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Museum Director Marcelle Giving a Press Preview

“Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate” opens September 6

Posted on August 7th, 2012

Ceramic Works Tell Tale of Political Strong-arming
Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate tracks a career thwarted by circumstance

Milwaukee, Wis.Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate highlights the artistic output and life story of little-known, Bauhaus-trained ceramist Margarete Heymann-Löbenstein-Marks (German, 1899–1990) through approximately thirty artworks. The exhibition, on view September 6, 2012–January 1, 2013, was developed by the Milwaukee Art Museum with the cooperation of her daughter, Dr. Frances Marks.

This is the first American exhibition to explore Grete Marks’s story, an emotionally tragic tale of a forward-looking artist who was crushed by the brutal circumstances of her political time.

After attending the Bauhaus school’s ceramics program, Grete Marks founded the Haël Werkstätten für Kunstlerische Keramik (Haël Factory for Artistic Ceramics) in 1923 outside of Berlin, Germany. Under Marks’ direction, the Haël Factory both honored the German stoneware tradition of its region and exemplified the Bauhaus ideal of uniting Modern aesthetics with efficient mass production. With over one hundred employees, the factory produced boldly geometric tableware, some of which were painted with expressionistic brushwork, to consumers across Germany, the United States, and England. The exhibition also includes video footage of ceramic production at the factory.

“The Modern ceramics created within Marks’ Haël Werkstätten, with their machine precision, expressive brushwork, and attention to vernacular German traditions, show the Bauhaus teaching’s thorough influence on the artist,” said Mel Buchanan, Mae E. Demmer Assistant Curator of 20th-Century Design.

In 1933 when Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, Marks found herself in an environment where she was guilty of being artistically vanguard, politically left-leaning, and Jewish. In 1934, a member of the Nazi party purchased the Haël Factory, and in 1935, Joseph Goebbels’ propagandist Nazi newspaper Der Angriff slandered her ceramics as part of the “degenerate” art campaign.

Marks, a widow, and her son fled to England. She worked in the Stoke-on-Trent potteries, traditional manufactories where she held a variety of design positions. Unfortunately, Marks never regained the artistic or leadership stature of her period at the Haël Factory.

“Marks’ later ceramics made in England, arguably lacking the artistic vision of her earlier work, suggest that the magic and the promise of the bold young German artist was destroyed, like so much else, in World War II,” said Buchanan.

The works in the exhibition are on loan from museum and private collections in the United States and England.

Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate is supported by the Chipstone Foundation, the Mae E. Demmer Charitable Trust and the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Collectors’ Corner.