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A "cousin" of Michelle Pfeiffer’s "flew over the Nazi's nest"

10 February 2011 / 16:02:22  GRReporter
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Zdravka Mihaylova

Exclusively for GRReporter

At the end of January 2011 a painting exhibition from the Prinzhorn collection titled ‘Cause of Death: Euthanasia’ was opened at the New Benaki museum in Athens, (Pireos 138) under the aegis of the Greek president of Greece. This is the first occasion that particularly significant visual artworks from the internationally renowned Prinzhorn Collection of the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Heidelberg are shown in Greece. The 96 works on display were created by 18 artists who were mental patients and victims of the Nazis euthanasia programme in 1939-1944. Doctor and historian Hans Prinzhorn (1886-1933), gathered works from various psychiatric clinics and created the collection. Prinzhorn was fascinated by the topics investigated by cultural anthropology, such as the source of the artistic impulse, and sought to get a grip on the “schizophrenic sense of existence” as this was recorded in expressionist art during his lifetime. Following World War I, he gathered works from various psychiatric clinics and created a unique collection at Heidelberg. His greatest contribution lies in that by offering a positive re-evaluation to the marginalized “mad” art and its creators, he facilitated a recognition of the talent of psychiatric patients and a re-evaluation of such patients by society. The paintings bring history, art and psychiatry together, reflecting the destructive power of society, which under certain circumstances where politics turn extreme, creates new perilous traps for its weaker though nonetheless driven by creative energy members. 

Whoever attended the symposium on ’Creativity and Madness’ - a parallel event at the Benaki following the opening of this powerful exhibit, could see the striking art work of a modern German artist – not a mental patient – Klaus Pfeiffer who lives and works on the island of Naxos. His installation ‘The Death Book Talks’ was ‘inspired’ by the statistical archives of medical experiments and their lethal results, kept at the Nazi concentration camps. With the advance of the Allied Forces in WWII most of these archives were destroyed. Pfeiffer’s installation draws the curtain for what lies behind the bright colours and the hallucinogenic drawings the visitor sees at the exhibit and unveils experiments with luminal, mustard gas, freezing, sulfonamide, poison, sea water. A sane artist penetrating the unfathomable depth of madness, brutality and inhumanity. The artist Klaus Pfeiffer speaks to Zdravka Mihaylova exclusively for GRReporter.

QUESTION: In your artwork you’re using the powerful metaphor of flying, it’s the benchmark of your website Overcoming gravity is one of mankind’s oldest daring dreams, from Icarus through Leonardo’s experiments to the modern day novel “Birdy” by William Wharton and the Alan Parker Grand Prize (1985) of the Cannes Film Festival Jury  award-winning film based on it. You yourself are becoming an installation in your flying experiments on Naxos. What does a human being need to make it fly?

PFEIFFER: For sure no artificial wings as wrongly told by Ovid in his ‘Metamorphoses’. In 1971 I already discussed this erroneous version with Peter Greenaway at the occasion of his exhibition entitled ‘Flying over water’. It is the Roman Ovid who had misunderstood everything. All older Greek sources, such as Plutarch, Homer, Phanodikos and Pausanias, but especially Hesiod, do not talk of ‘wings’, but of ‘sails’. To quote Hesiod: “They were the first to build ships, curved on both ends, and they first put up sails, the wings of a seagoing ship” So, „πτερά”= wing “ιστία” = sail. In ancient Greek it is even more clear: you “fly” as in Alan Parker’s film “Birdy” and as I did in Lithuania 2001 on occasion of the international Symposium “On the Edges – Japan and the Eastern culture in discussion with the West”, actually the “First Humanpowered Flight in the History of Lithuania” for Emmett Williams.
a) Length of the strides on the dune: 2,20 m each.
b) Depth of the hole where taking off: 0,50 m
c) Trajectory: 4,00 m
d) Height: 1,50 m
e) In 1,2 sec
Northwesterly winds 6-7 Beaufort, Overcast - Rain, Visibility 600-700 m
Flight assistant: Francisco Felipe, Spain
Camerateam: Yoshiko Maruyama, Japan, Diana Radaviciute, Lithuania
Nida, Lithuania - June 22, 2001

In comparison a migrating duck flies in a speed of v = 29 m/sec. It was a “fluxus performance” initiated by Ayo, my good friend from Japan and one of the torchbearers of the “fluxus movement”. This all sounds very serious but actually it is all a big joke and a lot of fun. Dangerous as well as one may know from the noted American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, the French writer and pilot Saint-Exupery, the German pioneer of human aviation Otto Lilienthal who became known as the Glider King, The Tailor from Ulm who invented a flying machine similar to a hang-glider – and don’t forget the law of gravity by Isaac Newton! I never understand why a B747 can take off and fly, because as we learned in school “Everything heavier than air can’t fly”! But as Leonardo da Vinci once said: “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes skyward, for there you have been and there you will always long to return”.”

QUESTION: Your art installation at the Benaki Museum titled The Death Book Talks appeared along with the exhibit of the Prinzhorn Collection “Reason of Death: Euthanasia” on the day of the symposium on Art and Madness co-organised by the museum, the Greek Psychiatrists’ Society, Aion Cultural Association and Goethe Institut. It refers to the medical experiments and murders carried out at the concentration camps during WWII. A copy of a Death Book from Mauthausen, pictures from the trial of Nazi doctors at Nurnberg, under a magnifier one could
see a title from an English newspaper of the time reading: “German psychiatry  - mass murders of Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals”, what else can one witness turning the pages of this frightful book? What was the artistic concept lying behind the artwork of the installation?

PFEIFFER: The book with the magnifying glass is actually “THE HISTORY OF GERMANY” and the quotation is from “The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich”, a 1960 non-fiction book by William L. Shirer chronicling the general history of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. On the two pages the visitor can see are quotations in Greek, German and English about the Action T4 and human medical experiments. Through the Reich Chancellery and the Ministry of the Interior, Hitler officially extends killing to adult mental patients, choosing prominent psychiatrists to run the program called T4. "T4" is the code name for the project located at 4 Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin. If one would turn the pages one may read more about the perpetrators and their victims. The pages one can see are included by me.

The idea of my installation at the Benaki Museum, Pireos 138 in Athens, was based on the fact that never when the “Prinzhorn collection” was exhibited anything was shown about the perpetrators i.e. German psychiatrists. Neither at the University of Heidelberg in 2002, nor in the following exhibitions when the “Prinzhorn collection” toured. I was personally invited to participate by Prof. Nikos Tzavaras, president of the Hellenic Psychiatric Association. The fact that all extermination camps and psychiatric institutions of the Third Reich kept a “Totenbuch i.e. Deathbook” gave me the idea about “The Deathbook Talks”. The crimes of German Psychiatry are unique and unprecedented in the history of mankind. The mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals was prepared and preceded by the medicalized mass murder of mental patients. In 1939 ‘Action T 4’ the "Ethanasieerlaß" (Euthanasia Decree) was disclosed to the directors of psychiatric institutions inside Germany's prewar boundaries. The directors were ordered to send a registration form for each patient to a specifically created administration in Berlin, in order to ascertain if the patient fulfilled the necessary criteria for death. A group of well-known psychiatrists was appointed as "T 4 Gutachter" (T 4 Experts).

Besides I’m personally involved because my father, a resistance fighter was in the concentration camps Buchenwald and Bürgermoor and later in the punishment battalion 999. However one has to know that in the “Euthanasia program T4” between 1940 and 1945 more than 200.000 patients in psychiatric institutions were killed. Artworks of 19 victims of the organized and “wild” euthanasia are exhibited at the Benaki Museum – I show the perpetrators, because
“If you forget – you kill the victims a second time!” 

QUESTION: Having settled on Naxos in 1965 you belong to the early wave of the post WWII foreigners who discovered and fell in love with a Greece not yet branded as a tourist product. Why did you choose Naxos particularly?

PFEIFFER: My neighbour in Germany where I was born and educated was Pavlos Floros (1897-1981), a Smyrna-born Greek writer and poet who belongs to the mid-war generation of cosmoptilan Greek authors influenced by European literary and ideologiocal movements. He told me a lot about his beloved country and strongly urged me to visit it. I learned ancient Greek and Latin in a classical gymnasium, so I had an idea about Greece when I first visited it in 1965 – I could read but not speak modern Greek. Pavlos adviced us to stay overnight at the “Fryni” hotel in Palio Faliro. It was all brass and mahogany – very romantic, very Greek and I had married one year before. If one crossed Possidonos boulevard one could have a swim in the sea. We went to Pireus to fetch a boat – and there she was – to “Marilena” ready to sail to the Cyclades. My wife’s name is Marlene, so how strange I thought the ships name has to be feminine noun but it was neuter!? We left Pireus at 8 am and arrived on Naxos at 11 pm accompanied by shouting islanders, goats and chickens – we were very happy, even the rubbish was beautiful! There were only two hotels on Naxos in those days and in a Kafeneion we met kyrios Michalis who offered us a double bed room with hot shower for 15 Drs per night in his hotel ‘Dionysus’ underneath the old Venetian castle “To Kastro”. When we reached the hotel his wife Poppi told us that the double bed room cost 20 Drs per night because her husband was from Apiranthos, a mountain village on Naxos “where the liars and thieves live” – we took the room anyway. Next morning I asked kyrios Michalis to have a hot shower. “Wait a moment please in few minutes you will have hot water in your bathroom”. He went up to the rooftop, I’m curious behind him saw that he lit a fire under a 200 litre oil drum standing on a tripod and connected with a hosepipe to the water system. How clever – how Greek – how very artistic - we fell in love. We came back every year for a long time, but spending the winter in Germany until 1973. 1974 we decided to move to Greece, i.e. Naxos. Since then we have been living and working on Naxos in the old Venetian (Frankish) Castle in the house of the former office of the governor of the Duke. After 30 years having my studio in the former Ursuline convent, my studio is now in the former horse stables of the Palazzo Coronello near the East gate of the castle. As a visual artist it is important to speak about Light! As Paul Klee said: “Only in North Africa the light is better than in Greece.” And there is Love, because as we learned in time: “A country like Greece  has a lot of shade. . . . Because there is so much light.” In 1980 we became Naxian citizens.

QUESTION: Being a long-time resident of Naxos one could assume you’re on friendly terms with two of the most prominent Greek personalities born there – the resistance fighter, left-wing thinker and eternal rebel Manolis Glezos who together with A. Santas took down the German swastika flag from the Acropolis in 1941 during the German occupation of Greece, and world-famous playwright Yakovos Kabanellis whose activities during the Resistance resulted in his arrest by the Germans in 1943 and his detention at Mauthausen concentration camp till prisoners there were liberated by the Allies? One of his most famous narrative works ‘The Balad of Mauthausen’ - telling the story of two prisoners there falling in love - was set to music by Mikis Theodorakis. Would you share your impressions of matters you happen to have discussed or exchange you might have had with Glezos and Kabanellis?

PFEIFFER: I was introduced to Manolis Glezos in the beginning of the 1980ies when he opened the “Free University” on Naxos and gave a lecture about the grim conditions in 1942/1943 in Greece when many people were starving and dying. As he learned I was born in Germany he went away from me, his beautiful blue eyes cold like a glazier. Later he learned about my father and we became closer. After I’ve read Spyros Meletzis’ book ‘With the Resistance Fighters in the Mountains’ (Με τους αντάρτες στα βουνά)) and learned about his brother Nikos, who was killed by the Germans, I painted the portrait of his brother on a bigger scale because there is only a small passport photo. This painting could now be seen at the “Nikos Glezos library” in Apiranthos on Naxos. From then on we became really close. I remember a lunch in Apiranthos with Manolis Glezos, Prof. Giorgios Alexandros Mangakis, who did the opening lecture on occasion of the Japan project “ECO & EGO” in the town hall of Naxos 2004 and Prof. Vassilis Sfiroeras, the historian who once told me that most of the intelligence comes from the mountain villages in Greece. He gave a talk at the opening of my exhibition “Winged Words”. The lunch in the famous “Leftheri’s Restaurant” was arranged because the three friends wanted to help me with a project, which I never executed but perhaps one day it will be realized. It was one of my “green projects” i.e. I plan to colour the criss-crossing stonewalls in the highlands of Naxos with drinking cans and plastic shopping bags. I’ve met Manolis Glezos last time when he did a civil memorial service for his brother Nikos, I was the only “Xenos” (φορειγνερ) invited on this occasion in the Culture Centre of Apiranthos. Manolis Glezos said: “There is a German here today, not because the Germans killed my brother but Klaus, a friend, is invited today because he painted a portrait of my brother.”. . . I was so embarrassed. Everybody looking at me, I wanted to be a mouse – disappearing in a small hole.

Yakovos Kabanellis I’ve met for the first time at the “Balkan Film Festival” where I showed the “shortest short film of all times” titled the “Crash” and there was an exhibition of my work titled “... and they invented wings”. He talked to me and asked me if perhaps one day I would like to do the decoration for one of his theatre plays. A few years ago he published a map of the “Kastro of Naxos” I did (until then there was no actual map of the Venetian/Frankish Castle), for a book titled “Naxos” initiated by the municipality.

QUESTION: The subject of the reparations owed by Germany to Greece for the atrocities - physical, moral and material damage - caused by the Nazis during the Occupation is a sore point in German-Greek relations, preoccupying politicians, historians, diplomats, artists. Recently the Greek state-owned channel ET1 screened twice the powerful documentary ‘A Song for Argyris’ (Ena tragoudi gia ton Argyri), the story of a Greek man, now a Geneva-based scholar who as a child during the Occupation fell victim of the massacre of the village of Distomo. His family was killed and he grew up in orphanages in Greece and Switzerland, his personal story becoming an universal symbol of coping with traumatic war-time memories and suffering transformed into creative energy for world peace. What is your attitude on the subject of German guilt, do Germany owe moral (and eventually) financial retribution to Greece?   

PFEIFFER: Being born in Germany and having lived for such a long time on Naxos I’m still quite astonished how tolerant the Greeks are about what happened here during the Second World War and not only in Kalavryta and Distomo. I do remember being in Amsterdam, I was sixteen years old and accused by an elderly Dutch man about the atrocities done by the Germans in the Netherlands. He accused me for killing 6 million Jews, not accepting my reply that my father suffered too in concentration camps.

This has never happened to me in Greece though. Anyway, my personal opinion is that this burden of organized killing – the methodical extermination of human beings in the Third Reich is still frightening many people around the world. Concentration camps were invented by the English in South Africa, genocides have taking place since Cain and Abel - under Stalin, in Biafra, in Turkey against the Armenians . . . there is no end, but never with such a method and organisation as the Nazi Germans did it and this frightens people until the present day! The financial retribution to Greece, which is mentioned in the media nowadays so often (and Manolis Glezos has gone to the highest German court in Karlsruhe) has in my opinion nothing to do with the actual financial crisis here in Greece.
To bring the financial retribution to Greece and the actual financial crisis in Greece in context is in my opinion wrong.

QUESTION: In our brief conversation at the Benaki museum you mentioned Michelle Pfeiffer is a cousin of yours (or distant relative of yours?), that your family (as hers) originally comes from Besançon in France. Would you like to tell the readers of more about your family history?

PFEIFFER: This is my “running gag”: It happened the first time when I arrived in Tokyo 1999 to organize my first solo exhibition in Japan. I didn’t know that Michelle Pfeiffer was in Tokyo at the same time. The custom officer asked me if I was related to her and I replied “Yes” – it was a joke! What I do know is that the “Pfeiffers“ with three fff are originally from France – the name than was “Siffleur” as flute-player (“Avlitis” in Greek), this comes from “le siffle” i.e. the flute or pipe (in Greek “avlos”), (“Peter piper pecked the pepper” remember Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Lolita’). In high school I had a teacher who was very interested in genealogy and he searched and found out that our family from my father’s side came originally from Besançon in France, settled in Hessia near Frankfurt and translated their name into German. So it could really be I’m in a way related to Michelle, because the family root is for sure French – anyway it’s a joke – a running gag, because I was asked so often about my relationship to Michelle – I always say “Yes”! Actually the name is very old from medieval times when the “Pipers and the Drummers” were going in front of the Herald who announced the news from the King, the Duke let’s say the authorities.

Tags: Klaus PfeifferPrinzhornthe island of NaxosNazisMental patientsVisual arts
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