Artists in History: Europe: Friederick Hann-Schwarzner, Germany, d.1939
Friederick Hann-Schwarzner was an artist based in Berlin from 1927 until his disappearance during early 1939. He was the first and only son of Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria, and Duke Frederick of Hannover. Descended from aristocracy, Hann-Schwarzner was able to fulfil his artistic ambitions from a fund set up by his wealthy family; allowing the purchase of a large studio adjacent to his three-storey home near Teirgarten, alongside a monthly stipend of 20000 Franks. His parents were encouraging of their son’s talent and supported him with tuition from Gustav Heigler, recognised throughout Europe as one of the most technically gifted expressionist painters of his time.
Hann-Schwarzner’s early artworks consisted, mainly, of figurative portraits. His subjects were often poets, writers, academic figures, and increasingly towards the end of his career, ordinary folk living in the area he resided, composed in the style of Giacometti’s sculptural works. A key signature in Hann-Schwarzner’s work is the effect from pushing into the canvas, using a blunt instrument, geometric shapes inspired by drawings made by the patients of Das Institut für Psychologie, Biologie, Neurologie, Berlin. On one occasion, after his usual visit, he discovered his force too much for the canvas to bear and ripped a hole in a portrait he’d been working on for two years. (Hann-Schwarzner): “I simply forgot what I was doing at the time. It had taken over, yet again, that force, the exact moment when nothing else seems to exist, and I got carried away. From visiting and talking to the people living in the facility, I understood the necessity in controlling one’s behaviour, but on this occasion the knowledge had completely left me and I found myself in familiar surroundings. It was not entirely unpleasant, but rather useful the same.”
The damaged work turned out to be of interest to Gunter Friez, a gallery owner from Frankfurt. Friez was in Berlin to attend the Internation Kunst Exhibition and had made arrangements to visit Hann-Schwarzner at his studio.
Friez: “I had been looking around the studio searching for a series of works for an upcoming show in Berlin and saw this particular artwork lying on the floor. I asked him what it was doing there and he very slowly said it was a work he’d ruined. I looked at it and immediately saw many possibilities. I told him this, and, thankfully, he decided to explore and develop the forms that eventually came to him. I often laugh to my wife when we consider just how important a discovery it was and it could so have been easily forgotten.”
Hann-Schwarzner attended the Berlin Kunstacademy from 1929 to 1932 graduating with honours and recognition from his peers. The governing board of the Kunstacademy awarded him the Werner Kolsver prize for artistic merit and purchased one of his works ‘Dialog zwischen einem Soldaten und Politiker’ for its permanent collection, which included works by Oscar Kokoschka, Max Liebermann, and Paul Klee.
During his time at the academy, Hann-Schwarzner continued to develop works combining expressive painting with considered holes, tears, and cuts in the canvas. One of the interesting aspects of these works is the effects caused by light filtering through holes in the canvas, creating shadows that change and distort the work as one moves around it, whilst taking in the image on the canvas. In one of his last interviews given to Der Spiegel, Hann-Schwarzner said “The removal of any piece of artwork is an act of vandalism unless given express cooperation and agreement between the artist responsible for the work and the owner of the work. I am vandalising, but with careful consideration, an artwork. But of course this action is easily expressed by myself, but may not be so easily expressed by others too attached to something they have done. Not everything, but something. This should not be forgotten as it is also this the work affects. Not only subject, but, also, position amongst others in existence, and given the state in which we find ourselves living in today it is an absolute truth that each one of us will decide for ourselves which choice we make. There is no control when such a decision is made. You become under control after your decision.”
In 1938 the Nazis seized all of Hann-Scwarzner’s works including Selbst-porträt (1917), Alter Mann, rauchen Sie eine Leitung, in einer Bar (1926), and Urlaub mit dem Zug (1935) and targeted his solo exhibition ‘Die unaussprechlichen Wahrheit’ held in the Zeitgenössische Kunst Garden Palace in April 1939. The show drew praise from many in the art world. Some critics, such as the Sunday Times’ chief Art Correspondent, Edward Mappelthorpe, described the show as “one of necessity. It asks us not what we do, but why we do and our relationship with those ideas that come from considered decisions. Not forgetting, of course, that we are dealing with a painter’s interpretation of those things. It is entirely easy to find oneself in a position of beautiful contradiction.” Other critics, meanwhile, attacked the show for its ‘vulgarity’, ‘lack of insight, and quite abhorrent demand one should take it seriously.’ It may not simply be coincidence the windows of Hann-Schwarzner’s studio were smashed the same night reviews of his show appeared in that morning’s newspapers. On the second day of the exhibition an elderly man was removed by gallery staff after he threatened to urinate on Self-Portrait with spectacles (1917), and three women were stopped from throwing paint at ‘Mutter (asleep)’ 1923.
Towards the end of January 1939, Hann-Schwarzner received an official summons from the Tiergarten Nazi Party. Artistic and Cultural Commander, Dr. Josef Cranzt told Hann-Schwarzner he was no longer to make art considered ‘defamatory towards the ideology of the party.’
Hann-Schwarzner’s mother, the Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria, wrote him in February 1939 imploring him to leave and join them in England. He declined and replied to her in March 1939. “It was not in the interest or benefit to my fellows if I continue in my work. However, it may be I’m incorrect.”
Based on documentation found, Hann-Schwarzner was to meet with Dutch gallery owner, Edwin Van Delgar on a visit to Amsterdam. Records of railway timetables show there was one arrival: 1st April. The next departure from Amsterdam was to be on 22nd April.
Hann-Schwarzner was last seen by people associated with members of the underground anti-nazi group Damrak. Two of the members arranged to meet Hann-Schwarzner in a local bar. He arrived at 7:30 prompt and according to one of the barmen the three enjoyed a typical night out. Hann-Schwarzner left around 1:30 the next morning and headed to Van Delgar’s apartment. He never arrived and his body has never been found.
Seventy years after disappearing, Hann-Schwarzner’s work is widely acknowledged and deplored in equal measure. Urlaub mit dem Zug was vandalised beyond repair whilst on public show in the Vulgarity begets Love exhibition in Chelsea, London, 2008. Ironically the remains of the vandalised work were found in Hannover Square.