Otto Freundlich, Ascension, 1929/1960, 51°57'37.5"N 7°37'57.1"E
The abstract bronze sculpture Ascension is a key work in the sculptural oeuvre of sculptor and painter Otto Freundlich (1878–1943). It is without doubt one of the most important artworks owned by the City of Münster. The work was purchased in 1981 and has been standing at its present site, not far from the Clemenskirche, since the mid-1990s.1 “With the purchase of this sculpture the City has filled an art-historical gap in the range of art made available to its citizens”, a press release from 1982 stated. Up until then no work from the period of classical modernism had been freely accessible for viewing within the city.2
Born in the Pomeranian town of Stolp (now Słupsk, Poland), Otto Freundlich is considered one of the foremost artistic figures of pre-war modernism, and in the 1920s was already highly esteemed as a “forerunner of abstraction”. With his numerous contacts in German and French artistic circles he would nowadays be described as exceptionally well “networked”. He maintained close relations to the Bauhaus in Weimar, to the Dada movement and the group of Cologne Progressives. Furthermore, he was one of the founding members of the Berlin-based November Group and part of the influential Parisian artists groups Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création. As a correspondent for various avantgarde journals he published art-philosophical writings which clearly show his particular role as a pioneering thinker of socially-committed art.3
Yet Otto Freundlich’s fortunes also mirror the ruptures and abysses of German history: after Adolf Hitler came to power he was ostracised and persecuted as a communist and a Jew. His works were removed from German museums and collections and subsequently displayed in the propagandistic touring exhibition of Entartete Kunst ("Degenerate Art", 1937).4 In February 1943 Freundlich was arrested in the French Pyrenees by stooges of the German Gestapo and deported to Poland. Shortly after, he was murdered in the extermination camp Sobibor or in Lublin-Majdanek.
Created in 1929 in Paris, Otto Freundlich’s Ascension began as a plaster model (scale 1:1).5 The present-day cast bronze figure, being too expensive for the artist himself to produce, was first realised in 1960 in the Paris foundry Susse Frères. Besides the copy in Münster there are five other casts, among them one in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, another in the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and another in the Musée de Pontoise in France. One of these six casts was shown at documenta III in Kassel in 1964, thereby bringing Otto Freundlich back to greater public attention after several decades of oblivion.
The abstract sculpture Ascension, which at first sight calls to mind a human figure, an over-sized bust or the bud of a plant, gives visible expression to an upwardly surging movement that combines all its individual elements into a collective conjunction. As if propelled by some inner energy, the organically shaped elements in the lower section appear to fuse and thrust one over the other. The natural, earthly structures of the lower, plinthlike section transform through constructive rectangular blocks in the central part into a cluster of rotating clumps at the top, whose seeming motion suggests a kind of triumph over gravity.6 Here, the semblance of inner animation is created by the play of light and shadow, and by the detailed texture of the modelled surface which Freundlich achieved in the formative stage of his work on the plaster model by shaping the soft mass with his hands and applying numerous small, flattened lumps of plaster.
In an almost exemplary fashion, Freundlich’s Ascension gives eidetic form to an idealistic and socially minded notion of art. He viewed abstraction as a powerful means of expression for visualising the hidden forces that govern both humanity and the cosmos. His vision was to overcome social barriers and shape human co-existence according to liberal and humanistic ideals: art as a call for utopia.7
The sculpture was purchased in 1981 for 360,000 deutschmarks, funded by the “Fonds zur Anschaffung von Kunstwerken” (“Trust for the acquisition of artworks”), which was established in 1977 and comprised donations made by the Stadtsparkasse, together with a ring-fenced donation by the department store chain Horten. The city’s art commission had become aware of the work, which was on sale through an art gallery, in the exhibition “Sculpture in the 20th century” (10 May–14 September 1980) held in Wenkenpark in Riehen/Basel. Cf.: Fact sheet “Otto Freundlich. Dokumentation im Westfälischen Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte / Dokumentation zum Erwerb der Plastik Der Aufstieg durch die Stadt Münster”, 1982.
Cf. Uli Bohnen (ed.), Otto Freundlich. Schriften. Ein Wegbereiter der gegenstandslosen Kunst, Cologne, 1982.
His now lost work Großer Kopf (Large Head) from 1912 was reproduced by the exhibition organisers in a defamatory manner on the front page of the exhibition brochure. Cf. Julia Freundlich (ed.), Otto Freundlich. Kosmischer Kommunismus, exhib. cat. Museum Ludwig (Cologne), Munich, 2017.
The plaster cast for Ascension ware first presented in 1929 in the exhibition “Abstrakte und surrealistische Malerei und Plastik” in Kunsthaus Zürich and came to prominence due to being reproduced in the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
Cf. Carla Schulz-Hoffmann (ed.), Pinakothek der Moderne. Malerei, Skulptur, neue Medien, Cologne (Dumont), 2002, 119.
Cf. Joachim Heusinger von Waldegg, Otto Freundlich: Ascension. Aufruf zur Utopie, Frankfurt am Main (Fischer), 1987.