Lili Eylon

Resistance with a paintbrush: Otto Pankok

Some fight with swords. Some choose words. To fight his country’s injustices, artist Otto Pankok used chisel and a paint brush.

Pankok was German, born and bred. He grew up in an atmosphere where reigned tolerance and a keen sense of justice. His parents inculcated in him already in his early years the wrong of discrimination because of difference in appearance or custom.

Fate willed it that expressionist artist Otto Pankok live and work in the era of evil, of man’s mass inhumanity to man. He chose to portray, on paper, in wood and stone, in defiance of Nazi law and conduct, Germans who are different — Jews and Gypsies. But also the poor — stricken, the disenfranchised and dehumanized — in short, the undesirable pariahs living on the slippery margin of society. Painting chiefly in charcoal, Pankok sometimes added words within the picture, like, for example, admonishing people not to be cruel to their animals who, after all, are also God’s creatures.

In his cycle, Destiny of the Jews, reported on in a German WDR radio broadcast on February 14, 2009, he is said to have painted, i.a., Else Lasker-Schuler, whom he befriended and even visited in 1933 in Ascona, Switzerland. In this cycle, a synagogue and portraits of Jews in ghettoes also appear.

Hitler’s secret service began to watch Pankok’s every move.

The Gestapo searched his house.

For his monumental Christ’s Passion – 60 large charcoal paintings – Pankok used as models the tormented faces and bodies of the Nazi-dubbed “asocial elements.” His model for a weeping Maria was Ringale, a little gypsy child who later perished in Auschwitz. The message, clear and unambiguous, alarmed the Nazis. Pankok became a thorn for them. He was advised to limit himself to painting landscapes and flowers. He refused, immediately earning the Nazi title of “degenerate artist.” As a consequence, his career was deeply disrupted.

Minister of Propaganda Goebbels wanted to capitalize on this new verbal invention. He instructed his workers to confiscate modern art works from German museums and then proceeded to exhibit 700 of these in a specially organized exhibition of “degenerate art” in Munich. Altogether, Goebbels’ agents confiscated and removed on trucks some 20,000 pieces of art from various museums. In typical German reaction, none of the museums made any claim for their return when some of the art was later returned to the country, because a 1938 Nazi-inspired law was still on the books, permitting such seizures.

Some of Pankok’s works were among these modern works from the first half of the 20th century. “These,” screamed Hitler at the Munich opening on July 18, 1937, were showing “moral beastliness,’’ which was every German’s “holy duty to get rid of.” Himself a failed artist when his application was turned down by the Vienna Academy of Arts a generation earlier, he was meting out his kind of revenge.

In a BBC World Service broadcast on December 14,2009, Lucy Burns says Hitler was trying to persuade visitors that what they saw was evil, meant to destroy the purity of German culture.

Burns quotes Jonathan Petropoulos, professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College and author of several books on art and politics in the Third Reich, as saying that the exhibition was laid out with the deliberate intention of encouraging a negative reaction. “The pictures were hung askew, there was graffiti on the walls, which insulted the art and the artists, and made claims that made this art seem outlandish, ridiculous.”

The Nazis claimed that degenerate art was the product of Jews and Bolsheviks, although only six of the 112 artists featured in the exhibition were actually Jewish.

This Degenerate Art Exhibition, meant to mock and ridicule, was seen by some two million people in 12 cities throughout Germany. The crowds thus actually benefitted from a unique opportunity to see outstanding art works, all gathered in one hall: Impressionists, Cubists, Dadaists and Futurists, among them Kandinsky, Chagall, Klee. Perhaps they suspected this could be their last chance in the near future to see such great art.

The visitors were three times as many as came to witness the Nazi-sponsored Great German Art Exhibition, likewise in Dusseldorf, designed to depict works that Hitler approved of: statuesque blondes along with idealized soldiers and landscapes. Perhaps the onlookers realized this would be their last chance to see modern art in the foreseeable future.

Otto Pankok was chosen to be one of the representatives of the “degenerates.” In the land of the powerful, Pankok had refused to stop painting portraits of the powerless. He refused the “suggestion” that he limit his subjects to flowers and landscapes. His name was immediately added to the list of the persecuted. The Nazis forbade him to paint or exhibit. He left his house in Dusseldorf (later damaged by Allied bombs), retired among the hills of the Eifel range and entered into internal exile.

There, he managed to hide his friend, fellow painter Matthias Barz and his Jewish wife. In December 2014, albeit posthumously, this deed brought him and his wife Hulda, a well-known journalist, and his life-partner for 46 years, quite another title, Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem.

After the war, Pankok became an art professor at the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf. One of his pupils was author Gunther Grass, who, in 1997, established the Otto Pankok Prize to promote understanding for members of the Roma nation.

Pankok had been very close to many Roma in Germany. He painted their men, women, and children for many years, empathizing with their existence as ostracized outcasts. He even lived with them, at one of their annual colorful all-European festivals in southern French Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Otto Pankok died in 1966. He left behind a considerable legacy: some 6,000 charcoal paintings, 800 wood carvings, and 500 etchings, sculptures, and lithographs.

‘Selbstbildnis’ (Gross), woodcut, by Otto Pankok, 1958. (courtesy of Otto Pankok Foundation, Hünxe)

In 1968, two years after his death, his wife Hulda, and his daughter Eva helped build a museum in his name. to perpetuate Otto Pankok’s memory. Haus Esselt, where Pankok lived his last years, is located in the town of Hunxe in the Lower Rhine region near the border with Holland. It harbors the Otto Pankok Foundation and displays a permanent exhibition of the artist’s work, as well as changing exhibitions.

In the ’80s, Dr. Wieland Koenig, conscionable director of Dusseldorf’s municipal museum, the Stadtmuseum, presented to the public an exhibition of local artists who had been persecuted by the Nazis, forbidden to continue to work, and those whose works were destroyed.

Otto Pankok was prominent among the many great artists exhibited.

His selfless courage, an attribute so rare at his time in his country, adds shiny honor to a great human being.

About the Author
Lili Eylon is Czech by birth, American by education, Israeli by choice. She has been a journalist since the days of Methuselah, having studied English Literature and journalism at Brooklyn College and the University of Wisconsin. She traveled widely as the spouse of Israeli diplomat Ephraim Eylon, and is mother to Raanan Yisrael and David Baruch z"l, who fell in the service of the IDF.
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