The Art of Grete Marks Survives a Horrific War

Modern Truly Delightful instead of Degenerate

Oct. 31, 2012
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If Eric Aho speaking from his exhibition opening at Tory Folliard Gallery intended his abstract paintings, at least the one Deep in Europe to reflect as he says, ‘the theatre of war is played out on beautiful landscapes, “ then the Milwaukee Art Museum’s current exhibition offers an alternative viewpoint on how war, specifically World War II, impacted other art. “Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate” speaks directly to how one government, a distorted philosophy can try to destroy the inherent goodness in art, an individual’s very personal expression, to no avail over time. Just as physical war will fail to overcome the inherent beauty observed in a natural landscape.

In this premiere exhibition of Grete Marks’s (1899-1970) ceramics and dinnerware, the young Jewish and German girl’s artistic talent along with her exceptional business acumen finally come to the forefront, the contemporary light of day. Grete’s daughter Dr. Frances Marks was in town for the exhibition opening in September that will continue through January 1, proud to see her mother finally in a museum.  Marks’s work begins with her brief training at the German Art School, the Bauhaus (1919-1933) under the direction of Walter Gropius, who brought modern design into the 20th century with the school's new philosophical ideals on color theory, form versus function, and mass production of these artworks for human use. 

Marks flourished throughout  the 20’s in Germany, when women were wearing shorter hair and skirts, finding new freedom as individuals. After enrolling in the Bauhaus and attending for a few semesters, Marks left because supposedly “there were too many women in ceramics or pottery.” However, the Bauhaus influence remained with Marks her entire life while she focused on producing pottery for mass marketing.

Her color sense descended from art masters such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky in their expression, how color develops from the science of a “color wheel” and evokes feeling in the viewer. The forms in her two and three dimensional art were derived from the fundamentals of geometry, seen in her iconic conical cups and teapots. All defined from the possible influence of Joseph Albers, who based his forms on the cone, the cube and the sphere.

Marks.or the then young adult named Lobenstein, leaves the Bauhaus in 1921, marries Gustav Daniel Marks, and in 1923 they purchase a pottery factory outside Berlin. Under Grete’s design and direction, the couple begins mass-producing ceramic dinnerware and publishes a huge catalogue illustrating their multiple modern designs, marketing the products across Europe. In the exhibition, these designs were illustrated by several tea services made from that time, and then 1929-1933. Each piece distinguished by an artistic mark on the bottom from Grete’s maiden name, Lobenstein, and her married name from her partner in every way, Marks.

Most striking is that in the early 1900’s this young Jewish woman becomes CEO and Design Director of a highly successful business overseen by her husband Gustav and his brother Frances, who watched over the finances. Running a model ceramic production factory that broke the mold so to speak on how women could be perceived, as artist and chief executive. a very rare picture in that historical period. 

However, in 1929 comes the Wall Street Crash after both Gustav and Frances die in a 1928 car crash. The Great Depression follows and this dedicated woman runs the avant-garde company by herself, meeting these new challenges with economically and artistically more conservative dinnerware designs along with lower prices. She survives up until 1933, when the German government begins boycotting Jewish businesses. In 1934, Marks was forced to sell at a substantially reduced price, all her designs, factory equipment, land, molds and clientele lists. The Germans then installed an Aryan  woman national at the company’s head, changed the distinctive marking and called Grete’s work degenerate in numerous publications even though the products the factory was producing were only slightly changed from Grete's original molds. 

Grete found sanctuary in London, and briefly hand painted china for Minton, although eventually remarried and Dr. Marks bears living testimony to her remarkable mother who was a pioneer in marketing modern ceramic dinnerware in the true expression of the Bauhaus philosophy similar to the better known Hungarian ceramicist Eva Zeisel. Marks survived the Nazi's abusive treatment in an attempt to destroy her legacy, and they almost succeeded. Another illustration that war can be played out on beautiful art and aesthetics, annihilating another human’s expression, their artistic soul. 

The MAM’s eye opening exhibition represents that Grete Marks was an outstanding artist, business executive and determined women at an extraordinary time in history. Similar to Anne Frank’s literary writings, on stage in The Diary of Anne Frank at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. The Nazi’s failed to bury and destroy a young girl’s writing and a young woman’s modern art. The survival of each one’s legacy testifies  the resilience of art and literature to overcome humanity’s worst qualities, the effort to wipe another individual’s expression from the face of the earth. Only after Anne’s and Grete’s death can the spirit of their personhood, their womanhood come into a light that shines on all art. Anne's over fifty years ago when she was sacrificed at a concentration camp. Grete's after her more recent death and through the faithful research by a caring art foundation. What can be described as degenerate in literature? In art?  Degenerate? Never. This delightful dinnerware from Grete Marks on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum needs to be examined so that as Dr. Marks with tears in her eyes said, “Her mother and her artwork can come to life again.”

The Milwaukee Art Museum presents "Grete Marks: When Modern was Degenerate" through January 1. For further information on gallery talks, programming, and hours please visit 



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