March 2024
Unsettling Debt
The following passages are excerpts from an essay written to complement an exhibition proposal conceived during my masters studies in the Curating and Criticism program at the University of Oslo in 2023.

CAD-model of exhibition proposal ‘Otto Freundlich: Utopia in Exile’ for Henie Onstad Art Center, Høvikodden. Masters project in Curating and Criticism at the University of Oslo (2023).


A fundamental difference between modern and contemporary subjectivity has been observed to lie in their experience of time. While the early moderns seemed able to imagine a future beyond the pale of the present, since the 1950s, future imaginaries have been foreclosed by increasingly sophisticated and dispersed mechanisms of control. This essay will explore an exhibition format where these two temporal sensibilities collide.

We begin with a fixture in the German post-war curatorial landscape: the exhibitions that have sought to rehabilitate modernism in response to the exhibition Entartete Kunst (1937–1941). Tracing one of its genealogies, we will demonstrate how a closed temporality of ‘indebtedness’ has conflicted with the open and ‘unsettled’ temporality courted by an artist frequently featured in them, the modernist painter and art theoretician Otto Freundlich (1878–1943). Here we will argue that rehabilitation exhibitions such as the documenta III only managed to stage a German rapprochement toward the path of social liberalism by obscuring the Nazi continuities, colonial legacies, and repudiation of the avant-gardes that undergird the ‘liberal telos’ itself. 

Beyond critically reevaluating the exhibition-form’s role in Germany’s reckoning with its own history, the text furthermore asks how curatorial praxes today may engage in repatriation and restitution efforts. Taking our cue from Freundlich’s concept of a redemptive and unsettling historiography, we conclude with some reflections on how the constituting contradictions of the liberal capitalist world may be mapped and confronted in what we call an ‘unsettled’ curatorial praxis.

Excerpts from the essay “Unsettling Debt: Heterochronicities and the Curatorial Reception of Otto Freundlich”

“[...] We have however inherited from Freundlich sparse traces of how the debordering of life and death, and the redemption of a ruined past, may momentarily manifest itself in painting—more specifically, in the painted signature. While hiding from the Nazis in a small mountain village in the Pyrinées between 1940 and 1943, Freundlich meticulously registered the works that had been confiscated or destroyed by Adolph Ziegler’s Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste in a handwritten catalogue raisonné. In 1941, he began reconstructing these works on carton, two of which survive today. What interests us is how Freundlich’s restoration of these destroyed artworks manifest a peculiar temporal sensibility, one that would truly conjure these paintings back to life, not as representation or copy, but the image-as-such. We look to the signature of the repainted ‘Komposition mit drei Figuren’ (1941): 

Otto Freundlich, Komposition mit drei Figuren (Detail), 1941.‘Otto Freundlich 1911–1941.’ 

There are several reasons why this signature is exceptional. Since the late 1920s, in line with his ideal of an anonymous artistic production, Freundlich had tended to make his signatures as inconspicuous as possible, going so far as to claim that ‘[...] a clearly structured painting really has no room for the artist’s name’ in a 1928 essay. Accordingly, most works after 1925 are signed with the inconspicuous ‘O.F.’ or simply ‘F,’ and only in very rare cases are they affixed with his full name, like in the signature above. What is truly unique, however, beyond the spelling out of the entirety of his name (and certain other unusual characteristics we might point out; the contrasting peach-coloured strokes, the placement at the bottom left instead of the usual right), is that it is the only signature in the entirety of the artist’s oeuvre where the period of production is attested to. And most astonishingly, Freundlich has connected the two dates referring to the production of the 1911 original and the 1941 copy with a hyphen rather than a dividing oblique. A oblique would have indicated that this painting is a 1941 copy of the 1911 original. The hyphenation, on the other hand, retroactively conjures a scenario where the very same work now appears to have been in continuous production for the entirety of the 30-year time span. The painting’s destruction here becomes registered as just another aspect of its becoming. A connecting hyphen in the place of a separating oblique; two paintings and their points of production, 1911 and 1941, converge in the present.

This act of resistance against Nazi destruction does not mark an amelioration or calculable compensation within the logic of equivalent exchange, where the copy comes to stand in for or make up for the original. Redemption occurs precisely as an unsettling of the system of accounting itself, a symbolic exchange in the Baudrillardian sense, where the two separate works conjoin to become one and same coextensive form. It redeems the destroyed work in the theological sense, namely by confounding all the binary distinctions and equivalences that this exchange relies on: between copy and original, life and death, representation and represented, past and present. We argue then, that Freundlich’s definiton of the reproduced painting as self-identical with the original, acts to short-circuit a Nazi iconoclasm that relied precisely on the finality of the auratic painting, i.e., the singular authentic work, to guarantee the finality of their destructive act.

Towards Unsettled Curating
[...] If heterochronicities are essentially the unsettling confrontation between two historical contexts, which highlight both their continuities and their moments of disjunction, the presentation of Otto Freundlich at the documenta III did everything it could to avoid them. At the documenta III,  ‘risky’ content was elaborately edited away in order to resolve temporal clashes, thereby preparing a seamless and complete exchange between two otherwise immediable historical moments. In this closed and proto-neoliberal logic of exchange, all differences are turned into equivalences, all that is solid melts into air. Equivalences are set up where there exist none, debts are considered settled without historical engagement. The documenta III only managed to stage a German ‘rejoining’ with the teleological path towards social liberalism by covering up Nazi continuities, colonial legacies, and the radical claims of the modern avant-gardes. The disappointments of the first three documentas speak to the necessity for a curatorial practice that does not settle differences in order to ‘move on’ in accordance with the financialised logic of debt. We argue instead for an ‘unsettled’ curatorial praxis where unresolved differences are allowed to co-exist in states of irresolveable suspense. If this praxis performs transhistorical jumpcuts between radically immediable contexts, it is only in order to refuse to mediate between them, and by revealing their ineluctable heterogeneaity, hoping to betray them both for some third, unthought-of alternative. The unthought-of, or the ‘secret’ as Freundlich liked to call it, might or might not adumbrate a more hospitable future. It is no decisive political method or strategy in this sense. But it is hard to imagine how a future qualitatively different from the present could come into being without it. [...]”

© Gustav Elgin 2024