Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ludwig Meidner

I'm thinking of the most exciting things, apocalyptic swarms, Hebrew prophets and mass grave hallucinations - because the spirit is all, and nature means nothing to me. (Ludwig Meidner)

Ludwig Meidner, I and the City (Self-Portrait), 1913

Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966) was born in Bernstadt, Silesia. Following his parents' wishes the young Meidner began an apprenticeship as a mason, but broke it off. In 1903 he was admitted to the Breslau Academy for Fine Art, which he left after two years to move to Berlin. The instruction he took in etching from the artist Hermann Struck was important for his later career. In 1906 he went for about a year to Paris, where he met Amedeo Modigliani.

 Ludwig Meidner, The Suicide (Self-Portrait), 1912

The year 1912 was an important one for Meidner: he painted the first of his compelling self-portraits and Apocalyptic Landscapes. These works anticipate the horrors of the first world war by several years. The series, produced rapidly in a hectic heatwave, are some of the purest expressionist works, portraying the terror of the modern city in catastrophic settings; comets cross the sky like canon shells, fires rage, men scream and flee for their lives, buildings totter on the edge of collapse. 

 Ludwig Meidner, Apocalyptic Landscape, 1912

The years that followed in Berlin saw Meidner haunted by dire financial straits although he intensively experienced expressionist bohemian life. His portraits from 1915 to the end of the 1920s are a gallery of the leading expressionist and Dada writers and poets. Ludwig Meidner also was a habitual self-portraitist producing a remarkable series of self-portraits that provide a vivid illustration to his passing years. 

 Ludwig Meidner, Portrait of the Writer Johannes R. Becher, 1916

Meidner joined forces with Jacob Steinhardt and Richard Janthur to found "Die Pathetiker" (The pathetic ones), a group that showed their works at Herwarth Walden's gallery. There he met Robert Delaunay, whose Cubism, with Italian Futurism, inspired his style. In 1915, he portraied his friend Conrad Felixmüller who occasionally worked in Meidner's Berlin studio.

 Ludwig Meidner, Portrait of Conrad Felixmüller, 1915

Conscripted into the military in 1916, Meidner served as an interpreter and censor at an internment camp for prisoners of war. There he began to write. After the war, in 1918,  he joined the Novembergruppe (November Group) and the revolutionary Genossenschaft für proletarische Kunst (Cooperative for Proletarian Art). Meidner, at that time, had a combination of Jewish Messianism and a somewhat mystical Marxism that sometimes anticipated Walter Benjamin’s later synthesis. He was an evangelical adherent of the Arbeitsrat, writing "we artists and poets should be in the forefront of  the struggle. Socialism should be our new faith.

Ludwig Meidner, Revolution, 1913

Disappointed at the failure of the Revolution, Meidner  retired to nurse his disillusionment in private, abandoning Expressionism, which by then was so popular that its commercial outlook increasingly brightened. In Autobiographische Plauderei (Autobiographical Chat) he offended companions and friends by repudiating his early work. Religious themes, landscapes, still lifes and more portraits would thenceforth be his dominant genres.

 Else Meidner, Self-Portrait, 1926

In 1927 Ludwig Meidner married Else, née Meyer, who was also an artist. As early as 1932, Meidner expressed his fears concerning growing anti-Semitism in a letter to his fellow painter, John Uhl: “We live in a highly-nationalistic area, are practically the only Jewish family in the neighbourhood and known as such, and might get into very dangerous situations.” After the Nazis came to power, Ludwig and Else Meidner's artistic possibilities became increasingly limited. Exhibitions were now only possible in Jewish cultural institutions such as the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture Association). 

 Ludwig Meidner, Self-Portrait, 1935

In order to escape the growing anti-Semitism in Berlin, Ludwig Meidner and his family moved to Cologne in 1935, where he had been offered a position as drawing teacher at the Jewish school Yavneh. After several other plans to emigrate had come to naught, the couple immigrated to England in August 1939, shortly before the war broke out. In England, the Meidners lived in abject poverty. After the war began, Ludwig Meidner was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. Many other German  intellectuals were imprisoned in the camp, and Ludwig Meidner considered his situation bearable because now at least his physical survival was ensured. Else Meidner, on the other hand, was forced to take on a position as a servant in order to make a living. 

 Ludwig Meidner, Crowd, c. 1915

Despite a certain degree of success – as, for example, when the Ben Uri Gallery put on a double show of the Meidners' work in 1949 – Ludwig Meidner lacked any prospects for artistic success in London. Even after ten years of living in exile, he had not managed to become established within the English art scene. Practically the only ones to take any notice of his art were other German-Jewish immigrants. He was invited to visit Germany in 1952, and the warm reception by old friends there as well as the outlook for success as an artist led him to return there for good in 1953. In a last, very productive, creative phase he further developed the style of painterly realism he had developed in the 1920s. In 1963 he had his first major exhibitions since 1918 in Recklinghausen and Berlin. Ludwig Meidner died on 14th May 1966 in Darmstadt, aged 82.

 Ludwig Meidner, My Night Visage, 1913

The Ludwig Meidner Archive at the Jewish Museum in Francfort contains many works from the estate of Ludwig Meidner. It comprises oil paint­ings, works on paper, sketchbooks, drawings, prints and works by fellow artists. The archive also holds the copyright to Meidner's oeuvre. Moreover, works from the estates of Else Meidner, Kurt Levy and Arie Goral are also theld here. The archive collects work by Jewish and exiled artists from the period 1933–45. You can see mor works of Ludwig Meidner here in my Flickr set.