Litany of Bitterness: George Street (Marylebone)

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Art dealer and gallery owner Heinrich Robert [Harry] Fischer was born in Vienna on 30 August 1903. By the mid-1930s he was running one of the city’s largest bookshops. The Nazi annexation of Austria forced him to flee to Britain. In 1946, he opened his first art gallery on Old Bond Street with fellow Viennese refugee Frank Lloyd (born: Franz Kurt Levai). They named it Marlborough Fine Art for its aristocratic connotations. Between 1960 and 1970 Marlborough Gallery expanded into an international force with branches in New York, London, Rome, Zurich and other cities.

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Lloyd and Fisher dissolved their partnership in the early 1970s, after which Harry Fisher established Fisher Fine Arts in London. He died in London in April 1977. In 1996 Elfriede Fischer donated his collection of books and catalogues to the V&A’s National Art Library. The collection (sixty-nine books in total) includes works by George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oscar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Kurt Schwitters, among others.

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The Fischer Collection holds the only known copy of a complete inventory of ‘Entartete Kunst’ confiscated by the Nazi regime from public institutions in Germany, mostly during 1937 and 1938. The list of more than 16,000 art works was produced by the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda around 1942. The inventory was compiled as a final record after the sales and disposals of the seized works of art had been completed in the summer of 1941. The inventory’s two typescript volumes provide crucial information about the provenance, exhibition history, and fate of each artwork.

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The painter George Grosz suffered badly from the Nazi madness. Their officials confiscated nearly three hundred of his works in museums and galleries, some were looted, some sold, and others burned. About seventy paintings vanished without a trace. One of the paintings labelled ‘degenerate’ was Grosz’s stunning portrait of his friend, the poet Max [Macke] Herrmann-Neisse.

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The latter was born Max Herrmann in 1886 in Neisse (in Polish: Nysa), Silesia, into a family of small innkeepers. He was a physically disabled and deformed child. A continuous sense of otherness was part of his intellectual development and he started writing at a young age. He studied literature and history of art in Munich and Breslau, then turned to journalism and writing. He created mainly poetry and, influenced by Expressionism, contributed to avant-garde periodicals such as Die Aktion, Pan, and Die weissen Blätter.
In 1914 S. Fischer Verlag published his first collection of poems entitled Sie und die Stadt. The poet’s future looked bright, but the First World War brought disaster. It ruined the business of his parents. His father died in 1916 and his mother drowned herself shortly after.

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Herrmann-Neisse married a local girl named Leni Gebek in May 1917 and the couple settled in Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm where they involved themselves in the city’s vibrant mix of artistic, socialist and anarchist movements. From that time onwards he added his place of birth to his name. He and his wife were a very visible and often photographed couple in bohemian Berlin. Herrmann-Neisse was known in most cafés, bars, studios, theatres, seedy cabarets and brothels in town. He was the Toulouse Lautrec of Berlin. He shared the same radical politics, sense of humour, and cynical outlook as his friend George Grosz. At the same time he created an ever growing number of poems, stories, essays and cabaret pieces. He was awarded the Eichendorff-Preis in 1924 and the Gerhart Hauptmann-Preis in 1927.

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Five years later his situation changed dramatically. Grosz’s portrait of the poet with his hunched back and bald head had first been shown at the Neue Sachlichkeit Exhibition in Mannheim, 1925. The Nazis confiscated the portrait from the Flechtheim Gallery in Berlin in 1933 and displayed the work as a prime example of degenerate art. Two days after the Reichstag fire in February 1933, Max and Leni fled Berlin. Via Switzerland and the Netherlands they arrived in London in September that same year. A few months later, the Nazis burned his books.

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Unable to speak English, living in the poorest of conditions, and deprived of his German citizenship in 1938, his poetry soon became an expression of utter isolation. Sometimes one may detect a tone of defiance like that in the poem ‘Ewige Heimat’: the homeland will live on ‘in the song of its banished sons’ (‘in dem Lied verstossner Söhne’). He applied for British citizenship, but the request was refused. In 1936 he published a collection of poems in Zurich entitled Um uns die Fremde (with a preface by Thomas Mann), but by then his personal life was becoming increasingly bizarre and intolerable. From 1936 onwards, he and his wife lived in a ménage à trois with Leni’s lover, the Greek-born Jewish jeweller and diamond dealer Alphonse Aron Sondheimer, who supported the three.

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They occupied an exclusive flat owned by Sondheimer at no. 82 Bryanston Court, George Street in Marylebone (another apartment in the block was occupied by the American socialite Mrs Wallis Simpson: it was here at Flat 5B, first floor, that the love affair between her and Edward VIII had started in 1933). The arrangement lasted until Herrmann-Neisse’s death from a heart attack on 8 April 1941. He was buried at East Finchley Cemetery in East End Road. There he rests in a lonely grave, a soon forgotten immigrant, far from his beloved Berlin. Leni subsequently married Sondheimer (who became a British citizen in June 1947) and committed suicide when he died in 1961.

During his years of exile Hermann-Neisse continued to write poetry. Some of the poems are counted among his best. Shortly before his death he wrote ‘Litanei der Bitterness’, which is both a reflection on his life in exile and the painful awareness of the affair of his wife and his dependence on the goodwill of her lover:

Bitter ist es, das Brot der Fremde zu essen,
bittrer noch das Gnadenbrot,
und dem Nächsten eine Last zu sein.

The old anarchist lived a total paradox in later life. Not capable of earning a living and deprived of any outlets to publish his work, he resided amidst the decadence and senseless wealth of one of London’s most exclusive residential areas. Consumed by bitterness, the poet suffered all the pains of physical and linguistic exile. As a young man he had touched virtually every brick of every bar within reach while staggering through the streets of Berlin. Socially and psychologically he was inextricably bound up with the city as any of the stones in any of its buildings. Without the architecture of that structure, its use and meaning completely changed. For Herrmann-Neisse the building had collapsed completely. Death may have come as a relief. The psychoses dubbed ‘bacillus emigraticus’, the virus of homesickness, hits every exile at some time to a varying degree. It broke Hermann-Neisse.
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