EXCERPT: ADOLPH MENZEL DRAWINGS AND PAINTINGS

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Great for any lover of art. Many of the plates have not been seen outside of Germany. This comes with Black & White plates and Full Color plates.

Drawings and Paintings

Adolph Menzel

Dover Publications
2016-07-11
EXCERPT SHARED WITH PERMISSION
INTRODUCTIONTHE SHOCK OF TRUTHAN INTRODUCTION BY JAMES GURNEY
Adolph Menzel’s drawing supplies accompanied him everywhere, whether on a short walk or a long journey. He was always prepared to draw. One of his overcoats had eight pockets, each filled with sketchbooks of different sizes. On the lower left side of his coat was an especially large pocket which held a leather case with a big sketchbook, some pencils, a couple of shading stumps, and a gum eraser.His personal motto was “Nulla dies sine linea” (“Not a day without a line”). He drew ambidextrously, alternating between the left and the right, sometimes on the same drawing. If he was ever caught without drawing paper, he sketched on whatever was available, even a formal invitation to a court ball. Whenever he was spotted at a social event, the whispered word went abroad that “Menzel is lurking about.”He was known to interrupt an important gathering by pulling out his sketchbook, sharpening his pencil, casting an eye around the room, and focusing on a coat, a chair, or a hand. This sometimes brought the proceedings to a halt until he finished. He preferred to draw people unawares, often catching them in unflattering moments of eating, gossiping, or dozing. Once his friend Carl Johann Arnold awoke from a nap to find the artist busily drawing his portrait. “You just woke up five minutes too early,” Menzel told him.

Menzel’s long life spanned most of the nineteenth century. His drawings filled over 100 sketchbooks and thousands of individual pages. “They are my memories,” he said. “They contain things that are extremely personal to me.” Rarely seen by other artists during his lifetime, his drawings came fully to light only after his death. At his memorial exhibition there were thousands of drawings displayed together with paintings and other works. Among his admirers was Edgar Degas, who attempted to copy some of his works from memory. According to Max Liebermann, Degas considered Menzel to be the greatest living artist. But today Menzel’s drawings are not well known outside of Germany.

This book redresses that problem by presenting a sampling of Menzel’s drawings from the bountiful German archives of the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin and the Museum Georg Schäfer. Some of Menzel’s finest graphic works appear in this volume. Many others have never before been reproduced. The focus is on works in dry media and water-based paint, including drawings, engravings, pastels, watercolors, and gouaches (opaque watercolor), leaving aside only his oil paintings, which are more frequently reproduced.
MENZEL’S BEGINNINGS

Menzel was born in 1815 in Breslau, Germany. His father, a lithographer, moved the family to Berlin in 1830. His father’s death in 1832 forced young Menzel, just sixteen years old, to take over the family lithography workshop in order to support his mother and his younger sister and brother.

Despite these obligations, Menzel managed to attend classes at the Berlin Academy of Art, making drawings from plaster casts of antique statues. But he became disenchanted with the education available there. At a perspective class, he felt too much time was spent on unimportant issues. Instead, he asked a renowned architect to explain the principles, which he completely absorbed in just a few days. He had no objection to the rigid demands of the academic curriculum. Such work had its place, but he preferred to apply his close observation to real objects in the world around him. Later, when asked by art students about the value of drawing from plaster casts, he wrote, “alles Zeichnen ist nützlich, und Alles zeichnen auch” (“All drawing is useful, and to draw everything as well.”)

Menzel stubbornly taught himself how to draw and paint. He made his own study of the old masters, developing a particular fondness for Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn. Menzel once said “Our task is now to do in our time what this Phoenix [Dürer] did in his own.” He especially admired their honest portrayal of commonplace subjects. “Your everyday surroundings should be studied best and most thoroughly,” Menzel said. “Those are the lines on which Art in former times proceeded to glory.”

As a commercial printer, he threw himself into the task of producing decorative illustration work, such as menus, letterheads, greeting cards, and invitations. Anyone else might have written off such jobs as menial. For Menzel, to produce anything less than a sincere effort would be to “throw one’s cake in the water.” He told admiring students that it was essential to do justice to every assignment, and to accept everything as a genuine artistic challenge. “You will then cease at once to consider anything unworthy of your powers,” he said.
ROYALTY AND HISTORY

In 1839 he accepted an assignment to produce 378 woodcut illustrations for Franz Kugler’s history of Frederick the Great (1712–1786), a project that took him nearly four years. He thoroughly researched the life and times of the Prussian ruler and military leader. His illustrations showed a psychological penetration and a creative verve that have made them classics of the art of illustration. Not satisfied with thestandard of the French wood engravers usually employed for such work, he built up his own team of engravers, who established a high standard of craftsmanship. Frederick was a subject that was to occupy him for many other works, including the famous oil painting The Flute Concert.

In 1861 he was commissioned to paint the Coronation of William I in Königsberg. This large oil was his most ambitious single work, four years in the making. The painting garnered him honors and acceptance into high society. The preparatory work involved individual studies from life (Plates 13–15 and 17) to inform the 132 portraits that appear within the painting. These studies were made in pencil and gouache on toned paper directly from models dressed in their proper costumes. Even the king himself posed with a sword upraised. A few subjects, such as the queen, declined to pose. Others were unavailable or had died. For those, he reluctantly relied on photographs.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND IMPRESSIONISM

Menzel rejected the use of reference photography unless it was absolutely necessary. The use of photography “is diametrically opposed to my belief in the responsibility of the artist to art and his self-confidence; and even the continuation of such a method must necessarily lead to the loss of discipline in certain important powers of the eyes, the hand, the memory, and the imagination concerning animated nature.”

Such attitudes may have seemed old fashioned to many of Menzel’s contemporary artists, who by the late nineteenth century were beginning to rely on photography’s documentary powers. In fact, Menzel was keenly interested in the new invention. Starting in 1864 his brother Richard ran a successful photography business, which produced reproductions of Menzel’s work. After Richard’s death, Menzel advised his sister-in-law in the running of the business. According to Max Liebermann, who knew his artistic sensibilities well, “His visual sense, naturally inclined towards the observation and reproduction of the tiniest details, received fresh stimulus from photography.”

Many of Menzel’s drawings capture people and animals in action holding transitory poses. Plate 4 shows an art viewer with hands on hips, apparently caught unawares, and Plate 77 shows a man caught sleeping on a train. Menzel hired costumed models to pose in his studio (Plates 76, 78, and 95), allowing him more time to study difficult poses. His oil studies from the 1840s and ’50s, as well as his gouache and pastel studies from the same period, recorded fleeting light effects such as moonlight, firelight, dappled light, and glimmering church interiors, traversing a visual territory that Impressionists would explore two decades later.

On many drawings, he scrawled the word “Erinnerung,” (“memory”). For example, in Plate 102, he used his memory to inform a drawing of an audience member at a performance of a Beethoven symphony. In the evenings at home he would summon his memories to reconstruct incidents from earlier in the day, or he would elaborate some studies that he had begun on location.

These drawings were not produced for the gallery trade. As he said, “I never do drawings with a view to selling them,” he said. “As a rule I do them only as nature studies for a particular picture or as a casual thing for later use.” Unlike the Impressionists, Menzel did not put any stock in the notion of the freshness of the initialsketch. Rather, he believed that “one is the biggest donkey in the beginning,” and he often created many studies before undertaking the finished painting.

Some of Menzel’s most vigorous figure drawings (Plate 66) were created as preliminary studies for The Iron Rolling Mill, 1872-75, a large oil painting of workers inside a factory. Menzel was one of the first artists in Europe to portray industry from the inside, and to draw the strange new architecture of smoke-belching factories (Plates 100 and 104). Working alongside the dangerous iron-rolling machines, he was “in constant danger of being, so to speak, rolled as well. For weeks on end from morning to evening, I stood between the huge whizzing, oscillating wheels and belts with red-hot blocks, and sketched.” After that experience, Menzel chose to draw with the wide, flat carpenter’s pencil that was in common use by the laborers.
THE THEME OF DEATH

Many of Menzel’s drawings confront death or dying. In The Visit from Death (Plates 6 and 7), he presents a skeletal death figure as an uninvited guest, waiting outside a door and gently pulling the bell rope. Death is a frail figure with a top hat, whose thin heel slips out of his shoe, and whose body no longer fills the fine coat and hat that once marked him as a gentleman. The companion image shows Death banished for a time, fleeing a barrage of wine bottles by jumping out the window.

It was not an unusual practice in Menzel’s time to portray a person in the repose of death. Menzel also drew his own brother Richard many times, both during life (Plate 96) and after his untimely death (Plate 97).

Because of his knowledge of the military history of the Frederician period, Menzel was invited to join in an unusual expedition in 1873 into a crypt beneath a garrison church in Berlin, where many military officers were buried. The coffins had been left in disorder, stacked with no concern for rank, and the bodies needed to be moved to a new location. The explorers pierced the gloom with lanterns, finding the coffins in various states of preservation.

As the lids were lifted, recalled Meyerheim, “if there were no names on the coffins, the historians, scholars, and military personnel present had no clue as to whose remains they had before them. Menzel alone recognized with great certainty each prince and general by the portions of their uniforms that remained, and only when the body wore simply a plain shroud did his knowledge fail. Of course, he soon made some drawings (Plate 60) and came from the scene late that night to visit me and relate many interesting details, after he had washed his hands.” Menzel drew each corpse urgently, noting the characteristic features in their deathly grimaces, as well as the identifying features of medals, uniforms and boots.

Perhaps the most jarring encounter with mortality occurred in the summer of 1866 when he visited the aftermath of a battle at Königsgrätz between the Prussians and the Austrians. In the hospital he painted watercolor studies of soldiers who were dying or already dead (Plates 8 and 9). He was so moved by the sight of such suffering and carnage that he vowed never again to glorify war, a remarkable commitment from an artist who had spent much of his earlier career visualizing military exploits.
APPEARANCE AND PERSONALITY

Menzel was conspicuously small in stature, only four feet, six inches tall. He had a large head and was often compared to a gnome. He frequently scowled. When he was young, his peers called him the “Little Mushroom.” When he became angry and fought back, they called him the “Poisonous Mushroom.”

His unusual appearance affected his life from his early days. Reflecting on his art education, he said, “It would have been quite useful for me to have attended the Academy longer; only that, you know, a certain pride stood in the way: one pitied the cripple — the small one was smiled at. I sensed that strongly my whole life long, most strongly in my youth.” Although he was beloved by his circle of close friends and relations for his intelligence and wit, he spoke gruffly to strangers, not wanting to endure their condescension.

In his self-portraits (Plates 72 and 80) he regarded himself warily and uncomfortably. He did not like writers of his day to recount anecdotes about him, and urged them to “Please leave aside everything personal.” While reviewing galley proofs of a book of his artwork, he wrote marginal corrections full of sarcastic remarks about those “jackasses, the gentlemen of pen and ink.”

He kept to himself and never married. “Not only have I remained unmarried, throughout my life I have also renounced all relations with the other sex,” he wrote in his last will and testament. … There is a lack of any kind of self-made bond between me and the outside world.” There are few portrayals of female nudes in his life work (Plate 57)

His alienation shaped his artistic outlook. One drawing might show a man sitting on a toilet (Plate 71) or Galileo languishing in a dungeon (Plate 115). At the same time, paradoxically, his drawings evince a remarkable empathy, particularly for people who were old, poor, or suffering (Plates 42 and 58). He was fascinated with frankly chronicling the physiognomies of his fellow humans. Nobility often lies hidden behind unglamorous appearances. He once said, “A person not only acts with, but also has, a certain external appearance, and the latter is as inconsequential as it is accidental.”

In his mature years he had a studio on the fifth floor, where models would come in small groups and talk informally. Gustav Kirstein wrote that “on the landing one could encounter old, ugly models, ‘character heads,” which he preferred for practice in those late years.

As much as he was intrigued by death and old age, he also took a tender interest in children, animals and birds. He painted songbirds both dead (Plate 103) and alive (Plate 22). The birdcage with goldfinches was made for the “Children’s Album,” intended for his sister’s children.

Menzel’s feeling for living things extended to his approach to drawing inanimate objects, which frequently give the impression that they are on the verge of coming to life. Menzel played with this illusion of life in his “armor fantasies” (Plate 19), which he drew from suits of armor that he observed while working in the guard room of the royal palace of Berlin.
MEDIA AND TECHNIQUE

Meyerheim observed that Menzel’s technique was always different from other artists of his time. Painting in oils did not come easily for him, and he didn’t care very much for technical finesse. He used children’s watercolor pigments, exhausted bristle brushes, and a palette made from a toothpaste dish. After 1887 he declared that he would retire his oils in favor of gouache. He felt gouache was more suited to capturing certain natural effects. According to his friend Meyerheim, “It didn’t appear right to him to present dry stone, a sandy path, or a woolen sheep as if all of those things had been drenched in oil and varnish. … He expressed his greatest truths in pastels, watercolors, and gouache.” Some of his most ambitious gouache paintings (Plates 27-36) were commissioned as a gift set to commemorate the visit to Berlin of Alexandra Feodorovna, the spouse of Russian Emperor Nicholas II. The Festival of the White Rose was an elaborate and highly romanticized public spectacle that enchanted aristocratic society. Menzel presents the complex panoramas as seen through extravagant framing devices.

For the last ten years of his life, Menzel used only the pencil and the stump, which is a leathercoated wiping stick used to soften or blend the strokes that were first laid down with the pencil. Menzel advised the son of a friend to “use the stump to correctly establish the shadows, after which one has to draw as necessary into the softened shadows.” Many unfinished drawings (Plate 61) show this base layer of blurry tones over which a gravelly texture was directly applied with the pencil tip. His final drawings are often dominated by stump work, which lends them a hazy, atmospheric quality, like figures emerging from smoke.

In his pencil drawings, Menzel seemed to give little attention to the composition on the page. Images run out of the frame. Figures appear in fragmentary form, with parts of the pose redrawn whenever they could be improved. If a part of his own drawing displeased him, he ruthlessly crossed it out.
ASSESSMENT

Menzel has often been credited as a pioneer of realism. His conception of reality was neither idealized nor debased, but rather painstakingly honest. He looked for a “characteristic or ingenious interpretation, rather than a pedantically accurate rendering.” He said that “not everything is truthful to nature that is scrupulously copied.”

 

Amazon link for purchase:

https://www.amazon.com/Drawings-Paintings-Adolph-Menzel/dp/0486497321/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474570062&sr=8-1&keywords=adolph+menzel

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shelluch
    Sep 14, 2016 @ 13:58:55

    My son would love this book he is huge into art

    Like

    Reply

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