Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
On December 8th, 1815 Carl Erdmann Menzel, a stone printer from Breslau (today Wroclaw) and his wife welcome their new born son. The boy shall be named Adolph Friedrich Erdmann Menzel. Which will go just splendidly with his future surname of “VON Menzel” – the honour and the hereditary title bestowed upon him in 1898 by the grateful Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The reason for this great social step up was simple: Menzel, whom fate forced to take over his dead father´s duties already at the age of 16 and who filled in the old man´s shoes with remarkable sense of duty and self-discipline, became a self-taught painter and, eventually, the greatest Prussian visual artist of the 19th century. Against all odds.
Of which there were plenty. Not only did he have to care and provide for his family – the mother, the brother and the sister – but due to a genetic defect he was robbed of the chance to fulfill his secret childhood dream. With his 140 cm he was absolutely unfit for an army career. And being classified as suffering from Gnomenhaftigkeit (gnomelike posture) must have been just as painful for him as being dismissed as a candidate in the first place.
But perhaps it was precisely this, well, shortcoming that spurred him on in his pursuit of the baux arts and artistic perfection. Menzel´s paintings were extraordinary. His depiction of Prussian history and its most glorious moments, but first and foremost his paintings featuring king Friedrich II known as Frederick The Great brought him respect, money and eternal fame. And all that although in his most famous works, Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssouci (Frederick´s The Great Flute Concert in The Castle of Sanssouci) and Tafelrunde Friedrichs des Großen vom preußischen Staat (The Round Table of Frederick The Great), he painted the king not as a warrior, a hero but as a pretty private man in royally private surroundings.
And he painted him and his world with millions of perfect little details: Menzel was known for his almost maniac pursuit of truthful depiction of his subjects. A French novelist and art critic Louis Duranty described Adolph Menzel as the man who has measured with a compass the buttons on a uniform from the time of Frederick, when it is a matter of depicting a modern shoe, waistcoat, or coiffure, does not make them by approximations but totally, in their absolute form and without smallness of means.
Menzel wasn´t, however, a painter focussing only on great topics. His dislike of the pomp and circumstance was a well known thing in his days. When awarded The Order of The Black Eagle along with the “von” for his surname and all the matching privileges, he famously summed it all up as der ganze Kladderadatsch – “that whole silly rubbish”.
He was just as happy painting significant historic figures as drawing his living room or portraying his sister. If not more. Adolph Menzel, although respected and beloved by his artistic colleagues who called him die kleine Excellenz (the tiny Excellency), never had any closer relationship with the outer world.
He never married, never had any affairs (neither with men nor with women), had no children and although blessed with many friends, no real interest in anyone apart from his closest relatives: the mother, the brother and the sister. After the death of his mother and the premature death of the brother Adolph Menzel spent the rest of his life living either with his sister Emilie or in the closest proximity to her and her husband, the Musikdirektor Hermann Krigar.
Also in Ritterstrasse 43 in today´s Berlin-Kreuzberg. Here, in the old house that fell prey to the WW2 air-raids and the urban re-modelling project of IBA in the 1980´s, Adolph Menzel spent some of his most prolific years. He and Emilie Menzel moved in at Easter 1847 soon after their mother´s death. They stayed until 1860 when the Krigars, married in 1859, decided they needed a new abode. Adolph followed them.
But it was in Ritterstrasse 43, at the heart of the slowly growing future Export Viertel (Export Quarter) also known as the Goldene Meile, that the artist lived when painting some of his best and most famous works: Die Tafelrunde (destroyed in WW2) from 1850, Das Flötenkonzert from 1850-1852, Friedrich und die Seinen in der Schlacht bei Hochkirch finished in 1856 (and like Die Tafelrunde gone forever).
It was also from here that he created some of his most beautiful paintings, sketches and drawings. He did not even have to leave his flat to do that: the living room, the bedroom, the drawing room, even the staircase and the backyard were enough to inspire him. Not to mention the people he shared that space with.
He also left several absolutely beguiling images of the future Landwehrkanal, then still unregulated water flow known as Schaf(s)graben (The Sheep Ditch).
Many years after Menzel´s death – he died in February 1905 – he was still remembered by those who knew him as a warm, extremely intelligent but rather aloof gentleman who liked to be left in peace. In Adolf Heilborn´s brilliant and despite its tiny size immensely interesting book Die Reise Nach Berlin you will read about him what follows (translation by nmp):
A couple of houses further you reached Frederichs Restaurant with its strange, naïve, wooden front extension designed in a way that was only fit for summer – Menzel´s favourite inn. Here you could often see him sitting at the window, a gnome eavesdropping on birds, nothing but a giant head with spectacles, remote, sully, and late in the evening he showed up again at Josty´s (a famous coffee shop at Potsdamer Platz), where he sat hidden behind a massive sheet of the newspaper at a small, lonely, single table and – slept.
Today only a small and all too easy to overlook plaque on a 1980´s building commemorates the great artist and the time he spent in Kreuzberg.