Artists in Exile

By Gage Denmon


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]o be exiled is to be estranged from one’s own identity. Living as an exile abolishes any hopes of familiarity itself, making all that is known and loved a distant memory. Directly quoting Edward Said, Megan R. Luke defined exile as “the unhealable rift between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.” Whether this condition is forced upon someone by the need to escape war, discrimination, or genocide, or self-imposed to gain a new perspective, exile greatly alters one’s perspective on life and the world, the methods with which they express themselves, and the messages they convey.

In an attempt to explore the condition of an exile, specifically that of artists, Megan R. Luke gave a lecture at the Yale University Art Gallery on September 28th, entitled “A Withdrawal from Appearance: Modernism and Exile in the 20th Century.” She discussed the lives of exiled artists in the midst of World War II and Hitler’s Third Reich. Luke, an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Southern California Dornsife, graduated from Yale in 1999 with a degree in art history. In her lecture, Luke reminisced about having had come to Yale as a biochemistry major, and then immediately changing majors after taking a freshmen art history seminar. She went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from Harvard University. Her current research focuses on abstraction, collages, and exile studies, as discussed in her book Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile which focuses on the work of Schwitter, an important twentieth century surrealist and exile himself.

Luke’s lecture accompanies Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope, an ongoing exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery displaying works of exiled artists “that refuse closure” from the nineteenth century to the present day, as Luke described. Although the exhibit presents typically-covered artists in exile, namely white men fleeing Nazi Germany, it also departs from this narrative and explores the works of female and racially underrepresented artists like Arshile Gorky and Mu Xin.

In “A Withdrawal of Appearance,” Luke narrowed in on the lives of two artists in exile: Kurt Schwitters and George Grosz. Both Schwitters and Grosz lived in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power and struggled with producing art in an oppressive, fascist regime. Luke continued to explain that other than their profession and place of origin, however, the two men could not have been more different. Because of the different lives they lived in exile, Schwitter and Grosz used distinct styles to convey specific messages.

Born in 1887 to a middle class family in Germany, Kurt Schwitters studied art at Dresden Academy during the time of War World I, the effects of which darkened his art’s subject matter and created a post-expressionist tone. As the Third Reich progressed, the German government eventually took notice of Schwitter’s art and labeled it as Entartete Kunst, or “Degenerate Art.”

Simultaneously, Schwitter’s son fled to Norway after participating in an illegal anti-fascist organization, prompting Schwitters to travel to Norway with his son. However, while in Norway, Schwitters soon learned that the German government was featuring more and more of his art pieces as Entartete Kunst for the public to ridicule. Consequently, Schwitters remained in Norway with his son to ensure his own personal safety. Schwitters never returned home, thus beginning his time as an artist in exile.

At this point in the lecture, Luke introduced Schwitter’s collages, perfectly describing them as “creation born of destruction and disillusion.” Utilizing torn up letters, articles, and book pages, Schwitters created thought-provoking pieces concerning his struggles with his identity. This is most evident in The Finished Poet, a collage depicting a portrait of Schwitters with his hand and eyes covered by torn pieces of paper featuring words like “Hitler,” “Japan,” and “Luftwaffe.” Referencing Schwitter’s early career as a poet, the collage represents the difficulty that he faced attempting to express himself when exiled, and the disconnect he had with his home country.

After concluding Schwitter’s portion, Luke explains that, unlike Schwitter, Grosz imposed exile upon himself after becoming increasingly more disgusted with the Nazi regime. In contrast to Schwitter’s wish to be more in touch with his home, Grosz’s experience as an exile focuses more on his romanticization of America and his desire to live the life he could not in Germany. After moving to America, Grosz said, “A great deal that had become frozen within me in Germany melted here in America and I rediscovered my old yearning for painting. I carefully and deliberately destroyed a part of my past.” Citing this and Grosz’s transition from simple drawings with heavy political implications to bright watercolor depictions of American landscapes, Luke distinguishes Grosz’s unique position as a somewhat contented exile, concluding that Grosz’s exile offered more fulfillment compared to Schwitter.

Overall, Megan R. Luke conducted an interesting and coherent lecture, making the subject simple and engaging enough to keep both well-versed art buffs and unseasoned art amateurs on the edge of their seats. Presenting a diverse, yet masterfully chosen, set of pieces to display, Luke’s lecture fits in perfectly with Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope. Luke expertly offered an entertaining experience for anyone with an interest in art, no matter how small.


Gage Denmon is a first year at Timothy Dwight College. You can contact Gage at