August Endell

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.

Inside the Ephraim-Palais.JPG

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

Beauty of the Metropolis Endell cover medium.jpg

Back in black

We've had some highly gratifying feedback since the first two Rixdorf titles were released to the world in November 2017, but one thing that people never fail to mention is the artwork by designer Cara Schwartz. So with our next two titles imminent we thought we'd give you an insight into how these designs came about, what we're aiming for, what we're drawing from.

Publisher/translator James J. Conway and designer Cara Schwartz at the Rixdorf Editions launch, Berlin, November 2017 (photo: Hilmar Schmundt)

Publisher/translator James J. Conway and designer Cara Schwartz at the Rixdorf Editions launch, Berlin, November 2017 (photo: Hilmar Schmundt)

Let's start with our logo. The basic shape is a hexagon or – perhaps – a cube awaiting illumination to reveal its depth. The 'R', in the old German Fraktur script, is taken from the original first edition of one of our first titles, The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe (Das Logierhaus zur schwankenden Weltkugel, 1917), specifically the surname of the author, Franziska zu Reventlow, rendered here as F. Gräfin (Countess) zu Reventlow. Introducing Reventlow to an English-speaking readership is one of our proudest achievements, and we're just as pleased to have her as a guiding presence in our identity.

logo evolution.jpg

For the book covers, the idea was for the imagery to reflect the times in which the original books emerged (approx. 1890-1918) while avoiding pastiche. Series identity was key; it had to be readily apparent when looking at any two Rixdorf titles that they belonged together. And we wanted to have black backgrounds, partly because they look awesome, partly to reflect the idea of things appearing out of the dim past, much like the books they adorned were emerging from ill-deserved obscurity. The era in question was also the first golden age of postcards, and it is largely to this form that we turned for our graphic elements, having gathered hundred of examples from Berlin fleamarkets.

Rixdorf four covers.jpg

Our English edition of Reventlow's book is a good example of how we incorporate postcard art. One of the most arresting sequences in the collection comes from the title story, in which a reform-minded German eccentric leads a crocodile about on a leash. To represent this we found an old postcard from an establishment called the 'Restaurant zum Neuen Krokodil', which was a stone's throw from Frankfurt's main station, and bagged its scaly mascot for ourselves (incidentally, Google Street View reveals that the building is still standing although the ground floor is now occupied by a branch of the drugstore chain DM). Curiously, the name also echoes the guesthouse of the original German title. For the arm reaching in enigmatically from the side we used a New Year's greeting postcard; Cara diligently removed the snowflakes from the original. And she also suggested that – just this once – we break our self-imposed right-hand margin for the cover text; the word 'teetering' is teetering over the edge. The 'stamp' seen on each cover, another allusion to postcards, record the time and place that the original was written and/or published, in this case 1917 in the Swiss town of Ascona where Reventlow lived for the last eight years of her life.

Guesthouse evolution.jpg

Berlin's Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld was a far more challenging work to represent graphically. It covers so much ground – gay men, lesbians, transvestites, transsexuals, prostitution, the demi-monde, high society, nightlife, domestic harmony, law enforcement, blackmail, moral codes. How to get all that in one image? The short answer is you can't, so we decided to lightly recontextualise an example of the era's incredibly extensive and diverse courting imagery. For one half of our happy couple we simply substituted the head of a soldier in the emblematic 'Pickelhaube' helmet. This might seem glib, but in fact Hirschfeld's text reveals that incidents of gay men taking up with obliging soldiers were far from unknown in the era (although full disclosure: they were generally not in drag).

Third Sex evolution.jpg

For our forthcoming translation of August Endell's The Beauty of the Metropolis, we tried something a little different. Picking up on the text's reference to 'the street as living entity' we turned this around to make a living entity composed of streets. The connection between the human body and the urban environment is hardly unprecedented ('heart/lungs of the city', 'arterial road'). The body in this instance is an anatomical diagram from a handbook of medical remedies entitled Pfarrer Heumann's Heilmittel, while the streets, parks and waterways are taken from a 1900 map of Berlin, the city referenced throughout Endell's book. Visible in this section are the Tiergarten, the River Spree and the Landwehr Canal, all of which find mention in the text.

Metropolis evolution.jpg

Finally, for Anna Croissant-Rust's Death we returned to our postcard collection. As with the other examples here, the original artist is sadly uncredited. We changed the orientation of the postcard image, but decided it was strong enough not to need any additional elements. As well as the obvious association of death and flowers, and the trope of death as a romantic partner, the image also recalls the motif of joined hands sometimes seen in old mourning jewellery. But which is Death? Is the deceased being pulled up or down? You decide...

Death evolution.jpg

Visionary of vision

August Endell portrait.jpg

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.

Beauty of the Metropolis Endell.jpg

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.

Endell Schönheit der grossen Stadt.jpg

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...

Exhibition.jpg