The genius of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer was a master of many mediums, producing ground-breaking woodcuts, etchings, engravings, drypoints, drawings, paintings, self-portraits and, as his magnificent Hare from 1502 demonstrates, watercolours.
Created with a mixture of watercolour and gouache, Hare is a meretricious rendered masterpiece of observational art. The hare is imbued with a vivid sense of realism, indeed personality, suggested by the mottled fur that runs in different directions and the glint in the eye that on a closer look turns out to be a reflection of a window. With his nature studies that echoed the work of the medieval philosopher Albertus Magnus, Dürer pointed the way to empirical science, just one of the many achievements of this truly remarkable artist.
The German shoemaker, mystic and visionary Jacob Boehme’s dense theosophical writings are filled with alchemical references and allusions. These taken together with elements of Gnosticism and the Kabbalah make Boehme one of the most occult inclined of Christian writers.
The following illustrations are taken from the appendix to William Law’s four volume edition of Boehme’s writing translated into English. Law was an Anglican priest who lost his position when he refused to give an oath of allegiance to King George I and therefore become a private tutor. Among his students were Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall Of the Roman Empire and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, (though they fell out over Law’s admiration of Boehme).
The complete series of emblems included above and below tells of Creation, the fall of Lucifer followed by the fall of Adam and man’s redemption through Jesus. Interestingly Sophia, a figure found in Gnosticism features prominently (the top S contrasting with the S of Sathan down below). The drawings of Hieroglyphica Sacra are unusual with their near geometric abstraction, minimalism and pared down symbolism. It is alchemical art taken to its most cosmic level, an allegory of the War in the Three Realms of Heaven, Earth and Hell
Dionysuis Andreas Freher-Hieroglyphica Sacra 1-William Law edition of Jacob Boehme
The German physician and alchemist Michael Maier served as a counsellor to the occult besotted Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, Capital of Bohemia, however the forces that would lead to the Thirty Years War were conspiring against the Emperor and Maier was forced to leave, first to England, where he composed a song for the royal wedding of Frederick V of the Palantine to Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I, and then back to Germany in 1616, settling in Frankfurt am Main.
Atalanta Fugiens (Atalanta Fleeing) was published in 1617 by Johann Theodor de Bry in Oppenheim. de Bry published numerous works by authors aligned with the Rosicrucian movement and/or followers of the Swiss physician and occultist Paracelsus (incidentally also known as the ‘father of toxicology’).
An early example of a multi-media project, Atalanta is comprised of 50 discourses, each accompanied with an engraving by Matthias Merian of an alchemical emblem, an epigram, prose, a poem and a musical fugue for three voices.
Atalanta, as suggested by the title, frequently references Classical mythology, especially the story of the virgin huntress Atalanta, in addition to alchemical allegories featuring dragons, lions, the worm ouroboros and eagles..
In 1937 the reigning National Socialist party held an exhibition of Degenerate Art (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst) in the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten Munich, featuring Modernist, Expressionist, Dada and New Objectivity work by Grosz, Nolde, Klee, Ernst, Schwitters and others considered decadent by the regime. It was a huge success attracting over a million visitors in its first six weeks before going on tour nationally. Considerably less successful was the concurrent exhibition of Great German Art (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung) of approved Nazi art that was meant to serve as a contrast and counterpoint to the Degenerate Art. Even Hitler and Goebbels, failed artist and novelist respectively, thought the works on display at the Great German Art Exhibition were weak, however puerility has never got in the way of good propaganda and it allowed Hitler to rail against cultural disintegration and declare war on the ‘chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers‘ of Modernism.
It was a war that the Nazi’s were bound to lose. The art produced by the various Modernists school in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic is rightly venerated while the work of the official artists with their banal landscapes and monumental sculptures of a blandly idealised male form never rises above the level of monstrous kitsch (with the exception in the field of architecture; Albrecht Speer definitely possessed talent, but then architecture is in a certain sense fascistic, as a walk around Rome shows).
In a good illustration of Orson Welles quote in The Third Man about the chaotic warring Italian city states that produced Michelango, Da Vinci and the Renaissance, in contrast to Switzerland with its 500 year history of peace and brotherly love that has only given the world the cuckoo clock, the art of the Weimar Republic possesses its strength because of the decadence of the period, not in spite of. The calamitous defeat of Germany in WWI and the heavy reparations demanded by France and Britain, plus the use of right wing Freikorps by the Socialist government to suppress the Spartacist uprising ( see “Everyman His Own Football”) meant that Weimar Republic was unloved by both right and left. Added to the political turmoil was mass unemployment and the staggering hyper-inflation that led to frenzied consumption in the cafes, cabarets, bars and cinemas as the money in your pocket was being reduced in value by the minute. Factor in the war wounded beggars and prostitutes of both sexes lining the streets that must have resulted in the fevered, nightmarish atmosphere of a society in the midst of collapse, yet paradoxically yielding a exhilarating sense of dangerous freedom, especially sexually. Berlin attracted thrill seekers from outside of Germany who could visit one of the city’s 500 erotic venues, some of which catered exclusively to homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites and aficionados of BDSM (including the young Francis Bacon).
The main currents of art in the Weimar Republic were Expressionism, Dada and the New Objectivity. Expressionism would have a major, lasting influence on graphic design and film. Many of the artists and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany ended up working in Hollywood where they would have an immeasurable impact upon the development of the horror and film noir genres
Below are just a few examples of the art of Weimar Republic, concentrating on the bold, innovative woodcuts of the outstanding Kathe Kollwitz; the chilling New Objectivity portraits of Otto Dix and the unsurpassed satirical savagery of George Grosz’s Ecco Homo series, as well as stills from two highly influential German Expressionist movies, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Weine The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Berlin was the most decadent city of the 20th Century, as it had two periods of decadence, the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s and 30’s and then the late 70’s in West Berlin, however that is a whole other story.
Quite recently I was researching H.R Giger’s illustrations for De Sade’s Justine when I stumbled across the work of the German artist Sibylle Ruppert. I immediately wondered how I had never heard of her before as I take some pride in being well versed in Surrealistic/Fantastic/Dark Art and here was an exceptional example of the genre, that furthermore took its cues from the masters of transgressive literature: De Sade (of course), Lautreamont and Bataille, all of whom I have written about.
One can only wonder at the vagaries of recognition. Although she did have some influential admirers, namely Alain Robbe-Grillet, Henri Michaux and especially Giger, who owned a large collection of her work (the only major retrospective to date was at the H.R Giger Musuem), the critical and commercial success that other Fantastic artists of the period enjoyed eluded her. Instead she worked quietly away at producing ever more horrific images from hell.
Born in Frankfurt in 1942 in the middle of a bombing raid of the city, Ruppert’s father was a graphic designer. She would sit entranced watching her father draw. One day she seized his hand and said that she would also draw nice colourful pictures like he did. Soon afterwards she presented her first drawing; it was a brutal picture of a fist striking a face. Sibylle was six at the time.
A determined and driven child Sibylle would produce twenty drawings a day as well as studying ballet. Too tall to be a ballerina, she became a revue dancer, touring the world until one day in New York she decided to quit and dedicate herself to art. Sibylle returned for a while to Frankfurt, giving drawing instructions at the art school her father founded, then moved to Paris, where she exhibited for a number of years before resuming teaching.
As well as the literary influences cited above, all of whom she illustrated, visual traces and echoes can be observed of Bosch, Giger, Fuseli, Bellmer, Blake and Bacon, though this doesn’t in any way detract from her singularly visceral and kinetic imagination. In her paintings and drawings the flesh is always in motion; writhing, straining, collapsing, before undergoing the final monstrous transformation. A truly infernal vision that lingers unsettlingly in the mind.