Rudolf Schlichter

Calw 1890 – 1955 Munich

Porträt Helene Weigel. 1928
Oil on canvas. 83,5 × 60 cm (32 ⅞ × 23 ⅝ in.) Signed lower right (incised into the wet paint): R. Schlichter. Minor retouchings, lower margin relined.  [3006]

ProvenanceAlexander Granach, Berlin / Bruno Hübner; Berlin/Munich (received in 1933 by Alexander Granach in trust from Lotte Lieven-Stiefel, the partner of Granach, thence by descent to the present owner) / Private collection, Southern Germany

EUR 200.000 – 300.000
USD 236,000 – 353,000

Sold for:
600,000 EUR (incl. premium)

Porträt Helene Weigel

Auction 281Thursday, 30 November 2017
05:00 PM

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The painting will be offered with the explicit consent of the heirs of Alexander Granach.

We would like to thank Iliane Thiemann and Sabine Zolchow, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, for kindly providing additional information.

ExhibitionRudolf Schlichter, Max Laeuger. Berlin, Galerie Neumann-Nierendorf, April/May 1928 (without catalogue)

Literature and Illustration(Willi) Wolfradt: Berlin Ausstellungen (Rudolf Schlichter and Max Laeuger at Neumann-Nierendorf). In: Der Cicerone, XX. Vol., H. 9, 1. May-issue 1928, ill. p. 313 / Exh. cat.: Aspetti della „Nuova Oggettiva“. Aspekte der „Neuen Sachlichkeit“. Munich and Rome, Galleria del Levante, 1968, documentation no. D 43, ill. (not exhibited) / Exh. cat.: Rudolf Schlichter, 1890–1955. Berlin, Staatliche Kunsthalle, and Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein, 1984, p. 56a and p. 90, ill. 104 (not exhibited) / Jürgen Schebera: Damals in the Romanischen Café ... Künstler und ihre Lokale im Berlin der zwanziger Jahre. Leipzig, Edition Leipzig, here issue Braunschweig, Westermann, 1988, p. 86 / Exh. cat.: Rudolf Schlichter. Gemälde, Aquarelle, Zeichungen. Tübingen, Kunsthalle; Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum, and Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, 1997/98, p. 46, ill. p. 45 (not exhibited) / Akademie-Fenster 3: „Unerbittlich das Richtige zeigend“. Helene Weigel (1900–1971). Berlin, Akademie der Künste, 2000 (zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung in der Dresden Bank, Berlin), ill. p. 8 (not exhibited) / Christine Herold: Mutter des Ensembles. Helene Weigel – ein Leben with Bertolt Brecht. Cadolzburg, Ars Vivendi, 2001, p. 40 / Exh. cat.: Rudolf Schlichter. Eros and Apokalypse. Koblenz, Mittelrhein-Museum, and Halle/Saale, Kunstverein „Talstrasse“ e. V., 2015/16, p. 27 (not exhibited)

A Bold and Unforgettable Face Captured for Cultural Posterity: Rudolf Schlichter’s Portrait of Helene Weigel

By Christoph Stölzl

There are certain key works of art that bear eloquent witness to a specific time and place, that show the intersection of specific life stories and illustrate networks, while also serving as harbingers of future events. Rudolf Schlichter’s portrait “Helene Weigel” is surely one of these. Such art transcends itself, for seen from a historical vantage point, its significance proves that it defies the categories applicable to it at the time of its creation. It is a masterwork, in other words – a museum-quality painting and an emblematic icon of the twentieth century.

We see the actress seated, playing the role of the widowed canteen owner Leokadja in the venomously satiric comedy Mann ist Mann (“A Man’s A Man”) by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann. The play is being premiered in Berlin, the year is 1928. La Weigel’s performance would earn effusive praise from the critics: Alfred Kerr, slightly camp as always, noted her “extended shriek,” “whip-like tone” “leggy lines,” and “pronking leaps,” while other writers paid homage to her “steely tone.”

Perhaps “steely” is also an apt way to describe Schlichter’s rendering. With alert eyes and a countenance devoid of all illusions, the actress ignores the viewer. As if to say: Helene Weigel does not need any comments from others; she knows all she needs to know about people (and men). She is truly emancipated, in keeping with the new feminist spirit espoused by progressives at the time. No trace here of the vulnerable maiden or erotically alluring siren of days past! Her striking features are further highlighted by the mannish cut of her hairstyle. Her hands are powerful, her attire simple – a sky-blue garment more reminiscent of a worker’s smock than a dress. Behind her we see a construction trailer, as if to symbolize the provisional nature of her circumstances.

We sense that no part of human experience is alien to this woman. She knows full well that the play’s description as a “comedy” is deceptive: It is actually a bitter political parable that sums up the harsh life experience of the generation born around 1900. We as individuals are shaped by our social circumstances – that is the true message of “Mann ist Mann.” Its story lays bare how interchangeable we really are and how easily we can be conditioned to become just about anything – including violent perpetrators. As a prescient critic noted in January 1928, Brecht’s mission, simply put, was to show us “that life on earth is perilous [...] But when he says so through the mouth of Helene Weigel, every listener shudders and becomes a believer in that very instant.”

Shown seated as if taking a break, Weigel has perhaps just declaimed the play’s programmatic “interjection”: “Yet Mr. Bertolt Brecht will prove it still / You can do with men most anything you will. For here tonight a man’s to be rebuilt like a caboose / Without a single of his pieces falling loose.”

When he created the portrait in 1928, Rudolf Schlichter, too, was a firm believer in the tenet that man is a product of his social environment. Trained at the Kunstakademie (State Academy of Fine Arts) in Karlsruhe under the famous painters Wilhelm Trübner and Hans Thoma, he strayed from the straight and narrow of a bourgeois artistic career path early on, delving into the demimonde and underbelly of society. This dissidence remained the leitmotiv of his early years. Drafted into the army in 1916, he went on a hunger strike to escape service on the Western Front. In 1918, he joined a soldiers’ revolutionary council and a year later moved to Berlin, then a hotbed of political agitation. He joined the Secession school of painting and the DADA movement, not to mention the Communist Party. Before long, he found himself charged with “defaming the Reichswehr” along with like-minded, progressive artists like George Grosz and John Heartfield. As an illustrator, he worked for left-wing publications such as the Arbeiter–Illustrierten-Zeitung (“Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper”), Rote Fahne (“Red Flag”), and Eulenspiegel. Schlichter’s dissident social and political convictions, paired with his rock-solid academic training under two great masters of the late 19th-century painting tradition, predestined him to play a leading role in the “Neue Sachlichkeit” school (New Objectivity). He was of course a key participant in the legendary exhibit of the same name held in Mannheim in 1925.

The realism and critical zeitgeist that imbued Schlichter’s work during the late 1920s was reflected by his circle of friends, which included the writers Alfred Döblin and Carl Zuckmayer, the painter George Grosz, and of course Bertolt Brecht, who sat for Schlichter in 1928. The resulting portrait, now kept in the Lenbachhaus in Munich, has become one of the playwright’s best-known likenesses and has been reproduced in untold publications. It shows Brecht much how Lion Feuchtwanger described him in a 1930 roman a clef entitled Erfolg (Success): as “the engineer Kaspar Pröckl,” a scrawny chap who crows revolutionary ballads in a shrill voice and always affects an unkempt look with shabby leather jacket – without in any way hurting his popularity with the ladies.

Schlichter’s Weigel portrait can be seen as a counterpart to the one he did of Brecht. After all, Brecht and Weigel were a pair in both their private and professional lives. Indeed, they remained so until Weigel’s death, despite the repeated humiliations the actress had to endure due to Brecht’s numerous affairs. The scion of an upwardly mobile Viennese Jewish family, Weigel had first met the playwright (a “monster with talent,” as Thomas Mann described him) back in 1923. Although their love affair produced a son, Stefan, in 1924, the couple did not get officially married until 1929.

The final years of the Weimar Republic are what is often referred to as “an epoch of genius.” It was a time in which the arts were challenged to dramatize the extraordinary events, personalities, and fields of tension that held sway all around – a case in point for Arnold Toynbee’s view of history as “challenge and response.” Never before – and never since – have the arts encapsulated such dire depictions of the present and such utopian visions of the future so brilliantly and in so compressed a period: The Bauhaus school; the New Objectivity movement; the “functionalism” of Gebrauchslyrik in poetry; the Zeitroman in novel writing; the experiments in cinema and theater, and so much more – never before and, more particularly, never again did German culture vibrate with the same intensity.

Schlichter’s Weigel painting starkly reminds us of this rise and fall of the “Weimar Culture”. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Brecht and Weigel were forced to emigrate, while Schlichter was branded a “degenerate artist” and imprisoned. But Weigel’s courageous and unforgettable visage also presages the prominent role which the actress would later go on to play in the history of twentieth-century theater. For had he not been able to tap her preternatural intensity – which Schlichter instinctively captured – Brecht would never have been able to put his rather recherché theory of “epic theater” into such impressive and moreover: credible practice on the theater stage.

Notes on the painting’s provenance:

It is certain that the Weigel portrait had been acquired by the actor Alexander Granach by 1929 (if not earlier), as can be deduced from the historical photograph shown on the right. He treasured it as a memento of the times they had shared the stage together, including in the 1931 production of Mann ist Mann directed by Ernst Legal at Berlin’s Schauspielhaus (which also featured Peter Lorre).

Alexander Granach (1890–1945) was born in Werbowitz, a small Jewish settlement or shtetl in the Galician region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Poland). The ninth child of a family of farmers, he was sent to apprentice as a baker, but soon became entranced by the thriving Yiddish theater scene in nearby Lemberg (Lviv). In 1906, he moved to the theater metropolis of Berlin, where he first had to earn his keep as a baker and learn German. From 1912 to 1914, he studied at the Max-Reinhardt School, the first station in what would become a stellar career in theater and later on the silver screen. After working in Vienna and Munich, Granach returned to the Berlin stage in 1921. Here he eventually became a regular at the Preussisches Staatstheater (Prussian State Theater) and one of the most beloved and in-demand actors of his time, working under directors like Bert Brecht and Erwin Piscator (e.g. in the 1927 production of Hoppla, wir leben! (Look at us, we’re still alive!)). In 1920, Granach made his film debut and went on to participate in several masterworks of German Expressionist cinema, including Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s “Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror” (1921).

In double jeopardy as both a Jew and a supporter of the political Left, Granach fled Germany for the Soviet Union in 1933. He was swept up in Stalin’s Terror and landed in a Kiev jail in November 1937. Thanks to the intervention of Lion Feuchtwanger, he survived and was granted an exit visa for Switzerland. After emigrating to the USA in the Spring of 1938, Granach successfully embarked upon a whole new film career in New York and Hollywood, turning in memorable performances in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka” (1939) – alongside Greta Garbo – and in Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die!” (1943). This was followed by a whole slew of classic films: Sam Wood’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943), Arthur Ripley’s “Voice in the Wind” (1944), John Farrow’s “The Hitler Gang” (1944), and Fred Zinnemann’s “The Seventh Cross” (1944). Sadly, he did not live to see the end of the war: Alexander Granach died of acute appendicitis on March 14th, 1945 in New York at the age of only 54.

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