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National Hellenic Museum Virtual Exhibitions

Who was Alexander Mohr?

Painting

Born in the German city of Frankenberg in 1892, Alexander Mohr came from an affluent, aristocratic background and received an education in the Classics. From an early age he was immersed in the traditions of German Philhellenism, and began his artistic training at the age of thirteen under the direction of William Straube--who was himself a student of Henri Matisse and a leading light of the Rhenish Expressionists.

After serving on the Eastern Front during the First World War, Mohr resumed his art training in Stuttgart, Germany with Adolf Hölzel and began to establish an independent artistic career.

In 1922, Mohr set up his own studio in Trier, Germany, near one of his family’s homes. It was in Trier that Mohr met the Franco-German playwright Joseph Breitbach, and through this friendship Mohr gained access to some of the most vibrant artistic cycles of the interwar years and traveled extensively in the years that followed, meeting with many of the leading artistic and literary stars of the day.

It was on one of these trips that Mohr met Elsa Kahn, a woman eighteen years his junior and from a Greek and German Jewish background. The couple married in 1932 and settled in Athens, though they made long annual trips to Paris and Trier.

NHM Special Events Manager, Cairo Dye, briefly speaks about Elsa Kahn

One of the uncomfortable facts about Alexander Mohr’s life is that his work continued to be exhibited in Germany during the Nazi period. This has led some to view Mohr as, if not as a Nazi sympathizer himself, as someone who was complicit through his silence. However, Mohr's relationship to Hitler’s regime and Mohr's own actions during the Second World War are a bit more complicated than might initially meet the eye. Alexander Mohr’s wife, Elsa Kahn, was of German and Greek Jewish background. Like many 19th and 20th century European Jews, it is unlikely that Elsa thought of herself primarily through her Jewish identity. But it is also certain that the Nazi regime would not have seen this lack of Jewish identity as sufficient to save her from the final solution. Protecting his wife would most certainly have been Mohr’s most important objective during the war years--and his actions speak to this desire. Alexander and Elsa stayed in Athens throughout the war. Even after Greece finally fell to German and Italian armies in early 1942, the Greek people remained famously uncooperative in the deportation of the Jewish community. More importantly perhaps, Mohr can be seen keeping the Nazis at a friendly but distant arms length, working hard not to draw attention to himself or his family. Allowing his work to be exhibited in Germany and other German-occupied places in Europe can be seen as a part of this strategy. What do you think about Alexander Mohr’s decisions during the war years? What would you have done differently?

The Second World War interrupted Mohr's semi-nomadic lifestyle. He spent the war years in Nazi-occupied Athens, where he tried to continue his artistic career and hide his wife’s Jewish roots. So successful was he at this that Mohr actually managed to have his work shown on several occasions in Nazi Germany, even if the artist himself was unable travel to the exhibitions. When the war ended in 1945, he was stuck in Athens for an additional four years during the Greek Civil War. As during the Nazi occupation, Mohr struck a decidedly apolitical stance, a consistent truth about him that has been the source of frustration to commentators and historians.

In 1953, with Europe once again at peace, Mohr resumed his annual schedule of Athens in winter and Germany and France in summer--a pattern he would continue until his death in 1974. Mohr was buried in Athens at his request.

The paintings in this exhibition were primarily done in Greece during this later period. They provide an interesting glimpse into the mind of a German artist who spent a large portion of his adult life and artistic career in the turbulent Greece of the early 20th century. They also provide an important insight into German Expressionism and the final days of aristocratic Germany’s love affair with all things Hellenic.

Who was Alexander Mohr?