Between aesthetics and science

The Giersch Museum sometimes seems far off the beaten track, for it is forgotten time and again in the shadow of the large Frankfurt galleries. This makes it all the more important to counteract this circumstance – because the exhibition Frobenius – Die Kunst des Forschens (Frobenius – The Art of Research) currently presents a piece of Frankfurt’s cultural identity. Contrary to the much-visited St├Ądel, the villa-like museum awaits the visitor with dimmed light and warm wood: a calm atmosphere spreads out that not only promotes concentration when reading the detailed explanatory texts, but also the effect of more than 200 works on display.

The Art of Research

Over three floors, the exhibition deals with the work of the ethnologist Leo Frobenius, his institute founded in Berlin in 1898 and affiliated to the Goethe University in 1925, and above all his first members. All of them report through studies of cultures they got to know on their expeditions to Africa, Northern and Southern Europe, Indonesia and Australia – in drawing and painting, the researchers advocated the documentary preservation of the vanishing peoples and their culture. While the exhibition on the first floor focuses on the results of the expeditions, the other floors also feature the historical-political context, the reference to contemporary scientific ethnology, and the influence of modern art and, in particular, Expressionism.

A touch too much aesthetics

With special attention to the women of the Frobenius Institute – a special feature of research institutions at the beginning of the 20th century – several exhibition rooms are dedicated to at least two different ethnologists and present their works in order to make a comparison by directly relating the studies to each other. It is precisely these comparisons that reveal the diversity of the studies: Each draughtsman and each draughtswoman reflects an individual view through their own style, which is revealed in the different use of the materials and the different techniques. For some visitors, these facts might give the impression that the documentary intention is disturbed by a touch of too much aesthetics, since many works testify more to a subjective experience than to what has been objectively.

The boundaries to art become blurred here: This becomes clear in Katharina Marr’s Portrait of Fatme (1935). One photograph shows three drawing researchers from the institute sitting away from the lens and revealing a view of a young woman from Libya in full figure with hair ornaments facing them. Marr’s drawing hanging next to it, on the other hand, shows only the headpiece of the young woman, while the use of a red crayon sets the scene for the decoration in her hair. The woman’s face in the three-quarter profile, slightly turned away from the observer, loses its meaning, whereas the jerky stroke of the pen emphasizes the feather decoration.

Art as a border area

A field of tension between science and art emerges that invites the viewer to explore the borderline between the disciplines – the researcher Marr, through her focusing and omission, places herself in the picture and documents almost in two ways: her subject and her own interest in it. The transition to art is then finally completed on the third floor: Works by modern and expressionist artists such as Wols and Paul Klee are presented here.

In addition to photographs, the Museum Giersch also uses the latest technologies to do justice to its concept – the development of new, experimental forms of representation. Reproductions, films, audio material, VR glasses and much more support the experience of the show, so that every visitor, from small to large, can experience the scientific content. The art of research thus – and vice versa – also allows an exploration of art, it opens up a wider perspective on the experience of knowledge in the 20th century and makes it worthwhile to visit the villa on the banks of the Main.

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