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The Jesus Scandal
A Liebermann painting in the crossfire of critics

The Hall of Master Drawings
18 April – 18 July 2010

The exhibition The Jesus Scandal at the Hamburger Kunsthalle centres on an oil painting of pivotal standing, The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple, 1879. One of most important works by Max Liebermann (1847–1935), it is being highlighted to mark the 75th anniversary of the artist’s death. When the artist showed the painting for the first time in 1879 at the Munich International Art Exhibition it sparked a scandal. Contemporary critics took offence that the Jewish painter should dare to address the Christian theme of the “twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple”, especially as he depicted the Saviour as a “Jewish urchin” off the streets. Liebermann was admonished for having strayed too far from the traditional portrayal of the young Christ as a divine youth and of his intellectual superiority over the Jewish scholars. Yet the anti-Semitically tinged accusations failed, on the one hand, to acknowledge that Liebermann led his life as an assimilated Jew. On the other, they misjudged his artistic intention of seeking to render the scene in the most realistic way possible. The outrage this painting excited upset Liebermann so much that in the following years he overpainted the figure of Jesus.

The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple is one of the few religious paintings by Liebermann, as well as one of his earliest. Today it has lost none of its relevance and fascination, and with a subject that strikes at the roots of both religions, Judaism and Christianity, remains highly controversial. This work from the collection of the Hamburger Kunsthalle still raises numerous questions concerning its origins and history and in terms of the scandal and Liebermann’s own position in the context of the religious debates and social changes in the late nineteenth century.

Alongside Liebermann’s paintings, sketches and studies, the exhibition will also show works by other artists on the same iconographic theme – a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, various etchings by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, but also renderings of this subject by Liebermann’s contemporaries, such as the oil painting by Heinrich Hofmann or the pastel drawing by Adolph Menzel. Liebermann is known to have modelled his painting on several of these depictions and made close studies of them. The exhibition will comprise altogether 25 works of art, among them nine loans (incl. the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin; the Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf; the Stiftung Saarländischer Kulturbesitz/Saarland-Museum; Kunsthaus Zürich; Thomas LeClaire Kunsthandel, Hamburg).

In addition, documentary exhibits will shed fresh light on the history of the work and the scandal. The Hamburger Kunsthalle purchased the painting in 1911, then sold it for political reasons in 1941, and finally re-purchased in 1989 with the support of the Campe’sche Historische Kunststiftung and the Kulturstiftung der Länder.

The exhibition, which until March 2010 was previously shown at the Liebermann Villa in Berlin, albeit in a somewhat different constellation, is documented in a catalogue published by the Max-Liebermann-Veranstaltungs GmbH.

Exhibition curator: Dr Ute Haug; academic advisor: Henrike Mund

Kindly supported by the
Kunst- und Literaturstiftung Petra und K.-H. Zillmer


Max Liebermann

Max Liebermann (1847-1935)
Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel, 1879
Photo: Elke Walford

Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel (Marienleben, 16), um 1503
Photo: Christoph Irrgang

Adolph Menzel

Adolph Menzel (1815-1905)
Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel, 1851
Photo: Elke Walford

© Hamburger Kunsthalle / bpk