(First, I must thank Fr. Kern’s son, Vincent Rexroth, Heidelberg, for his gracious assistance in providing information about his mother. I would not have found most of the sites that provided me with details of his mother’s life without his help. Vielen Dank!)
In 1974, I had a Fulbright scholarship to Germany. The topic that I was to study was “the artist’s ambivalent relationship to the machine.” The Fulbright Commission, determining that I should study at the Bauhaus-Archiv, sent me to Darmstadt–where the Bauhaus-Archiv had been housed in the Ernst-Ludwig Haus on the city’s famous Mathildenhöhe for many years until that year, when it had, apparently unbeknownst to the Fulbright Committee, been moved to Berlin! No matter: the Werkbund-Archiv was still there and also in the Ernst-Ludwig Haus. I spent many hours walking to and from that delightful hill, with its many Jugendstil buildings by architects who would become well-known figures in the history of modern German architecture.
Walking up the Mathildenhöhe path one day after I had been in town for a few months, I smiled at and said “Guten Morgen” to an elderly woman who was coming toward me, leading on a leash an Airedale terrier. She was so surprised that a stranger would greet her that she stopped, turned around, and asked me, in German, if I was an American. When I said yes, she immediately switched to perfect English, and we began a conversation which led to coffee and a continuation of conversations throughout the rest of my year in Germany.
Her name was Irmgard Rexroth-Kern, her married name being Rexroth, her maiden name Kern. She had led an extraordinarily eventful life, determined in large part by the tumultuous circumstances of 20th-century Germany. She was born in Berlin on November 11, 1907, the daughter of a prominent art historian and artist, Guido Joseph Kern (1878-1953). She had two younger brothers. (On Guido Kern, see http://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz40604.html#ndbcontent) She grew up in comfortable circumstances as part of a family connected to the most vibrant artistic and intellectual circles in Berlin. Her first memory, at 4 years old, was of being in Florence when her father was working at the Deutsches Kunsthistorischen Institut there. Guido Kern was until 1911 assistant to the renowned director of the Berliner Nationalgalerie, Hugo von Tschudi, with whom he worked on the first catalog of the Berlin painter Adolph Menzel; later, he published many books on other German artists as well as continuing his own artistic practice. In these active, prosperous years, while Irmgard’s mother was still alive, her father commissioned a portrait of his only daughter from Joseph Oppenheimer (1876-1966), at that time the leading society portraitist in Berlin. She was 9 when she sat for the artist. (On Oppenheimer, see http://www.josephoppenheimer.com/index.html) This is so far the only portrait I have of her.The family was prosperous enough that Irmgard was privately tutored as a small child, and then was sent to the most progressive schools in Berlin. She also described spending many happy days at her father’s family’s estate near Aachen.
Here is one of her father’s early drawings:
And a later beach scene, from 1932:
While Fr. Kern did share some of these stories with me when I knew her in Darmstadt, I gleaned most of this information about her early life from the charmingly insightful series of reminiscences that she published anonymously in 1934 in the Frankfurter Zeitung under the title “Neue Wege-Autobiographie einer jungen Frau” (New Paths-Autobiography of a Young Woman). In 13 segments in June of that year, the newspaper presented on its first page her memories of coming of age in Berlin right before and during World War I; they end with her going off to university in Heidelberg, newly independent from her family. Her memory was phenomenal: she wrote of their time in Florence when she saw a poster of the Titanic on a kiosk across from their house; she remembered her stuffed animal named Füffi and her first governess when she was a very little girl, as well as her first communion and travelling in an automobile for the first time. Her most fascinating insights are of the hardships of the war and its aftermath. She recounted how everyone had to stand in line for hours for bread rations and her mother’s family’s loss of their brewery and grand property, “Falkenrode”, in Westphalia during the inflationary period. The most traumatic event of her young life was the death of her mother during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, a terrible blow that caused her father to send her to the countryside to stay with her mother’s family for many months; her small brothers, who had also been ill with the flu, survived. She recounts how her grandmother cried on seeing photos of Irmgard’s mother: “Von ihren Kindern hatte sie meine Mutter am meissten geliebt”–“of all her children, she had loved my mother the most”.
When she returned to a shattered post-war Berlin–only 11, motherless and with a mean new housekeeper–she got caught up for a while in the proto-fascist youth groups that so many of her fellow students were joining. In her recounting, she gives an amusing picture of their home-made clothing and their penchant for nude sunbathing. She soon tired of their purist dogmas, and so became lonelier and more isolated, and began, as so many other young German women would, to read the romantic stories of Hedwig Courths-Mahler, and to pour out in her diary all her sadnesses and frustrations. She loved spending time with her father, who took her to museums, talked to her about art, and even arranged a trip for the two of them to the Eifel region. He praised her artistic efforts and encouraged her activities at school in student government. From her descriptions, she must have accompanied her father to some of the Expressionists’ exhibitions–and even the famous Dada show in Berlin–which she found “verrückt”, crazy. Her father explained that they were indeed crazy, but not in the way she thought; they were just intended to be doing something else than she thought art was supposed to be doing.(Or perhaps he didn’t introduce her to modernity: according to a recent article, Guido Kern was a vehement anti-modernist who actively participated with the Nazi regime to remove “degenerate” artworks from German museums. See Kai Artinger: Bilder “ohne Herkunft”. Der Kunsthistoriker Prof. Dr. Guido Joseph Kern und die Bilder von Carl Blechen in den Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz. In: Kunstgeschichte. Open Peer Reviewed Journal, 2014 [urn:nbn:de:bvb:355-kuge-403-9]). Through her father’s circles, at 14, she met her first professional woman–a female who had a career! From then on, she knew it was possible and determined that she would go on to university and have a professional life.
Within that year (in 1922), her father remarried. Her new mother was Franziska Müller, one of those educated, professional women, who became a sympathetic and important figure in Irmgard’s life. But her angst-ridden teenage years coincided with the disastrous events of 1920s Berlin, all of which Irmgard described in terms of her own experience. The assassination of Rathenau in 1922 affected them all deeply, so much so that school was cancelled. During the worst of the inflation, she embroidered hankies that she could sell abroad for real money, which was the only way she could afford to buy a book that she wanted. A teacher at her school was sacked because he allowed the older students to read the newspapers and discuss politics in class. She suffered all the usual longings of a sensitive intelligent girl of the era: she pined after boys, she found nature transcendent while on a school outing, she continued to draw animals at the zoo, and she struggled to understand why there is suffering in the world. She passed her school exams, and was still uncertain what she wanted to study or do, but determined she would go to art school. As a reward for succeeding in her Abitur, her parents sent her with two other girls to England for 4 months–the beginning of Irmgard’s lifelong love of all things English, and the source of her fluency in the language.
Still uncertain of her path, but longing to break free from home and family, she gave up the idea of art school and started studies in history and philology at the University of Berlin. She was beginning to savor all the exciting newness of Berlin during the Weimar era, and was present for some of its monumental events. About some of these she told me stories when I knew her in Darmstadt. When she learned how fascinated I was with Brecht and Weill and The Threepenny Opera, she remembered how she had seen one of the first performances in 1928. When other young people walked down the Kurfurstendamm, she said, they would start humming the “Moritatenlied”–Mack the Knife–and everyone would smile knowingly at each other.
Irmgard still longed for independence: according to her autobiography, at this stage, when about 21, she rebelled, insisting on leaving for another university. Her parents would not support this move financially, and so she was now on her own. To make ends meet, she babysat, tutored in English, did secretarial work–and from the sound of things, had a ball. She gained a circle of friends, and felt that her independent life was beginning. From stories she told me in Darmstadt, she took classes from the likes of Paul Tillich (with whom, she told me, she had an affair–as he seemed to have with many of his students) and began to write for newspapers and magazines. And in 1929, at 22, she began another great independent adventure, as the first German exchange student at Wellesley College. She especially loved to talk about this time , telling me how she was known as “Kernel” by the other students, and spending Christmas with one of her roommates’ families in Connecticut. She studied Psychology and Government, and by the time she returned to Germany, she had decided that she wanted to be a journalist more than anything. Being at an American woman’s college in 1929 and 1930 must have been a liberating experience for a proper Catholic girl from good Berlin family.
(Wellesley students in 1928:)
But what a time to return to Germany: the beginnings of the worldwide Depression, and the catastrophic rise of Nazism in her country. Tragedies and joys and hardship were in her future. Irmgard Maria Kern’s young life of privilege and culture ended with this chapter of her life. Much, much more would follow, but that will wait for the next chapter.