In Vienna, we have been lucky enough to be able to stay in the apartment of our friends Wolfgang and Nora. This apartment was Nora’s before she married Wolfgang, and they have kept it through all their years of diplomatic travelling. It is ideally located near the Museumsquartier, and in what is now considered the hippest part of Vienna. Except for the three flights of stairs and no lift, we love it.
The apartment is filled with art, acquired by both Nora and Wolfgang, with an admirable collection of African masks and sculptures, and very modern paintings by Franz Ringel and others. And on the wall of the main room hangs the painting shown above. When I first saw it, in context with all the African art around it, I assumed it was a very modern painting, probably from the 1970s or 80s, making some kind of commentary about the post-colonial world: a native woman and child on one side of a cage, and chimpanzees on the other. Who is encaged, the people or the animals?
It wasn’t until I looked more closely that I saw the signature:
Intrigued by that rather historically significant early date and the name, I asked Nora about it, and learned that the painting was one of many artworks done by her grandfather Hanns Diehl (who–apparently in an attempt at a more distinctive moniker–also went by the name Hanns Diehl-Wallendorf). When I then met Nora’s older half-sister Heidi and saw a number of interesting paintings by Diehl in her apartment (along with Heidi’s extraordinary collection of cat-related art objects!), I became even more intrigued, and began doing some searching about this artist I had never heard of but who had enough talent to produce works on a par with many better-known figures in German art of his time.
The sisters also told me that they had all of their grandfather’s records, information, and hundreds of works out at the house in the Kamptal countryside where Nora grew up. They both confessed that they wanted to do something to bring his work to light and had made some efforts in the past, but were now at a loss about how to proceed. At this point I offered to help–to go through what documentation they had, and to look at what art of his remains. My hope was to get at least a Wikipedia page up (although in English when it should be in German), and perhaps an article that would bring him to the attention of those interested in this period and this type of art. And so I waded in! Diehl’s art intrigued me, and I believe it does warrant more recognition.
Little did I know how much stuff about their grandfather they still had: their mother, Hanns’ daughter Ingeborg, saved everything, including receipts of Diehl’s sales and sketchbooks as far back as his student days. A trip out to the country house revealed that, along with hundreds of paintings and a trunk full of documents, they even still had his palette! I took some photos of the paintings out in the country, and then brought in to Heidi’s apartment the rest of the papers. I have now gone through a sizable chunk of this material, and have decided that a blog entry is an appropriate first step. We have already begun a Wikipedia entry, but it is not yet complete enough to be submitted; by writing this blog entry first, we’ll have a reference to cite in the literature section that will be acceptable to the Wikipedia administration. There are still gaps in what we know about him; all three of us have been hampered by the fact that despite a number of letters in his records, Diehl wrote in such difficult ”Alte Schrift”–old-style German handwriting–that none of us can read them easily! At this stage, I am going to present here what information I have, along with comments about his art, and interject throughout questions that I still have about his life and his works. Some of these may never be answerable, or I will have to speculate on possible motives or sequences of events.
Diehl’s story epitomizes the confusing, and ultimately sad, trajectory that the political events of 20th-century history imposed on anyone involved in the artistic life of the German-speaking world. He began life, on March 13, 1877, as Hans Rudolph Diehl, the second son of a well-to-do family in Pirmasens, Germany, in the region of Rheinland-Pfalz. His father August, a mechanical engineer and factory owner, was commissioned to work on the Russian railways in Moscow, and so Hans spent his early school years in Russia, attending the Petri-Pauli Realgymnasium. Later he wrote that these years were some of his happiest memories, as he spent hours walking in the woods surrounding Moscow. He drew from an early age, encouraged by his mother, who he described as having a natural talent for drawing. Some of his later paintings relate to his Russian life, and during World War I, he was able to use his Russian language abilities to serve as a translator.
In the 1890s, the Diehl family returned from Russia and settled in Weimar, where Hanns then attended the famed Weimar Akademie für bildende Künste, studying under the genre painter Carl Frithjof Smith (1859-1917) and Professor Max Thedy (1858-1924), and then as a master’s student with Theodor Hagen (1842-1919), considered one of the founders of German Impressionism. Diehl received his diploma from Weimar in June 1896. From this time on, he always referred to himself as ”Akademischer Maler”–a sign that he was determined to be a professional artist, an academic painter. It was also about this time that he began calling himself Hanns Diehl-Wallendorf; a review of his first art show in 1899 refers to him by this new name.
QUESTION: Why did he choose ”Wallendorf” as his second name? Was his mother’s family from Wallendorf, near the Luxembourg border?
To further his studies, Diehl went to Frankfurt, where he studied etching and other graphic techniques at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut with Bernhard Mannfeld (1848-1925), who became his close friend and confidant. Through Mannfeld, the younger artist met the grand man of German naturalist painting, Wilhelm Trübner (1851-1917), who inspired Diehl to establish himself as an artist. With Trübner’s recommendation, he participated in his first group show at the Kunstsalon Bangel in October 1900. The critics in the newspapers were quite positive in their assessment of this new talent–we know this, because Diehl cut out all of his reviews and kept them carefully organized in folders. One critic praised his ”quiet landscapes” as imparting a sense of rumination on life and stillness:
”Er malt ein ‘stilles Land’, das fast wie ein Phantasiebild anmutet, in welches der Maler eigene Gedanken über Friede und Todesruhe und eigene Töne zu legen weiss, die ihm alles Reale der Landschaft nehmen.’’ [in ‘’Kleines Feuilleton,’’ Frankfurter General-Anzeiger, 11.October 1900].
While he was described here as a landscape painter–he certainly wanted to be taken seriously as an academic painter, and landscape was the genre he most preferred–he was already trying his hand at every kind of artistic medium, from etching to woodcuts and other prints, from sculpture to glass design to painting. Ambitious and energetic, he needed to find a way to make a living as an artist, so realized the need to use his talents in the applied arts as well, and to experiment with a variety of styles. Still in Frankfurt, he had prints published in art magazines, most of them in the Jugendstil-inspired illustrative style of the time.
QUESTION: In Frankfurt, was he married and had a child? No one in the family talked about it, but in Diehl’s documents is a photo of him with a little boy on his lap. Do we know for sure if this was his child?
At the invitation of his mother’s brother August Herb, who ran a decorative glass-making company, Diehl moved to Vienna in 1906. He was to become a designer of glass windows and other decorative elements
for the company. Here he also created ex-libris for clients, continued to produce prints for magazines, and also tried to carve out a niche for himself as an established artist. Family stories claim that he wanted to join the Secession, but was rejected, a fact that he bitterly resented. In these early years, it does appear that he is experimenting with a variety of styles, and had yet to find his own artistic voice.
His designs for the company’s glass windows–stained glass was all the rage in Jugendstil-era buildings–were beautiful and successfully rendered, but obviously this kind of work was not enough to satisfy Hanns’s artistic ambitions.
QUESTION: At about this time, he also designed the cover for the art magazine begun by his brother Gustav Eugen Diehl. Moderne Revue was an important avant-garde cultural magazine, and Gustav Diehl was very involved in the art publishing world of Berlin into the 1930s. Gustav was definitely more modern than Hanns, who had a reactionary streak even at this early date. Do you know anything about their relationship, or why Hanns would not have gone to Berlin, or been part of Gustav’s artistic circles?
Diehl’s life and art now becomes more complex, and intriguing. For now, I will consider this introduction as part I of the saga, retrieving the life of a forgotten artist.