The Lenbachhaus museum in Munich has redacted part of the title of a 112-year-old August Macke painting depicting Native Americans, a decision that has spurred controversy in Germany.
The Macke work, previously titled Indians on Horseback Near a Tent (1911), has been in Lenbachhaus’s collection since 1964, and has hung ever since with that name. But the museum recently changed it so that the word “Indians” now appears as “I******” in its English label, with a similarly styled version for its German counterpart.
The right-wing tabloid Bild accused the museum of “woke madness” in its display copy for its story about the redaction.
Manuel Pretzl, the parliamentary leader for the Christian Social Union, told Bild, “Everyone should speak as they want. However, I am against adapting historical works to the current spirit of the times. Intervening in the work of an important artist who can no longer defend himself borders on censorship.”
On Monday, Lenbachhaus issued a lengthy statement denying that it had censored the painting’s title.
“As a public museum, we are obliged to critically reflect on the Blue Rider and his work in a historical context,” the institution wrote. “Dealing with the history and art of the early 20th century requires dealing with historical sources whose language and images can sometimes contain derogatory or even racist elements.”
The statement also clarified why the title had been restyled: “The work title given by Köhler is sometimes perceived as racist by our national and especially international guests, which is why we do not want to reproduce it on the title plate without comment. Replacing the letters of the so-called I-word with an asterisk (I*******) allows you to clearly identify which word it is. At the same time, people affected by the foreign name are not immediately offended by the word. In the booklet and the text next to the painting, we wrote out the word in quotation marks because the term is critically contextualized there.”
Macke was one of the artists involved in Der Blaue Reiter, an early 20th-century avant-garde movement whose members sought to portray nature via colorful abstract forms. Lenbachhaus’s holdings related to the movement are particularly rich, and are set to constitute the bulk of a Tate Modern show devoted to Der Blaue Reiter this year.
In its statement, Lenbachhaus said that Macke had never titled the painting in question. Instead, its former owner, Bernhard Köhler, lent the work its name.
At the time that this painting entered the Lenbachhaus collection, the offending term in its title was utilized to refer to Native Americans and was widely used by the general public. Today, it has fallen out of favor and is generally viewed as racist when used by non-Indigenous people.
The retitled Macke work, a painting that shows figures with headdresses on horseback near a teepee, is not one of the artist’s better known pieces, and it is not the only one he painted depicting Native Americans. In an essay on these paintings, art historian Marie Watkins noted that Indians on Horseback Near a Tent contains “romanticized and stereotypical imagery” and that with it, Macke had “misread Native American society.”