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The Master Builder

Karl Friedrich Schinkel: A Universal Man 31–October 27, 1991

An exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, July

Karl Friedrich Schinkel: A Universal Man

Catalog of the exhibition, edited by Michael Snodin
Yale University Press in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 218 pp., $40.00

Karl Friedrich Schinkel

by Helmut Börsch-Supan
Bühnentwürfe Stage Designs, Ernst and Son, Vol. II, 32 plates pp., DM 360 the set

Collection of Architectural Designs, including designs which have been executed and objects whose execution was intended

by Karl Friedrich Schinkel
Princeton Architectural Press, 174 pp. of text 174 plates pp., $60.00

Reise nach England, Schottland und Paris im Jahre 1826

by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, edited with an introduction and notes by Gottfried Riemann, an essay by David Bindmann
C.H. Beck (out of print), 376 pp.

In an episode in Erwin Strittmatter’s Ole Bienkopp, one of the most interesting novels to appear during the lifetime of the German Democratic Republic, the Communist Party secretary of the Duchy of Ruppin in Mark Brandenburg becomes annoyed with the presence, in the marketplace of the town of Gransee, of a memorial to Queen Luise of Prussia. Erected by the townspeople in 1811, to commemorate the fact that the much-loved queen’s funeral cortege paused for a night in Gransee on its way to Berlin from Mecklenburg, where she died, the Luisendenkmal was a catafalque resting on a high stone pedestal, with a golden crown at its head. Over the coffin there was a Gothic baldachin of iron in the shape of a tabernacle, and the whole was enclosed by ornamental iron railings. The district secretary could see no reason why this melancholy edifice should still be casting a shadow over the marketplace and, reflecting that old iron is always useful, he sent some laborers to demolish it. As the first hammer hit the railings, however, a window flew up in the building across the square, and the town dentist shouted indignantly, “You are desecrating Schinkel!”1

The monument to Queen Luise was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the greatest European architect of his time and one whose influence is still at work 150 years after his death. A patriot and humanist, he transformed the face of Berlin and made Potsdam one of the architectural delights of Germany, and he was the designer of such fully achieved, if markedly diverse, masterpieces as the Iron Cross and the Old Museum in Berlin. He was also a painter of great talent, a stage and industrial designer, and a leader in design education. The dentist in Gransee probably knew all that; the district secretary probably didn’t but was smart enough to sense that, while crowned heads were fair game for good Communists, cultural treasures were not. Like him, the Communist regime in East Germany, while gleefully destroying the Hohenzollern castle in Berlin and Bismarck’s estate at Schönhausen, and even pulling down the Schloss in Paretz, where Queen Luise had spent happy years as the young bride of King Frederick William III, and erecting in its place an institute for animal culture, walked gingerly around Schinkel’s creations. It is true that in 1961, despite a chorus of appeals to Walther Ulbricht from Western architects, it did demolish the war-damaged Bauakademie in Berlin to make room for a pompous new home for its Foreign Ministry, but it spared the Luisendenkmal in Gransee and most of Schinkel’s other works, and it actually restored his masterful State Theater in the Gendarmenmarkt just in time for it to play its part in the festivities attendant upon the proclamation of the new united Germany in October 1990.

The reunification has made the whole of Schinkel’s work easily accessible to Western travelers for the first time in forty-five years. Equally important, it has also removed obstacles to cooperation between German curators, and it is this circumstance that made it possible last autumn for the Victoria and Albert Museum to mount a major exhibition, with drawings, paintings, and other artifacts from Schinkel collections in both Germanys.

It is possible that many viewers of this stunning show, which ran from July to October and dealt with virtually all aspects of Schinkel’s life and career, placing his work within its proper cultural and historical context and seeking to give an impression of the artist and the forces that moved him, found its riches a little hard to digest. If so, the exhibition’s splendid catalog, Karl Friedrich Schinkel: A Universal Man, has all of the ingredients needed to correct that condition, as well as to inform and delight readers who were unable to see it. It begins with seven essays by German and English art historians on Schinkel’s artistic development and the principal fields of his creative activity. These are richly illustrated by color plates, black-and-white drawings, notebook sketches, and architectural designs. They are followed by a folio of photographs from the years 1890 to 1940 of Schinkel’s buildings, with some interesting views of the Crown Prince’s apartments in the royal palace in Berlin and other interiors that Schinkel designed but have been destroyed. Most of the volume is then given over to reproductions of the 160 items in the exhibition, with meticulously detailed and highly informative notes. All in all, this is the first attempt in the English language to present a reasonably comprehensive study of Schinkel and his work, and Michael Snodin and his collaborators are to be congratulated on the result.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel was born in Neuruppin, about seventeen miles northwest of Berlin, on March 13, 1781, the son of the local superintendant of the Lutheran church. There is a story that, when he was a small child, his father used to draw things for him, mostly birds, and that Schinkel always said, “But birds look quite different from that!”2 This may be apocryphal, but it is true that in school, both in Neuruppin and later in the Gymnasium of the Gray Cloister in Berlin exercises in art always interested the young Schinkel more than books, and that he was forever sketching (three of his portrait heads survive from the year 1796). He also had a pronounced musical talent and a passion for the theater that grew with the years. These interests remained unfocused until 1797, when he saw and was overwhelmed by the young Friedrich Gilly’s extraordinary design for a memorial to Frederick the Great in the Leipziger Platz in Berlin, which was to take the form of a Doric temple above a massive substructure of geometrical forms and historical symbols.3

The uncertainty of the times made the execution of Gilly’s plan impossible (anything so grandiose had to wait until King Ludwig I of Bavaria commissioned Leo von Klenze in the 1830s to build the national memorial Walhalla, above the Danube near Regensburg, a monument that bears some resemblance to Gilly’s conception).4 Even so, the design made Schinkel resolve to become an architect and, leaving school, he began to work with Gilly’s father, David, who was interested in improving the technical training of architects. In a prefatory essay to the bilingual edition of Schinkel’s Architectural Designs, Rand Carter points out that, while relatively brief, Schinkel’s formal training was remarkably thorough. In 1799, he became one of ninety-five students in a newly founded Bauakademie, whose faculty comprised the two Gillys, Heinrich Gentz, the designer of the new Berlin Mint, and Carl Gotthard Langhans, the architect of the Brandenburger Gate. The school’s curriculum emphasized mathematics and engineering and included lectures on the history and theory of architecture by the architect and archaeologist Alois Hirt. A year and a half later, after the untimely death of Friedrich Gilly, Schinkel was already working as an architect, finishing up some of Gilly’s unfinished projects, like a townhouse in the Friedrichstrasse that stood until 1893, and designing some of his own, an Ionic garden pavilion on the Pfingstberg near Potsdam, for example, and several buildings for country estates. These projects and some work designing furniture and porcelain enabled him to save enough money to support an extended study trip to Italy via Dresden, Prague, and Vienna, with a stop in Paris on the way back, that lasted from 1803 to 1805.

It is interesting that what Schinkel saw in Italy appealed more to the painter in him than to the architect. It was not that he neglected the remains of Hellenistic culture in central Italy or the examples of Saracen architecture that he found between Venice and Palermo. But he tended to be more interested in their relationship to nature than to the technique of their construction. It was in Italy that he became an accomplished landscape painter, and it was to his Italian journey that we owe the great perspective studies of Messina, Palermo, and the plain of Portinico that so impressed Goethe.

This shift in interest was perhaps fortunate, for after his return to Berlin Schinkel found that there were few opportunities for architects. The decade that followed saw the Prussian defeat at Jena and Auerstedt, the French occupation of Berlin, the slow recovery of the country under the leadership of Stein, Scharnhorst, and the other reformers, and the preparations for the war of liberation that lasted from 1813 to 1815. During this period, with no architectural commissions in sight, Schinkel devoted himself to landscape painting in oil, gouache, watercolors, and sepia, developing a skill and feeling that have led some critics to say that he might have become another Ruisdael or Hobbema if he had devoted all of his time to this. But artists have to live, and much of Schinkel’s income came from the painting of dioramas and panoramas, particularly the cycle of large optical-perspective pictures that he painted for the Gropius Christmas exhibitions, in which, in the words of Theodor Fontane,

he spread before the astonished eyes of his compatriots the most beautiful and interesting things from all parts of the world: views of Constantinople and the environs of the Nile, the Cape of Good Hope, Palermo, Taormina with Aetna, Vesuvius, St. Peter’s, Castel Sant’ Angelo and the capitol in Rome, the cathedral in Milan, the Chamonix valley, St. Mark’s Square, the burning of Moscow, the battle of Leipzig, Elba, St. Helena, etc. Above all, the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,” painted for the smaller Gropius theater in 1812, deserve special mention. They gave him a long desired opportunity to display, at their most brilliant, not only the full development of his painterly skills, but also his architectural genius. Franz Kugler [Schinkel’s first biographer] called these works “the most brilliant reconstructions of the miraculous buildings of the classical age.”5

These pictures (one of which, The Fire of Moscow, is reproduced in the catalog of the London exhibition) and the large panoramas that Schinkel built in 1808 and 1809 (View of Palermo, St. Mark’s Square by Moonlight, and Cathedral of Milan by Moonlight), which were mounted on the walls of a cylindrical interior and viewed from a platform in the middle with dramatic lighting and choral accompaniment, marked a step toward actual theater production, and indeed in 1813 Schinkel applied to August Wilhelm Iffland, the director of the Royal Theater, for the vacant post of set designer. He was turned down, probably for political reasons, but two years later the new director, Graf Brühl, gave him the post. In his highly informative commentary in his book on Schinkel’s stage designs, Helmut Börsch-Supan points out that the architect held strong views about theater reform and wished in particular to replace the baroque stage, with its many wing-flats and distorted perspective, with “a stage space limited by lateral structures—like [his] dioramas—concluding in the back with a single giant painting.” The enlargement of the proscenium and the dropping of the orchestra into a pit would, he contended, improve visibility, audibility, and perspective and be less expensive, always a consideration in enterprises supported by the Prussian crown. Schinkel was encouraged by Brühl and, between 1815 and 1828, designed over a hundred sets for forty-five plays and operas, beginning with his enormously popular twelve sets for The Magic Flute and including seven sets for Hoffmann’s Undine and others for productions of Gluck’s Alceste and Orpheus and Eurydice, Spontini’s Fernand Cortez, and Schiller’s Maid of Orleans.

  1. 1

    Erwin Strittmatter, Ole Bienkopp; Roman (East Berlin: Ausbau Verlag, 1963), p. 213.

  2. 2

    Theodor Fontane, Sämtliche Werke (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1960 ff.), Vol. IX (Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg: Die Grafschaft Ruppin), p. 98.

  3. 3

    Alan Balfour, Berlin: The Politics of Order, 1737–1989 (Rizzoli, 1990), pp. 19–29.

  4. 4

    See Jörg Traeger, Der Weg nach Walhalla: Denkmallandschaft und Bildungsreise im 19. Jahrhundert (Regensburg: Bernhard Bosse Verlag, 1987).

  5. 5

    Fontane, Sämtliche Werke, Vol. IX, p. 103.

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