Guardian, 7 October 2008

‘Germany has a long comical tradition’

Comedy is possibly the last thing we associate with Germany – but a Frankfurt museum dedicated to humorous art hopes to put the record straight

Frankfurt, Germany’s financial centre and the seat of the European Central Bank, isn’t a particularly funny place these days. The credit crunch has hit this hub of international finance especially hard.

Yet in the midst of all this gloom, Frankfurt city council last week opened the Museum for Comic Art (Museum für Komische Kunst). It is, according to the broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the “first of its kind worldwide” and boasts “one of the greatest riches of pictorial humour to be found in Germany”. The people of Frankfurt love the idea: more than 1700 visitors flocked to the opening ceremony, undeterred by a particularly fierce rainstorm.

It might seem incongruous to some Brits that the world’s first museum dedicated to what Americans still call “the funnies” should be based in Germany, of all places. But it actually makes perfect sense, according to Achim Frenz, the museum’s founder and director. “Germany has a long comical tradition,” he told the Guardian. “The stereotype of the humourless German has always been unfounded and with our museum we want to prove this image wrong.”

At the heart of the new comic collection is the work of the artists of the “New Frankfurt School”, a loose club of illustrators, poets and painters who formed in the early 70s and borrowed their name from the group of neo-Marxist philosophers that included Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, the original Frankfurt School. The reference to the fathers of critical theory is a joke in itself, of course, because although all the members of the New Frankfurt School were – like everyone else at the time — highly politicised, they never intended to stage a revolution, be it social, philosophical or even artistic. Their humour was more subtle, sometimes even sad, but always a life-affirming and earthy affair, and in that respect much closer to one of Frankfurt’s other great sons, Goethe.

The “big five” of the New Frankfurt School are the poet and caricaturist Robert Gernhardt, writer and cartoonist FK Waechter, and the illustrators Hans Traxler, Chlodwig Poth and FW Bernstein. After cutting their teeth in Pardon, Germany’s answer to Private Eye and by that time Europe’s biggest satirical magazine, they founded Titanic, a monthly magazine of satirical texts and drawings.

With their work for Titanic and various other newspapers, they transformed the status of political cartoonists in Germany. “After the war, cartoons in Germany were droll drawings confined to a newspaper’s ‘joke page’,” recalls Frenz. “In the 70s and 80s, the New Frankfurt School had a great influence on the German ‘humour landscape’ and introduced a whole new quality to cartoons, politicising them.” The museum’s aim, he says, is to preserve this turning point for coming generations.

Despite the levity of its contents, the museum has been treated as a very serious subject in Frankfurt. The city council spent around €360,000 (£280,000) buying nearly 8,000 drawings, caricatures and paintings of its famous sons, and another €2.7m (£2.1m) on the conversion of the Leinwandhaus, one of the oldest buildings in Frankfurt.

The 600-year-old Gothic building provides a gloomy home for a colourful collection. The complicated refurbishment fell well behind schedule, and just days before the opening the exhibition space was still a building site. On top of that, the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported on a row between Gernhardt’s widow, Almut Gehebe-Gernhardt, and Frenz over the name of the new institution. Gehebe-Gernhardt apparently championed “caricatura”, while Frenz was keen not to limit the institution’s scope to political drawings only (the official name encompasses both: Museum für Komische Kunst – Caricatura).

Frenz didn’t find the reports on the supposed quarrel at all funny: “This was a private matter. It is normal in our circles to have heated discussions, but that doesn’t mean we actually fell out with one another. The article really hurt me.” As well as showcasing caricatures and cartoons, the exhibition space has a small stage, where satirical readings and performances, as well as current standup comedy, will have their place.

When asked about the future plans of the museum, Frenz’s deadpan answer could easily have been made by a British comedian making fun of the German museumisation of comedy: “We have big plans for the comic arts. This is only our first step to world domination.”

· For more information: