Sunday, 29 April 2012

Mosaics by Puhl & Wagner

Since their formation in 1889, the Berlin company Puhl & Wagner was one of the most important companies for glass mosaics and glass windows in Germany. By manufacturing their own mosaic pieces in their glass factory and by developing a new technique of laying the small mosaic pieces they were able to reduce the manufacturing costs considerably and, in consequence, to establish their market leadership.

Signet of Puhl & Wagner, mosaic of Fritz Dernburg

In 1914, they merged with the stained glass company of Gottfried Heinersdorff, whose involvement in the Art Nouveau movement (especially the Deutsche Werkbund) promised to have a positive impact on the artistic quality of the company's production. But, due to unresolved differences between August Wagner and Gottfried Heinersdorff, these efforts of reforming the company's production artistically were short lived. During the Third Reich, the company was commissioned to decorate a number of buildings for the National socialists and was even able to survive the years after the Second World War. But, due to a diminished interest in glass mosaics and stained glass works, the company had to close its doors in 1969. (For further information check the comprehensive article at Wikipedia).

Tomb of Fritz Dernburg

Quite fortunately, some of the mosaics P&W executed in the late 19th and early 20th century survived the destruction of the war. One of them can be found at the cemetery Grunewald on Bornstedter Street 11/12, Berlin. It commemorates the death of Fritz Dernburg who died in infancy, in 1895. The large mosaic that even nowadays has lost nothing of its colourful vibrancy was designed by the artist Max Seliger (1865-1920), the brother of Fritz's mother, who designed a number of mosaics and murals throughout his career.

Mosaic, tomb of Fritz Dernberg

It depicts two women next to an altar which is inscribed with a quote from the Bible: "Love never ends" ("Die Liebe höret nimmer auf, Corinthians 13,8). One of the woman places a vase with red tulips on the altar, the other plucks the strings of a harp which a sad looking cherub clutches in his chubby fingers.

Detail of the mosaic, tomb of Fritz Dernberg
Detail of the mosaic, tomb of Fritz Dernberg
Detail of the mosaic, tomb of Fritz Dernberg
Detail of the mosaic, tomb of Fritz Dernberg

Both women, though dressed in stylised white robes, are more portraits than allegories, and contemporary sources identify them as Fritz's mother, Emma Dernburg, and her sister. The decorative flowers in the background, especially the lilies, are most probably influenced by William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement which was widely known in Germany at the time.

Detail of the mosaic, tomb of Fritz Dernberg

The second mural, nowadays on the facade of the building in Königsallee 15, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Berlin, shows a historical scene: a hunting party with Elector Joachim II and the hunting château of Grunewald in the background (inscribed "Aufbruch zur Jagd unter Kurfürst Joachim II vom Jagdschloss Grunewald").

Mosaic, Königsallee 15

The design was made by the artist Max Koch for the railroad bridge at Hohenzollerndamm in 1910 and executed by P&W in the same year.

Mosaic as it originally was at the Hohenzollern bridge

When the bridge was demolished in 1950, only one of the former two mosaics was rescued and re-done - with an alteration to the upper part of the image - on the aforementioned facade in 1963. The mosaic depicting the surrender of Teltow was lost. There is little known about the artist Max Koch, but his design shows some similarity to the works of Maximilian Liebenwein and other Art Nouveau illustrators that might have been of some influence.

Detail of the mosaic, Königsallee 15
Detail of the mosaic, Königsallee 15
Detail of the mosaic, Königsallee 15

As with the mosaic for Fritz Dernburg, Koch's hunting scene is a compelling work of art that profits widely from P&W's execution and the quality of their laying technique as well as their glass mosaic pieces.

Detail of the mosaic, Königsallee 15

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Dreaming of One Thousand and One Nights

In 1923, Ernst Rosenbaum (alias: Ernst Roenau) published his adaptation of "One Thousand and One Nights" (Vienna, Munk) with magnificent illustrations by Rosa Rosà . Probably around the same time the book was also published in Chicago by Julius Wisotzki.

In contrast to 19th-century orientalism which dominated most of the illustrative works on "One Thousand and One Nights" at the time, Rosà presents her fairytale interpretations in a powerfully decorative style that seems to be a bit influenced by fashion designs of the Art Déco. There is a strong interest in form and patterns, which might also derive from folk art which was a great source of inspiration in these times. The colourful lithographs even encourage associations with the even more detailed and equally fantastic works of Léon Bakst or the illustrations of the Russian artist Iwan Bilibin.

Just as Fernande Biegler, another female artist of the time, of who's biography is equally little known, Rosà found her own and unique way to illustrate and re-count the well-known Arabian fairy tales. Her "stylish", nearly two-dimensional images present a colourful world full of wonders which mirrors the character of the fairy tales perfectly. It is no doubt a pity, that there is nothing else of her work known nowadays.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Hugo L. Braune's "Dietrich von Bern" ("Theodoric the Great")

In the 19th century, printed graphic works were often no longer added to the text as a decorative element only, or to illustrate the text with the depictions of the crucial scenes of the story told, but they became autonomous. The text lost its importance, the pictures told the story with their own means. It is then that, more and more graphic cycles were published which don't have a textbook to begin with.

One of these picture-stories is Hugo L. Braunes narration of the old German saga of "Dietrich von Bern" (for the story, please check out Wikipedia and the re-telling of legend by Donald A. Mackenzie) that was published in the magazine "Teuerdank" (Berlin, Düsseldorf, Fischer & Franke, 1901-03). Hugo L. Braune (1875-?), most popular for his illustrative works on fairy tales, sagas and the operas of Richard Wagner, tells the legend of Dietrich von Bern in twelve black and white drawings that recount the adventures of Dietrich at the wonderful rose garden, the fight with the giant, etc., up to his end, riding on the black steed through the sky until he is saved by the will of god.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Landscapes of Melancholy - German Art Nouveau Landscape Illustrations

Years back I stumbled upon an article comparing the art of the Romantic period in France and Germany. The author concluded that the French Romantic art tended to celebrate the "savoir vivre" while the German Romanticists revelled in the "savoir mourir". This idea (though not to be generalised) is rather intriguing.

Taking a look at the German landscape art of the late 19th and early 20th century, the "savoir mourir" is still a valid aspect of its multiple facets. Be it Arnold Böcklin with his variants of the "Isle of the Dead" or Walter Leistikow with his landscape paintings of the Mark Brandenburg, their landscape is distinctively melancholy in its atmosphere. They are landscapes that don't want to portray a specific landscape as much as they want to evoke a certain sentiment for the audience to associate and feel while viewing their artwork.

Same goes for the works of the two Art Nouveau artists, Hermann Hirzel and Georg Jahn, and their landscape illustrations for the magazine "Teuerdank" (published 1901-03 by Fischer & Franke in Berlin and Düsseldorf). - Hirzel's landscapes, entitled "Stimmungen" ("Moods"), are not serene at all. They show a quiescent world with an air of loneliness, of melancholy. They are beautiful, but sad, and this even though the artist did not paint his landscape in gloomy colours. It's the motifs and their "Inszenierung".

Georg Jahn's views of the coast and sea are equally un-lively: showing a barren land, buffeted by wind and waves. It's not a welcoming or forgiving landscape. It existed long before men travelled it, and will exist long after the extinction of mankind it. It's the old idea of death, of a Memento Mori that is part of the landscapes' inherent moods. It's the "savoir mourir" that becomes apparent in these works, the decision of the artists not to draw a landscape evoking happiness but a sad longing.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Nationalistic Hopes & Escapist Desires: Fairytales on Wall Paintings in 19th Century Germany

When being asked about fairy tales in German Art most works that come to mind date back into the 19th century and are book illustrations by Ludwig Richter, Hermann Vogel, Victor Paul Mohn and others. Generally categorized as children’s literature, fairy tales and their illustrations tend to be regarded as being addressed mostly to a very young audience. But against common belief, in 19th century Germany, folk fairy tales such as the Children and Household Stories of the Brothers Grimm were not only considered as nursery tales but as a part of Germany’s original literary heritage.
Influenced by Johann Gottfried Herder’s theories of the "Nationalgeist", the spirit of the nation which he thought to be preserved in folk literature in general, fairy tales were considered as a key to the long lost but to-be-recreated golden age of the German nation. They were thought powerful enough to help remedy the cultural crisis brought on by the Napoleonic wars and occupation, and, later on, by the progressing industrialisation and changing society by re-forming the German nation. So, when the Brothers Grimm first published their influential fairy tale collection in 1812, they did so less to provide parents with new reading material for their beloved children, than to strengthen the national spirit of the German people by preserving a part of their oral culture that was threatened with extinction.
It was this complex nationalistic interpretation of the fairy tales that proved to have a major influence on the German art scene in the 19th century. It was also the decisive factor that fairy tales were deemed suitable for murals and wall paintings in public buildings that – at least in 19th century Germany - had to serve the purpose of educating its audience. But it was the idea of a golden age preserved in the fairytales, that let the artists to invent a fairyland of utopian qualities, which in return assured the success of their fairytale art. For the medieval fairyland-idyll as depicted in the works of Moritz von Schwind, Richter, Otto Speckter and many others offered an alternative to the hectic and unsettling everyday life and thusly satisfied the audience’s need for escapism. As you can see in the following examples, fairy tale murals or wall paintings thusly expressed quite a variety of complex hopes and desires.

The Beginnings

The history of fairy tale murals in Germany started in 1852: Moritz von Schwind was the first artist to chose a folk fairy tale as a motif for a history painting, transforming the popular tale of Cinderella into a multifaceted story full of hidden meaning. Combined with scenes from Sleeping Beauty and Eros and Psyche, Schwind’s Cinderella cycle is not only an universal story about virtue, love and happy endings, but also a complex metaphor of Germany itself with Cinderella as its representation. To put it briefly, Schwind wanted to see the German nation liberated from all outward cultural influences and restored to its rightful glory of a great empire. He therefore enriched his painting with a couple of hints to ensure that the audience was able to grasp the hidden meaning of his cycle. With his interpretation Schwind satisfied the audience’s need for a nationalistic vision and helped to establish fairy tale motifs as a topic for history paintings - for now they fulfilled the double purpose of art: the delectare et prodesse.
What is even more important, Schwind pitched the idea of a fairy tale mural to his fascinated audience by presenting the Cinderella cycle in a purpose made golden architectural frame that effectively transforms the painting into a miniature-model of a wall decoration to which the whole composition of the cycle corresponds. Even though Schwind was not commissioned for an actual Cinderella mural for more than ten years, his painting preludes the first fairy tale murals to be executed in Germany.

Fairy Tales and Public Buildings

In 1879, Hermann Wislicenus followed Schwind’s footsteps and used the imagery of a fairy tale to metaphorically illustrate the history of Germany up to its recent highpoint/climax. He designed a highly political pictorial program for the public royal hall at the Kaiserpfalz in Goslar that was supposed to show the audience that the desired ideal of the medieval Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation had been fulfilled when the German Empire had been re-united and Wilhelm I. had been proclaimed German Emperor in 1871. Wislicenus depicted this proclamation of the German Empire as an idealised allegory in the centre of a cycle consisting of pivotal episodes of the medieval history of Germany, beginning with Charlemagne and ending with the time of Reformation. Thereafter, the German Nation had been divided and the empire had been in a quasi dormant state, a fact that Wislicenus chose to illustrate by recounting the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty on the opposite walls, significantly focusing on the 100-years-sleep of the princess and her court. The awakening of Sleeping Beauty, subordinated to the awakening of the mythical King Barbarossa, then, stands for the new beginning of the German empire, just as the centrepiece of the program: the before mentioned allegory on Wilhelm I.

As to be expected in this context, the Sleeping Beauty murals do not exactly tell us the fairy tale for the sake of its own narration. They are complementary to the political message of the pictorial program, and are - strictly speaking - nothing more than a visualisation of a very popular figure of speech that is still common nowadays. For, in the German language the image of Sleeping Beauty is mostly used to describe a situation wherein something has been inactive, perhaps even forgotten for a long time, and then awakes to renewed glory.

In fact, the identification of the awakening of Sleeping Beauty and the beginning of the new German Empire under the reign of Wilhelm I. became a popular image for political pictorial programs. When the freshly ennobled Stephan von Sarter decorated the staircase of his newly built castle Drachenburg in 1884, he did so with a number of paintings that did not only recount noteworthy episodes of Germany’s medieval and recent history, but included – amongst other allegories – the depictions of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Joseph Flüggen’s painting of Sleeping Beauty, captured in the moment of the wakening-kiss, conveys the same meaning as the Sleeping Beauty-cycle at the Goslarer Kaiserpfalz: they both allude to the unification of the German Empire in 1871. - The Snow White imagery is a bit more difficult to decipher. Flüggen shows the princess being worshipped by the seven dwarfs who offer her crystals, ores and other treasures. This motif is not based on any known version of the fairy tale and is probably an invention of the artist himself, transforming Sleeping Beauty into an allegory of Germany that – in its restored glory – is being worshipped by spirits of nature which are represented by the seven dwarfs.

Besides the Hermann Allmers house in Rechtenfleth, and one of Berlin’s town halls, there are a few other public buildings known to be decorated with fairy tale motifs dating back to the 19th century. However, generally speaking: even then fairy tales – mainly Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood - were either transformed into metaphors of political meaning, or they stood for a part of the German folk culture that was principally appreciated due to its national character.

Fairy Tales and Private Villas

On the surface, this national character of the fairy tales was also of great importance when members of the wealthy bourgeoisie commissioned artists with fairy tale paintings or murals for the more representative and public rooms of their private villas. But, my research proved that the nationalistic aspect was less significant than the paintings’ power to conjure up a certain fairy tale atmosphere.

For example, when Geroge Friederici finally asked Moritz von Schwind to adapt his Cinderella cycle for the ballroom of his newly acquired house – the so-called Roman Villa - in Leipzig in 1865, Schwind deleted all of his former nationalistic hints and allusions and focused his cycle on the narration of the fairy tale alone.
I very much doubt that he did so because his former nationalistic interpretation of Cinderella was so widespread that there was no need to repeat its message in the new cycle. It is more likely that the metaphorical identification of Cinderella and Germany was no longer the primary concern of its artist. Now, Schwind wanted to tell the story and capture its audience with his narration.

When Schwind’s pupil Julius Naue finally executed a third variant of Schwind’s Cinderella cycle after his master’s death in the late 1860s, the audience was presented with six monumental paintings telling the gripping story of Cinderella, her brave suffering and glorious redemption. Simultaneously, the fairy tale cycle offered the spectator the possibility to lose himself in the inspection of a medieval fairy land that – in the end - knows neither cruelty nor death, but happy endings.

Even the four fairy tale paintings for which the financier Magnus Herrmann commissioned the brothers Paul and Franz Meyerheim in 1870 show no signs of an endangered idyll:

The life threatening risk Little Red Riding Hood puts herself into by speaking with the big bad wolf in the forest, or the danger Snow White exposes herself to by naïvely trusting her disguised stepmother to groom her hair with a poisoned comb, are not overly emphasised. The decisive lack of drama in the paintings’ compositions fails to communicate any sort of threat. Instead there is a peaceful tranquillity that lulls the audience into a false sense of security.

Same goes for the two paintings that the Prussian sculptor Louis Sußmann-Hellborn asked his admired colleague Anton von Werner to design for his dining room:

The princess of The Seven Ravens who has to endure a completely isolated life in the wilderness for years while sewing the clothes for her brothers, shows no traces of the hardship of her life. Her golden hair isn’t matted, her face looks healthy round. Even Snow White who is usually portrayed as laid out in the glass coffin is here shown serving roast to the seven dwarfs in a paradise like wilderness. The threat of the stepmother is not the least palpable and the painting simply transforms the fairy tale into an exotic genre painting with its heroine as a model for motherly care and housewife-ness.
To sum it up, there was no place for drastic realism in fairy land as depicted in the wall decorations of private villas. Danger, hardship and anything else that might disturb this idyllic realm were downplayed or concealed, so that the audience was perfectly able to
overlook them and indulge in dreams of a paradise-like fairy land.

In a time, when fairy tales were even elaborately staged at operas and theatres and re-enacted at the carnival festivities of art societies, these wall paintings satisfied a widespread desire of escapism. The national character of the fairy tales faded into the background, being replaced by this wish to flee the dreaded reality and escape into a better world.
Only after the turn of the century, fairy tales finally lost their utopian qualities for the adult population. The former highly appreciated national literary heritage was now considered as children’s literature only, with little more but nostalgic value for the adult readership.

Fairy Tales and Nurseries

In 1874, a few years before Anton von Werner was commissioned to design the two fairy tale paintings for Louis Sußmann-Hellborn, he decorated his children’s nursery with two cycles telling the stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

It’s the only fairy tale nursery decoration of the 19th century that I came across during my vast research. Until the end of the 19th century fairy tale decorations were mostly commissioned from adults for adults. Only after 1900, fairy tale illustrations were more and more thought suitable for children only. In the form of commercialized tapestries or large prints they now decorated the nurseries; and in a way, this hasn’t changed till then. That fairy tales once had satisfied quite a complex variety of adult hopes and desires has been completely forgotten.

(This paper was presented during the postgraduate symosium
Arts to Enchant: Formations of Fantasy on Visual Culture at the University of Glasgow 29th of May 2009.)