Felixmüller’s Failure: Painting and Poverty

James van Dyke (University of Missouri-Columbia)

I propose to consider the career of the German artist Conrad Felixmüller, a career characterized almost entirely by doom, with very little glitter. Felixmüller was a protagonist of the post-war Expressionist avant-garde in Dresden, a peer of Otto Dix, and it was then and there that he made his well-known pictures of militant workers and dying revolutionaries.

These images of working-class poverty and revolutionary politics will not, however, be my focus. Instead, I will examine Felixmüller’s career after the end of Expressionism, primarily using the painter’s letters and papers. Reading them, what emerges is a bitter yet sometimes touching story of professional marginalization and social immiseration, of local ties and marital solidarity, the antithesis of Dix’s. Felixmüller was a revolutionary avant-garde artist who became in the 1920s a politically ambiguous anti-modernist critic of the contemporary art world of the Weimar Republic.  To tell his story is to write in large part about the art proletariat, alienation, and failure, and thus to question the usual perspective of art history, which tends to devote itself to the individual winners of, and thereby to participate in, the process of market establishment and canon formation.


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