Magnus Zeller

[English translation – thanks to the very kind help of Nelli Damme]

Johanna Ziems Magnus Zeller (1888 – 1972)

His Work and His Family

Motifs, Genre, and Style

Today, Magnus Zeller (1888–1972) is primarily known for his early oil paintings, which were influenced by German expressionism, as well as his subsequent anti-fascist works. While the former, without a doubt, represent the peak of his stylistic development, the latter are by far the most frequently exhibited works of art. However, Zeller’s oeuvre is far more complex.

Regarding content, the displays of otherness, the grotesque, and perverted from his expressionistic phase are supplemented with religious motifs, numerous landscapes, and portraits. The dichotomy between visions of horror on one hand and the longing for (religious) transcendency on the other hand has been noticed before by Zeller’s patron Karl Vollpracht (1876–1957), »the struggle between the demonic and the sublime (divine)«.

The oil paintings, probably due to a shortage of art supplies, are not the most used artistic techniques in Zeller´s Opus. A significant amount of watercolors as well as a not inconsiderable number of book illustrations and submissions to portfolios with graphic art, of which most can be characterized as late expressionistic, stand out.

Alongside these »fantastic-demonic« images, recognisable by their sharp and edgy forms, elongated limbs, and universalized faces typical for the expressionistic period, there are many of a gentler and softer style which he started to develop in the 1930s.

In a way, Zeller’s oeuvre depicts the rupture of two world wars, the hope, and, again and again, the disappointment caused by changing governmental systems. Political statements – most often in ironical-allegorical form, hidden criticism of the regime and caricatures are standing opposite a deliberate denial in favor of turning to the portrayal of idylls.

Life and works

Magnus Zeller was born on 9 August 1888 in Biesenrode. He stems from a family with an impressive line of Protestant pastors, including his father. This can be seen as the foundation of his changing but continuous examination of Christian subjects and symbols. His earliest works from before World War I, already cover the crucifixion as a topic. Since 1908, he studied under Lovis Corinth whose stylistic influence can clearly be noticed. Zeller made his first exhibition experiences with the artist association Berliner Secession.

After he was drafted in 1915, the first relevant changes in his imagery caused by the horrors of the First World War occurred and arewell documented in his drawings and graphic works. In Lithuanian Kowno (today: Kaunas) and, later, in Polish Białystok antimilitaristic lithographic leaflets originated alongside commissioned works for local newspapers. They were self-published in secrecy by the members of the intellectual circle around officer Hans Frentz, including Richard Dehmel, Herbert Eulenberg, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Hermann Struck, and Arnold Zweig. In the portfolio Entrückung and Aufruhr (1918), Zeller’s lithographic prints are accompanied by twelve poems by Arnold Zweig. It presents a highlight of his graphic works during this period.

Further illustrative works followed in the 1920s. Some of the best original graphic works are for example the etchings for Leonid Andrejews Das rote Lachen (1922), the lithographed Der Sandmann (1921) by E. T. A. Hoffmann and Arthur Hollitscher’s Ekstatische Geschichten (1923). They show subjects typical for the time, as mentioned before – the hyperbolical art style during the Weimar Republic.

Inbetween the two World Wars, various visits abroad led to other important stimuli which are largely displayed in landscapes and genre scenes. In 1923, Zeller taught graphic work and drawing in Estonia for three semesters. Three years later, he travelled to Paris where he had stayed before during his studies. On this trip, his young wife Marie, née Zimmermann, died unexpectedly of typhus which left Zeller devastated and a single father to daughter Susanne. That year, he created several variations of the painting Reiter Im Gewitter (Rider in the storm) which he painted in oil for the first time in 1920. He repainted it entirely with the same motif but as a metaphor for the stroke of fate the husband had to suffer. At the same time, drawings, aquarelle, and lithographic versions of the motif show the profound dealing with the family tragedy. A similar approach can be found with the later painting Nestflüchter (Fledgling) (1946).There, the worries for his adolescent daughter Helga are expressed allegorically in a young bird’s first attempt at flying.

Family portraits and self-portraits with his children in the studio can be seen through Zeller’s entire work. They bear witness to the addition to the family with his marriage to Helga, née Bagge, and their children Helga and Conrad.

During his stay in Rome at the Villa Massimo in 1935/36 – awarded to him by the Berliner Akademie – his work’s repertoire of colors and shapes was beginning to change. Visits to Naples, Ischia, and Greece followed and his portrayal of the rural population in brighter and warmer tones and of landscapes south of the Alpes can be read as signs of his turn away from Germany’s cultural and political development (at the time).

A short period of hoping for change and new beginnings in his homeland ended in disappointment. Zeller refused to be ideologically instrumentalised by the Nazi party and didnot join the NSDAP as was demanded by them. Zeller – rated as a degenerated artist in 1942 – suffered from the prohibition to exhibit and to sell his art. Therefore, the house in Caputh, in the vicinity of Potsdam, provided not only a space for living but an idyllic place for withdrawal and some kind of artistic self-exile. Works that critically commented on the Nazi system like Hitlerstaat (The Führer State) (1938), a painting that had been purposefully enhanced in his message through the adding of swastikas after World War 2, needed to be hidden away behind a wardrobe. Fear and suspicion even for his neighbours accumulated in the so-called Böses Buch (Evil Book). This sketch book was filled by Zeller with about 30 pages of anti-Nazi content of varying bluntness. In addition, recurring metaphorical nightmares and visions of horror, like Teuflisches Marionettentheater (devilish puppet show) (1938) as well as smaller more personal looking drawings can be found there.

After World War 2, the hopes Zeller had in regard of his artistic carrier in the early years of the newly founded GDR had been promptly put into perspective. He looked wryly upon the non-representational and abstract tendencies of Western Germany’s art scene. However, he refused to be reduced to being an anti-fascist artist of the working class. The portrayal of landscapes played an important role. Allegorical depictions and sarcasm are flaring up in paintings like the watercoloured Greisenspiele (Geriatrics´ Games) (1956). Here, aging is illustrated with a cutting humor.

The construction of the Berlin Wall made staying in contact with his family hard and the network of patrons he had established over years was also seriously harmed and led to a cut of his fundings. By then, Zeller’s daughter from his first marriage, Susanne, lived in Munich with her sons. His second wife Helga who divorced him in 1948 had returned to her home town Hamburg with son Conrad. His brothers Wilfried and Wolfgang as well as sister Cornelia had settled in West Berlin.

A key role in Zeller’s creative accomplishments played his long term confidant and patron Karl Vollpracht from Detmold (East Westphalia). Their extensive correspondence bears witness to numerous art works which Vollpracht bought for himself and his friends and shows how amicable and artistic their communication was. Selling art across the inner German border was no easy undertaking. Travel and exhibition plans often failed due to political or administrative reasons.

From the beginning of the 1960s until his health issues made it impossible, Zeller led, supported by the Kulturbund, a painting class in Caputh. Attendees were Ina Brock, Manfred Butzmann, Peter Fritz, Ingo Juffart, Wolfgang Liebert, Marlis Puhlemann, Dieter Sibilis, and Veronika Türk among others.

On February 25, 1972 Magnus Zeller passed away in the Berlin Charité.

Annotations to the catalogue raisonné

Despite several solo exhibitions after Zeller’s death and one work focused dissertation, a systematical overview about his work is still missing. A great number of his earlier works from 1912 to 1930 is spread over the region Lippe/Detmold, the home of Zeller’s first wife and his patron Vollpracht. The later work can be found mostly at museums of the former GDR and the estate in Caputh. A first attempt at reuniting his art, scattered across East and West Germany, was the 2002 exhibition Entrückung und Aufruhr (Rapture and Rebellion) by the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin.

The recently published catalogue raisonné Magnus Zeller‘s is not just art history- it is part of my family’s history. The longer I think about what I have to say about Magnus Zeller the artist and the catalogue of his collected works, the stranger I feel about balancing the act of being a neutral art historian and the project of assembling all the bits of information to catalogue entries which my grandmother Helga carried on over decades, and in which I played a small part. I never met Zeller, who passed away years before my birth. However, his paintings and the aura radiating from his partially retained studio have affected me since my earliest childhood. Due to this art is a familiar place, a world I want to be part of and be surrounded by.

For a long time, my grandmother, Helga Helm, wished for a nearly complete list of her father’s artworks. At first, she wanted a general overview for herself and anyone interested. Having to deal with her inheritance in Caputh allowed a way of reconnecting with her estranged father.

She digitalised Zeller’s correspondence with Vollpracht, reviewed his handwritten work catalogue, and worked herself through his patron’s annotations to the acquired art pieces. This resulted in nearly twenty years of research and was supported by her daughter, my mother, Katrin Ziems – a studied paintings conservator – who focused especially on Zeller’s painting technique at times of acute material shortages in which he often repainted the whole canvas or parts of it later on. This adds another point of view, one I want to complement from my perspective with a wish for ongoing systematical and deepened studying.

Family takes up much space in Zeller’s work. This is also mirrored in these three generations being involved in this project. Nevertheless, the catalogue raisonné tries to go beyond the family perspective and bring Zeller’s oeuvre together and therefore make it more accessible.

Lots of blank spaces were filled in but there is still room for linking, researching, and adding information.