In 1929 Louis Christian Hess joins
the group of Munich-based painters known as "Juryfreie" (Without Jury).
He soon becomes one of the movement's most active members - taking part
in exhibitions at the Glaspalast in Prinzregenstrasse and organising a
wide range of events: cultural meetings, parties and concerts aimed at
raising support for the group's activities.
In 1931 Nazi paramilitary units, including the S.A. (Sturm Abteilung, the brown-shirted militia), stepped up their attacks on political opponents to clear the way for Hitler’s rise to power.Targets included historians, writers and artists of all kinds but especially those involved in figurative art. Nazi leaders realised the enormous influence that images could exert on the populace and they were to become an essential element of National Socialist propaganda. The work of artists whose ideals did not correspond with the tenets of Nazism was not to be brought before the public gaze. Modern art movements were instantly branded “corrupt and degenerate”. Abstract or expressionist painters were guilty of transmitting negative messages which hindered Germany’s return to European supremacy because they polluted the purity and spirituality of the German race. Hitler, who considered himself an artist, decried the exaggerated use of colour and of surreal images which distorted nature. “All this artistic and cultural blather from Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists and the like is neither healthy in racial terms or tolerable in national terms.”
Beatings from the Brownshirts
Members of the Juryfreie Movement were among the first to come under observation.
In March 1931 four Juryfreie members - Christian Hess, Adolf Hartmann, Wolf Panizza e Günther Grassmann – were thrown out of a meeting of the “Kampfbundes für deutsche Kultur” (“League of struggle for German culture”) when their protests became too vocal. Panizza and Grassmann were savagely beaten.
Hess mentions the incident in a letter sent from
Munich to his sister Emma in Messina. “A
few days ago we staged a protest during a conference on modern art.
Hartmann and me were the first to be thrown out of the conference
hall. Two other colleagues were beaten.”
From that moment ostracism against Juryfreie artists hardened. Just three months later a huge fire, later recognised as the result of arson, gutted the Glaspalast in Prinzregentstrasse. More than a thousand paintings and sculptures were destroyed. Not only modern works perished; early 19th century works by renowned German artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, Karl Blechen and Philipp Otto Runge, the Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind and the Piedmontese artist Felice Casorati were also destroyed. Only 80 paintings were saved; none of them by Juryfreie artists. Hess described the blaze in a letter to his sister: “I saw the fire. It was terrible to have to stand there and to watch powerless to do anything. Three of my best paintings (the triptych “Am Wasser”) were among those destroyed. Six months work up in smoke. I hadn’t even paid for the frames. ... The central painting had been reproduced in the exhibition catalogue. ... Now I’ll have to start all over again from scratch and I haven’t even got any paints. In two weeks time an extraordinary exhibition will be held. I must manage to complete my unfinished paintings.” For Hess the bitterness over his burned paintings was soon joined by anxiety over increasing Nazi repression of free speech. By 1933 the situation had become unbearable; it was clear the Juryfreie Movement would soon be banned. Hess decides to seek exile in Sicily.
The Glaspalast in flames and “Juryfreie” banned
A Hess exhibition which caused a sensation
Another eyewitness account of the Juryfreie movement was given in February 1977 by Prof. Günter Grassmann (1900-1993) during the conclusive stage of the travelling exhibition of the Rediscovery held at the Munich Kunstverein.
"I met Hess between 1928 and 1933 when we were both members of Juryfreie - which if I remember correctly was founded in 1912.
1927 it was an association of young artists united by the common desire to break free from the rigid and severe traditions of the Munich art world. Christian Hess, along with Joseph Scharl, was one of the leading personalities among the group. Hess was attracted by the work of Max Beckmann - then a highly controversial artist. The Juryfreie had some huge exhibition rooms opposite the Haus der Kunst. This impressive exhibition space was largely financed by organising artistic parties at carnival time. All the Juryfreie members took part in the preparations including Hess. The parties were held in the same rooms where Juryfreie members and invited artists displayed their work in collective exhibitions. I remember one exhibition of around 30-40 paintings by Christian Hess which at the time caused a huge sensation. It was said Hess had painted them in just a few weeks, which was in line with his impulsive way of working. The Juryfreie movement which had sought to oppose the cultural policies of the national socialists was dissolved by the authorities in 1933. » (Effectively ending any activities by the group) « Before that Juryfreie members had tried to make a stand against Nazi cultural policy. » (Here, Grassmann recalled the beating he and Panizza received at the hands of the Brownshirts) « After that time I did not see Hess again."
Internal dissent within Juryfreie
An idea of the atmosphere of apprehension in which Juryfreie members lived during the last few months of the movement’s existence may be glimpsed in a letter which the sculptor Karl Röhrig (1886-1972) wrote from Munich on 13 March 1934 to Christian Hess, who was by then in voluntary exile on the Sicilian coast near Messina.
Röhrig held an official position in Juryfreie – perhaps secretary or treasurer. His letter opens: "Dear Hess! At last I can send you a few lines to let you know how things are going for us members of the Juryfreie. We safely received your letter of 17 January 1934 and we are all pleased you are well where you are."
Later: "On the 22nd of this month we will have the general assembly.
You know it will be an explosive occasion. Please write as soon as
possible to let the assembly know your opinion."