Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Heinrich Ehmsen

Heinrich Ehmsen, almost forgotten today,  was born in 1886 as the fifth child of a basket maker in Kiel. His childhood was determined by poverty and his parents' struggle to provide food. From the age of six, Heinrich had to contribute to the family's livelihood by weaving baskets in his father's workshop. From 1901 to 1906 Ehmsen trained under the Kiel master painter Ernst Rüschmann and painted his first landscape and animal studies. Ehmsen's interest in fine arts grew and he decided to train as a decorative painter, paying for his training by painting houses after work.

Heinrich Ehmsen, Execution by Firing Squad (Red Jacket), 1919

From 1906 to 1909 Heinrich Ehmsen attended the Düsseldorf  Kunstgewerbeschule, where he was taught by leading exponents of Jugendstil such as Peter Behrens and Jan Thorn-Prikker. In 1909 Ehmsen spent a year in Paris, where he was inspired for his future work. From 1911 until 1928 Ehmsen worked as a freelance artist in Munich, interrupted by World War I and several trips. After his move to Munich, the Blauer Reiter group of artists began to influence Ehmsen's creative work and his art became more critical of society. In 1913, two of his paintings were shown in Herwarth Walden's exhibition of the European Avantgarde, Erster Deutschen Herbstsalon .

During the 1920s Ehmsen developped increasingly into a fighter for the wretched in society and revolution became the central theme of many of his paintings. Reflections on the war and the failed German revolution, especially his experience of the bloody liquidation of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1918/19 led him to paint the works shown here. Like the revolution paintings shown yesterday in my article about the the Cooperative for Proletarian Art I found them in the inventories of the St. Peterburg Hermitage.

Heinrich Ehmsen, Execution by Firing Squad of the Sailor Egelhofer (central part of the triptych), 1931. The sailor Rudolf Egelhofer was one of the first members of the German Communist Party. Aged only 23, he became one of the leaders of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Together with Ernst Toller, he was commanding the "Red Army". After the defeat of the Soviet Republic by troops loyal to the central government in Berlin, Rudolf Egelhofer was tortured and shot on May 3rd, 1919.

In 1929, after a six months study sojourn to Southern France, Heinrich Ehmsen moved to Berlin. The following year he worked at the German academy in Rome for six months together with Schmidt-Rottluff and Georg Schrimpf and subsequently went to Southern Italy. In 1932, Ehmsen stayed one year in the Soviet Union; he exhibited in Moscow and several russian museums acquired his works.

Heinrich Ehmsen, Execution by Firing Squad of the Sailor Egelhofer (right-hand part of the triptych), 1931

In 1933, Ehmsen was held captive by the Gestapo for several months. He was denounced as a "degenerate" artist in 1937 and his pictures were removed from German collections. During World War II Ehmsen worked for the Wehrmacht as a cultural liaison officer in Paris. In 1941, he organized a trip to Germany for French artists (participants were, among others, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck).

Heinrich Ehmsen, Execution by Firing Squad of the Sailor Egelhofer (left-hand part of the triptych), 1931

After the war, in 1945, Heinrich Ehmsen was appointed head of the painting class at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in West Berlin which was directed, at that time, by Karl Hofer. On the grounds of  a solidarity note to the Congrès mondial des partisans pour la paix Ehmsen lost his job at the Hochschule in 1949. Ehmsen now preferred to take residence in the German Democratic Republic where, in 1950, he joined the Akademie der Künste in East Berlin. Heinrich Ehmsen died 1964 in East Berlin.


  1. Thanks for all the interesting biographies ... I'll read some more when I have time! I found your link via Lucie's blog roll.
    and then Art inconnu

    I liked the paintings by Hans Baluschek ... he seemed to be the perfect artist for comic book stories which I am only just beginning to like!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Warren. I will certainly write a piece about Baluschek, all the more so because I visit "him" once in a while here in the Berlin City Museum ;)