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Self-Portraits of the 1920s

The Feldberg Collection

Art in Exchange for Clothes: A Collection is Born
Heinrich Ehmsen, Selbstbildnis (mit Palette), 1931, Aquarell und Bleistift, 58,5 x 44,2 cm, Berlinische Galerie

Heinrich Ehmsen, self portrait (with palette), 1931, water colors and pencil, 58,5 x 44,2 cm
Berlinische Galerie

Siegbert Feldberg was born in 1899 and joined the family business - a flourishing gentlemen's outfitters - in Stettin at the beginning of the 1920s. In this environment, Feldberg, who was interested in culture in all its diversity, made many new acquaintances, among them artists. Around 1923, when money kept losing its value and inflation pushed prices up to ridiculous heights, the young Jewish businessman felt in a position to pay for art with "hard currency" i.e. with suits and coats.

Art in exchange for clothes - Feldberg maintained this unusual form of acquiring art in the years which followed. He was considered a generous exchange partner and remained so when artists fell on hard times once more and were again dependent on support during the world depression. By 1933 he had collected more than 150 works on paper, among them the self-portraits by 65 male, and 4 female artists. These self-portraits, be they drawings, watercolors, pastels, or prints, attracted his attention in particular. They lend the Feldberg Collection character and an unusual status.

An Insightful Picture of the Berlin Art Scene

The self-portraits are produced by prominent as well as less-known and forgotten painters. The famous artists of the 1920s include Käthe Kollwitz, Max Liebermann, and Lesser Ury. The expressionists Erich Heckel and Oskar Kokoschka had already earned a reputation and a place on the German contemporary art scene. The majority of the artists represented in the collection, however, belonged to a younger generation disillusioned by the First World War like Feldberg himself. Many of the self-portraits have a reflective or melancholic feel, a lot of them express clearly through the language of form sober self-reflection and a realistic attitude which strives to make contact rather than to provoke. However different the collection's individual self-portraits may be, most of them are an expression of "historical compromise" between the traditional and the modern. They speak for Feldberg's contemporary-oriented and open-minded artistic taste, but also betray that the still unusual and for his time daring was not his thing.

At the same time, an insightful picture of the Berlin art scene between 1923 and 1933 emerges from the self-portraits. It is notable how many artists chose the German capital as the venue for their creative endeavors. Just ten artists from the Feldberg Collection were born in Berlin. The others were from Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia), Danzig (now Ggdansk in Poland), Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), Dresden, Cologne, and Frankfurt or from Central and Eastern Europe (Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Romania). The large Jewish contingent of more than 20 artists also reflects the situation in Berlin of the time. One third of the artists had to emigrate after 1933. Three died in the camps Dachau, Lodz, und Riga.

Driven Out of Germany

Siegbert Feldberg himself decided to leave Germany soon after the National Socialists came to power. In 1934 he went to Bombay to start a new life. His wife and two sons followed him to India at the beginning of 1939. Hildegard Feldberg was able to take around 150 drawings and watercolors with her. They were "degenerate" and thus worthless, she explained to those who checked that she left the country with nothing of value.

The works of art survived the long years of emigration undamaged. Feldberg and his wife came back to Europe in 1963. At first they wanted to return to Berlin but found they no longer felt at home there and ultimately settled in Swiss Ticino in 1965. On their annual trip to Berlin to visit old friends, theatres, and concerts, Siegbert Feldberg suffered a heart attack and died in 1971.

A Collection Returns to Berlin

In the last years of his life, Siegbert Feldberg turned down several attractive offers for individual works from his collection. He wanted to keep them together as he hoped to sell the complete collection to a Berlin museum some day. In 1976, five years after his death, his wish was granted. The Berlinische Galerie was able to purchase the collection from the heirs with funds from the German Lottery and thus bring the self-portraits back to their place of creation in the years of the Weimar Republic.


2. April 2004 - 25. Juli 2004


Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Libeskind-Bau, EG, Kunstgalerie

In 2002 the self-portraits were shown at the Hart House Gallery of the University of Toronto (Canada) and at the McMullen Museum in Boston (Massachusetts, USA). In November 2003 they were on display at the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Cologne (until 21 January 2004). The Berlinische Galerie now has a guest exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin with the Feldberg Collection.

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