Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hannah Höch - Brushflurlets and Beer Bellies

 Hannah Höch with her Dada Dolls, 1920

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) was born in Gotha. Her father was the director of an insurance company, her mother a hobby painter. Hannah studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts School) in Berlin between 1912 and 1915. She finished her studies under Emil Orlik, concentrating on collage techniques. After her schooling, she worked in the handicrafts department for the Ullstein publishing house, designing dress and embroidery patterns for Die Dame (The Lady) and Die Praktische Berlinerin (The Practical Berlin Woman).

Hannah Höch, The Puppet Balsamine, 1927

She met Dadaist Raoul Hausmann in 1915 and they became close friends. Höch was the only woman participating in the First International Dada Fair which took place at at Dr. Otto Burchard’s Berlin art gallery in July 1920. Among her fellow dadaists were Johannes Baader, George Grosz and John Heartfield. Höch's personal relationship with Hausmann grew from friendship to a  temptous romance over time, but they separated in 1922, partly because Höch didn't like Hausmann's insistence on an "official" ménage à trois together with his wife (Hausmann's dream came true in the late 1920s, when he moved with his wife Hedwig and his model Vera Broido to the fashionable district of Charlottenburg). 

 Raoul Hausmann, Double Portrait Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, c. 1920 

Hannah Höch - by now living with a woman, Dutch writer Til Brugmann, left a sketch of Hausmann around 1931:  "After I had offered to renew friendly relations we met frequently (with Til as well). At the time he was living with Heda Mankowicz-Hausmann and Vera Broido in Kaiser-Friedrich-Straße in Charlottenburg. Til and I went there often. But I always found it very boring. He was just acting the photographer, and the lover of Vera B, showing off terribly with what he could afford to buy now - the ésprit was all gone."

Hannah Höch und Til Brugmann, Berlin 1931

While the Dadaists paid lip service to women's emancipation they were clearly reluctant to include a woman among their ranks. The filmmaker Hans Richter described Höch's contribution to the Dada movement as the "sandwiches, beer and coffee she managed somehow to conjure up despite the shortage of money." Raoul Hausmann even suggested that Höch get a job to support him financially. Later, Höch ironized the hypocrisy of the Berlin Dada group in her photomontage The Strong Guys

 Hannah Höch, Die starken Männer (The Strong Guys), 1931

Höch observed in an undated note: "None of these men were satisfied with just an ordinary woman. In protest against the older generation they all desired this "New Woman" and her groundbreaking will to freedom. But - they more or less brutally rejected the notion that they, too, had to adopt new attitudes. This led to these truly Strindbergian dramas that typified the private lives of these men".

Hannah Höch, The Staircase, 1926

Höch was one of the forerunners in criticising society in the form of photomontages, a technique she developed in 1919. Her most famous piece became Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser DADA durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche (Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch), a critique of Germany in 1919. Perhaps it was the training at Ullstein that facilitated Höch’s finely-tuned eye for both snipping and re-assembling, which is so amply on display in Cut with the Kitchen Knife:

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch, 1919

Another brilliant and utterly ironic collage from 1919 (below) shows Friedrich Ebert (middle), first President of the Weimar Republic and his "bloodhound", defence minister Gustav Noske (right above), who was responsible for the assasination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht earlier that year. Both men are depicted in bathing suits with a fig leave - a symbol of innocence - before their bellies. The collage also refers to the so-called "bathing suit affair": After the liberal Berliner Illustrierte had printed a photo of Ebert and Noske in bathing suits, the right-wing press (which, a couple of months earlier had celebrated the assasinations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht) started a campaign against the "obscene behaviour" of the two statesmen.

 Hannah Höch, Dada Panorama, 1919

An exciting work during the mid 1920s was the ambitious From the Ethnographic Museum series, 17 works that constitute an epic foray into the notion of alien cultures and female identity (see Imaginary Bride below). It was visually influenced by the newly-redone tribal art displays in Berlin's Ethnological Museum. 

Hannah Höch, Imaginary Bride, 1926

Around 1920, the woman was for many artists the "eteral woman" or "world mother" - either a subject of their male salvation fantasies, or an object of morbid desires. Oskar Kokoschka spooned with dolls and imagined his Murderer, The Hope of Woman, Dix painted his Moon Woman, and Otto Freundlich anchored "The Mother" in the world of ideas of his cosmic communism. Marcel Duchamp built Bachelor Machines, Kurt Schwitters designed his Merzbau as a "cathedral of erotic misery", and Rudolf Schlichter's yearning for boots remained unsatisfied because he got the whole woman instead. And Höch painted Associations. In the center of the picture she placed two intertwined plant-like structures, engaged in a process of fertilization, whose blossoms are made of machine parts:

Hannah Höch, Vereinigungen (Associations), 1929

Höch’s focus on the nature of female identity (and its depiction in the media) reached a crescendo in the early 1930s in works like Tamer (below). Most probably Tamer relates to her new life with Til Brugman (they were together from 1926 to 1936). It represents the general move toward increasing gender ambiguity in Höch’s imagery, as can also be seen in her self-portrait Russian Dancer.

 Hannah Höch, Tamer, 1930

Höch made many influential friendships over the years, with Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters among others. She met Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian in 1924 in Paris, and a trip to Holland in 1926 was extended to a stay of three years. Here, in 1926, she met and grew to love Til Brugmann. The relationship, scandalous as it was for the time, sharpened her eye to the allocation of male and female roles. Höch and Brugmann returned to Germany in 1929, and  she participated in two important exhibits: The prestigious Film and Photo exhibition, the first big photography show in Europe, included 18 of her photomontages.  Some 10.000 people saw the exhibition on its first tour stop alone, Stuttgart. In that year, the De Bron Gallery in The Hague mounted her first one-woman show, which included her oil paintings, numerous drawings, and watercolors, though not her photomontages.

Hannah Höch, The Journalists, 1925

Höch’s public career as an artist was launched. Other exhibitions followed - in 1931 at Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum; and in 1932 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The Bauhaus mounted a show of 15 of her photomontages later that year. This public recognition came to an end in 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized political power. Like all avantgarde artists, Höch and her circle were deemed "Cultural Bolshiviks" and "Degenerates" by the National Socialist régime.  Höch refused to support the Nazis, and continued to secretly produce critical works like the The Mockers (you can see that she was a brilliant painter too):

 Hannah Höch, The Mockers, 1935

As the 1930s wore on, Höch’s world became increasingly dangerous. She expressed her feelings of loneliness and isolation in her painting The Fear (below). Höch married the much-younger businessman and pianist Kurt Matthies in 1938 and divorced him in 1944. In September, 1939, a few days after the begin of the Second World War, she moved to the relative obscurity of Heiligensee, a remote suburb of Berlin. She felt lucky to have found a place where "nobody would know me by sight or be aware of my lurid past as a Dadaist"

 Hannah Höch, Angst (Fear), 1936

After the end of the war, Höch was one of the first to actively revive artistic life in Berlin and to contribute to the gradual recovery of German art after the war. In 1945, she put together her Bilderbuch (Picture Book), a photomontaged zoological garden populated with Brushflurlets (below) as well as other strange  creatures, and accompanied by a series of sly, silly poems like Unsatisfeedle:
Flailing his arms about, quite a sight,
He had wanted the black dress
But God gave him the white.
So with his sourpuss
he lives out his life.

He nurtures the eccentricity
it’s the wrong one — explicitly.
Hannah Höch, Brushflurlet, 1945

Bilderbuch wouldn’t be published in its entirety until 1985, six years after Höch’s death, and then only in a limited edition of 200. Now, Berlin publishing house The Green Box has rescued this unique volume from out-of-print obscurity with a lovely facsimile edition that reproduces the poems in English translation. During the 1950s and 1960s, Höch produced abstract works but also a large number of highly acclaimed colour collages, which transformed reality in an ironic and fantastic manner:

 Hannah Höch, Grotesque,1963

Höch exhibited works at the large Dada exhibitions such as at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1948 and at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1958. Other exhibitions in London and Paris followed. An important retrospective exhibition of Höch's work was organised in 1973 in Paris and then toured to her hometown Berlin. Höch died in 1978 at the age of 88 years in her house in Berlin-Heiligensee.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Peter Drömmer - Revolutionary Take-Offs

 Peter Drömmer, The Card Player [probably Richard Blunck], 1919

Friedrich Peter Drömmer (1889-1968) was a German expressionistic visual artist and designer who is almost completely forgotten today. Drömmer was born in Kiel as son of a carpenter family. He left school early and started a painter apprenticeship which he finished in 1908. Between 1908 and 1912, he studied at Kiel's Art and Crafts School (Städtische Handwerker und Kunstgewerbeschule). Drömmer's artistic talents were spottet by Wilhelm Ahlmann, the doyen of an old Kiel banking family, who financed his academic education at Weimar's prestigious Academy of Art (1912-1913). 

 Peter Drömmer, Masurenschlacht (Battle of Masuria), 1914

Like Karl Peter Röhl, another of Kiel's "revolutionary expressionists", Drömmer studied In Weimar under the famous Austrian painter Albin Egger-Lienz. In 1914, Drömmer returned to Kiel where he worked in a studio at his parent's home. Still in a patriotic mood, it was probably there where he painted Masurenschlacht (above). The painting refers to the First Battle of the  Masurian Lakes between German and Russian troops (there is a brilliant novel by Aleksandr  Solzhenitsyn, August 1914, about this dramatic engagement). Drömmer was drafted in 1915, and served at the Western and Eastern front until 1918. He visualized his war experiences in his Kriegsfurienbilder (war fury paintings). 

 Peter Drömmer, The Rider (Yellow Incarnation), 1918

Under the impression of the Kiel mutiny, Drömmer painted in 1918 The Rider (above), a pathetic glorification of this important revolutionary event (I have previously written about Heinrich Ehmsen, another forgotten painter from Kiel, who produced a series of great paintings depicting the bloody aftermath of the failed German revolution). After the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919, Drömmer produced a series of "solidarity paintings", and an utterly expressive self-portray which he labeled The Revolutionary:

 Peter Drömmer, The Revolutionary, 1919

Together with the painters Karl Peter Röhl, Werner Lange, and Adolph Meyer - all of them born in Kiel - Drömmer joined the progressive artist group Expressionistische Arbeitsgemeinschaft Kiel (Expressionistic Working Group Kiel), which had been  founded around 1916 by the writers Richard Blunck and Gerhard Ausleger. The group published the magazine Schöne Rarität which combined texts and graphics, and worked closely together with similar groups in Berlin and Dresden, headed by Georg Tappert and Conrad Felixmüller

 Peter Drömmer, War Memorial, 1921

Highlights of the group's activities in 1919 and 1920 were two exhibitions in the "bourgeois temple of art", Kunsthalle Kiel, with the intention to overcome Kiel's reactionary image as the principal Prussian navy base. The modest exhibition slogan was: Still nobody has put the sun in his buttonhole. There, Drömmer first showed his architectural phantasies, paintings between Gothic cathedral and prismatic abstraction symbolizing the social and cultural utopia of a classless society, and reminescent of similar ideas by Lyonel Feininger (Cathedral of Socialism, 1919), and Wenzel Hablik

Peter Drömmer, City, 1923

Until 1923, Drömmer worked as a freelance artist producing a series of visionary architectural and cityscape works which put him into contact with The Bauhau in Dessau. Between 1923 and 1933, he headed the promotion and corporate design department of the Junkers-Werke, also located in Dessau, and at that time Germany's largest aeroplane manufacturer. Hugo Junkers, the visionary company founder and leader was passionate in his support of The Bauhaus and from that, Junkers and Bauhaus people formed relationships. 

Revolutionary take-off in 1929: Peter Drömmer (right) with Hugo Junkers (3rd from right) in front of the Junkers G38 ("Flying House") after its maiden flight. At the time, the G38 was the world's largest terrestrial airplane. You can see that some of the passenger seats were located inside the wings. Only two of these monsters were built. Luft Hansa employed one of them for its regular services between Berlin and London via Amsterdam until 1939.

Professor Junkers who almost always shunned the spotlight even showed up on December 4, 1926 when Walter Gropius' splendid  Bauhaus Building was formally dedicated and reportedly stayed at the party past midnight. It wasn’t long before the impact of Drömmer was felt and seen by millions aboard Junkers aircraft: He created the stylized Flying Man, the elegant logo of the Junkers factory:

Peter  Drömmer's "Flying Man", Logo of the Junkers Aerospace Company, c. 1925

Responsible for Junker's corporate design, which he developped in close cooperation with The Bauhaus, Drömmer became quite influential at the company. Based upon his autonomous position, and with the support of Hugo Junkers, he was even able to hire some of his leftist friends from Kiel, among them Heinrich Ehmsen and Richard Blunck (who later wrote Hugo Junker's first biography). Hugo Junkers wanted modern, functional design not only for the exterior of his airplanes, but also in the interior appointments. As a result, starting in 1925, Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer and Drömmer were able to develop their first steel tube furniture, which in a modified form was later installed in Junkers commercial airplanes. You can read more about this here (in German).

Peter Drömmer, Portrait Adolf Dethmann [Director of Junkers-Werke 1931-33], 1921

Almost nothing is known about Drömmer's following years. After Hitler came to power in 1933, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and, since 1935, had to work as a freelance designer (he designed the logo of the Deutz Company at that time). During the Second World War, he moved to Southern Germany, and, shortly after the war, suffered a complete physical and mental breakdown. Friedrich Peter Drömmer died in 1968 in Gräfeling, Bavaria.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Wenzel Hablik - Crystal Cities in the Air

A long time ago, I saw a big rock-crystal blasted out of the innermost St. Gotthard masiv - a very solitary and exclusive dream of nature. (Ernst Jünger, The Adventureous Heart)

 Wenzel Hablik and Elisabeth Lindemann-Hablik, c. 1930

Wenzel Hablik (1881-1934) was born in the Bohemian town of Brüx, Austria-Hungary (now Most in the Czech Republic). In later life he recalled that at the age of six, he found a specimen of crystal, and saw in it "magical castles and mountains" that would later appear in his art. Only eight years old, and parallel to his school education, Wenzel began a carpenter apprenticeship in his father's shop which he finished four years later as a master cabinetmaker.

Wenzel Hablik, Tropical Landscape, 1909

In the following years, Hablik worked as a porcelain painter, and as a draftsman in the office of an architect. Between 1902 and 1905, he studied painting and heraldry at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, followed by three years of studies at the Prague Academy of Arts. His solo ascent of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain, in 1906 was another formative experience, and quite an accomplishment at that time:

Wenzel Hablik, Untitled, 1906

During a trip to the German island of Helgoland, Hablik met the wealthy timber merchant Richard Biel who was to become his fatherly friend and patron. In 1907, Hablik permanently settled in Itzehoe, Biel's hometown near Hamburg, where he pursued architectural and interior design projects, producing designs for furniture, textiles, tapestries, jewellery, cutlery, and wallpapers. From 1908, Hablik designed complete interior decorations for his patron Biel and other wealthy families in northern Germany. Shortly after his arrival in Itzehoe, Hablik met the weaver and fabric designer Lisbeth Lindemann (1879–1960). They shared a workshop and studio in Itezhoe, and married in 1917.

 Wenzel Hablik, Planets, 1913

Hablik's first paintings, created in Prague between 1905 and 1907, show symbolistic influences, and were inspired by Hablik's admiration for the work of Edvard Munch. Hablik's view on nature was formed by his reading of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche which, around 1906,  laid the foundation of his utopian crystal-world. In 1909, Hablik published his Creative Forces (Schaffende Kräfte), a portfolio of twenty etchings portraying a voyage through an imaginary universe of crystalline structures that represents the most significant accomplishment of his career. Hablik also published other portfolios of his etchings, The Sea (1918) and Architectural Cycle - Utopia (1925). Some of Hablik's designs, particularly of lamps and small sculptures, also expressed the utopian crystalline forms of his etchings.

Wenzel Hablik, Untitled, Creative Forces Series, 1909

During and after a voyage to Constantinople in 1910, Hablik created a vast portfolio of oriental drawings and paintings, including portraits, landscapes and architectural scenes. Between 1909 and 1913, Hablik created wall-sized utopian visions of an outer space populated with phantastic planets and stars. These belong to the first cosmos paintings of the 20th century. In 1914 and 1917, Hablik produced two large sized paintings of crystal buildings standing in the sea:

Wenzel Hablik, Wonder of the Sea, 1917

In 1914, Hablik's textile designs for Lisbeth Lindemann were shown at the important Cologne exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund, an association similar to the English Arts and Craft movement. Since 1912, Hablik was in close contact with the influential art expert Herwarth Walden, the founder of the Expressionist magazine Der Sturm (The Storm). Walden introduced him to Umberto Boccioni, one of the rising stars of Italian Futurism.

Wenzel Hablik, Crystal Castle in the Sea, 1914

In 1912, the Italian futurist Antonio Sant'Elia had proposed a giant airplane station for the center of Milan. His plan was a bold foreshadowing of what an airport might actually look like one day, but Sant'Elia would never see it realized. He joined the Italian army in 1915 and was killed during the Battles of the Isonzo, near Monfalcone. On the opposite side of the trenches, the architect Erich Mendelsohn, huddled in a bunker and, between mortar rounds, sketched a kind of dream city. Among his drawings were plans for a large-scale airport.

Wenzel Hablik, Crystal Cities on Moving Planets (Creative Forces Series), 1909

That same year, Hablik who, strangely enough, also served at the Isonzo front as a drafted war artist, proposed a utopian community that would hover in the sky. His drawings for a "flying settlement" (below a first sketch from 1908) depicted a cylindrical airship encircled by propellers. Within its core were workshops, baths and storerooms. The upper level contained residential spaces, the lower level a landing platform for small planes. This imagination was only topped by Bruno Taut who proposed a giant aerial theatre, a "cosmic-comical amusement in silver", that would be carried aloft by airplanes and rotated by propellers in the wind, while planes disguised at comets would zoom around it.

Wenzel Hablik, Structure of a Colony Floating in the Air, 1908

After the war, Hablik and Lisbeth Lindemann moved into a villa in Itzehoe which, through a complete redesign, became an artwork in itself (Gesamtkunstwerk). The villa was the couple's center of creativity with studios, metal work and gemstone cutting shops, as well as vast collections of minerals, snails, mussels and plants. The versatile Hablik also designed Notgeld (emergency money), which was issued by cities, boroughs, and even private companies when inflation in the Weimar Republic skyrocketed to a millions of percent  rate (my grandfather had to pay his workers twice a day, transporting the money bags in a truck).

 Wenzel Hablik, Notgeld (Emergency Money), Town of Itzehoe, Germany 1921

In 1919, Hablik, because of his expertise in utopian architecture, was invited by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to participate in the Exhibition of Unknown Architects which was organized by the revolutionary Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Art Soviet). The Arbeitsrat was a union of architects, painters, sculptors and art writers, who were based in Berlin from 1918 to 1921 and an important nucleus of the Bauhaus. It developed as a response to the Workers and Soldiers councils and was dedicated to the goal of bringing the current developments and tendencies in architecture and art to a broader population.

Wenzel Hablik, Utopian Buildings, 1922

The Arbeitsrat worked closely with the Novembergruppe and the Deutscher Werkbund. Wenzel Hablik, Hermann Finsterlin and some other architects represented in the Arbeitsrat, also united in the Glass Chain. The Glass Chain or Crystal Chain, initiated by Bruno Taut,  was a secret chain letter that was written between November 1919 and December 1920, and formed the basis of expressionist architecture in Germany. In 1920, Hablik participated in the exhibition Neues Bauen (New Architecture) together with  leading modern German architects like Hans Scharoun, Hans and Wassili Luckhardt, and Bruno and Max Taut.

Wenzel Hablik, Self-Supporting Cupola with five Mountain Peaks as Basis, 1925

From 1921, Hablik concentrated on household designs for textiles, furniture and silver cutlery, many of them showing his favourite crystal pattern. In 1925 and 1926, he undertook an extensive voyage visiting Bolivia, Chile, the West Indies and the Azores. This tour inspired Hablik to create paintings of tropical motifs, cactuses and flowers. In his designs, Hablik prefered since 1927 constructivist interiors, furniture and fabrics in succession to the Dutch De Stijl group. His textile designs and gobelins from the twenties and early thirties, woven by Elisabeth Hablik-Lindemann, are among the most modern and elegant of that period.

Dining room in the Hablik Villa, c. 1923

Hablik maintained a strong lifelong interest in crystals and geological forms generally. His visual art is notable for its highly imaginative and fanciful aspects; he created depictions of temples, flying cities, and crystal chasms. He produced some 600 artworks; about 250 oil paintings by Hablik are known at present. Hablik died at Itzehoe in 1934. A Wenzel Hablik Museum was established in the city in 1995. The museum contains much of his art, as well as his collections of crystals and minerals, seashells and snails.

 Contemporary Photo of Hablik's Studio

There is an excellent online article by Bärbel Manitz, Expressionistische Verklärung des Kristalls. (Expressionistic Transfiguration of the Crystal), placing Wenzel Hablik in the wider context of other "crystal" architects and painters. If you don't read German: The article contains some real picture gems of nearly completely forgotten artists. And if you like the idea of cities floating in the air: Have a look at the argentinian painter Xul Solar.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Max Beckmann's Journey on the Fish

On the table gaily set, behold, within the dish,
the fishes' queer countenance.
Fish are mute ... so one thought. Who knows?
Is there not a place where the language of the fish,
in their absence, is at last in common parlance?

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, Part 2, XX

 Max Beckmann, Journey on the Fish, 1933

After Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, Beckmann lost his teaching position at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and was forced to retreat into private life. His painting Journey on the Fish (above) is the recognition of the 50-year-old that his destiny was now inevitably bound to that of his second wife Quappi. The doubling of the motifs - fish, persons, and masks (of which one shows Beckmann's profile, the other that of Quappi) - captures the theme of the linked pair. Joined in unity with two fish, the couple seems to stumble towards an abyss, although it is not clear whether they are headed for a black seashore or a dark chasm. The fish played a significant role in Beckmann’s work - as a symbol of phallus, fertility and animal nature. In this painting, the fish may be seen as the couple’s rescuer, leading them to new shores. The work is indicative of Beckmann's life circumstances at the time and a hint of his later emigration. 

Max Beckmann, The Small Fish, 1933

Beckmann, a vivid reader of Schopenhauer, and connaisseur of Greek and Eastern mythology might also refer to the Semitic god Dagon, part man and part aquatic animal. In the eleventh century, the Jewish bible commentator Rashi commented that the name Dagon is related to Hebrew dag (fish) and that Dagon was imagined in the shape of a fish. In the thirteenth century rabbi David Kimhi interpreted the odd sentence in Samuel 5.2-7 that "only Dagon was left to him" to mean "only the form of a fish was left", adding: 
It is said that Dagon, from his navel down, had the form of a fish, and from his navel up, the form of a man, as it is said, his two hands were cut off.
Beckmann's foresight employed the cut-off hand and fish symbol already in 1921:

Max Beckmann, The Dream, 1921

The fish form may also be considered as a phallic symbol as seen in Beckmann's The Small Fish (above) or in the story of the Egyptian grain god Osiris, whose penis was eaten by fish in the Nile after he was attacked by Set. Likewise, in the tale depicting the origin of the constellation Capricornus, the Greek god of nature Pan became a fish from the waist down when he jumped into the same river after being attacked by Typhon. John Milton used this myth in Paradise Lost:

Next came one
Who mourned in earnest, when the captive ark
Maimed his brute image, head and hands lopt off,
In his own temple, on the grunsel-edge,
Where he fell flat and shamed his worshippers:
Dagon his name, sea-monster, upward man
And downward fish; yet had his temple high.

Max Beckmann, Departure (left panel), 1933

Beckmann (who hated talking about his paintings) once responded to a reporter asking why he put fish into so many of his paintings: "Because I like fish, both to eat and to look at. Also they are symbols." What do they symbolize? "Geist - spirit," Beckmann replied. "But the man who looks at my pictures must figure them out for himself." It is interesting to note that the first thing Beckmann said is that he simply likes fish - to eat and to look at. That is a good response. We do, after all, eat fish. Why do we eat? To live, to have strength, and to have potency. As Chesterton implies through a character in The Napoleon of Notting Hill:
A man strikes the lyre, and says, "Life is real, life is earnest," and then goes into a room and stuffs alien substances into a hole in his head.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Egon Schiele

Anonymous, Portrait of Egon Schiele, 1915

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was born in Tulln, Austria. His father, Adolph Schiele, worked for the Austrian State Railways as a station master, his mother, Marie Soukup(ová), was from Krumau, (today Český Krumlov) in Bohemia. Since there was no suitable school at Tulln, Schiele was sent away in 1901, first to Krems, then to Klosterneuburg near Vienna. In 1904 the whole family followed him there because of his father's deteriorating health. Adolf Schiele's condition soon degenerated into madness, and in the following year he died, aged fifty-four from syphillis. Egon became a ward of his maternal uncle.

 Egon Schiele, Dead Mother, 1910

Schiele later felt that he had had a special relationship with his father. In 1913 he wrote to his brother-in-law: "I don't know whether there is anyone else at all who remembers my noble father with such sadness. I don't know who is able to understand why I visit those places where my father used to be and where I can feel the pain." On the other hand, he disliked his mother because he felt she did not mourn for his father enough, or give her son the attention he deserved: "My mother is a very strange woman. She doesn't understand me in the least and doesn't love me much either. If she had either love or understanding she would be prepared to make sacrifices."

 Egon Schiele, Gerti Schiele in Plaid Dress, 1909

Schiele's emotions were directed into an intense relationship with his younger sister Gerti, (above), which was not without incestuous implications. In 1906, when he was sixteen and she was twelve, he took her by train all the way to Trieste. The same year, Schiele applied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna, where Gustav Klimt had once studied. Perhaps those in charge scented a troublesome pupil - in any case they sent him on to the more traditional Academy of Fine Arts. Schiele duly passed the entrance examination, and was admitted as one of the youngest students ever. The next year he visited his idol, Klimt, to show him some of his drawings. Did they show talent? "Yes", Klimt replied, "much too much!"

 Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt in blue smock, 1913

Klimt took a particular interest in Schiele, buying his drawings, arranging models for him and introducing him to potential patrons. He also introduced Schiele to the Wiener Werkstätte, the arts and crafts workshop connected with the Vienna Secession. Schiele left the Academy in 1909, after completing his third year, and founded the Neukunstgruppe ("New Art Group") with other dissatisfied students. Klimt invited Schiele to exhibit at the 1909 Vienna Kunstschau, where he encountered the work of Edvard Munch, Jan Toorop, and Vincent van Gogh.

 Anonymous, Egon Schiele, 1914

Schiele found a flat and a studio and set up on his own. At this time he showed a strong interest in children, especially young girls, who were often the subjects of his drawings. Albert Paris Gütersloh, a young artist who was Schiele's friend, remembered that the establishment was overrun with them: "They slept, lazily hung around, combed their hair, pulled their dresses up or down, did up or undid their shoes, like animals in a cage which suits them, they were left to their own." Schiele made many drawings from these young models, some of which were extremely erotic. 

 Egon Schiele, Girl Putting on Shoe, 1910 

Schiele was also fascinated by his own appearance, and produced self-portraits in large numbers. He impressed not only himself, but others with whom he came into contact. The writer Arthur Rössler (below), one of Schiele's staunchest promoters, wrote about him: "Even in the presence of well known men of imposing appearance, Schiele's unusual looks stood out. He had a tall, slim, supple figure with narrow shoulders, long arms and long-fingered bony hands. His face was sunburned, beardless, and surrounded by long, dark, unruly hair. His broad, angular forehead was furrowed by horizontal lines. The features of his face were usually fixed in an earnest, almost sad expression, as though caused by pains which made him weep inwardly."

 Egon Schiele, Portrait of Arthur Rössler, 1910

In 1911, Schiele met the seventeen-year-old Wally Neuzil, who lived with him in Vienna and served as model for some of his most striking paintings. Very little is known of her, except that she had previously modelled for Gustav Klimt. Schiele and Wally wanted to escape what they perceived as the claustrophobic Viennese milieu, and went to his mother's birth town, Český Krumlov in southern Bohemia. Despite Schiele's family connections, he and his lover were driven out of town by the residents, who strongly disapproved of their lifestyle. Today, Český Krumlov is the site of a museum dedicated to Schiele

Egon Schiele, Krumau an der Moldau [Český Krumlov], 1913

Schiele and Wally Neuzil then  moved to Neulengbach, near Vienna. As it was in the capital, Schiele's studio became a gathering place for Neulengbach's delinquent children. Schiele's way of life again aroused much animosity among the town's inhabitants, and in April 1912 he was arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent. When they came to his studio to place him under arrest, the police seized more than a hundred drawings which they considered pornographic. 

 Egon Schiele, Cardinal and Nun (Tenderness), 1912

When his case was brought to court, the charges of seduction were dropped, but Schiele was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children. In court, the judge burned one of the offending drawings over a candle flame.The twenty-one days he had already spent in custody were taken into account, and Schiele was sentenced to three days' imprisonment in St. Pölten. While in prison, Schiele created a series of 12 paintings - among them Death and Girl (below) - and remarked: "To restrain an artist is a crime, it means to kill life! I will carry on for my art and for my lover."

Egon Schiele, Death and Girl [Schiele and Wally Neuziel], 1912

The Neulengbach affair had no effect on Schiele's career: In 1912, he was invited to show at the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, and he was also taken on by the famous art dealer Hans Goltz of Munich. The year 1915 marked a turning-point in Schiele's life. He met two girls, Edith and Adele Harms, who lived opposite his studio in Vienna. Schiele was attracted to both of them, but eventually fixed his sights on Edith. In February 1915, Schiele wrote a note to his friend Arthur Rössler stating: "I intend to get married advantageously, perhaps not to Wally." 

 Egon Schiele, Portrait of Wally, 1912

By April 1915 Schiele was engaged to Edith, and Wally Neuzil was rather cold-bloodedly dismissed. Schiele's last meeting with Wally took place at the Café Eichberger, where he played billiards nearly every day. He handed her a letter in which he proposed that, despite their parting, they take a holiday together every summer - without Edith. Wally refused. During the First World War, she joined the Red Cross as a nurse and died of scarlet fever in a military hospital near Split in Dalmatia just before Christmas 1917. Schiele and Edith were married, despite her family's opposition, in June 1915.

 Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele, 1918

World War I now began to shape Schiele's life and work. Three days after his wedding, Schiele was ordered to report for active service in the army. He was initially stationed in Prague. In the army, Schiele never saw any fighting at the front, and was able to continue painting and sketching while guarding Russian prisoners of war, and doing light guard duties. By 1917, he was back in Vienna, able to focus on his artistic career. His output was prolific. He was now thought of as the leading Austrian artist of the younger generation.

 Egon Schiele, Poster for the Vienna Secession's 49th exhibition, 1918

Schiele was asked to take part in a government-sponsored exhibition in Stockholm and Copenhagen intended to improve Austria's image with the neutral Scandinavian powers. He was also invited to participate in the Secession's 49th exhibition, held in Vienna in 1918. Schiele had fifty works accepted for this exhibition, and they were displayed in the main hall. He designed a poster for the exhibition (above), which was reminiscent of the Last Supper, with a portrait of himself in the place of Christ. The show was a triumphant success, and as a result, prices for Schiele's works increased considerably. During the same year, he also had successful shows in Zürich, Prague, and Dresden.

 Martha Fein, Egon Schiele's  Death Bed, 1918

Schiele and Edith moved to a new and grander house and studio. Their pleasure in it was brief. In the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic that claimed more than 20 million lives in Europe reached Vienna. Edith, who was six months pregnant, succumbed to the disease on 28 October. Schiele died only three days after his wife. He was 28 years old. During the three days between their deaths, Schiele drew a few sketches of Edith. These were his last works.You can see a timeline of Schiele's work in my Flickr set.