Adolph von Menzel

Master Drawings from Berlin. Organized by Peter Nisbet for the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, June 1989)

“The honors bestowed on Menzel in the last twenty years of his life surpassed all distinctions that had even been awarded to a German painter,” wrote Peter Betthausen, Director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

When Menzel died on 9 February 1905, his bier was carried into the rotunda of Schinkel’s Altes Museum, the `shrine’ of Berlin’s Museum Island. Here, the Emperor and the Empress as well as the Knights of the Order of the Black Eagle took part in Menzel’s funeral.

Adolph Menzel (1815 – 1905) was the favorite artist of the Prussian court during the reigns of William I and II. He drew and painted hundreds of official portraits, coronation scenes, and other images of court life.

But he was more than a court painter.  His drawings often reveal an underlying sense of ambivalence, anxiety, alienation, and unresolved tensions — qualities that are attractive to the contemporary eye, more attractive than his undeniable virtuosity with pencil, pen, and brush.

His life story could have been a novel written by Dickens, Balzac, or Thomas Mann. He was born in Breslau. His father was a schoolteacher and his mother taught drawing. In 1830, the family moved to Berlin where his father established a lithography press, but soon died. So at sixteen, Menzel took over the press to support his family. He designed and printed letterheads and greeting cards, and he taught himself to paint and draw. Soon he was fluent in oil painting, watercolor, pencil, graphite, chalk, and pastel.

Menzel’s hero was Frederick the Great. In 1839 he completed a series of woodcut illustrations for a Life of Frederick the Great, and the next year began a series of paintings on the same subject, which brought him to the attention of the public and the Prussian court. Fame and fortune soon followed.

But not happiness. Menzel was only 4’6″ tall. His head was unusually large, his hair turned prematurely grey. A painful sense of being different colored his life and art. “One pitied the cripple — the small one was smiled at. I sensed that strongly my whole life long, most strongly in my youth,” he wrote. His life was free of romantic entanglements.

Menzel is the master of every branch of his art,” wrote his friend, the writer Theodor Fontane, “but, even more, he is the master of his own passions.’ Anticipating Freud’s theory of sublimation, he wrote, “There’s nothing fleshy about his art. All erotic motivations appear to have been turned into thoroughness and zeal for work.” Everything went into the art.

Menzel lived most of his life in Berlin. He loved music, and many of his drawings show people playing or listening to music. (He attended the premier performance of Wagner‘s Ring of the Nibelungen, but preferred Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms.) Study for Margravine Wilhelmine von Bayreuth shows her sitting on a dark pink couch, listening to a concert. Her face is pensive; her dreamy eyes are almost closed. She seems to be floating in a pink silk dress that billows like a cloud.

More than a portrait of a woman, it’s a portrait of the music as it floats through the air, a portrait of the light that flutters on her skirt and flickers across the room like crown of flames.

Menzel was fascinated by light — candlelight, gaslight, moonlight, fire. Berlin’s Fire Department was instructed to awaken him in case of fire so that he could come to the scene and draw. Burning Building, an 1865 gouache on dark paper, shows a fire in the city. Splatterings of white paint lift off the dark smoky ground. Street Corner in Moonlight shows a couple standing on the balcony of a tall building overlooking a dark street. It’s a study in different kinds of light — the warm yellow candlelight inside the apartment, the smoky light of the city at night, the pale blue light of a bright white moon, half-obscured in a cloudy sky.

Menzel was a great observer. Fontane called him “a lifelong master of concentration.” He was always looking, always drawing. He wore an overcoat designed to his specifications with eight different pockets to hold his sketchbooks and supplies of pencil, chalk, and pastel. His drawings are detailed observations, delicate renderings of shadow and line, sometime obsessive and sometimes profound. Several Views of Two Suits of Armor shows parts of metal armor strewn across the page like the remains of a lobster dinner. In Spa Garden in Kissingen, earth, sky, and trees all blur together in flurry of in soft graphite, is a few smoky clouds in an empty sky, and the pale ghostly silhouettes of statues on the roof.

Menzel’s drawings often show people and things as if they were turning into shadow, turning into smoke, dissolving into a cloud; just about to disappear.
He said,

“I early cultivated the habit of drawing things as though I were never to see them again.”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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