The art rebell from Judenbach

The foundation Judenbach dedicated a museum to the multifaceted artist Ali Kurt Baumgarten (1914–2009) and set him thus a lasting memorial. At the same time they created a new cultural and tourist centre of attraction – important not only for Thuringia. Baumgarten is considered to be not only the »last German expressionist« but also »probably the most notable toy designer of the former GDR«.

Visitors to the museum can follow Baumgarten’s track through the several periods of his life: his childhood and adolescence in the Thuringian forest, his expressionist Sturm-und-Drang years as a painter in Munich, his exhibition prohibition during the Nazi period, his successful career in the toy production of the GDR, his excursions in the field of »Kunst am Bau« (architectural art projects) and his arrival at the democracy after the »Peaceful Revolution in 1989« which was the trigger for an enormously colourful late work. A selection of the works from these times are presented in the collection of his paintings and graphics.

View at the early works in the »Paintings and graphics collection« of the museum.

The emphasis, however, lies on the early works of the expressionist from the early 1930s. They contain lithographies, woodcuts and oil paintings on burlap. These works are today – without any doubt – art historical documents of high artistic value. They mainly derived from private inheritance and are items from the artist’s grandson Mike Baumgarten. The same is true for a large number of historical photographs, documents and personal belongings of the artist in the gallery. It represents Ali Kurt Baumgarten impressively reflecting his times which began with his birth in Judenbach in the German empire shortly before the outburst of the First World War and became some kind of roulette for him…

Ali Kurt Baumgarten (left) as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1931.

The visitor can also see an oil painting with the title »Painting with blue table«from 1933 on an original easel from his studios which the 19-year-old artist made as a student for an audit at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. According to own data, he would have never separated from this art piece not even at times of great need.

Woodcut »Flotsam and jetsam « from 1937.

Three years before his 9th live decade Baumgarten had to stop his creative working due to his frail health, he was having dialysis treatment and was partly blind. In 2004 he became citizen of honour of the municipality Judenbach. Ali Kurt Baumgarten died in a hospital in Coburg on 4 April 2009 – two weeks after his 95th birthday. He found his last resting place in a family grave in the graveyard in Judenbach.

Already when he was a child, no barn door, wall or brick was secure against his paintings. Kurt Baumgarten, who placed later as an artist his second Christian name before his first, painted on them with gypsum – »hidden and always on the run from the adults«. When he joined the elementary school in 1920, he was only interested in Arts, as he told later. As a 12-year-old boy he enjoyed sitting in on the »Public professional school for industry« in Sonneberg. Later he even studied there for 8 semesters. His teachers realised his extraordinary artistic talent and encouraged him to take the bold decision to become an artistic painter and move to the Bavarian state capital.

In 1932, one year before Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, the almost 18-year-old boy passed the admission exam at the »Academy of Fine Arts« in Munich. »Without a penny and with a growling stomach« he was allowed to study under the professors Karl Caspar, Hugo Troendle and Olaf Gulbransson, who had become well-known artists by that time. And Baumgarten started in defiance and remarkably zealously to advocate for the officially as "degenerate art" denounced expressionism. That was his world. »I could not make any use of the NS art«, he said. In 1933 after the winter semester, Baumgarten left the academy because »the NSDAP has made any creative thinking and activity by teachers and students impossible«.

Early work by Baumgarten »Dance at midsummer« from 1933.

After he had returned to Judenbach, now working as a freelance expressionist, he went by bike to Berlin-Friedenau where he wanted to make contact with Karl Schmidt-Rotluff – the founder of the expressionist artist association »The bridge«. With his support, Baumgarten could exhibit his oil paintings on burlap (ripped potato sacks) in the famous art gallery Moeller at the Schoeneberger Ufer, where before him painters like Klee, Feininger and Kandinsky had caused a sensation.

Just three days after the opening the »NS-Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur« (NS Combat League for German culture) closed the exhibition. On 22 March 1934 the »Reichskammer« (Reich Culture Chamber) an exhibition ban followed which was basically a prohibition from work.

Mike Baumgarten, grandson of Ali Kurt Baumgarten, with the woodcut »Jazz« from the year 1935.

Yet the art rebel from the forest unwaveringly continued with his expressionist work in secret. So he places an african man behind a percussion instrument und makes him roar jungle sounds into the microphone just exactly at the same time when the Nazi regime was trying to ban jazz as »nigger music« from Germany. He added some things (»Jazz« and »1935«) and his woodcut became a kind of advertising poster for this much beloved music and his art a political issue.

Ali Kurt Baumgarten was encouraged by Schmidt-Rottluff whom he always regarded as one of his most important teachers, advisors and promotors. There is evidence of an exchange of letters between the two of them until 1974.

Friedhelm Berger