UPDATED: March 1, 9 a.m.
St. Mary’s College in Moraga has temporarily removed a statue by a Nazi-era artist after students created and promoted a petition calling for its removal.
The German artist who made the statue, Fritz von Graevenitz, was celebrated among Nazi officials. Born in 1892, he created many pieces, including a 20-foot-wide bronze eagle and swastika statue and busts of Hitler. He died in 1959.
The statue at St. Mary’s is titled “Falcon Boy” and does not have any Nazi symbols. It depicts an unclothed boy looking at a falcon he is holding in his left hand. The statue is located within the courtyard of the college’s Museum of Art.
An official from St. Mary’s said that the Jesuit institution will be researching the statue’s provenance and the history behind the artist.
“But in the meantime, we have removed it temporarily because of the student concerns,” said William Mullen, the school’s vice provost of enrollment and communications. “We wanted to take the students’ concerns very seriously. We’re trying to learn more facts” about the statue and the artist.
Mullen said that after the college knows more, it will be holding a “community conversation” to discuss the situation. “We’re going to make this a learning opportunity for all of us,” he said.
In a statement posted on the St. Mary’s website on Feb. 26, Margaret Kasimatis, interim executive vice president, wrote that “Falcon Boy” was purchased on behalf of the college by Henry Schaefer-Simmern, an art faculty member who died in 1978. Schaefer-Simmern was born in Germany but left the country in 1937 after “[s]eeing that further art education research and teaching were impossible under Hitler’s regime,” according to a 1980 biography of him in an art journal.
In their petition, students said they want to replace the statue with something that “celebrates Jewish culture and prosperity.” As of March 1, the Change.org petition had more than 1,250 signatures. It was created by three St. Mary’s juniors, Sara Mameesh, Melanie Moyer and Venessa Ramirez.
After reading the school’s response to their petition, the three students say they are “not satisfied” and said that it “completely neglects the research we showed on the artist and fails to mention any semblance of an apology.”
The students said in an interview that their discovery of von Graevenitz’s past came out of “sheer curiosity.”
On Feb. 22, while walking in the courtyard of the Museum of Art, the trio came across “Falcon Boy” and wanted to know more about the artist. After some digging on the internet, the three women discovered his connection to the Nazi era.
“It was crazy,” Mameesh said, “Even just putting his name and ‘Nazi’ next to it [on Google], we found so much more information that was shocking. Absolutely shocking.”
After consulting with a professor, the three started the petition on Change.org the next day.
“We realized this isn’t something that the school should be representing in any way,” said Ramirez. “Especially in today’s climate. That shouldn’t be something the school should have on its campus at all.”
Von Graevenitz was director of Stuttgart’s State Academy of Fine Arts during the Nazi rise to power and during the war. In 1944, he was included in the “God-Favored List,” a group of artists chosen by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels that had contributed to the Nazi cause. (One of von Graevenitz’s Hitler busts is currently on sale for $7,595.)
While von Graevenitz never was technically a member of the Nazi party, he did join the Militant League for German Culture, a group that promoted Nazi values in art and culture in Germany. He was also part of Der Stahlhelm, a World War I veterans paramilitary group founded by early Nazi party members that opposed the Weimar Republic. Von Graevenitz left the group when it became part of the Brownshirts, a German assault division also known as Storm Troopers.
Von Graevenitz’s art can still be found in parts of Germany and around the world.
Julia Müller, who oversees a museum in Stuttgart devoted to von Graevenitz’s work, said in an emailed response to J. that the artist was “an important representative of the Nazi attitude towards art.”
Between 1937 and 1943, Müller said, von Graevenitz was featured continuously at the Great German Art Exhibition in Munich, which included artists whose works were deemed fitting by Nazi standards. In 1939, von Graevenitz’s sister Marianne, who was married to a high-ranking Nazi official, personally gave Hitler a book featuring her brother’s work. While his sister tried to use her connections within the Nazi party to sell von Graevenitz’s artwork, Müller said she was never very successful.
Müller added that von Graevenitz advocated for fellow artists (such as Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Gerhard Marcks and Franz Marc) whose works were considered “degenerate” by Nazi officials.
“He was always torn between his own artistic demands, social and paternal demands, ambition, sense of honor, his soldierly, national mentality and his art, which did not always conform to his original ideas,” said Müller.
The “Falcon Boy” statue at St. Mary’s College was made in 1953, according to Müller, who said that the boy is supposed to represent von Graevenitz’s little brother who died in 1918. Von Graevenitz himself died in Gerlingen, near Stuttgart, when he was 67.
“Whenever he had the possibility, he tried to integrate portraits of his dead family members,” said Müller.
Müller said that on a moral level, she understands why the students created the petition.
“But on principle, I don’t like polemics and shortened facts,” she said.
“History, also the parts that we dislike, is always a chance to change the future,” she continued. “The more a topic can be illuminated for all sides and clarified on the basis of historical facts, the more natural and objective the handling of history in all its forms becomes. To erase it based on polemics should not be the way.”