Why in particular is Thomas Mann in the Schwules Museum? In 1922 Mann was one of the signatories of the Hirschfeld Petition to abolish Paragraph 175 of the Imperial Criminal Code. Almost more than any other writer of the 19th and 20th centuries, Thomas Mann was a figure with whom homosexual men could identify.
With its Thomas Mann exhibition the Schwules Museum is fulfilling a wish that has been repeatedly expressed above all by older visitors: namely, to honour homosexuality as a cultural achievement.
As part of the museum’s homage series, the exhibition’s curator Wolfgang Theis casts a critical but friendly eye on the life and work of Thomas Mann.
Thomas Mann’s attraction to his own sex was hardly a secret to the educated urning of that era. His novella Death in Venice, which appeared in 1912, became required reading in the homosexual curriculum.
Thomas Mann never lived out but rather sublimated his homosexuality. This cultural achievement would produce an extensive work rich in homosexual allusion and reference. Above all, in times of social suppression his work would give reassurance to the homosexual identity.
The exhibition shows Thomas Mann within his family circle. No less than three of his children: Erika, Klaus and Golo shared his sexual orientation. Unlike their father, however, they led more or less open lives. From the inner tensions of his family life a massive body of fiction and essays would grow that repeatedly confronted the subject of homosexuality.
The exhibition highlights the brotherly feud with Heinrich Mann, the struggle for the Weimar Republic, Mann’s fight in exile against Hitler, the reverberations of his work in literature, films and television.
The first room in the museum is dedicated to the literature and to the history of the Mann family. The main wall, which is covered with quotations and pictures of family members and close friends, faces another wall consisting of a collage of portraits – they are all of Thomas Mann who is directing a hundred stern gazes at these proceedings. On each flank are columns depicting Katia and Heinrich. The axis of the room is dominated by a drawing of Heinrich Mann which celebrates robust womanhood. The effect is completed with a wall-high quotation from Mann’s 1925 tract On Marriage. In between hang banners with quotations from his work. Scattered around are photographs, books and sculptures.
Standing at the centre of the exhibition are the diaries of Thomas Mann. This part of the exhibition celebrates the overflowing happiness that is produced by the late “fulfillment” of repressed desires. It depicts Thomas Mann bravely acknowledging a homoerotic passion that he refuses to hide from posterity. The diaries reveal his emphatic acknowledgement of his homosexual desires.
The second large room is devoted above all to the critical reception of Thomas Mann’s works. Mann goes to the movies and we are introduced to the film versions of his work. The political author is honoured, his great mentors are quoted, the abundance of secondary literature about Thomas Mann is referred to. The tour concludes with a look at some affectionate, admiring, critical and even derogatory comments from Mann’s contemporaries and colleagues.
On display are exhibits from the estate of Heinrich Mann lent by the Berlin Academy of Arts. The German History Museum of Berlin has provided busts of philosophers and poets. The Film Museum of Berlin has loaned us photographs and posters from the film versions of Mann’s work. Further exhibits originate from the Monacensia Literary Archive and Library of Munich and from private collections. The Museum is also grateful to the Fischer Publishing House of Frankfurt for the loan of valuable documents.
Curator: Wolfgang Theis