Tag Archives: Heinrich Heine

Memoirs of a German-Jewish Painter

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim was an important German painter of the 19th century. He was probably the first Jewish visual artist to gain world renown. At an advanced age, he wrote an autobiography intended as a memoir for his family; it was not published during his lifetime. In 1924, his grandson Alfred Oppenheim, who was also a painter, published the manuscript as a book; it was reprinted in 1999 and 2013.

According to family memories, Oppenheim was born in late December 1799 in Hanau, a town east of Frankfurt am Main. (Wikipedia and other sources report a date of birth at the beginning of January 1800.) His Jewish family lived in economically relatively secure conditions, even though the Hanau Jews still had to live in the ghetto at that time and had to face a variety of discriminations. Although the legal betterment of the Jews in Germany at this time made progress in the wake of the emancipatory efforts of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing or Moses Mendelssohn, and especially after the French Revolution, it should nevertheless take decades before the legal equality of Jews in Germany was realized. Oppenheim’s autobiography is so interesting because it not only traces an individual artist’s life, but because it is also a practical example of how this process of Jewish emancipation in Germany in the 19th Century progressed: slowly and characterized by numerous setbacks.

A relatively big part of Oppenheim’s autobiography is devoted to his childhood and youth. Loving and caring parents who focused on providing their children with a good education evidently laid the foundation for his well-balanced character and for being knowledgeable about many subjects, not only about those necessary for a later career. Oppenheim attended the local Talmud Torah school, but received also private lessons. Later he went to a regular high school, together with Christian students. In addition, he and one of his brothers received permission from the father to attend the local drawing academy, where his artistic talent showed early; but young Moritz Daniel didn’t initially plan a professional future as an artist – he originally wanted to become a doctor. From his mother, the young Oppenheim inherited his love for literature and theater – the mother read for example Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea and attended sometimes theater performances together with her son; these visits inspired Moritz Daniel to set up a puppet theater in the attic of their home (this feels a bit reminiscent of Wilhelm Meister).

What follows are the years at the Hanau and later at the Munich Academy, in which Oppenheim trains his talent as a draftsman and in oil painting. In retrospect, Oppenheim remembers his teachers and supporters of that period with warmth and gratitude, but he also peppers his memoirs with a few humorous anecdotes. The self-portrait, which he created as a 16-year-old, is already proof of his considerable talent and self-confidence.

Self-Portrait, 1814-1816, Oil on canvas, 98.3×83.5 cm, Jewish Museum, New York City

To broaden his horizons Oppenheim studied afterwards in Paris and later in Italy, the country for which so many German artists of his time were yearning. In Paris, he seems to have been a frequent visitor of the legendary Café de la Régence; in his biography he mentions the meeting with Aaron Alexandre there, a rabbi born in Germany, who emigrated to France during the French Revolution and who is remembered today mainly as the author of the monumental chess problem book Collection des plus beaux Problèmes d’Echecs. Alexandre was considered to be one of the world’s best chess players of his time.

More productive in artistic terms was for Oppenheim his subsequent longer stay in Italy. He attached himself looseley to the circle of the Nazarenes, an art movement that exercised a certain influence on him, but which he quickly outgrew. Particularly valuable was in addition to his contacts with Friedrich Overbeck in Rome especially the friendship with the then already famous Bertel Thorvaldsen. The senior Danish sculptor and draftsman was in Rome something like Oppenheim’s artistic mentor, and he provided artistic guidance as well as contacts with potential customers who would be interested to buy Oppenheim’s works.

If Oppenheim had expected that he would not experience any anti-Jewish resentment among fellow artists in his Italian environment, he was wrong. Both among his colleagues and among Italian acquaintances, he experienced frequently more or less open exclusion as soon as he was recognized as a Jew. In order to avoid this exclusion, several painters of Jewish origin converted to Christianity at that time (as did also the writers Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne). Oppenheim, who was obviously much more deeply rooted in Judaism than many others, did not follow this path. He managed to gain broad recognition and success in his later life as a Jewish painter in Germany.

One can attest Oppenheim an excellent sense of the social position of his clients and other people important for his advancement. He almost effortlessly won major Jewish art collectors, such as those from the Rothschild family, as buyers for portraits. When the still rather young Oppenheim visited Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar in 1827 – the visit was preceded by an exchange of letters in which Goethe apparently obtained a positive impression of the young man’s talent and character -, he was awarded at Goethe’s request with an order and a paid professorship with no teaching commitments. From that moment on, Oppenheim was a man who became known in important circles also outside the Jewish community.

What followed was a very successful life as an artist; Oppenheim presents himself as a man for whom a fulfilled family life was very important and he also seems to have lived in great harmony as a husband (after the early death of his first wife, he married a second time) and father of six children. I found this second part of the autobiography – apart from the sections on the 1848/49 revolution – a little less interesting, although all in all this brief autobiography is an important and instructive document.

Here are a few more of Oppenheim’s works. He was particularly popular as a portrait painter, as the following three portraits of writers illustrate:

Portrait of Heinrich Heine, 1831, Oil on paper on canvas, 43×34 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg
Portrait of Ludwig Börne in his study, 1827, Oil on canvas, 120×90 cm, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with illustrations from his works, after 1828, Oil on canvas, Goethe-Haus, Frankfurt am Main

Scenes from Jewish life in Germany were another frequent subject of Oppenheim’s artworks. Prints based on Oppenheim’s paintings were a frequent adornment of many Jewish homes in the 19th and 20th centuries. They not only showed the everyday life of Jewish families who succeeded to leave the ghetto behind, but would also provide a clear message – particularly in the next painting -: that it is possible to be a Jew, following the religious norms of the forefathers, and at the same time to be a German patriot, fighting as a volunteer in the War of Liberation:

The Return of the Jewish Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation, 1833-1834, Oil on canvas, 86.2×94 cm, Jewish Museum, New York City
The Bleach Garden, 1842, Oil on canvas, Museum of History, Hanau

While Oppenheim’s autobiography seems to be untranslated, the following bi-lingual catalogue contains not only a detailed biography and essays about his art, but also reproductions of most of his works and is therefore highly recommended for anyone with an interest in this important German-Jewish artist.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Erinnerungen eines deutsch-jüdischen Maler (Memoirs of a German-Jewish Painter), Manutius, Heidelberg 1999

Georg Heuberger / Anton Merk (eds.), Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. Die Entdeckung des jüdischen Selbstbewußtseins in der Kunst /Jewish Identity in 19th Century Art, Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt am Main 1999 (bi-lingual German/English)

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-20. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Kraus Project

glm_iv1 This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen is a hybrid book. It contains on the upper part of each page on the left side the original German text of four essays and a poem by the Austrian author Karl Kraus, mirrored by the English translation of the respective text on the opposite right page. On the lower part of each page are numerous footnotes that are sometimes longer than Kraus’ text itself.  The footnotes are partly by Jonathan Franzen, partly by the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter, partly by the German-Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, like Franzen an admirer of Kraus. Franzen is also the translator of Kraus’ texts. Since Karl Kraus is almost unknown in the English-speaking world, the publisher obviously thought it a good idea to bring this book on the market with Jonathan Franzen as author on the title page. But again, this book is a translated and annotated collection of some of Kraus’ texts. A few words about Karl Kraus: coming from a wealthy assimilated Jewish family, Kraus grew up in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. Vienna was at that time a melting pot of people and ideas. Literature and theater (two lifelong passions of Kraus) were at its height, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis that revolutionized later many aspects of our lives, Mahler and Schönberg revolutionized music, Adolf Loos, Kraus closest friend revolutionized architecture, the Vienna school of economists revolutionized economics, the Vienna Circle and Ludwig Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy. All kind of modern ideologies came to light in that period in Vienna, including the “modern” racial Antisemitism and its natural reaction, Zionism, whose main propagandist was the journalist Theodor Herzl, a former colleague of Kraus who would become one of his most hated targets.
“Vienna’s streets are paved with culture; the streets of other capitals are paved with asphalt”,
is a popular aphorism by Kraus. In this hotbed of culture and ideologies the typical Kaffeehauskultur developed where each faction of intellectuals had their favorite coffeehouses where they met and engaged in group and cartel building, gossiping, writing and reading. Kraus was part of this culture, but never belonged to any group. One of his most remarkable features is that he successfully obtained his absolute independence during all his intellectual life. Kraus’ main “work” are the roughly 40,000 pages of his journal Die Fackel (The Torch), which he published between 1899 and 1936. In the first years, he admitted every now and then guest authors but from 1912 on, he wrote the journal exclusively by himself. Die Fackel had a blog-like feel: Kraus’ was publishing whenever he had something to say and about whatever he felt he needed something to say. Although literature and theater were always prominent topics in Die Fackel, Kraus was an avid reader of the Austrian and foreign press – and from here he took most of his inspirations. Kraus was writing about foreign and local policy, about the situation of workers in the factories, about women’s rights, he was an early advocate of equal rights of homosexuals, and he was an everyday observer of the journalism in Austria, which was in an extremely bad shape according to Kraus. This opposition to the frequently badly written journalism made Kraus many enemies, especially since he combined it with irony and sarcasm, but also with undeniable truths. His lawyer was for sure a very busy man and it is said that Kraus won almost all his court cases. He knew the rules and acted within these rules very efficiently to expose corruption, nepotism, stupidity and wrong use of language. He did all this in a unique style, frequently playing with words and creating a richness of aphorisms that may be rivaled only by Lichtenberg. He was also a stage persona: he gave more than 700 performances reading, singing, acting alone on a stage – his audience consisted mainly of addicted Kraus fans; Elias Canetti for example said in his autobiography that he visited more than 300 of Kraus’ unique performances. Kraus must have been a magnetic personality that had many people under his spell. The two main pieces in The Kraus Project are Kraus’ most famous essays on the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine and on the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy. Heine is for Kraus on the one hand a great and extremely popular poet. Many of his poems were turned into popular songs and are part of the folk poetry. But Heine’s followers turn his spirit into something superficial. And this is not by accident, it is because of specific virtues in Heine’s works. In Kraus’ times there was a firm belief of many intellectuals that there was a deep difference between Romance and German culture. As Kraus put it:
Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest of materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry? He’d surely still rather live among the Germans. For although they’ve strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they’ve also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren window frames. Just spare me the pretty ribbons!…”
Austria, although linguistically part of German culture, is for Kraus deeply affected by the “French” poet Heine. Even the biggest Anti-semites “forgave” Heine his Jewish origin, just because his verses appeal so much to the tendency of most of the Vienna literati to gloss over everything with patches of jokes and irony. (I owe The Kraus Project the information that young Adolf Hitler in his Vienna years supported an initiative to build a monument for Heine – Heine’s poems were later not removed from the school books in Nazi Germany, just his name; it was all supposed to be “folk poetry” then). While the Heine essay is very acerbic in it’s evaluation of the poems of this great German writer, the big hater Kraus shows in the other main essay that he can be also a great admirer and lover: he re-discovers the Austrian actor, singer, playwright Johann Nestroy, a popular performer of the first part of the 19th century who fell into oblivion soon after his death. That Nestroy is nowadays considered to be one of the greatest authors for theater in German  is almost exclusively a result of the decades of Kraus’ efforts to make him again popular. I love Nestroy’s plays, and there is hardly anything (with the exception of Shakespeare, and the obscure play Datterich by Ernst Elias Niebergall, written in Darmstadt dialect) that I enjoy more on a stage than his plays. To me, the Nestroy essay is Kraus’s best essay – the Heine piece, although very interesting, shows also a side of Kraus that is not very appealing: the text is not free from Anti-semitic slurs. Franzen’s translation is a heroic and brave effort and mostly very decent in my opinion. Kraus is extremely difficult to translate and that he tackled this task deserves a lot of respect. The footnotes are frequently related directly to the text. Paul Reitter adds a lot of his knowledge about Kraus, much to the profit of the reader. Also many of Franzen’s and Kehlmann’s footnotes are interesting. The one thing that surprised me was that Franzen is dragging the reader a lot into his personal life during the time he lived in Germany and Austria as a student. We learn many details about the person Jonathan Franzen, including the story of his failed first marriage, and a short bout of mental illness when he was in Germany. If you like Jonathan Franzen as an author (I do), you might as well enjoy this part of the annotations, but if not you will have to skip some of them. I am still wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to split the book in two: a translation of Kraus only, and a longer essay with Franzen’s view of Kraus. Kraus was a larger-than-life author. His play Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) is about 800 pages long. The Kraus Project gives some insight in part of his work, but those who would like to discover the full Kraus and also the Vienna of his times (because most of his work can be only understood from the context) should maybe read in parallel also Carl Schorske’s excellent book Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. Let me close with a poem by Karl Kraus in which he explains why he kept silent for a long time after the Nazis took power in Germany:
Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke. I have nothing to say and won’t say why. And there’s stillness since the earth broke. No word was right; a man speaks only from his sleep at night. And dreams of a sun that joked. It passes; and later it didn’t matter. The Word went under when that world awoke, Man frage nicht, was all die Zeit ich machte. Ich bleibe stumm; und sage nicht, warum. Und Stille gibt es, da die Erde krachte. Kein Wort, das traf; man spricht nur aus dem Schlaf. Und träumt von einer Sonne, welche lachte. Es geht vorbei; nachher war’s einerlei. Das Wort entschlief, als jene Welt erwachte. kraus-project

Jonathan Franzen: The Kraus Project, Fourth Estate, London 2013

Carl Emil Schorske: Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Vintage 1980

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.