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Adolph Menzel

Wrocław 1815 – 1905 Berlin

Schlittschuhläufer (im Tiergarten in Berlin?). Circa 1855/56
Black, white and coloured chalk on brown paper, laid down on cardboard. 36,8 × 52,8 cm (14 ½ × 20 ¾ in.) Monogrammed lower right: A. M. Not in the catalogue raisonné by Tschudi. Vertical fold in the centre with tear at the top and at the bottom. Slightly stained. Imperfections in the margin.  [3019]

ProvenanceWertheim, Berlin / Galerie Fischer, Lucerne / Julius Wilhelm Boehler, Lucerne (acquired at the Galerie Fischer before 1930, until 1955; deposited in the Kunstmuseum Lucerne in 1941 at the latest, there until 1945) / private collection, Hesse (acquired in the Stuttgarter Kunstkabinett in 1955, thence by descent to the present owner)

EUR 250.000 – 350.000
USD 308,000 – 431,000

Sold for:
312,500 EUR (incl. premium)

Schlittschuhläufer (im Tiergarten in Berlin?)

Auction 287Wednesday, 30 May 2018
03:00 PM

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ExhibitionAdolph von Menzel. Aus Anlaß seines 50. Todestages. Berlin, Museum Dahlem (ehem. Staatliche Museen Berlin, National-Galerie), 1955, cat. no. 88 („Schlittschuhläufer im Tiergarten“)

Literature and Illustration22nd Art-Auction: Kunstliteratur, Kunstwerke des 15.–20. Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart, Stuttgarter Kunstkabinett Roman Norbert Ketterer, 29.11.–1.12.1955, cat.-no. 603, Ill. plate 19 („Schlittschuhläufer“)

Menzel, Painter of Modern Life

From the mid-1840s to the late 1850s, Adolph Menzel produced a series of works that rank among the most exciting and forward-looking creations of 19th-century German art. They are the drawings which Menzel executed in colored pastel chalks and which formed part of his private oeuvre, much like his early oil sketches from roughly the same period. At practically no other time in the artist’s creative life was his approach more radical, independent, or “French.” Just as he was making his mark in history painting with images of Frederick the Great, Menzel was also creating a private portfolio that focused on the here and now, on scenes of daily life in a burgeoning metropolis. The pastel drawings which Menzel created in this context are celebrations of the lively spontaneity of studies, while being conceived, in terms of their structure and motif, in the spirit of fully-fledged paintings. But what they depict are “merely” real-life situations: The motif frozen in the moment is what counts; without any historical backdrop or narrative. With this approach, Menzel was taking center stage as a peintre de la vie moderne of precisely the sort envisioned by Charles Baudelaire.

We are proud to have been given the opportunity to offer Schlittschuhläufer (“Ice Skaters”), a prime specimen of these early pastels by Adolph Menzel. Having been in private hands for many decades, it was known to researchers only as a black-and-white reproduction. Intensive research and effective assistance from various institutions have established an unbroken provenance that documents the folio’s chain of ownership back to the 1920s.

Menzel’s first exposure to the city of Paris occurred during a two-week visit in September 1855. The Exhibition Universelle was in full swing, attracting visitors to a specially built pavilion where the choicest works of art were on display, including Menzel’s König Friedrichs II. Tafelrunde in Sanssouci (“The Round Table of King Frederick II at Sans Souci”). Experiencing the French metropolis during the International Exhibition surely had an intense impact on the visually receptive and emotionally sensitive artist. That same year, Menzel would go on to create a colorful pastel rendering “from memory” of a bustling street corner peopled with various Parisian characters, some on the go, others loitering idly. In a work created the following year, he would draw upon his recollections of a visit to a boulevard theater in Paris for his famous painting, Théâtre du Gymnase (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.)

The pastel drawing presented here dates from the same year as that well-known oil study. The setting has now changed from Paris back to Berlin. It is winter and, as in most years of that time, the city’s lakes and streams are fully frozen over. By then, the ice skating craze had reached the Prussian capital (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe having been just one of many early enthusiasts). By 1855/56, when the drawing was made, Berlin boasted no fewer than six ice rinks on natural bodies of water like the Neuer See in Tiergarten park. Here, food, drink, and music could be enjoyed and ice skates rented. Felix Eberty sets the scene in his “An Old Berliner’s Recollections of His Youth:” “The canals as well that crisscrossed the Tiergarten and meandered around the islets of Rousseauinsel and Luiseninsel were playgrounds much sought after by the ice skaters.” These detailed descriptions actually allow us to surmise the location that may have inspired Menzel: “Ladies,” Eberty tells us, “did not yet dare venture onto the ice in those days, but rather were content to let themselves be pushed along on skate-mounted chairs. This form of diversion was particularly commonplace on the Spree River behind what were known as the ‘tents’ in Tiergarten park.” What Eberty was referring to was “In den Zelten” (today’s John-Foster-Dulles-Allee), Berlin’s main recreation and entertainment area in the Tiergarten since the days of Frederick the Great. One of the inns located here featured “two stories of long, balcony-like arcades looking over the water, on which young women and girls, with or without their mothers, would gather to watch the young men passing below. The latter, for their part, would unhurriedly scrutinize the gallery of beauties on display up above, and it was considered permissible to invite one of the ladies for a boat ride with a greeting and a courteous gesture,” whereby a “tryst of the tender kind” constituted “one the most common occurrences,” and “often enough, the ice would serve as matchmaker for a wedding,” Eberty adds with affectionate humor. Could it be that Menzel observed these courting rituals and other goings-on on the ice from just from such a “balcony-like” arcade? What we can be sure of, in any case, is that the artist, who was of short stature, was always on the lookout for inviting (or non-inviting) elevated vantage points from which he could survey people from a safe distance while also making detailed studies of individual characters.
Whereas Eberty conjures up an ice-skating daydream with alluring visions of “tender trysts,” Menzel confronts us with a rather more mundane spectacle of a harsh winter’s day typical for Berlin. Snow and cold seem to envelop the bare trees in the Tiergarten as well as the crowd below, which surges inexorably across the frozen waterway as if to overrun us. The riverbed, which opens towards the foreground until it takes up the entire width of the frame, is flooded not by water but by the burghers of the metropolis, who seem to emerge from a hidden spring in the thickets of the ice-bound copse just below the picture’s center. The powdery and ephemeral texture of the chalk-drawing technique highlights the transient nature of the image’s motif, capturing the swirling snow as well as the rhythm and speed of the people in the crowd as they zip along – or slide and stumble. The brown paper (which Menzel almost always used for his pastel drawings) provides the base color and sets the mood, to which Menzel then adds some life by adding flourishes in red, yellow, blue, green, and bright violet.

The conspicuous emphasis on the central axis, which divides the composition horizontally into two equally weighted visual fields, is something that Menzel had also used as structural device in some of his earlier landscape designs, e.g. in his Radir-Versuche (etching studies), in the intricate cardboard studies known as the Kasseler Kartons, and in individual oil studies. Interestingly enough, it often occurs in works that depict the city’s intrusion into the rural environment, e.g. in Berlin-Potsdamer Bahn (“The Berlin-Potsdam Railway”) (1847, Alte Nationalgalerie).

In the pastel drawing presented here, Menzel harks back to these works while also transcending them. His use of the horizontal dividing line allows the folio to defy clear categorization into a specific genre, while intentionally imbuing the picture with a “split personality:” Whereas the upper section consists of nothing more than a pristine natural landscape, the lower section shows the nature-encroaching pursuit of mass leisure by urbanites, just as it appeared to Menzel on that particular winter day in the Tiergarten park. It may well have been his experiences in Paris that encouraged him to treat such a real-life scene as worthy of representation. As in the case of Théâtre du Gymnase, the image is divided into separate visual fields, and we can make out something like a “stage” in both paintings, with “actors” who move about but do not tell a story. Not least due to the diffuse lighting, our eye dwells on the apparently chaotic and confused groups of spectators (in Théâtre) and ice skaters (in Schlittschuhläufer) before gradually making out aesthetically pleasing – or quite unattractive – moments of the action and movement as well as other, sometimes amusing minor details that help reinforce the overall sense of authenticity. As is so often the case with Menzel, nothing is done to check the viewer’s gaze from roaming at will into the far distance at the image’s center. Thus, our gaze gets lost in vague hints of vegetation among the snow flurries, a void bereft of shape or substance. The picture also remains empty as far as narrative content is concerned. Thus, Menzel takes elements that are transient, disordered, and instantaneous – ones expressly situational and thus “non-beautiful” in academic terms – and turns them into subject matter worthy of a modern painting. In doing so, he was already fulfilling the demands that Baudelaire would make just a few years later in his famous manifesto “Le peintre de la vie moderne.”

Anna Ahrens

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