All Good Artists are Migrants

When people move, the world moves. These movements are clearly apparent in art. Twentieth century art history is also a story about migration.

Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara and Man Ray. Paris, 1921.
Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara and Man Ray. Paris, 1921.

When people move, the world moves too. These movements are clearly apparent in the realm of art. The vast majority of the artists who left a significant impact on twentieth-century art history crossed national boundaries one or more times during the course of their career.

Some fled from wars. Others were persecuted because of their religion or ethnicity. Some crossed the Atlantic because of the marriages they made. Some crossed borders to enter other countries because they were attracted to a particularly stimulating art scene. Some did not cross any national borders at all, but were exiles in their own country, settling in remote artist colonies outside the major cities while their country was occupied by enemy forces. Yet others travelled abroad to enroll at a particular art academy. Some were economic migrants.

The art history of the twentieth century is also the history of migration.


Wassily Kandinsky, born 1866, Russia. Moved to Munich in 1896 to enroll at the art academy. Remained in Germany until 1914; following the outbreak of World War I he returned to Russia, where he stayed for the duration of the war. In 1921 Kandinsky was invited to join Bauhaus by Walter Gropius and travelled to Weimar. Here he remained until 1933, at which point the Nazi party seized power and shut down the Bauhaus school, where Kandinsky was a teacher. Kandinsky then settled in France, where he remained until his death in 1944.

Sonia Delaunay in her own design.
Sonia Delaunay in her own design.

Constantin Brancusi, born 1876, Romania. Having completed his art education in his native country, Brancusi set out for Paris in 1903 in order to develop his artistic work. He remained in France until his death in 1957. 

Paul Klee, born 1879, Switzerland. In 1898 Klee travelled to Munich to study at the art academy there. He was drafted to serve in the Prussian army in 1916–18. When the Nazis seized power in 1933 he held a position as professor at the Düsseldorf art academy. The Gestapo ransacked his home, prompting him to flee to Switzerland. Died in Muralto in Switzerland in 1940.

Sonia Delaunay, born 1885 in Russia in the present-day Ukraine. In 1903 the 18-year old Delauney set out for Karlsruhe to study at the art academy there. In 1905 she settled in Paris. At the outbreak of World War I Delaunay was travelling in Spain. She did not return to Paris, but spent the war years in Portugal. In 1920 she finally returned to Paris, where she stayed for the rest of her life. She died in 1979.

Marcel Duchamp, born 1887 in France. In 1915, after the outbreak of World War I, Duchamp goes to the USA where he remained throughout the war years. He lived in Argentina 1918–19, in France 1919–20, in the USA 1920­–23, and in France again from 1923–42. From 1942 to1966 he lived in the USA. He spent the final two years of his life in France, where he died in 1968.

Kurt Schwitters. Foto: El Lissitzky.
Kurt Schwitters. Foto: El Lissitzky.

Kurt Schwitters, born 1887 in Germany. By the time the Nazi regime comes into power, Schwitters was an experienced artist with international exhibitions to his name. Schwitter’s art was included in the exhibition of Entartete Kunst, and some of his works in German museums were impounded. By 1937 Schwitters was wanted by the Gestapo; he escapes to Norway, where he stayed until Norway was occupied by German forces in 1940. He then fled to Scotland, where his status as an “enemy alien” caused him to be interned in various internment camps in Scotland and England. In 1941 he was released from internment. Schwitters settled in London. Died in 1948. 

Hans Richter, born 1888 in Germany. In 1916 Richter was wounded while in active service during World War I. He was sent down and moved to Zürich, where he became part of the Dada movement. He remained in Switzerland until 1940, at which point he travelled to the USA and became an American citizen. Richter stayed in the USA, teaching at the Film Institute of City College in New York. He retired in 1962 and returned to Switzerland. Died in Locarno in 1976.

Josef Albers, born 1888 in Germany. Albers was a professor at the Bauhaus school in 1933, when the school was shut down by the Nazis. He emigrated to the USA, where he remained until his death in New Haven in 1976.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, self-portrait with Dada-Kopf, 1920.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, self-portrait with Dada-Kopf, 1920.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, born 1889 in Switzerland. In 1911 Tauber-Arp travelled to Munich to study. She returned to Zurich in 1916 to study modern dance and choreography with Rudolf von Laban. In 1926 Tauber-Arp moved to Paris, where she became a French citizen. In 1940 she fled Paris, which had become occupied by German forces, and settled in an artist colony in Grass in the south of France together with other artists such as Jean Arp and Sonia Delaunay. She died in 1943 while travelling in Switzerland. 

Man Ray, born 1890 in the USA; original name Emmanuel Radnitzky. Man Ray was the eldest child of Jewish-Russian immigrants who had changed their surname as a response to the dominant anti-Semitism of the age. Settled in Paris in 1921–41 and returned to the USA after the breakout of World War II. In 1951 Ray returned to Paris, where he died in 1976.

Naum Gabo, born 1890 in Russia to Jewish parents. In 1910 Gabo moved to Munich to study. He stayed in Germany until 1913. He then spent a year in Paris until the breakout of World War I. He fled to Denmark first and then to Norway, where he stayed until 1917. After the end of the war he returned to Russia, staying there until 1922, at which point he returned to Germany. In 1933 the Nazis seized power in Germany, prompting Gabo to flee to Paris, where he stayed until 1935. He relocated to England in 1936. He spent World War II in an artists’ colony in St. Ives in Cornwall alongside fellow artists such as Barbara Hepworth. In 1946 he moved to the USA. He died in Connecticut in 1977.

Meret Oppenheim, self portrait, x-ray, 1964.
Meret Oppenheim, self portrait, x-ray, 1964.

Max Ernst, born 1891, Germany. During World War I Ernst was drafted as a soldier for the Eastern and Western Fronts alike. In 1922 he settled in Paris as an illegal immigrant. In 1939 he was held in an internment camp in Southern France due to his status as an enemy alien. He was eventually released, but arrested by the Gestapo shortly afterwards. Ernst fled to the USA, where he stayed for a decade. In 1950 he once again settled in Paris, where he stayed until his death in 1976.

László Moholy-Nagy, born 1895, Hungary. During World War I, Moholy-Nagy serves in the Austro-Hungarian army, where he was seriously wounded. In 1920 he moves to Germany. In 1933 the Nazis seize power; as a foreign citizen he was no longer allowed to work in the country. He emigrated to the Netherlands in 1934 and onwards to England from 1935 to 1937. In 1937 he moved to the USA, where he remained until his death in 1946.

Alexander Calder, born 1898, USA. Travelled to Paris in 1926 to study art and stayed in France until 1933. Subsequently spent 1933–63 in the USA and 1963–76 in France. 

Louise Bourgeois, born 1911, France. Emigrated to the USA in 1938 upon marrying the American art historian Robert Goldwater. Lived in the USA until her death in 2010. 

Meret Oppenheim, born 1913 in Germany. In 1914, when Oppenheim was just one year old, her father was conscripted for military service and her mother moved with her to Switzerland. In 1932 she moved to France to study. She returned to Switzerland in 1937, where she remained until her death in 1985. 

Maya Deren, born 1917 in Ukraine as Eleanora Derenkowskaia. In 1922 the Derenkowskaia family flees the general persecution of Jews to travel to the USA, where Deren becomes an American citizen in 1928. Died in New York in 1961.

Lygia Clark, born 1920 in Brazil. Sets out for Paris in 1950 to study under artists such as Fernand Léger. She remained in France for 26 years before returning to Brazil in 1977. She died in Rio de Janeiro in 1988.

Nam June Paik, 1976.
Nam June Paik, 1976.
Félix González-Torres.
Félix González-Torres.

Öyvind Fahlström, born 1928 in Brazil. In 1939 the ten-year-old Fahlström was sent to Stockholm to visit relatives. Shortly afterwards Poland was invaded by Germany, and he was left stranded in Sweden. In 1956 he moved to France, moving on to the USA in 1960, where he lived until 1976. Fahlström died in Sweden in 1976. 

Niki de Saint Phalle, born 1930 in France. Saint Phalle was born into an affluent French family that lost its wealth during the Depression in the thirties. As a result, the family emigrated to the USA in 1933, where her father got a job in the American subsidiary of the family firm. Saint Phalle lived in Spain in 1953–55, in France from 1956 to 1993, and in the USA from 1994 to 2002.

On Kawara, born 1932 in Japan. In 1959 Kawara travelled to Mexico to visit his father, who worked as an engineer there. He stayed in Mexico for three years. He then lived in France in 1962–64 before finally settling in the USA. Kawara spent most of his adult life in New York, where he died in 2014. 

Nam June Paik, born 1932 in Korea. At the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the family flees first to Hong Kong and then onwards to Japan. In 1956 Paik moved to Munich to study music history. He stayed in Germany until 1964, at which points he settled in the USA until his death in 2006. 

Eva Hesse, born 1936 in Germany to Jewish parents. In 1938 the two-year-old Eva Hesse and her slightly older sister were sent out of Germany as part of the Kindertransport rescue effort, first to the Netherlands, then to Great Britain and in 1939 onwards to the USA, where Hesse remained until her death in 1970. 

Hannah Wilke, born 1940 in USA. Second-generation daughter of Jewish Eastern European immigrants. Lived in the USA until her death in 1993.

Sigmar Polke, born 1941 in Prussia (in the present-day Poland). In the wake of World War II German citizens were expelled from Poland, and the Polke family moved to Thuringen in East Germany. In 1953 the family flees East Germany to enter West Germany. Polke died in Cologne in 2010.

Ana Mendieta, born 1948 in Cuba. In 1961 the 13-year-old Mendieta and her sister were sent out of Fidel Castro’s Cuba during the so-called Operation Pedro Pan – a secret operation that sent around 14,000 children to the USA. Mendieta stayed in the USA up until his death in 1985.

Félix González-Torres, born in 1957 in Cuba. In 1971 the 14-year-old Gonzales-Torres and his sister were sent out of Cuba to Spain. They spent three months in an orphanage before being reunited with family members in Puerto Rico. González-Torres lived in Puerto Rico up until 1979, at which point he returned to Cuba, where he saw his parents for the first time in eight years. In 1981 his parents and two younger siblings flee Cuba. González-Torres settled in the USA, where he lived from 1979 to 1996.

This overview focuses on dead artists who have been prominent figures within twentieth-century art history. All information about the individual artists’ lives and movements – including on the causes that prompted them to cross one or more national boundaries – comes from Wikipedia and is provided without liability for any inaccuracies in the places and times stated. Many other artists could be included in this list; the number of potential examples is countless.

Maya Deren.
Maya Deren appearing in her own film At Land, 1944.

Comments (5)