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.)

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