With the Soul of a Tanagra Potter

Photo of Moissey Kogan in three quarters profile, half-length, smartly dressed in a suit and tie holding a hat and cigarette nonchantly in one hand

With the Soul of a Tanagra Potter

In early 1954, a eulogy for Moissey Kogan was published in the Jewish Quarterly.* Its author was the art dealer from Hamburg, Gustave Delbanco. He lamented the fact that nothing had been done – no obituary had been published, and no memorial exhibition had been held – to mark the sculptor’s life and career following his death at Auschwitz.

When it became known at the end of the war that Moissey Kogan was amongst the French Jews who had died as victims of the Nazi persecutors, only the comparatively small circle of his friends was much affected. No obituary notices appeared in any paper, no memorial exhibition was staged; Moissey Kogan disappeared from our midst as he had lived; a quiet traveller, who did not announce his arrival, and left without much notice.

Delbanco had escaped from the Nazi regime in Germany in 1933, and had settled in London. Together with Heinrich Rosenbaum (anglicised: Henry Roland), a fellow Jewish refugee from the Third Reich, he founded a small art dealership in London, Roland and Delbanco, with premises on Picadilly right at the heart of the English art world. It is likely that Delbanco knew Kogan from Hamburg, and from the sculptor’s two pre-war visits to the English capital. Records do not survive to record whether Roland and Delbanco exhibited Kogan‘s work in London, or whether they represented him, although all three men were well-connected within the British art scene. They are likely to have known of Kogan‘s exhibition at the Brygos Gallery in May 1937, and would very probably have had contact with the sculptor’s art dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, also in exile in London, until his death in March that year.

Moissey Kogan_Weiblicher Akt
Moissey Kogan, Female Nude (Weiblicher Akt), drawing, 1928 or before, reproduced in Jewish Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 4, 1954

The perfunctory title of Delbanco‘s article – Moissey Kogan 1879-1942(?) – makes it clear that, even in 1954, it was not known to his surviving friends and colleagues precisely when Kogan had died. In late 1946, Kogan‘s longtime girlfriend, Maryla, applied for a document known as an Acte de Disparition to signal formally that he had not returned after the war. Confusion still reigned as to where Kogan had been arrested, but, at that stage, she did know that he had been interned at Drancy and had been deported to Auschwitz. She must have had little hope of his return, but the form stated baldly, ‘Cet acte de disparition n’est pas un acte de déces“‘(‘This certificate of disappearance is not a death certificate’) – and recipients were forbidden to have corresponding notifications entered in their local registers of deaths.

The first memorial exhibition to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution that included works by, or mention of, Kogan came a year after Delbanco’s article was published, at Galerie Zak, Paris. Others followed much later: in 1968 at the Tel Aviv Museum, and in 1978 at the University of Haifa, Israel. Kogan‘s oeuvre was represented in exhibitions in the very late 1940s and early 1950s at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne and the Haus der Kunst, Munich, as well as at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the Musée National d’art moderne, Paris, but none of these were retrospective or even solo exhibitions dedicated to Kogan. The sculptor’s work had been thrown to the four winds by the Nazi Degenerate Art campaign and looting from private Jewish collections. It would take some time before museums were able to reacquire work by Kogan for their collections. Aside from the sale of the contents of Kogan‘s studio at Galerie Zak after Maryla died in 1955, it was not until 1960 that a proper survey exhibition was hosted at the Clemens-Sels Museum, Neuss.

It has now been confirmed by the Bureau for Former Prisoners at the Archive State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau that Kogan is unlikely to have survived for very long on his arrival at the death camp on 13 February 1943, exactly 80 years ago. Although records were destroyed by the departing Nazis just prior to the liberation of the camp, with the result that it is not possible to verify what happened to him, as a man of 63, Kogan would have been sent straight to the gas chambers following the selection process. For more on this, please see our blogpost of February 2018, News today from Auschwitz.

Moissey Kogan, Bather (Badende), terracotta relief, 25 x 36 x 3 cm, 1928, work illustrated in Jewish Quarterly, vol. 1. no. 4, 1954; this image: Bildarchiv Pisarek / akg-images

Let us return to Gustave Delbanco‘s heartfelt eulogy to mark the 80th anniversary of Moissey Kogan‘s death today to give us some sense of who Kogan the sculptor and man really was and what he meant to his contemporaries.

He was of beautiful appearance, tall and strong; without knowing him, one would have guessed that he was a Russian, but would, perhaps, have been uncertain whether he were a scientist or an artist. He did not speak much, but listened, and it was astonishing how much his presence was felt wherever he appeared. He was completely unruffled— so it seemed – by happenings around him, unimpressed by the show that people make of themselves and others, untouched by the world’s noise. He was a man who had a strange intimate contact with the beautiful; he listened and saw intently, but then he sank back into himself and his dreams, to him, became reality.

There was a strong streak of Asia in him, in this self-centredness, this aversion to dynamic action, this ability not to move. But it was, above all, Greece whence he drew his inspiration, and he often said of himself that his soul must once have been the soul of a Tanagra potter. For Moissey Kogan’s life was devoted to the making of exquisite little figures of women – to so much and nothing else.

He carved them in plaster and carved them in the negative. He took pieces of plaster and with a knife and some other tools he cut out the form. If he wanted to make a figure in the round – and most of his sculpture is of this type – he had naturally to take two blocks of plaster, one for the front part of the figure, another for the back. The two positives which he got after having pressed some clay into each of the two plaster moulds, had to be fitted together, the seam had to be worked over and the figure was ready to be fired in the kiln.

I have to describe this technique because it is not in common use; Kogan is, as far as I know, the only sculptor who has used it. It is the technique of the seal or gem-cutter, but adapted for three-dimensional work. He certainly did not choose it in order to impress with his virtuosity, for nothing was more alien to him. Kogan probably developed this technique because in it he found the means to express his own conception of form, which was essentially linear.

Small terracotta figure of a nude woman with hair in a Classicising braided style, leaning against a slanted base, her head inclined forwards
Moissey Kogan, Femme accroupie / Nu assis (Crouching woman / Seated nude) terracotta, 25 x 10 x 10 cm, 1939, collection: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme Paris / Musée national d’art moderne, Paris; photo © RMN-Grand Palais – mahJ (work illustrated with different image in Jewish Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 4, 1954)

He did not demand much comfort, was satisfied with the barest necessities and knew that he had to make this concession if he wanted to live as he did. For, above all, he had to follow his inspiration and it was alien to him to force himself to work or do anything to which his genius did not give him easy access. He hated the noise of modern life, the propaganda drive in the art world, and being very conscious of his worth, he preferred to wait till he achieved recognition – even if he sometimes felt bitter that it had not come to him in a richer degree.

But how could it be otherwise? He had his roots nowhere, and in spite of having lived in Paris for more than thirty years, when the Germans took him away on one of their razzias, he knew few people outside the small circle of his artist friends.


And only when many of the weeds of the present have withered, will it be seen that Kogan’s art – intimate and small as it may be – has a better chance to survive than much else, because it is rooted in a genuine inspiration, which he followed without making any concessions.


*We reproduce extracts from Gustav Delbanco‘s article here with the kind permission of Morry Schwartz, publisher of the revived Jewish Quarterly.

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Featured image: Moissey Kogan in the 1920s