Beauty in the metropolis

 Ephraim-Palais

Ephraim-Palais

Berlin-born architect and theorist August Endell issued his most important text, Die Schönheit der großen Stadt, in 1908. And this year brings not only our English translation of this title (The Beauty of the Metropolis) but also an exhibition currently running in Endell's hometown that takes the name and content of the book as inspiration. Where the text drew numerous examples from the German capital in its celebration of the urban environment and the aesthetic riches it has to offer, the exhibition focuses on canvases capturing views of a city that has had numerous qualities ascribed to it, but rarely ‘beauty’.

On a bright, cold day with Siberian winds strafing the Spree (this was a while ago, you will note) I made my way from Jannowitzbrücke station to the centrally located Ephraim-Palais, a bijou Rococo palace originally built for the jeweller to the court of Frederick the Great, although deconstructed and reconstructed in the 20th century. The close identification of location and subject matter was confirmed by two works that offered views of precisely the route I had just taken, from differing historical perspectives.

The exhibition takes us from the Biedermeier era to the early 2000s, or as the subtitle has it ‘Berlin images from Gaertner to Fetting’, i.e., from someone you've probably never heard of to someone else you've probably never heard of. This is something of a misdirect, as the show actually offers work by the far more recognisable likes of Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Jeanne Mammen. Wisely the pieces are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, but the selection sticks almost exclusively to oil on canvas, with no etchings, drawings or other works on paper. And no photography, although as I note in the afterword to The Beauty of the Metropolis, it is arguably in this medium that Endell’s vision of a citizenry in full aesthetic possession of its urban surroundings is most compellingly realised in the present day.

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Extracts from The Beauty of the Metropolis adorn the walls of the show, and both the work and its creator are at home in these surroundings. It wasn’t his building or design works that first brought Endell to public attention, but a rousing piece of art criticism published in 1896, entitled Um die Schönheit (On Beauty). It addressed a major exhibition in Munich that year, in which doughty offerings by seasoned academicians appeared alongside explosive new experiments in form and theme. The text announced Endell as a new and original thinker, one who proposed a radical submission to aesthetic input:

But those who learn to give in to their visual impressions completely, without associations, without secondary objects of any kind, those who just once feel the emotional impact of forms and colours, will find them to be an inexhaustible source of extraordinary, unimagined pleasure. And the moment when the understanding for these things first awakens should be an event in every person’s life. It is like an intoxication, a madness that comes over us. The joy threatens to destroy us, the profusion of beauty to suffocate us. Those who have not experienced this will never understand visual art.

These ideas in turn informed his perception of the city a dozen years later when he wrote The Beauty of the Metropolis. Certainly the variety of experience of which Endell speaks in the book is reflected in this selection. Sharing the same feverish, pre-World War One period with Endell’s text is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s well-known Nollendorfplatz, which depicts a relatively new district as the meeting place of almost irreconcilable axes of motion, while Ludwig Meidner’s desolate images of building sites show the city simultaneously claiming yet more of its sandy environs for itself.

 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Nollendorfplatz 1912

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Nollendorfplatz 1912

There are, it has to be said, a few works evidently selected for their affinity with the theme at hand, with artistic excellence a secondary consideration. Conversely, other artists are exposed in a new light. Jeanne Mammen's images of demi-mondaine city-dwellers may be familiar, but here she is represented by an unpeopled image of a church (thought to have been executed in the late 1930s), rendering the scene in a way that didn't at all conform to the Nazis' approved styles. And while I was dimly aware of the work of Impressionist Lesser Ury from reproductions, here they appeared as a revelation, one that brought Endell’s words vividly to mind. The most thrilling and evocative was a nocturnal study of the Landwehr Canal, and Endell’s depiction of this waterway in The Beauty of the Metropolis could be a transcription of Ury’s image (which unfortunately doesn't reproduce well):

The thick treetops prevent light from making its full impact. The quiet buildings rise darkly behind the shadowy clouds of the treetops. The gas lanterns seem like points of light attracting cabs and automobiles; a fine, blinking web of stars spreads out above this dark mass. The smooth, turgid water is completely dark, and this silent, spectral mirror below reflects the gentle life of the night above, shimmering at the passer-by.

 Lesser Ury Abend am Landwehrkanal 1889

Lesser Ury Abend am Landwehrkanal 1889

Night takes on a far more sinister iridescence a century later in Wolfgang Peuker’s imagining of the (old) Chancellery, a scene populated solely by outsized martial statuary at the entrance of Hitler's intimidating lair. This is a rare retrospective view, with most artists sticking to their own eras, as seen in Louise Rösler’s deceptively festive Marsden Hartley-esque study of Kurfürstendamm on the eve of the Second World War, and Karl Hofer’s desaturated view of the bombed-out city after its conclusion. Konrad Knebel’s Straße mit Mauer (1977) is one of numerous works to depict the divided city in the Cold War, but while it depicts the Berlin Wall itself, its perspective magnifies the adjacent apartment blocks with the odd effect of reducing the barrier to the status of an almost incidental plane. Meanwhile Stefanie Bürkle’s Weinhaus Huth (1995) brings us forward to the redevelopment of the post-reunification era. Here skeletal concrete behemoths dwarf a tenacious remnant of old Berlin in the form of the eponymous building, almost the last original structure left standing on or around Potsdamer Platz following wartime bombing and the construction of the Wall.

Perhaps the most surprising work here is Oskar Kokoschka's Berlin, 13. August 1966. For one, I had no idea Kokoschka was still active in 1966 (and was further surprised to discover he lived until 1980). Not just that, the work was created at the behest of Axel Springer, and depicts the view over East Berlin from the top of the publisher's new high-rise, built right on the course of the Wall. Springer’s conservative, staunchly pro-American tabloid provocations would soon make him one of the bogeymen of West Germany’s ’68 generation, so it is all the more unusual to find him here in association with a survivor of the Weimar avant-garde.

For anyone familiar with Berlin, it is difficult to avoid trying to identify locations and individual features, but here – again – Endell is way ahead of us. It is not the metropolis that we should be seeking, but the beauty within it:

But only in our present era have we slowly begun to realise that form and colour do not derive their beauty from the object, that there may indeed be a beauty that is not even perceived in the object when we observe it for purely practical purposes, and that it is only artistic vision that confers upon the object the beauty that resides in form and colour, independent of all material relationships.

Die Schönheit der großen Stadt continues at Museum Ephraim-Palais, Berlin, until 26 August 2018

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Wish you were hier

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As well as using old postcards in our artwork, we have recently started using postcards to make... postcards. Specifically, a series of art cards offering variations on original motifs of German postcards from around the beginning of the 20th century.

Why?

Well, one of our central aims with the whole Rixdorf Editions project is to introduce a combination of time and place largely unfamiliar in the English speaking world (Wilhelmine Germany) and show how it was actually a crucible for progressive thought that exerted an unacknowledged influence on later eras from the Weimar Republic to the present day.

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Taking original imagery from the time and cropping, blowing up and amplifying the colour symbolises this process by liberating the latent Modernism of the age. There are the dots seen in close up which foretell everything from Pointillism to Pop Art. There are the mismatched colour registrations and their evocative suggestion of new and dynamic graphic realms. And even when (actually especially when) catering to mass market tastes, there are surreal juxtapositions of imagery.

The first series of eight cards is called 'Landscape', referring to both the format and the subject matter, with the source material depicting scenic splendour throughout Germany from Heligoland to the Bavarian Alps. Some of the original cards were photographs, some illustrations, some a strange amalgam of the two.

Anyway, it's just an experiment for now. We'll be including a selection of postcards with each online order until we run out.

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Prepare yourself for Death

It's time we had a little talk about Death - the forthcoming English-language debut by late 19th/early 20th century German writer Anna Croissant-Rust which I translated for Rixdorf Editions.

Perhaps we should start with the author's highly unusual Franco-German name. She was actually born (1860) as Anna Rust in the Palatinate, then part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. But in 1888 she married Hermann Croissant – descended from French Huguenots – and added his name to hers. Bonus fun fact: Anna’s mother-in-law was called Philippine Croissant.

As remarkable a name as it is, even the bookish German of your acquaintance is likely to draw a blank if you mention it. Anna Croissant-Rust sold relatively few books while she was alive and posterity hasn’t been much kinder. And until now, she was one of a large number of women writing enthralling, groundbreaking works in German at the time who have never been translated into English: Maria Janitschek, Elsa Asenijeff, Laura Marholm, Ilse Frapan – to name just a few.

 Anna Croissant-Rust

Anna Croissant-Rust

In 1890 Anna Croissant-Rust became the only female member of the Society for Modern Living, a group of forward-thinking Munich-based writers largely associated with the Naturalist movement. But she was already thinking further forward than her male colleagues, and certainly beyond Naturalism. One of her most contentious early works was ‘Wedding’, a tale that relates a bride’s terror of imminent deflowering with pre-Freudian psychosexual frankness; the issue of the journal in which it appeared was promptly banned from sale.

Throughout the early 1890s, Croissant-Rust published works that read like they were conjured from the future, breaking down forms well before ‘breaking down forms’ became a thing in the early 20th century. She was out on her own, fusing free verse and fragmentary narrative in an intense emotional register, but these experiments met with little more than bewilderment at the time. And by the time other writers (usually men) were creating similar work, Croissant-Rust's pioneering work was forgotten. I thought it was essential to highlight Croissant-Rust’s dazzling formal innovation, so the forthcoming Rixdorf edition is actually two books in one: Death, as well as the early book Gedichte in Prosa (Prose Poems). The original publication of Prose Poems (1893) is set in Fraktur, which just highlights its uniqueness. You would struggle to find anything else from this time in the old font – which had defined the look of German books since the dawn of movable type – that was as fearless, as avant-garde, as this. In fact you really have to jump ahead to the pre-WWI Expressionists to find anything comparable.

 A page from the original 1893 edition of  Gedichte in Prosa  ( Prose Poems )

A page from the original 1893 edition of Gedichte in Prosa (Prose Poems)

By the time others had caught up, Croissant-Rust’s thoughts were turning to Death. Based on the medieval danse macabre, or Totentanz, Death (1914) finds the Grim Reaper scything through a selection of unfortunates in a cycle of 17 stories. In 'Corn Mother', for instance, it comes to a sick child as an apparition from local lore (related to the 'corn dolly'), in 'Shadows' it appears to be a young woman's own beauty which snuffs out her life, in 'The Bird' it's, well, it's a bird, but the fact that it apparently plucks a man from a cliff and tosses him into a valley suggests this is no normal winged creature. Even in these short tales there is space for mystery and ambiguity. And there's surprisingly little morbidity, in fact if anything it’s a celebration of life and colour and light. Especially light. If nothing else, Death is a thesaurus of the effects of light.

 The cover of  Der Tod  ( Death ), 1914

The cover of Der Tod (Death), 1914

The original 1914 publication (Der Tod) was a bibliophile edition of 800 copies with illustrations by Willi Geiger showing Herr G. Reaper at work; Geiger was later defamed as a ‘degenerate’ artist by the Nazis. My first reading of the book was a revelation; suddenly not translating it was simply not an option, and later encountering the electrifying originality of Prose Poems merely confirmed that I had to try to bring this largely forgotten writer to a wider readership. Hopefully I have preserved something of the wonder I found in the original. Now that the book is here in Cara Schwartz's beautiful cover I am extremely proud that Death will be available through Rixdorf Editions on 21 May. I can't wait for you to read it.

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Visionary of vision

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After an unseemly spell of blogging silence we are now emerging from hibernation and full of spring plans. We've just announced the first of our two titles appearing in May 2018 - The Beauty of the Metropolis by August Endell.

Originally published in German in 1908, it wears its 110 years lightly. This is an extremely forward-thinking book that offers a way of visually accessing urban surroundings, even for those of us who know little else. Endell was an architect, a designer and a theorist, and an aesthete more than anything. But for him this didn't mean constructing his own refined environment and retreating into it, but rather finding and appreciating the visual enrichment offered by the things around him. Or in his own words: 'Open your eyes, don’t invent miracles or another world above the clouds; for here in your world you have the kingdom of Heaven.' Endell's love of the city, with all its chaos and squalor, shines through in this book.

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It is typical of Endell's equivocal relationship with posterity that he is best known for a building that no longer exists - the Elvira photo studio in Munich, which opened just weeks before the beginning of the 20th century. Its radical design looked like nothing before it (and frankly not a lot that came after it, either). Just as interesting is the story of the studio's proprietors, Anita Augspurg and Sophia Goudstikker. A lesbian couple who lived in relative openness, they were the first women in Germany to run a company independently of men. You can read more about them in the Afterword to The Beauty of the Metropolis.

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And as we were working on the translation we learnt that a museum here in Berlin, the Ephraim-Palais, was planning an exhibition of artworks depicting scenes of the city and which is inspired by Endell's book, even taking its original title - Die Schönheit der grossen Stadt. It's already under way and will be running until late August; we're going along soon and will duly report back. Meanwhile, we'll check in shortly to share news of our other spring title...

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Launched!

Huge thanks to Dave and Orla of Curious Fox for hosting last night's Rixdorf Editions launch and reading in Berlin, Jodi Rose for organising and taking photos, Cara Schwartz for the brilliant artwork and most especially everyone who came along! It was a fantastic night, with a full house of lovely, attentive listeners and smart question-askers - the best start in life a new publisher could hope for.

Metropolis Documents

Magnus Hirschfeld’s 1904 report Berlin’s Third Sex – probably the first sympathetic account of gay and lesbian city life ever published – is a remarkable enough book in its own right. But in fact it was just one part of a much larger project. The Großstadt-Dokumente, or Metropolis Documents, of which Hirschfeld’s book was the third instalment, were issued by the Hermann Seemann publishing house between 1904 and 1908. In all there would be 51 volumes, together representing one of the most far-reaching studies of urban existence ever undertaken, a vast portrait of the city at the outset of the 20th century. And around three quarters of the titles were about one city in particular: Berlin.

 The original German edition (1904) of  Berlin's Third Sex

The original German edition (1904) of Berlin's Third Sex

The books appeared at an astonishing rate (up to 16 in a single year) and were printed on cheap stock to be sold at the price of one mark – significantly less than the average paperback of the time. Later they were issued in hard cover thematic anthologies of five volumes apiece. They were the brainchild of Berlin-born writer Hans Ostwald (1873-1940), and reflected his enormous interest in the society around him, particularly those of its members who stood outside the mainstream – including bohemians, prostitutes, cult followers, socialists, petty criminals, vagabonds, unwed mothers and juvenile delinquents. Each book addressed a different phenomenon of urban life. Five of the titles were by Ostwald himself, while the 39 other writers he chose were typically young, male journalists of his acquaintance, few of whom found lasting renown. The sole female author, Ella Mensch, used her platform to attack what she regarded as overly radical elements in the women’s emancipation movement.

 Hans Ostwald

Hans Ostwald

It all began with Ostwald's own Dark Corners of Berlin (1904), which took the reader to dive bars, homeless shelters and other haunts of the down and out ordinarily invisible to the bourgeois reader. Subsequent volumes blended reportage, polemics and sensationalism, and while they certainly pushed at the limit of what Wilhelmine Germany would allow, only one volume was actually banned from sale – Germany’s first major study of lesbianism, written by Wilhelm Hammer. But even the less contentious titles revealed parts of the city readers might never otherwise encounter, including court rooms, sweatshops and the offices of public servants. The last of the Metropolis Documents was Edmund Edel's Neu-Berlin (1908), a stroll amid the bright lights and consumerist revelry of the Ku’damm and other gathering places of the moneyed bourgeoisie in the rapidly expanding city.

 Rixdorf Editions' collection of  Metropolis Documents  anthologies

Rixdorf Editions' collection of Metropolis Documents anthologies

Even within Germany this remarkable series excites little recognition beyond academic circles, in contrast to the broad, educated readership Ostwald originally had in mind (any German-speakers who wish to find out more are directed to Ralf Thies’s exhaustively researched 2006 book, Ethnograph des dunklen Berlin). Berlin’s Third Sex is the first of the titles to appear in English and considering how much these books tell us about Berlin at the outset of the century it would define like no other, it is remarkable that over 100 years later the Metropolis Documents are all but unknown to Anglophone readers.

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Tossed in translation

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Happy International Translation Day!

Forthcoming fiction collection The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe is the first book by German author Franziska zu Reventlow (1871-1918) to appear in English. Reventlow herself was a prolific translator, almost exclusively from the French, introducing well over 40 works to German readers. Titles by Marcel Prévost account for almost half of those works, along with Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France and one book by Emile Zola.

Reventlow – look away now, conscientious translators – was not above taking shortcuts with her work, as she admitted in a 1901 letter to her lover, philosopher Ludwig Klages: "You should know that I am very haphazard with the novels, and I cut wherever they seem too long."

In addition to French books, Reventlow translated one novel by Norwegian author Bernt Lie and a sole English work, perhaps the strangest entry in her bibliography. Originally entitled The World Allies: A Survey of Nationalism, Labour and World-trade, it was written in 1917 by eccentric American millionaire John Wesley De Kay, who made his fortune with sausages in Mexico. De Kay, evidently quite the polymath, wrote a number of works on big issues of the day as well as a 1910 dramatization of the life of Judas, for which he enlisted no less a stage presence than Sarah Bernhardt. It was banned in New York after just one performance.