An exhibition of the early life and work of the painter and lithographer Leo Marschutz (1903-1976) will be held at the Camp des Milles from December 1, 2016 to January 27, 2017. Featuring work produced between 1918 and 1949, the exhibition rounds out a series of events held in Aix in 2013, which focused on Marschutz’s work from after 1949.
Camp des Milles, a concentration camp during the Vichy government and Nazi occupation of France, today serves as a memorial site not only to the holocaust but to the worldwide history of genocide. Under the motto, “Create to resist,” the Camp des Milles hosts a wide variety of cultural programs.
Leo Marschutz was born in 1903 into a prominent family of Jewish industrialists in Nuremburg, Germany. In 1896, his father, Carl Marschuetz, founded Hercules, the first manufacturer of bicycles in Germany. Leo showed an early aptitude as an artist and by the age of 15 was enrolled in the local arts academy. But he found the academic training lifeless and constraining and chose to abandon it in order to pursue his own visual education in the museums and churches of Nuremburg and Berlin.
The German period of Marschutz’s artistic life lasted from 1918 to 1931. The vast majority of the works from this period have disappeared and are presumed destroyed. Of those that have survived, most were rescued by family members fleeing to the United States to escape Nazi persecution. Many of these paintings have recently been returned to France, thanks to the generosity of family members living in southern California, and are being publicly exhibited for the first time at Camp des Milles.
Marschutz had his first personal exhibition in 1921 at the gallery of Karl-Ernst Osthaus, a prominent Berlin art dealer and the founder of the Folkwang Museum in Essen. With encouragement from Osthaus, he visited the famous Cezanne exhibition held later the same year by Paul Cassirer in his Berlin gallery. This encounter with the master of Aix was to forever change the course of Marschutz’s life and career.
Marschutz developed a passionate interest in the work and thinking of Cezanne. This eventually led him to move to Aix-en-Provence in 1931, initiating a second period of his artistic life (1931-1939). Taking up residence at the Chateaunoir, he became deeply familiar with the landscape motifs of Cezanne. In time, he entered into fruitful collaborations with the art historians Lionello Venturi, Fritz Novotny, and John Rewald, producing a series of articles that revolutionized the field of Cezanne research and studies.
This group of scholars was fascinated by the differences they discovered between the photographs they took of the motifs and the way that Cezanne had painted them. They found a consistent flattening and compression of perspective that clearly demonstrated Cezanne’s commitment to recording visual perception as it is actually experienced, rather than as it is “objectively” recorded by a camera. Marschutz contributed to the development of dissertations on this theme by both Novotny and Rewald. To their historical perspective, he was able to add the insights of a working artist into the actual painting practice of Cezanne.
During the 1930s, Marschutz’s paintings were visibly influenced by his interest in Cezanne and he attempted to integrate the perceptual insights of the master into his own working practice. Enchanted by the light of the south, he gave himself to drawing and oil painting, focusing particularly on the streets and surrounding landscapes of Aix. The mountain of Saint Victoire became one of his most beloved motifs and he returned to it again and again throughout his life.
By the mid-1930’s, conditions in Germany had so deteriorated that Marschutz could no longer rely on financial support from his family there. He was forced to develop an independent source of income, and, along with his wife Barbara, established a poultry farm just below the Chateaunoir. Beginning in 1936, the Nazis seized all of the assets of Hercules Bicycle and the family was eventually forced to take refuge in southern California.
Meanwhile, Marschutz was interned at Camp des Milles in September, 1939, following France’s declaration of war against Germany. As a German citizen, Marschutz (along with many other German expatriates) was viewed as a potential enemy combatant, in spite of the fact that he had previously attempted to renounce his German citizenship. As the situation in Germany and eastern Europe continued to deteriorate, the camp was overwhelmed by a growing flood of refugees. The French government decided to close it in 1940. Marschutz was lucky to be released at this time, because within a few months the Third Republic had collapsed and the Vichy government had re-opened Camp des Milles as a Jewish concentration camp.
For the remainder of the war, Marschutz remained in hiding. He slept in the poultry houses or, on the occasions when French police were searching for him, in caves in the mountains behind the Chateaunoir. His young daughter had to be sent away to live with friends, lest she inadvertently betray his whereabouts. During these years, his neighbors protected him, telling police that he had left the region long ago.
During the war years, lack of access to materials prevented Marschutz from continuing to paint and draw. But during this period of enforced inactivity, a new body of work was forming. As the war came to its conclusion, Marschutz immediately set to work on his first masterpiece, a hand-printed, illustrated edition of The Gospel According to St. Luke. The book was brought out in 1949 after four years of intense activity. In the process, Marschutz mastered the arts of lithography and typesetting. He also generated 1500 images—drawn directly onto lithographic stones—from which he selected approximately 100 for inclusion in the final version of the book. In the years that followed, lithography was to become his primary means of expression.
Most of the works to be featured in the Camp des Milles exhibit are being publicly shown for the first time.