WISCONSIN ARTS DIPLOMACY: KUNST KULTURE

by Tony Rajer

The Flagellants’ from West Bend installed in the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, photograph by Tony Rajer
Wisconsin art has recently received a lot of international attention in both Germany and Japan. Several major works of art from the Museum of Wisconsin Art are on display in Munich, Germany and Wisconsin Painters and Sculptures recently had a major show in Tokyo. Let’s toast to these successful diplomatic initiatives that promote Wisconsin art. Prost! Way back in 1883, while studying art in Munich, Germany, Wisconsin artist Carl Von Marr (1858-1936) started painting his great masterpiece, The Flagellants, a project that would consume him for the next six years. He traveled to Italy to better understand the proposed setting for his forthcoming painting, and did hundreds of studies. 31 year old Von Marr rented a studio in Munich, and began to paint the great picture – a monumental painting, measuring nearly 14 by 26 feet, nearly the same size as Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. The Flagellants’ debut came in 1889 in Berlin where it won a gold medal, followed by its American debut in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair where it again won a gold medal. The historical painting was a sensational success both in Germany and in this country and is the most celebrated work of art by a Wisconsin artist in our history. Milwaukee art patron, Mrs. Elizabeth Schanden bought the painting from Von Marr for $10,000 that same year and gave it to the City of Milwaukee, which is still its legal owner. Exhibited at the Milwaukee Auditorium for decades, it wasn’t until 1977 when the painting was transferred to the West Bend Art Museum, now the Museum of Wisconsin Art and properly conserved.

Fast forward a hundred years to May 2008, The Flagellants was disassembled in West Bend, rolled, placed in a huge crate and flown to Europe, where it arrived without incident in Munich, its birth city. Once there, the painting was again stretched and framed and now, after 115 years, is once more receiving acclaim and interest. The Flagellants is the cornerstone of a huge exhibition in the Haus der Kunst, documenting 200 years of the Munich Art Academy. The German Press love’s the painting, and put it on the front page of the May 30, 2008 Munich newspaper to coincide with the exhibit opening, where nearly one thousand people saw Von Marr’s masterpiece in all its glory. The Flagellants has its own gallery that it shares with several other small American paintings, but Von Marr’s masterpiece takes up all the oxygen in the room. Its size, subject and sheer presence nearly overwhelms the visitors. Displayed on stark white walls without its gold frame, which was too fragile to travel, the painting projects a physical presence that attracts audiences to it. It’s even more surreal as the stone flooring in the gallery blends with the paving stone in the painting, an illusion of space so convincingly painted that the life size figures appear to be walking into the gallery.

The exhibit curator, Dr. Leon Krempel was delighted that West Bend allowed the painting to come to Munich, “We are pleased that America has loaned this great and pivotal work of art for our Academy show. We thank everyone in Wisconsin for this international goodwill gesture.” Other American works in the show could be described, but for lack of space suffice it to say that Wisconsin arts diplomacy has met with great success in Munich. This important European exhibit gave audiences a chance to admire Wisconsin’s own Flagellants: an expression of the power of art and of our own state’s contribution to world history. The show opened on May 29, 2008, with the Museum of Wisconsin Art Director Tom Lidtke and Tony Rajer representing the museum. The Flagellants’ from