The Dreamer, the Bohemian, the Vagabond, the Passionate Admirer of Female Beauty

Otto-van-Rees_Portait Kogan_1923-24

Homage to Moissey Kogan


Man konnte Kogan in verschiedenen Wesensarten erleben – als Träumer, als Bohémien, als Vagabund, als fanatischer Liebhaber weiblicher Schönheit.

(“There were many sides to Kogan – the dreamer, the bohemian, the vagabond, the passionate admirer of female beauty.” [1])


To mark the 77th anniversary of Moissey Kogan‘s death at Auschwitz on 13 February 1943,  I thought I would share some excerpts from Karl With‘s ‘Homage to Moissey Kogan’. [2] With, an art historian and museum director, and Kogan were lifelong friends and certainly mutually influential, sharing a particular interest in Oriental art and culture, amongst other things. They met in 1911 in Munich, where Kogan was a member of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München and was well-connected in the avant-garde art circles of the city, and With was a student at the University of Munich. The German credited the Russian with “opening my eyes to the wonders of art“.

August Sander-Karl With 1932
August Sander, Art Scholar (Karl With), 1932, printed 1990 – Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne / DACS, London, 2020.

After all, it was a time of fierce controversies about art, exhibitions and counter exhibitions, be it by the New Artists Federation [Neue Künstlervereinigung], or somewhat later by the loosely assembled group of the Blaue Reiter. Though I was myself still too immature to partake in the discussions, I would eagerly listen to the arguments. […] Yet the most cherished of my memories of this exciting though somewhat quixotic and eccentric episode was my getting acquainted with Moissey Kogan. […] I have not forgotten the first depressing sight of his studio: bare, shabby and with no comfort whatsoever. But it was so penetrated by his spirited personality, his creative dedication to art and his love for life, that it was as if the dismal surroundings he lived in seemed not to exist. He never cared about fame and recognition; no poverty ever bothered him, always certain to find help from friends while his loneliness was eased by a flow of visiting females, all charged with amorous adulation. He never ceased to adore the beauty of the female body in the nude; whether in the flesh or in the marble figure of Greek antiquity. Surely he was a man saturated with sensuality, yet his eroticism was interwoven with impulsive passion and endearing tenderness.


Kogan also turned out to be instrumental in the start of With‘s museum career. He suggested the art student attend a dance performance by Alexander Sacharoff at the Folkwang Museum in Hagen. Its innovative director and early supporter of Modern art in Germany, Karl Ernst Osthaus, a friend and patron of Kogan‘s, leapt at the chance to appoint him curatorial assistant at the Museum. From there, he went on to act as curator for Baron von der Heydt, establishing a private museum for his collection of Oriental art in Amsterdam. It was whilst With was involved on this project, that Kogan suggested to him that he should illustrate with a series of twelve woodcuts the latter’s poem, Jizo, which was based on a figure of a Japanese divinity in von der Heydt‘s collection. Kogan took on the task with gusto, also designing and setting the book, which involved travelling to Goslar to find a printer with the only typeface he felt appropriate to his bibliophilic task. The final work was published in 56 copies, bound in violet silk, by the Galerie Alfred Flechtheim in 1922.

Karl With, Jizo, illustrated and set by Moissey Kogan, published Verlag der Galerie Alfred Flechtheim, 1922


Moissey Kogan-Jizo-1922
Moissey Kogan, woodcut for Karl With’s poem, Jizo, published by the Verlag der Galerie Alfred Flechtheim, Berlin, 1922

Though he himself was a man of big stature, heavy set, seemingly impervious, self-assertive, encased in a shell of prideful defiance, the world of art he created was a mute exaltation of purity and tenderness, fragile and quiescent, weightless and unlabored. When at work, his clumsy and awkward-looking hands would turn into the most delicate tools, whether cutting minute intaglio stones or adding stitch upon stitch to tapestry-like embroideries; modelling figurines in the full round or in relief or carving negative molds for impressions in clay or bronze; creating innumerable drawings of flowing outlines, which he used to give away, or producing woodcuts which were like poems in black and white. […] Kogan’s methods and habits of working were so peculiar, that they deserve mentioning. He would while away many of his days doing nothing, just dreaming. When once I chided him for his laziness, his typically Russian answer was, that he must not work unless a divine spirit would allow and urge him. Actually, as I was to learn, inwardly he was occupied all the time, and when his creative imagining had reached a state of perfect vision he would burst out in a fury of production; for weeks, day and night, he would turn out negative molds hollowed out from blocks of gypsum, an exacting method requiring utter command of both conception and execution. […] ‘One must not take away and mutilate,’ as he put it, ‘but make the image emerge and be born from the hollow of the negative womb.’


With undertook a stint supervising art history classes at the Kölner Werkschulen (the Cologne Art and Craft Schools), where he was later director. This was followed by a period as artistic director of the Karl Ernst Osthaus-Bund in Hagen and as the Rhineland representative of the German Werkbund, of which Kogan was also a member. In 1928, With was appointed director of Cologne’s Kunstgewerbe-Museum (Museum of Arts and Crafts) by Konrad Adenauer, then mayor of the City of Cologne. Here, he introduced a progressive exhibition programme and reordered the display of the collections according to typological and functional criteria, which inevitably drew criticism from nationalist conservative circles.


During the first World War we were out of touch, until one morning, at a time when I was living in Cologne, I heard the door bell ring, and there he was. ‘Last night at the Café du Dome in Paris,’ he said, ‘somebody mentioned your Cologne address just in time for me to catch the next train.’ That’s the way he was. One never knew when he would show up and how long he would stay. […] We saw each other many times until the outbreak of the Second World War left us homeless and uprooted and separated us. While I was able to survive the Holocaust, Kogan fell into the hands of the Gestapo in France and as a Jew was deported to a concentration camp, where he was gassed to death. […] A bitter end and a tragic loss.


In 1933, the Nazis decried With as “a pimp of modern art” and dismissed him from all of his posts. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States, where he finally took on a professorship of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1950. Having tried to escape firstly to the Netherlands, which refused him a visa, and finding all other routes out closed to him, Kogan went into hiding in Paris in the homes of French people and in the care of members of the Résistance. He was arrested on 4 February 1943, taken to the transit camp, Drancy,  and, from there, was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 11 February, arriving on 13 February, where, due to his age, it is believed he was immediately gassed to death.


Previous related blog posts: News Today from Auschwitz, Launch of Website to Mark 75th Anniversary of Moissey Kogan’s death at Auschwitz and ‘Eine wundersame Begnung’. A Memorial Concert for Moissey Kogan


[1] Karl With in Moissej Kogan, exh. cat., Galerie Alex Vömel, Düsseldorf, 1964

[2] Karl With, ‘Homage to Moissey Kogan’ in idem, Autobiography of Ideas. Lebenserinnerungen eines außergewöhnlichen Kunstgelehrten/Memoirs of an Extraordinary Art Scholar, ed. Roland Jaeger, Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1997

Featured image: Otto van Rees, Portrait of Moissej Kogan, 1923/1924, Museo Comunale d’Arte Moderna, Ascona © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2014