One of city’s landmark works of public art is coming out of storage and into its own park
Gerhard Marcks’ sculpture ‘Maja’ escaped destruction by the Nazis and spent decades on view at the terrace of the PMA. She’ll soon return from storage, but to a new spot.
Sculptor Gerhard Marcks was a survivor. And so is his creation Maja.
The German sculptor was deemed a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis and suffered through World War II forbidden to exhibit and forbidden to sell. He was forced to surrender much of his work to the melting fires of Nazi smelters. His Berlin studio was virtually destroyed in a bombing raid.
Maja, conceived and executed just before the bombing, miraculously survived.
Marcks then delivered her to the world at a renowned international sculpture show mounted by the Fairmount Park Art Association, now the Association for Public Art, in Philadelphia in 1949.
The association promptly bought Maja, and gave her pride of place in the city – the terrace of the Philadelphia Museum of Art overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where she stood for decades gazing out over the changing urban landscape.
In the early 1990s, however, the museum renovated the entire east terrace, and Maja was removed and trundled off to storage, becoming a robust, distressed damsel in a warehouse dungeon.
But the association did not forget its sequestered ward and now is rescuing Maja and returning her to a place she knows well – the Parkway.
On Friday, this cast bronze work, seven feet tall, whose creator is well-known in Europe as one of the shapers of 20th-century sculpture, will be installed in her own small, simple park — Maja Park — at 22nd Street in front of the Park Towne Place apartment complex, a different perspective from which to view a much-changed and still-changing city.
“This [sculpture] really needed a proper home, and we were really in no rush,” said Penny Balkin Bach, director of the art association. “We had been thinking of various sites over the years, but this one seemed so correct, and the opportunity to design a park with [Maja] in mind was really a great opportunity.”
Maja has just undergone a thorough conservation to remove accumulated grime and protect the surface of the art – while not making the sculpture seem “new.” It is old and dark and modernist.
A remarkable wartime backstory
That Maja is around at all is remarkable. Marcks was reviled by the Nazis. His roots were in their bête noir, the hated Bauhaus, an art-school hotbed of experimentation founded in Germany by Walter Gropius after World War I. Marcks was one of the first teachers Gropius hired, along with painter Lyonel Feininger and sculptor Richard Scheibe.
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After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Marcks faced increasing harassment and difficulties because of his antifascist politics and his efforts to shield Jews from persecution. After he protected one Jewish student, the Nazis had had enough. Marcks was removed from his teaching job and barred from working in 1933 — Hitler was barely in office as chancellor when the hammer came down.
In 1937, the artist’s work was included in the Nazis’ infamous exhibition of Degenerate Art, along with many other reviled modernists. The exhibition, among the most popular ever mounted in Europe, was seen by more than three million people in Munich. Marcks subsequently had 24 works confiscated and destroyed. In 1943, his Berlin studio was bombed during an air raid and much of his work was destroyed.
How he continued to make art during this period of relentless destruction — the period when Maja was conceived and executed — is difficult to imagine. But Marcks and his creation made it through.
“In 1943, Marcks’ studio is bombed, but by some miracle Maja survives. It’s one of the few sculptures by Marcks from that period that survived,” said Arie Hartog, director of the Gerhard-Marcks-Haus, a Bremen museum largely devoted to Marcks’ sculptures, prints, ceramics, and other artworks.
In an unpublished interview for the art association, Hartog went on to say: “After WWII ends, when cultural life in Germany restarts, there is this one big modernist sculpture and that is Maja. No other [German] sculptor at that time has made such a big, bold modernist statement. There have been a lot of small sculptures, but Marcks made a big one, and he never cooperated with the Nazi party. So, he becomes a showcase German modernist.”
For Marcks, it was all about creation. The rest — even deliberate destruction at the hands of the state — was unimportant, if not uninteresting.
“Before God every genuine work of art is eternal because its creation is a divine gift,” Marcks wrote after the war. “Once it is set in material and the act of creation is completed, it can be left to the process of decay. Any loafer can destroy a work of art but he cannot undo the intellectual act.”
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The Nazis apparently abhorred works like Maja precisely because they defied ideology. Maja is not a representation of Aryan beauty. She is most definitely a person, not an ideal.
After the war, Marcks’ old Bauhaus friend Gropius said the key to Marcks’ survival lay in the “human qualities” that “guided him through hell and high water when a bomb destroyed his house, his studio, and his work, and when the Nazis called him degenerate, forbidding him to work.
“His spirit, though, could not be crushed and guided him to today’s broad recognition.”
Art in dialog on the Parkway
It is humanity — with all of its knobby and unusual particularities and contradictions — that distinguishes Maja from a public monument, for instance. A public monument has those contradictions washed away; it stands for an idea of something rather than the thing itself.
But Maja is art, said Faye Anderson, director of All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that focuses on documenting and contextualizing Philadelphia’s jazz heritage. Anderson has been a prominent voice in the ongoing debate over public monuments in the city and country.
“I support public art and I don’t see any problem with it,” she said. “The problem is, the bigger, broader issue of the lack of visibility of Black history and Black culture in public spaces and public art.”
“In a city and a nation undergoing a racial reckoning, why sculpture by a white male — that’s the issue,” she said, noting that it took 60 years to get the city to agree to move the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors from behind Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, where it had been sited by the public Art Jury in 1934, to its current prominent place in front of the Franklin Institute.
“But Maja is a sculpture, it’s not just memorializing something,” she said. “If it was, then that would become problematic.”
What is intriguing, said Anderson, and could create public electricity and even debate on the Parkway, is Marcks’ history of struggle in opposition to the racist Nazi regime. That creates resonance with the Holocaust Memorial down the street (the Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs) and the All Wars memorial on Logan Square. Together such works embody a cultural call and response. There are racism and oppression, and there is resistance.
“So what story will the public who comes to Philadelphia in 2026, what story will they see on the Parkway?” Anderson asks.
Bach, of the art association, said that the story of Maja and her creator will be told at Maja Park and online on the APA website and through its Museum Without Walls audio program.
“Understanding its story and revealing its story calls attention to another point in time that actually on a certain level shares some of our contemporary concerns about artwork and artists working under duress or censorship or persecution,” Bach said. “So that’s why we go to great lengths to tell the story. He was a very brave man in a very racist and reactionary time. And that in its way is very connected to a lot of the issues that are going on today.”