks to “a powerful, often ruthless propaganda effort launched by the international art trade and supported by esoterics and snobs” that modern art was shown at all. “Nearly the entire public and at least 95% of the painters in the world reject this art.” The works of Kandinsky were called “abnormal”, while an “intellectual inclination” to schizophrenia was ascribed to Picasso. Kern was not alone in this opinion. In 1950 and 1952, Gerhardinger participated in two exhibitions in São Paulo that opposed the supposed “sick, abstract art in Germany”.

The “Divinely Gifted” exhibit again

Members of the Gerhardinger group included the “divinely gifted” Sepp Hilz, Claus Bergen as well as the sculptor Josef Thorak, “who, owing to circumstances, had reverted to bourgeois formats. Well-known like the names are style, approach and motifs of the artworks. Nothing has changed since 1937. However, [the divinely gifted] Paul Padua, Arno Breker and Werner Peiner are not represented,” scoffed the Münchner Abendzeitung about the 1951 exhibition. The Süddeutsche Zeitung opined that a “ministerial No” to the Gerhardinger group would be the right thing to do as a “clear cultural-political objective”, for it could “not only confirm the regained reputation of Munich [as a city of art], but it is also to be feared that [the group] endangers it.”

However, in the course of the decade the criticism subsided; people came to accept the outmoded works and tended to ignore rather than come to terms with the past, in keeping with the fictitious fresh start of the “Zero Hour”. In 1966, the conservative newspaper Münchner Merkur rejoiced that “the old school has been retained and is also respected by the younger generation.” In 1968, on the centenary of the artists’ cooperative, the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote jokingly, but in a latently uncritical vein: “The exhibition is kaleidoscopically colourful, it brings everything the bourgeois heart desires for the front parlour: cliffs and sea, flower bouquets, the joy of motherhood, rustic and otherwise striking portraits, familiar and southern landscapes, all unproblematic and gaily coloured – a kind of smaller, legitimate continuation of the exhibitions in the ‘House of German Art’. To be sure, pictures à la Padua’s ‘Leda’ are missing, and a Sepp Hilz epigon is not to be found.”

This was in fact confirmation of what the SZ had written back in 1953 about the post-war exhibitions. They were visited by the same people who had found their taste in art confirmed in the House of German Art. “This huge success – it was not just the result of propaganda hype. It was a sincerely convinced affirmation of Hitler’s art dictatorship. For this art dictatorship had hit the nail of public taste on the head. Every popular survey today would agree with that.”


[1] The correspondence about this matter is found in the Federal Archive, cf. BArch R/43 II/1242b.

[2] The controversy about the two MKG’s is well documented in the Bavarian Capital Archive, cf. BayHStA, MK 51591.

Cover image: Catalogue for the art exhibtion of members of the Münchner Künstlergenossenschaft, or Munich Artists’ Cooperative königl. privileg. 1868 at Haus der Kunst, München, 1951, reproduction, Munich © Haus der Kunst

Anke Gröner

Anke Gröner is a freelance art historian and lives in Munich. Her dissertation on Protzen’s autobahn paintings, “‘Ziehet die Bahn durch deutsches Land.’ Gemälde zur Reichsautobahn von Carl Theodor Protzen (1887–1956) ” will be published by Böhlau-Verlag in February 2022.