Figur mit Maske

For Christoph Meckel (1935–2020), the visual arts played just as important a role as literature throughout his life. From the post-war years to the globalised world we now inhabit, Meckel commented on contemporary events visually as an accusatory observer, his gaze imbued with empathy, wit and irony, but also full of doubt and contradiction. Not surprisingly, he called his graphic oeuvre a »world comedy« - in reference to Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Meckel's visually powerful world comedy is a gigantic project numbering over 2,000 sheets and was created over several decades: cycles, diptychs and triptychs, drawings, etchings, lithographs and woodcuts. They are interwoven with subjective observations and the social and political events of his time. In his own words, Meckel strove for »an epic, narrative dimension. Not an illustrative one. The difference is in the artistic design. Form«.1

Ausstellungsansicht, Foto: Bernhard Strauss

Exhibition view, photo: Bernhard Strauss

The exhibition premiered his large-format woodcuts from the early 1960s and also features two series of etchings: Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1973) and The Rights of the Child (1993–94) – themes that are as topical and explosive as ever. Made during different decades, the focus is on man, his contradictions, doubts and aspirations. Eerie, ominous-looking men with masks and knives make us shudder. Multi-part scenes demand closer scrutiny and invite us on a voyage of discovery. These works are subjective compositions full of oneiric, betimes nightmarish and hopeful impressions – vivid illustrations by means of a decidedly highly individual visual and formal canon; they have an intrinsic narrative dimension that comments – socially and politically – on the times in which they were made.

Being Human : Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1973)

Different visual planes combine to form an array of diverse narratives. The contradictory, the related, even the expansive, coalesce in the same compositional format. Eschewing a literal translation of the respective articles of the resolution, Christoph Meckel does not visually narrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as such, but creates thirty-one ‟Bebilderungen” (illustrations) – as he calls them – concentrated into a contemporary-critical, political and human way of looking. The act of commenting on human rights, proclaimed in a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, was a personal concern for Meckel.  He saw his etchings, which echo the social critique from the 1920s in the works of George Grosz and yet create their very own visual universe, as a ‟human entity,” an ‟entreaty minus finger-wagging”.

By means of his ‟Bebilderungen” or illustrations, Meckel was at pains to render the thirty articles of the Declaration ‟visible”. However, his point of view is highly subjective and shaped by West German society in the early 1970s. The woodcuts encompass idiosyncratic, at times cheerful to compromising, by turns nightmarish and sarcastic scenarios. They contrast starkly with the ideal wishful images of human togetherness subsumed in the Universal Declaration.

Ausstellungsansicht, Foto: Bernhard Strauss

Exhibition view, photo: Bernhard Strauss

Being a Child : Rights of the Child (1993–94)

The etchings of the series Rights of the Child seem at once cheerfully playful yet menacing at the same time. Drawn figures and animals are brought to life, children and adults combine to create multi-part scenarios, in which moments of play and tranquillity are countered with moments of violence and suffering – seemingly amplifying the cruelty. Looking at the twenty-eight etchings initially evokes pleasure, interspersed with perplexity, contradiction, criticism, even self-criticism. One’s own childhood should be reflected upon here, one’s own wounds exposed – this is Christoph Meckel’s avowed intent and the basis his Rights of the Child, the illustration of which he took upon himself.

Similar to the etchings relating to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the illustrations render ‟visible” the somewhat rigid wording of the articles of the Convention, which were adopted by the United Nations on 20 November 1989 and emerged from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Similarly, Meckel does not formulate direct translations in this case. Instead, the connections between the text and the images gradually emerge. Although the articles pertain specifically to the Rights of the Child, they address adults to the same degree. In an epilogue, Meckel posits a route of mutual consideration.

Ausstellungsansicht, Foto: Bernhard Strauss

Exhibition view, photo: Bernhard Strauss

The exhibition was accompanied by a set route which effectively activated the exhibition space. In an intuitive way, the theme of children's and human rights was approached and visitors were encouraged to reflect on their own role in society: how is a society made up? Where do I end, where does the Other begin? Is there a space that belongs solely to me? Where does my protective space begin? Others perceive me differently to the way I perceive myself, so what do I really look like? How and where do I situate myself in space, in my environment, in the world?

Ausstellungsansicht, Foto: Bernhard Strauss

Exhibition view, photo: Bernhard Strauss

Being Me : Woodcuts (1960s)

Half-human, half-animal forms, men with masks and knives, an armoured-plated angel. Pitch-black, the beady-eyed figures looking out at us make us flinch momentarily. Their formats are clear, elementary and large. It is the very aspect of the monumental, the extroverted that draws us under the spell of the woodcut: Men swathed in black cloaks, their expressions fixed, their eyes hidden behind masks, each brandishing a knife. An angel on the run with big hands and feet tries to heave himself up a ladder, which is far too small. Another angel is armour-plated, a destructive external force seemingly bouncing off him, and finally there is Death, who almost saunters past us with a sunflower in his hand.

Christoph Meckel mit Holzschnitt "Bob mit Maske"

Christoph Meckel, photo: Estate

At the same time, a subtle approach to a highly intimate topic for Christoph Meckel also resonates here: his personal relationship with his father, which he transfers into a generational theme in these woodcuts and which he first addressed in his book Image for Investigation: About my Father (1980). He writes that his father’s ‟broken spirit tormented his children (they did not yet know that this father – the dethroned despot now grown helpless – was typical of a whole generation). That he did love them made their protest the more difficult. Bewilderment over many years. Unease. Fresh air was always missing; laughter faded out”.2 In addition, the works Herrscher der Füchse (Ruler of the Foxes) and Eule (Owl) are less mere depictions of animals, but rather allegories for the human condition and our behaviours: wisdom, prudence, cunning and deceitfulness. Sin, death and loneliness.

Tagebucheintrag von Christoph Meckel

Christoph Meckel, Diary entry






On the biography of Christoph Meckel written and narrated by Werner Witt

The Commenting

The exhibition Christoph Meckel. Being Human, Being a Child, Being Me takes a contemporary view; it channels Meckel's graphic art into the present on a thematic meta-level. If the exhibited works are to be read as a kind of commentary on the respective topics and issues, it is our endeavour to make this level of commentary visible from different perspectives in words and images, too: if we are to understand the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a dynamic document that was proclaimed over seventy years ago, it was only a matter of time – and in view of current discourse – that the language of the German version would become the subject of critical scrutiny. In 2019, Amnesty International published a revised German translation of this global standard of action, rendered in a manner mindful of potential discrimination - the rewordings are highlighted for reference.

Ausstellungsbroschüre, Auszug

Exhibition brochure, excerpt

UNICEF summarised the Rights of the Child into ten salient articles. As an example, some of Meckel's sheets are juxtaposed with keywords - which could often be assigned differently.

Ausstellungsbroschüre, Auszug

Exhibition brochure, excerpt

The woodcuts are also annotated by means of word and text. Through diary entries, poems and excerpts from literary works, Meckel the writer is fused with Meckel the artist.

Außenraum, Foto: Bernhard Strauss

Poster wall in the outdoor space, photo: Bernhard Strauss


This online album is published on the occasion of the exhibition:

Christoph Meckel. Being Human, Being a Child, Being Me

An Exhibition of the Museums für Neue Kunst in the Haus der Graphischen Sammlung, Städtische Museen Freiburg, 5 March to 19 June 2022


Overall Management: Tilmann von Stockhausen / Christine Litz

Conception: Sarah Lorbeer / Isabel Herda

Exhibition Texts: Sarah Lorbeer

Exhibition Management: Mirja Straub

Conservators: Juliane Hofer / Selina Dieter

Conservators Exhibition Lighting: Kai Miethe

Media Technology: Andreas Berger

Workshop: Ansgar Brandstädter and Team

Museum Education: Beate Reutter

Exhibition Design: Jens Burde

Graphic Design: Ronja Andersen / Marius Schwarz

Graphic Production: Werbetechnik Baden

Translation: Timothy Connell



1 Christoph Meckel, diary entry from 4 July 1963 [German Literature Archive Marbach, unpublished], with kind permission from Gila Funke-Meckel.

2 Christoph Meckel, Image for Investigation: About my Father, trans. M.S. Jones (London: Hutton Press, 1987), p.78.