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Germany: A Nation Built, Represented, And Remembered By Men

Ellen Pilsworth

Germany: Memories of a Nation. A 600-year history in objects
16 October 2014-25 January 2015 at the British Museum,
and BBC4 radio series,
Germany: Memories of a Nation, presented by Neil MacGregor

The British Museum’s exhibition and BBC 4’s 2014 radio series on the history of Germany have been met with wild enthusiasm and an unexpected amount of interest. If you scroll through the tweets using #MemoriesOfaNation over the last few months , some have raved about Neil MacGregor’s elocutionary brilliance and others have responded positively to specific items on display in the exhibition. A few, however, are rather less impressed. The exhibition and series have been criticised for being too simplistic, too cramped, for focussing too much on high culture, or for funnelling complex issues into too obvious nutshells. (The GDR is represented only by the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example). My personal criticism is that both the exhibition and radio series’ view of Germany is completely dominated by men. Charlemagne, Dürer, Luther, Gutenberg, Goethe, the Grimms, Marx, Bismarck, Wilhelm, Hitler—oh, and Käthe Kollwitz (twice.) This is how you could sum up the approach of both the exhibition and the radio series. I ask—what about all those German women?

The purpose of the exhibition and radio series are ostensibly to get a fresh look at the rich and complex history of a nation blighted by its most recent past. It is a shame that the organisers did not take this opportunity to question the way we traditionally view history in general—as being the collected stories of a few well-educated and powerful men and what they said and did. It could have been mentioned, for example, that the Grimm brothers learned most of their fairytales from their female acquaintances. An interesting addition to the Goethe shrine could have been something about Bettina Brentano, whose Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child (Goethe’s Briefwechsel mit einem Kind) presents the author from a less obvious perspective. Charlemagne could have been offset by Hildegard von Bingen (medieval visionary, polymath, writer, and composer). The Nazi propaganda film poster of The Eternal Jew (Der ewige Jude) might have been presented beside a copy of Anne Frank’s diary, and perhaps a “Mutterkreuz” (Cross of Honour of the German Mother) would have provided greater insight into what it meant for German people to live in Nazi Germany. Instead, the only women to be mentioned by name in the collection are Käthe Kollwitz (who also makes a guest appearance as model for Ernst Barlach’s statue, Der Schwebende) and the Bauhaus ceramic artist Grete Marks. True, the exhibition does feature a pair of objects that suggest the involvement of women in the history of the country, such as the cart used by refugees expelled from Eastern Europe in 1956 which was probably dragged by a woman, or the child’s vest made from paper—probably also made by a mother trying to keep her child warm. Yet these are minor pieces in the exhibition as a whole.

However, women do appear figuratively and symbolically in the collection, though for different purposes. From the early modern period there are the broadsheets using sensationalist images of women, be that for their eroticism (as in the illustrated commentary for the song of songs, depicting a naked female dancer), or their fright factor (as in the image of female Siamese twins). A print of a Hans Sachs poem mocks marriage and presents women as terrors to their husbands. This section of the exhibition presents a series of early modern stereotypes of women—exotic, erotic, uncontrollable, frighteningly “other”. A comment showing some awareness of early modern gender ideas in Germany could have made these images more useful as part of the history of a nation that has always included women as well as men.

From the modern period, there are examples of art works that use women deliberately in the process of symbolising national or historical events. For example, we see a porcelain statue of Luise and Friederike, (members of the nineteenth-century German royal family), but sadly there is no mention of the way Luise was idolised as the ideal of feminine “Germanness”. Skipping ahead to the aftermath of the Second World War, we see Max Lachnit’s sculpture, Bust of a Trümmerfrau. This does finally acknowledge one way in which German women have been actively involved in the building of their nation (as does the radio programme dedicated to it) if only in the sense captured by Mrs Lintott in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, who asks, “What is history? History is women following behind … with a bucket.” In Ernst Barlach’s statue Der Schwebende, woman is again used in a figurative sense. Those who died in the First World War are memorialised in the figure of an angel with the face of Käthe Kollwitz, her eyes gently closed. Kollwitz’s son was killed in the war, and here she represents the archetypal figure of “the grieving mother”. Whilst Kollwitz’ own work often depicts grieving fathers and mothers, it is grounded in a realist aesthetic that does not shy away from the suffering and destruction inflicted on families by war. Barlach’s use of the female figure to represent something transcendent is much more traditional—somehow anaesthetised—and distances the work from the realities of war in a way that Kollwitz’ own work never does. It is a shame that none of her own pieces from this period were displayed.

The final piece on view in the exhibition is Gerhard Richter’s Betty (c. 1991). The painting shows his daughter Betty turned away from the viewer to regard one of his other art works, which becomes the background of the image. Though the exhibition presents this as a work interrogating the conflicts between generations, asking where young Germans will look for their cultural identity in the future, we could equally read it as a piece exploring the failure of our cultural narratives to adequately address the role of men and women in history. If what we want is a complete picture of a whole German nation and its history, like Betty, we will have to look elsewhere.

Ellen Pilsworth graduated in 2012 with a BA in English and German from The Queen’s College, Oxford. She is currently a PhD candidate in German at University College London.