On the spiritual and the poetical in the paintings of Max Peiffer Watenphul

(Text to exhibition A79 from 6.9. until 29.11.2008)

The painter Max Peiffer Watenphul counts without any doubt among the remarkably unconventional painters of the last century.  The spirit inherent in the motifs of his early landscapes and still-lifes was already described by Alfred Salmony in 1921 as that "special presence, playful and yet symbolic, somehow long since familiar and yet forever new."1  While one can certainly identify related styles in his paintings, and certainly allocate his oeuvre to a certain stylistic tendency or at least describe it in detail, the motifs of his paintings – irrespective of any precise stylistic characteristics – leave us in no doubt about the deeply human intentions pursued by Max Peiffer Watenphul throughout his life as a painter, intentions that find expression in a strange unity of the spiritual and the poetical.  Max Peiffer Watenphul developed certain codes in his painting, very much akin to signature tunes, that made his work unmistakable. They are reflected in a certain aristocratic decadence strengthened on occasion by a touch of mannerism. Watenphul's oeuvre is distinguished by an artistic individuality coupled with a total independence from intellectual constraints.

Naturally, this has a lot to do with the bourgeois family and environment into which Max Peiffer Watenphul was born in Weferlingen near Helmstedt on 1st September 1896.  His father was a dispensing chemist, his mother a descendent of a Huguenot family. His father died in 1903 and his mother then married the grammar school master Dr. phil. Heinrich Watenphul (hence Max's double surname), who soon afterwards was promoted to headmaster and transferred to a school in Hattingen. The young Max Peiffer Watenphul grew up in a humanist environment and it was therefore a foregone conclusion that he would take a classical course of study.  At his parents' wish he began to study medicine in 1914, but then soon enrolled at the law faculty and studied until 1918 in Strasbourg, Munich, Bonn, Würzburg and finally in Frankfurt am Main, where he obtained his doctorate with a thesis on church law. But reports had it that Max Peiffer Watenphul was more interested in art and – especially in Munich – would spend most of his time studying the works of art exhibited in picture galleries and making friends with artists, and not least with Paul Klee, whose encouraging comments on this law undergraduate's talent for drawing and painting had no doubt strengthened the latter's wish to change faculties once again and study art.  (See the selection of early watercolours in this catalogue, produced during his time as a student).  When in 1919 Klee turned down Peiffer Watenphul's request to be his pupil – "I'm not a teacher!" – Klee's wife, Lily Klee, recommended that he go to Weimar, where in that same year the Bauhaus had opened its doors under the directorship of Walter Gropius.  Gropius sought to develop the Bauhaus into a future-oriented centre of applied art that would bridge the gap between art and industry: functionality and design, these were the buzzwords, not just in the applied arts but in the fine arts, too.  Universalism, propagated by the De Stijl group since its foundation in 1917, was to influence all spheres of art and society.  Fascinated by this idea, Max Peiffer Watenphul goes to Weimar and joins the class of Johannes Itten, whom Gropius had recruited from Vienna.  Later, in January 1921, Peiffer Watenphul would also to meet his "ideal teacher", Paul Klee, who had been invited by Walter Gropius to teach painting in Weimar.

On various occasions, not just in his letters to Maria Cyrenius, a fellow Itten student who had gone on to study in Salzburg, Max Peiffer Watenphul wrote about his changeful way of life in Weimar and thus afforded posterity many a strange insight into the years he spent at the Bauhaus. One such report read as follows: "The groups of Bauhaus students that gathered around their respective masters were, in respect of age, origin and talent, altogether motley crews.  The most contrary group of all was the one around the still very 'boy-scoutish' Johannes Itten; it mainly comprised Viennese intellectuals, woolly-headed enthusiasts and Jews. There were a great many heated disputes, for all of them rebelled against traditional notions in their constant quest for something new.  We were poor, ate meagre food and froze in the unheated studios.  But it was with all the verve we could muster that we tried to come to terms with life's ups and downs, philosophizing with an almost religious fervour.  The cheap rags we wore were draped in a casual, painterly manner. Many of us painted our shoes a different colour every day or wore Russian smocks and large crucifixes around our necks. Many of the parties, at which we danced barefoot to the music of the Bauhaus band, were cultic in character." On another occasion, Max Peiffer Watenphul notes: "The curriculum was not fixed but very flexible. It was largely experimental and the world about us was always part and parcel of our lessons. We cooked, for example, according to the teaching of Mazdaznan, a philosophy that seeks to revive the wisdom of Zarathustra and had many followers in the years after the First World War; we did gymnastics to limber us up for the nude drawing class and listened to the teachings of Gertrud Grunow2 on the awakening and development of the creative individual. Itinerant preachers came to spread their word; either they were ridiculed or they succeeded in casting their spell on some of us, who then joined them or went into a monastery.  Lantern festivals, full of atmosphere, took place in the summer, and in the moonlight we would bathe naked in the Ilm.  It was simply romantic, harmless pleasure, but the people of Weimar saw it as the height of the wild excesses indulged in by the notorious Bauhaus students. [??¦] Inspiring, entertaining and at times exciting were the evening programmes – lectures, discussions or concerts –, which were attended by celebrated poets, philosophers and artists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  I can still clearly remember the recitation given by Else Lasker-Schüler.  The Viennese troupe [these were the students Johannes Itten had brought with him to Weimar from Vienna] had decorated the auditorium with prayer mats and Jewish candelabra. This tiny poetess, with her gipsy-like features, made a highly dignified entrance and recited her poems, which shook us profoundly. Her friend, too, Theodor Däubler, recited his deeply intellectual, visionary poetry. Among those who also came were Franz Werfel and his wife, Alma Mahler, the widow of the composer; it was she who interested us, for she had, after all, been portrayed by Kokoschka and was very famous. At any rate, our time in Weimar was always varied, eventful and never boring."3

Of the few paintings by Max Peiffer Watenphul that survived the Weimar period, the most dominant and striking are the still-lifes done in his studio and the views into his studio and out of the window.  The window seems to have been the vanishing point of an unspecified yearning to lose oneself in the landscape or to roam the seas – as in "View of the Tyrrhenian Sea".  The artist seems to have been gripped by the need to break out of the confined space of his studio and yet at the same time to include in the painting the room where he is seated at his easel. A fleeting moment is captured in a small, delicately executed painting and then – as if that were not enough – this same scene is copied, as a painting within a painting, into a still-life.  At times remote from reality, indeed seemingly disinterested in it, the painter paints his idea of things seen.  There are but a few details, at the most brief quotations of reality, drawn on the canvas with just a few lines, a flower vase on a table, say, or lace curtains, drawn back and gathered, or a view from the darkness of the here and now into a light-flooded landscape.  And numerous women's portraits, too, or portrait studies of women in conspicuous hats – borrowed from a milliner's collection – have survived from the beginning of the 1920s in colourful watercolour over delicate pencil outlines.

Artistically, Max Peiffer Watenphul may be seen most nearly in the tradition of Henri Rousseau, whose paintings had already realized a new "depth of feeling and love of the world" before the end of the 19th century.  It was with the simplicity of his petit bourgeois way of life that Rousseau was able to combine, with absolute genius, romantic longing with mystery and make-believe to produce great and unique works of art, the later significance and value of which he could only vaguely have foreseen. Max Peiffer Watenphul could not, however, claim to have the naïve naturalness and lightheartedness of a Henri Rousseau, for his paintings were the product of a deliberate and conscious approach, albeit characterized by an awareness of life that was extremely sensitive and protective.

To see only naïvety in the work of the Max Peiffer Watenphul, who had, after all, enjoyed a humanist upbringing, studied law and was now a student at the Bauhaus, would be to ignore the ingenuity with which he staged his paintings – staged insofar as his paintings had less to do with an ostensible, altogether credible reality than with the endeavour to depict a reality from the depths of his memory, to reproduce a mixture of lofty and trivial imagery, irrespective of the theme, whether in his women's portraits with their exaggerated hats, in his beloved views from the window of his studio in Weimar or in any of his enchanted, poetically composed still-lifes.                            

Max Peiffer Watenphul's time at the Bauhaus in Weimar might in fact be described merely as an 'unofficial study visit', although he attended and passed Johannes Itten's 'Preliminary Course' and sat in on the courses in various workshops, including the pottery and the weaving workshops, and began to take a strong interest in the medium of photography.  Indeed, as a law graduate much older than most of the other students, Max Peiffer Watenphul was granted a special status at the Bauhaus. He was allowed to participate in all the institute's events and also enjoyed the privilege of being able to live and work in a studio of his own.  Only in this light is it possible to understand how Peiffer Watenphul's early work remained relatively uninfluenced by the teachings of the Bauhaus, its peculiarity already having been recognized by the entrepreneurial art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who then sought to place the young artist under contract with his gallery.  Moreover, Max Peiffer Watenphul's social connections with the known celebrities of the time – collectors, poets, aesthetes and Lebenskünstler – in and between Berlin, Düsseldorf, Munich, Rome and Paris do not reflect the image of a typical Bauhaus student but rather that of a young intellectual altogether in tune with mood of artistic revolution and the presence of the teachers in those early days of the Bauhaus.

In 1922, Max Peiffer Watenphul visited Maria Cyrenius, a former fellow student under Johannes Itten, in the city of Salzburg, which – like Venice – never ceased to cast its spell on him, not even years later.  This is where he produced his first vedute and cityscapes, of which the further stylistic refinement towards the later Max Peiffer Watenphul was more or less interrupted by his voyage to Mexico, for it was there that Peiffer Watenphul shook off the intellectual severity of New Objectivity and developed an emotionally expressive style of painting.  And it was above all in Mexico that his palette underwent a definite change: in bright, painterly colours flooded with light, Peiffer Watenphul's paintings tell of his experiences in this exotic country of Central America.  His talent for adapting his style of illustrative painting to the mood and temperament of a country was from then on to be one of his particularly strong points.

Thus it was that Peiffer Watenphul mirrored his travels in his paintings and, in such works as those produced in Hattingen, where he spent the years between 1927 and 1931 as a teacher of "general artistic design" at the newly established Folkwang School of Design in Essen, returned from the spirited aura of Mexico, via the southern Mediterranean countryside around Dubrovnik, with its view of the sea at Ragusa, to what was at that time still the grey and very depressing industrial landscape of the Rhine and the Ruhr. His new environment, an industrial region marked by the heat and cold of its overwhelming production of iron and steel, clearly influenced his painting, not least in his choice of motifs.  But whenever he had enough time to spare, Peiffer Watenphul made his way south, to the Yugoslavian Mediterranean coast, to the French Riviera – and again and again to Italy, to Ischia, Cefalù, Venice and Rome. 

In 1931, Peiffer Watenphul was awarded the highly coveted Rome Prize, at that time the highest award for young artists, notwithstanding the fact that he had already reached the age of 35 and was successfully employed as a teacher at the Folkwang School of Design.

The Rome Prize brought with it a year's stay at the German Academy in the Villa Massimo in Rome.  "So I have four rooms plus studio and terrace. Everything is marvellous. There is an old and most elegant park with old sculptures, cypresses etc.  Everything simply magnificent; there are ten people here.  All very nice. [??¦] Want to start painting tomorrow. [??¦] On Monday we all went on an excursion to the Etruscan towns of Norma and Cori, high up in the mountains. Also marvellous. You could see as far as Naples.  For the past week we've been having the most glorious summer weather you could possibly imagine.  The air is full of birdsong and everything is green and blossoming. So it's perfect. And I've already got to know a lot of people. [??¦] One is so wonderfully free here. Nobody tells you what to do. But I'm enjoying every hour of it, because it will never come again.  Let's hope I will be able to get on with my work. But for the time being I'm taking everything in and pushing myself to the limit."4           

This one-year stay in Rome was to have significant consequences for Max Peiffer Watenphul, for it decided his future not only as a painter but also in his private life.  While in Rome, he developed a more consistent style of painting; the garden landscapes and cityscapes, combinations of nature and ruins, seem enigmatic, exaggeratedly surreal, at once mannerist and classical, playfully allusive to Chirico's "pittura metafisica", that narrative conjoining of mysterious things.

From 1933 onwards, Max Peiffer Watenphul – marked by the industrial Ruhr, marked by the Bauhaus and the Folkwang School – lived more or less in Italy, in Rome, Ischia and Positano, where around that same time a great many German artists – Eduard Bargheer, Werner Gilles, Rudolf Levy, Karli Sohn-Rethel, Hans Purrmann, Karl Rössing, among others – as well as writers, philosophers and other intellectuals had also settled. It was in Italy that Max Peiffer Watenphul refined his style still further. His Ischia and Cefalù landscapes from the mid-1930s and in particular his floral still-lifes from the same period testify to a zestful artist who knew how to harness the brightness of the southern light for his light and airy painting.  In terms of their richness and unmistakable composition, the said floral still-lifes from the 1930s are extraordinary in the true sense of the word.  Indeed, in 1933, Peiffer Watenphul received the coveted Carnegie Award, Pittsburgh, for a still-life with poppies, a painting that then hung in the Kronprinzen-Palais of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin until 1937. The National Socialists hated this kind of lyrical painting and confiscated it together with other works by Peiffer Watenphul. It was then exhibited in the notorious "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich in 1937.       

Despite the adverse conditions under which artists defamed by the Nazis as "degenerate" were forced to live in Germany, Max Peiffer Watenphul returned to Germany in 1941, where he succeeded Georg Mucha as a teacher at the Textile School in Krefeld. This school was an officially tolerated institution – similar to the Herberts paint factory in Wuppertal – where "undesired" artists could pursue an approved artistic and/or teaching activity under the Nazi régime.  These artists included Oscar Schlemmer, Johannes Itten, Max Burchartz, Georg Mucha – and Max Peiffer Watenphul. In 1943, Peiffer Watenphul left Krefeld for a teaching post at the Arts and Crafts School in Salzburg, where he was able to survive the rest of the war unscathed.

Peiffer Watenphul then moved from Salzburg to Venice, where his younger half-sister, Grace, had been living since the mid-1930s with her husband, an Italian architect and engineer.  It was in this famous "city on the lagoon" – where the classical veduta first saw the light of day in the early 18th century – that Max Peiffer Watenphul likewise became a painter of vedute, but one distinguished by his own very peculiar style.  Breaking with the traditional manner of, say, Guardi, Bellotto or Canaletto, Peiffer Watenphul was not concerned with any faithful depiction of the colourful hustle and bustle of Venice, its canals, its picturesque squares and narrow streets, but rather with the atmosphere that spreads across the city, across the fronts of the palaces that line the canals, an atmosphere that mirrors the vitality and melancholy, the joy and sadness, the emotion and intellect of a city that has been loved and revered in countless different ways for generations and centuries. Peiffer Watenphul captured the moods of the different times of the day and the different seasons of the year, blending them with the characteristic features of Venice in a unique and unmistakable way. "For weeks now, I have been painting pictures of Venice, which are now beginning to look quite good. But I first had to get into it. I used to paint landscapes, now I paint architecture, water and people."5  And on another occasion he writes: "It has all been photographed and depicted on postcards so incredibly often that it gives one the shudders to have to see the same old veduta of San Giorgio, the Piazza or the Rialto time and time again. I have been trying hard for a whole year, and again and again I have scrapped in the evening everything I painted during the day, simply because I didn't manage to see all these hackneyed things in a new way and depict them with my own personal touch."6  Peiffer Watenphul certainly overcame the picture postcard syndrome, not least through his own special painting technique, his cropped views and the concomitant dissolving of the spatial context.  Unusual, too, was his choice of canvas format: no longer the classical vertical or horizontal format, but an elongated vertical format analogous to, and anticipatory of, the typically tall, narrow architecture of Venetian palaces.  Thus it was that Peiffer Watenphul's choice of motif was largely predetermined by the format of the canvas. The quality of the canvas, too, underwent a change in Venice.  Coarse jute canvas, which Peiffer Watenphul had used frequently in the past, was now to be his permanent favourite.  Painted on this canvas in very diluted colours, almost in watercolour manner, his paintings have nothing of the apotheosis of picture postcards but are distinguished rather by an impressionistic state of uncertainty – unique, in my opinion, to Peiffer Watenphul – in which the effect of alienation is created solely by beauty and spirituality.

In 1958, Peiffer Watenphul moved to Rome, taking up residence in a side street not far from the Spanish Steps overlooking the Pincio.  Sicily, Ischia and other places of the Magna Graeca, such as Positano and Paestum, and – later, after 1964 – the Greek island of Corfu, continued to furnish his favourite landscape motifs, which now expressed, in delicate, light-flooded colours, what all connoisseurs associate with these Mediterranean idylls: undulating landscapes, white-washed buildings, pine and cypress trees, columns and plinths of bygone civilizations, the eternal blue of the Mediterranean Sea.  The melancholy that at times seemed to cloud his paintings of Venice now evaporated in the bright sunlight of the pathos-laden cultural landscapes of these southern climes.

Peiffer Watenphul was of course altogether aware of the problem posed by reality in his paintings.  By alienating them with gestural scribble, either with the wrong end of the paintbrush or with an etching stylus, he was able to avoid all accusations of kitsch. Indeed, it was with this technique, which in fact destroyed the surface of the painting, that Peiffer Watenphul was able to imbue his paintings with that atmosphere, with that virtuosity, that made his work so unmistakable.  By deliberately detracting from the beauty of his motifs – by disfiguring them in the truest sense of the word – he achieved an effect altogether in tune with his sensitivity as an artist and aesthete.  And, in the final analysis, it was in the omnipresent artistic truth and emotional openness of his work that Peiffer Watenphul's secret lay.      

Mario-Andreas von Lüttichau 


1 Quoted, in translation, from: Alfred Salmony, Max Peiffer Watenphul, in Das Kunstblatt, Vol. 5, 1921, p. 272.

2 Gertrud Grunow (1870 - 1944) was a music pedagogue and taught theory of form at the Bauhaus; cf. Cornelius Steckner, in: exhib. cat. Das frühe Bauhaus und Johannes Itten, Weimar (Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar, Bauhaus-Museum) 1994, p. 200 ff.

3 Quoted, in translation, from: Bert Bilzer, Peiffer Watenphul, Göttingen 1974, pp. 8 and 9.

4 Quoted, in translation, from a letter to Maria Cyrenius, autumn 1931. The original German quotation was taken from: Grace Watenphul Pasqualucci and Alessandra Pasqualucci, Max Peiffer Watenphul, catalogue raisonné, Vol. 1, Cologne 1989, p. 28f.

5 Quoted, in translation, from a letter to Maria Cyrenius, 15th May 1947. The original German quotation was taken from: Pasqualucci (Note 4), p. 48.

6 Quoted, in translation, from: Max Peiffer Watenpuhl, Ein neues Venedig. The original German quotation was taken from: Pasqualucci (Note 4), p. 57.

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