Dissent and Displacement: A Modern Story an exhibition for Gallery II (the main first floor gallery) of Leicester City Museum, New Walk, Leicester February 2020
Dissent and Displacement tells modern stories of opposition, persecution and persistence. It moves from East Prussia in the 1890’s to present-day Leicester, interweaving narratives of family, culture and art. Using original sources, the exhibition combines contemporary collaged and painterly lithographic prints with accessible descriptive text, as well as German Expressionist work from the artist’s own collection, archive objects, photos and film.
The six themed groups of large prints start with the artist’s family and friends in pre-war Dresden and Berlin. It chronicles their oppression after 1933 by the Nazi regime, their attempts to flee and their fates. It reflects on the degradation of Expressionist and Abstract artists in the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibitions, the wholesale looting of art and its ongoing legacy.
The wife and son of the late German Jewish collector Alfred Hess managed to escape to England with some of their distinguished collection. Penniless, they were befriended by Trevor Thomas, the innovative young director of Leicester New Walk Museum. Works from their collection were the impetus for the ground-breaking 1943 exhibition of mid-European art and the establishment of the German Expressionist collection. Six years later, Thomas was charged with homosexuality, instantly dismissed and redacted from the museum’s history.
Leicester has a long and notable history of dissent. Protestant non-conformism, workers struggles, and women’s suffrage characterised the growing city. Today it is a welcoming contemporary city of diversity and sanctuary. The background of persecution is explored through two present-day Leicester citizens: a Syrian refugee doctor and a gay woman, whose experiences resonate with the previous stories.
The stories draw to a close by considering the premises of destruction, fleeing for one’s life, naturalisation, and assimilation. The artist reflects on her experience as a ‘2ndgeneration’ immigrant, and her reconnection with being German, through being granted reparative citizenship, acts of remembrance and her work for the Dresden Trust.
Inter-relation, identity, heritage, and diversity are central issues to the exhibition: a complex web that ties together the artist’s heritage, the city’s heritage, and the museum’s world-class collection.
Benefit:The exhibition will interest and make connections with diverse groups, beyond those with an interest in ‘art’. This includes schools and students, refugees and immigrants, LGBTQ people, and those interested in the Second World War. The artist aims to be involved in this programme which offers wide ranging sources for outreach and education programmes, including subjects as varied as the history of Leicester, gender politics, printmaking and many others. It also offers considerable scope for collaboration with other institutions such as schools and universities
Help and Support
To date, the exhibition has been offered help and support by a number of individuals and organisations including:
Baroness Julia Neuberger – Rabbi, social commentator and writer
Lord Michael Cashman – Founding Chair of Stonewall;
Giles Thomas, son of Trever Thomas;
Very Revd. David Monteith – Dean of Leicester.
Revd Martyn Snow Bishop of Leicester;
University of Leicester, Department of Post Holocaust studies and Stanley Burton Centre:
Dr Fransiska Louwagie; Leicester LGBT Centre:
Bernard Greaves and Dennis Bradley;
Studio James Grayley Architects
Who and where
The exhibition will be the work of artist Monica Petzal. A painter, printmaker and art historian, Monica trained at Sussex University, the Royal College of Art and Camberwell College of Art. Full details can be found at: https://monicapetzal.com/about/
What will be in it
A diverse exhibition, it will be print and mixed media-based work made by the artist specifically for the exhibition. The visual work will be supported by text panels, original documents and photographs and objects from the artist’s family archive. It will also include video created by the artist and rare film footage from the Steven Spielberg Archive and the State University Library Dresden.
There will be 20 works by German Expressionist artist Conrad Felixmüller; prints, drawings and a watercolour, some of which will form the artist’s bequest to the Leicester German Expressionist collection. One work, at least, will be donated to the collection at the time of the exhibition.
There will be a catalogue to accompany the exhibition.
What is it about
Underlying the exhibition is thinking about ‘difference’, ‘dissent’ and the frequent consequence of ‘displacement’. It is about relaying complex narratives through compelling images and texts that, although specific, also act as metaphors for all our lives. Currently we are consistently all too aware of the persecution faced at every level by those who are different or dissent. Authoritarian individuals, regimes and organisations terrorise whole communities as well as individuals into fleeing for their lives, leading to them being permanently displaced.
The exhibition is divided into 6 main sections referred to as panels, each consisting of a group of six large unique prints, approx. 100 x 70 cms.
The work might not be framed, tbc.
The exhibition is based on a series of inter-twined narratives about dissent and displacement. These are developed from the historical to include more recent and contemporary subjects, which in turn reference the earlier stories.
Panel 1 is about the artists German Jewish maternal family, her grandparents Erich and Sofie Isakowitz, and their daughter Lore born 1915. It reflects on Eastern Prussia, the cities of Königsberg and Tilsit, her grandparents background, and their flight to Dresden in 1924 to escape anti-Semitism. In Dresden, it considers the political state of the city, their lives within the Jewish community and their close circle of friends, including the artist Conrad Felixmüller and diarist and social historian Victor Klemperer both of whom who chronicled the final years of the family’s time in Dresden in images and words.
Panel 2 takes as its starting point the first, little-known September 1933 exhibition of ‘degenerate art; in the Dresden City Hall, which included 40 works by Conrad Felixmuller. It follows the life and work of Felixmüller as he fled Dresden, sought to escape the attention of the authorities and maintain his political commitment to Communism. It considers later ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibitions and the subject of looted art. In parallel it charts the response of my grandparents to the rise of National Socialism, their desperate endeavours to find sanctuary and the process leading up to their flight to England in 1936. It references the massive obstacles, financial and bureaucratic to this from the German and the British regimes.
Panel 3 is devoted to the artist father’s family, the Petzals, their origins and status as German Jews in Berlin. It follows Harry Petzal’s young life at the radical Odenwaldschule and path into travel and work. It then follows the struggle of members of the family to flee Germany. It focusses on the fate of the artists uncle Werner Petzal, an international human rights lawyer, his wife Fanni Oppenheim, Werner’s mother Selma, their hiding in Holland, their internment at the Westerbork camp, the birth of three children to Fanni and all of their eventual deaths in concentration camps.
Panel 4 starts with the background to the origins of the Leicester collection, the German Jewish Hess family of Erfurt. Shoe manufacturer and art collector Alfred and Thekla Hess and their son Hans. Hans Hess like Harry Petzal was born in 1908 and attended the Odenwaldschule. It then takes on the narrative of Trevor Thomas the gifted young curator at Leicester Museum, his relationship with Thekla and Hans Hess and his pioneering exhibition of mid European art. It moves on to the trial and dismissal of Thomas on grounds of homosexuality and the aftermath including the ceding of his post to Hans Hess. It considers the current state and status of Leicester collection.
Panel 5 considers the city of Leicester, its early history of dissent and that of the 19thand 20thC. Leicestershire has a remarkable tradition of dissent and difference, starting as early at the 14thwith the theologian and reformer John Wycliffe, the Quakers, with their Leicester founder George Fox, and a long history of Protestant non-conformity and eventually of workers struggles and of women’s suffrage. It looks at Leicester as a contemporary city of diversity and sanctuary and its history of inward migration. Contemporary Leicester has over 55 different types of religious communities’ in almost 200 actively used centres. A traditional Labour stronghold, Leicester narrowly voted to Remain in the Brexit vote of 2016.
It then features two examples of people living in Leicester who share a background of persecution similar to Dr Erich Isakowitz and to Trevor Thomas. The first is a Syrian doctor and his family, the second a gay woman as yet TBC. It finally looks at contemporary Leicester, at the renaissance of the city, Richard III and of course, its football team.
Panel 6 brings many of these stories to their conclusions.
It starts with the arrival in England, separately of my parents, my father’s flight (like so many contemporary refugees), on false papers. It considers his volunteering for the British Army, marriage and settling in London. It then covers the end of the war and the catastrophic bombing of Dresden. It looks at ‘becoming British’, the process of naturalisation, and contemporary ideas about assimilation for my parents and grandparents. It looks at the effect of being brought up as ‘second generation’ on my work as an artist, my acquisition of German citizenship, acts of remembrance and my work as a trustee for the Dresden Trust. It compares and contrasts all this with the experience of the Syrian doctor and his young family. It finally looks at the complex web of relationships of my heritage with the diverse heritages of Leicester and refers to the museum collection and draws some conclusions.
In addition to the exhibition at the New Walk Museum there will be a series of digital panels in connection with the exhibition, exhibited at Leicester Cathedral. I have been asked by David Monteith to do a ‘Deans talk’.
The Leicester LGBT centre are interested to be involved in the project.
There is a proposal from the University of Leicester to held as symposium in conjunction with the exhibition, yet TBC.