Modi and Metamorphoses (I)

This blog post consists of two parts. The second instalment follows on Monday 2 November 2020.

For Dario Gamboni

An aged man, wearing a hat and sporting an impressive moustache looks, somehow sceptical and at the same time absorbed, towards the beholder (Fig. 1). The dark dominating tone of the painting is supported by the background and is challenged through the white-yellowish and in some cases green-redish flesh as well as the white thick brushstrokes in the area of the neck. These broad, parallel lines suggest the texture of a fabric and create a dazzling counterpoint to the dark coat. The broad hat throws a deep shadow across his forehead, emphasising the piercing gaze of this old man, who appears worn, as if many decades were resting on his shoulders. Despite the shadows, his face cannot but remind us of one of the most iconic personalities of German history of the second half of the nineteenth century, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, one of the creators of the new German state and hence the Second Reich. His presence had an iconic aura among the media of his age, at least in central Europe.

1. Hans Sedlmayr, Portrait of Bismarck, Index für Politische Ikonographie, Warburg Haus, Hamburg

The texture of the painting reminds one explicitly of Rembrandt´s work, even if a 19th century touch is clearly discernible. In its lower left hand corner the painting bears a name which has similarities with the signatures of Franz von Stuck. There we read in capital letters: SEDLMAYR.

Hearing this name, art historians immediately think of the emblematic and yet quite ambiguous figure of Hans Sedlmayr (1896-1984). The art historian as painter? This would certainly not be a singular occurrence, but it is surprising nonetheless as in contradistinction to, for instance, Max Imdahl (1925-1988), painter and professor of art history at Bochum University and someone with a particular sensibility towards issues of materiality and form (not necessarily from a formalistic impetus). It is actually not known that Sedlmayr had any inclination towards such a pursuit.

Neither in his autobiography, in which he evokes the «Golden Age» of Austria-Hungary (Das Goldene Zeitalter. Eine Kindheit, Munich 1986) nor in the bibliography of the Austrian art historian is there any remark regarding any particular interest, even as a hobby, in painting. This is the reason why the painting in question astonishes us even more.

On the other hand, it could of course be another Sedlmayr, not from Hornstein but from, say, Wimpassing an der Leitha or even someone whose intention was to deliberately connect this work with this specific art historian and professor at the university of Vienna and later of Munich. This does seem rather unlikely, though if it were the case, we would have another metamorphosis: Someone who would connect Sedlmayr as a painter with a Rembrandtian Bismarck.

The only evidence we have at our disposal is a photograph of the work deriving from an auction catalogue. It was Martin Warnke who first drew my attention to this reproduction, which is now part of the Index of Political Iconography at the Warburg Haus in Hamburg. And indeed, it is also Warnke who was the first to refer to this particular work, at least to my knowledge, in his article «Ist das nicht Bismarck?» («Isn´t that Bismarck?») for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 30th 2013.

The image is accompanied by the data pertaining to the auction and carries the number 7669. As the biographical notice and the name in the auction text make clear, the family name of the signature explicitly refers to the art historian. Unfortunately, it has proved impossible to make any further inferences from this data concerning the auction house or the time and place where the particular event took place. Neither the internet nor the bibliography have rendered up any further information about the work.

Hence, in this short text I shall not attempt to play Sherlock Holmes to find further evidence about the particular creator of the work, but rather try to understand what the connection between Rembrandt, Bismarck and Sedlmayr actually means. With the naked eye or rather eyes (!) and without much further consideration, we can immediately recognize the work as a palimpset, in which different traditions formed a totality, though not without inconsistencies: it is signed with the name Sedlmayr, it reminds one of Rembrandt´s manner, whereas it shows Bismarck.

The painting is a free copy after Franz von Lenbach´s famous work, so that a further reference to the 19th century exists beyond the Bismarck portrait and the signature in the manner of von Stuck that was previously mentioned. Certainly the famous Lenbach, the “painter-prince” as he was known, was fond of Rembrandt and certainly he was admired by Sedlmayr, since he fitted quite well to the latter’s conservative, even reactionary aesthetics.  Sedlmayr had the opportunity to study Lenbach´s work in Munich, where, despite protests by students, he became a professor at the university of the Bavarian capital in 1951, having being dismissed from the University of Vienna in 1945 because of his National Socialist ideology, since he had been himself a member of the NSDAP.

2. Franz von Lenbach, Otto von Bismarck, around 1880, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Μunich (Wikimedia Commons).

The specific portrait that interests us here, the image of Bismarck, is today in Lenbach´s house, which has been transformed into a museum, the Lenbachhaus in Munich (Fig. 2). The painter, in an almost mechanical, even industrial manner produced dozens of Bismarck portraits in several sizes, that remind us of the one at hand, something that also underlines his success with the particular image of this emblematic political figure (Fig. 3). Every German city with a respectable collection had and has its Bismarck by Lenbach.

As one might judge from the particular photographic reproduction, since it is not a detail, Sedlmayr, in contradistinction to the works by Lenbach, was wholly concentrated upon the face. The painting, even if the likeness to Bismarck is clear, reminds us simultaneously of Rembrandt characters, people of a certain age: tired, mostly men; these are not portraits but rather what already the Dutch in the 17th century were calling «tronies» and what we might freely translate as «types» or «characters».

3. Franz von Lenbach, Otto von Bismarck, 1896, Neumeister Kunstaktionen 6.7.2011 (Wikimedia Commons).

At the same time, the identification of the particular man with the strong facial features is not difficult to achieve in opposition to a «tronie», where likeness is a secondary matter, even unimportant. It is not the result of a particular commission, as it might have been with a portrait. In that way, because of its «painterly manner» the work is «privatized» and gives an unofficial allure, the more when it concerns such a famous politician whose face was present within all kinds of mass media of the iconosphere of his time. This particular combination brings forth the voices who were discovering likenesses between Bismarck and Rembrandt models, as with the Man with the Golden Helm, which, during Sedlmayr´s life, was considered one of Rembrandt´s «masterpieces» whereas today, as research agrees, it can be attributed to the circle or workshop of Rembrandt (Fig. 4). Possibly the model is the artist´s uncle from Leiden, Adriaen van Rijn, who posed for other tronies by Rembrandt and his diverse school.

4. Circle of Rembrandt, The Man with the Golden Helmet, Gemäldegalerie-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin (Wikimedia Commons).

Certainly the size of the work plays a crucial role to the creation of a private Bismarck, as if he was sitting as a model for Sedlmayr, and that the latter is signing it with confidence as an «authentic copy». As the signature reminds one of another very successful painter of Munich, Franz von Stuck, it presents with its anti-academism a kind of counterpart to Lenbach. A conservative reference made by Sedlmayr from another vantage point. So the different manners that coexist are not only references to Rembrandt and Lenbach but include, through the signature of the producer, also von Stuck. This means that, through the free copy, form and content (Rembrandt´s men and Bismarck) are dialectically connected through the painter – art historian´s hand.

This blog post consists of two parts. The second instalment follows on Monday 2 November 2020.

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