The Art of Johann Dieter Wassmann
The assemblage works of Johann Dieter Wassmann have been the source of much controversy and intrigue since they were first exhibited in 1998, on the centenary of the artist's death. This was not entirely what The Wassmann Foundation had in mind in bringing them to light. Rather, the Foundation's hope was to simply lift the veil that had beset these works for the previous 100 years. Questions persist, however, as they may well for years to come. But the questions most often asked are: how did they get here from there, and where will the future take them? The former I can answer.
Johann made no mention of his works or his writings in his will. One suspects humility. He took great pride in his professional achievements, as he should, having pioneered the engineering field of sanitation and sewerage disposal. Untold lives were spared from disease and epidemic in the closing years of the 19th century thanks to the systems he designed and constructed throughout Europe, as well as in Washington, D.C. But his writings and boxed works were a personal pursuit; however notable they may seem now, he placed little value on them then.
His untimely death came in March 1898, three months after having his leg crushed in a fall from a tram in Leipzig and two weeks shy of his 57th birthday. It was during his time in hospital that he ordered 56 oak crates constructed for the storage of his boxes, writings and archives-crates that would house these works for the next three quarters of a century. Beyond his wish that they be stored, he left no instruction as to how these materials should be dispersed upon his death.
In the winter of 1900, Johann's widow, Anna Catherina Wassmann, fell ill and died of pneumonia. The following summer, the family home in Leipzig was sold, with its contents divided among their three children or put to auction. Johann's 56 crates were carted to Weimar and stored on the estate of their daughter, Ilsabein, and her husband, Edward Liszt (Liszt was the grandson of Franz Liszt and nephew of Cosima Liszt-Franz's daughter and Richard Wagner's second wife). There, by design, they were largely forgotten.
Edward Liszt was an arch-conservative and well established in Weimar society. The romantic spirit that drove Franz Liszt to alter the course of musical history with his symphonic poems, had not been passed on to the grandson. Throughout his privileged life, Edward Liszt remained devoted to the status quo. Politically, socially and in matters of the arts, his outlook was decidedly baroque. In this context, it's not hard to imagine why Liszt found his father-in-law's potterings with his beloved boxes and his morbid, minimal writings peculiar at best, subversive at worst. His willingness to take in and store Johann's works has recently been cited as a blatant act of suppression, cloaked as an act of kindness toward Ilsabein, but this may be over-stating the case. I suspect a less conspiratorial line is closer to the truth. By all accounts, his devotion to his beautiful wife was quite genuine; it is more likely he took in the works purely as a matter of duty. In both their manner of execution and content, Johann's efforts would have raised eyebrows in Weimar society had they come to light. Liszt's failure to make them public once they were in his possession does appear to have stemmed from an uneasiness with Johann's charged narrative, but the care with which he saw to their proper storage suggests that however much he disagreed with their political and social leanings, and however much he wished to avoid being personally identified with the works, he did retain some measure of respect for Johann's integrity in expressing his beliefs as he did.
There, in storage, they would have remained were it not for the fortuitous visit in 1910 of Frederick Wassmann, a nephew of Johann's, who on his encouragement had emigrated to the United States in 1883, with his brothers Dietrich and Henry (great-grandfather of the Foundation's current director, Jeffrey Wassmann).
Frederick had returned to his birthplace of Hagenburg (outside Hannover) in the spring to arrange for his widowed mother to join the family in Washington, D.C. During this trip, he had traveled to Weimar to visit extended family and had stayed with Edward and Ilsabein-ever the generous hostess. Well traveled and well read, Frederick was nonetheless of peasant stock and found himself ill at ease with the ornate trappings of the Liszt estate. According to his diaries, he quickly sought out Heinrich Wassmann-a further cousin-who now operated the family cabinet-making business, founded in Leipzig by the great patriarch of the family, August Wilhelm Wassmann. The firm was highly regarded for its workmanship and in recent years Heinrich had taken on the manufacture of furniture created by students and instructors at Weimar's celebrated School of Arts and Crafts. It was at a social function at the new Art School building (restored in 1999, it still features Heinrich's handrails on its staircases) that Frederick was cornered by the institution's director, Henry van de Velde. There wasn't a Wassmann in Weimar van de Velde hadn't queried about Johann's rumored boxes and he was no less persistent with Frederick. The famous Belgian architect and artist had heard tales in both Dresden and Leipzig of these curious boxed constructions, but the trail went strangely cold in Weimar.
Frederick was taken aback. At that point he knew nothing about any timber boxes or crates. Having lived in the United States for some 30 years, he only knew Johann as his distant uncle, the renowned engineer who built great sewerage systems, helping to bring to an end the scourge of cholera and many other infectious diseases. He was quite unaware of Johann's later pursuits.
The following day, Frederick mentioned van de Velde's persistence to his host. Edward Liszt listened intently, but revealed nothing. For the eight years van de Velde had been in Weimar, one suspects he had been a nagging thorn in Edward's side. The feverish pitch of avant-garde thinking that had overtaken the town was largely thanks to van de Velde, a fact that would have been as much a concern to Edward as it was to the rest of Weimar's more stalwart citizenry. This, in addition to his dogged inquiries as to Johann's past, surely provided Edward with the motivation for his next move.
The great unanswered question remains, what did Ilsabein know in all of this? Could Edward have kept her distanced from van de Velde for all of those years? Most unlikely, given her social standing and her reputation as a hostess. Even if he had, she did on occasion socialize with her cousin Heinrich, who may or may not have been familiar with the boxes while they were in Leipzig, but certainly would have heard about them from van de Velde. Sadly, I believe we can only assume that Edward prevailed over Ilsabein in keeping quiet about her father's marvelous constructions. Nothing else could explain her mute response. If this is the case, it is hard to imagine the anguish she must have felt to not be able to sing aloud their praises. These quirky boxes had been a part of her life from the time she was a child; she was the clear inspiration for several of them. She was just two when Johann began work on his instructional pieces-the so-called "Dresden Boxes"-and many of the works from his "Biedermeier" period were built specifically as games for Ilsabein and her younger siblings, Samuel and Sophie. We will never know the true nature of her feelings. But we do know what happened next.
According to Frederick's diaries, it was one week later, on May 21, 1910, that he first learned of Edward's cache. He was scheduled to leave for Hagenburg the following day to pick up his mother, before going on to Hamburg where they would set sail for Baltimore. Edward had asked that Frederick join him for a ride on the grounds of the estate before daybreak on the morning of the 21st. In the darkness of the deep wood, Edward stopped at an isolated stone barn. He hitched the horses and directed Frederick inside. Lighting an oil lamp, Edward revealed rows of neatly stacked oak cases. Few appeared ever to have been opened. Out of one that had been split open, Edward withdrew what we now believe-from Frederick's description-was Johann's audacious Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1894. Edward explained that yes, indeed, these were the works Henry van de Velde had alluded to. Edward said he had known them well from his time courting Ilsabein in Leipzig, and had accepted responsibility for their storage after Johann and Anna Catherina's death, but he could not bring himself to investigate any further. What he did know was that their content was so politically unacceptable and so diametrically opposed to his own views, that he could never tolerate their display or publication in Germany. He told Frederick that until his arrival and subsequent questioning, he had been at a loss as to what he would one day do with them, but Frederick's unexpected interest in Johann's indulgent past had given him the out he had long been waiting for.
Edward went on to say that he didn't understand or necessarily agree with the Americans and their much touted freedoms, but he did concede to a certain curiosity. He had only the previous year heard from his grandfather's old protégé, Gustav Mahler, who had written glowingly of his new home in New York. "He knew your uncle in Leipzig, you know," Frederick quoted Edward as saying. The two had become close friends during the three years Mahler spent as deputy conductor of the Leipzig Symphony (1886-88). "Hard to say who led the other with their wild ideas," he added. Germany was Germany, though, and Edward wished it to remain so. If America should choose to tolerate these preposterous notions, let them, it wasn't for him to say. And it was therefore to America that the works of Johann Dieter Wassmann should go. He would arrange for their consignment immediately. His only conditions were: a) no mention should be made to Ilsabein and b) neither Henry van de Velde nor Frederick's carpenter cousins should ever be told of their existence.
Frederick was aghast. What would he do with them? He had gained some success in Washington, but his family was still of modest means. It was all they could do to pay passage for his mother and her few belongings. Edward assured him he would take care of all expenses. So to Frederick's shock and delight, but without Ilsabein's knowledge, Edward agreed to arrange for the shipment of 56 crates-the entire archives and catalogue of Johann Dieter Wassmann-to the New World.
And then something strange and wonderful occurred. As they rode home through the wood at first light, they came to a clearing on a slight rise. The horses reared, refusing to go on; the men dismounted in stunned silence. Just above the horizon, to the east through a break in the cloud-burning a hole through Taurus and nearly half the size of a full moon-hovered Halley's Comet. The comet's tail could be traced through further patchy breaks in the cloud, stretching from Taurus, past Aries and Pegasus overheard to Aquila in the west. Frederick had watched the comet's faint appearance from the deck on his Atlantic passage six weeks earlier, but it was little more than a flicker then. The skies over northern Germany had been leaden and overcast for much of the previous month, so he had not seen anything of it since, although he had anxiously followed newspaper reports. Scientists had detected the element cyanogen in the tail of the comet, leading to wild speculation that should the earth pass directly through the tail, the world's population might well perish from mass cyanide poisoning. (Astronomical observers record the comet as having transited the sun on May 18th, with the tail lengthening dramatically to 120 degrees over the following days, covering fully two-thirds of the sky, so the specter on the morning of the 21st would indeed have been miraculous, although thankfully not apocalyptic.)
A wry smile came to Edward's mouth. "Bleeding Napoleon," he muttered. Frederick was all the more baffled and nearly as shaken as the horses, with everything that had taken place that morning. He did, however, muster the breath to ask Edward to repeat himself.
"Bleeding Napoleon," he said again, staring into the sky. It made no more sense to Frederick a second time. They stood in awe as the clouds broke, revealing more and more of the comet, until it was finally overcome by the morning light. Only then did Edward explain himself.
Napoleon's mount at the Battle of Leipzig, Edward said, was his famed horse Taurus. Among Leipzigers, the name had come to symbolize their great triumph over the French Empire, and the beginning of the end of Napoleon. On October 19, 1813, after having had the bells of Leipzig rung in celebration of his "victory", Napoleon was compelled to flee the city before the allied armies. From the battleground south-east of town he rode in retreat through Leipzig, attempting to penetrate the northern gate, but the desperate congestion of troops and equipment forced him to withdraw to the western gate, a sight many Leipzigers witnessed and reported with glee as Napoleonus Interuptus for years to come (including Johann's father, who was just six at the time). With Napoleon fast advancing to the rear, his trusted colonel assigned to man the western gate abandoned his post to a corporal, who in his panic prematurely blew up the only bridge over the Elster, with hundreds of French troops still on it and thousands waiting to cross. But Napoleon left behind more than just the 30,000 French troops taken prisoner: half left stranded and half rousted from Leipzig's hospitals. He left behind an era. In an assault that had lasted only three days, half a million troops had come face to face on the battlefield, resulting in 94,000 combatant casualties. The dead and wounded at Leipzig numbered more than the combined casualties of Waterloo and Gettysburg. As well, countless civilians were killed or injured by the vagaries of artillery fire used so close to an urban population. Never before had Europe seen savagery on this scale, nor would they see numbers this grim again until the First World War. If there had been any doubt previously, there was little doubt by October 19, 1813: the ancien regime had passed; the modern era was upon us.
To Edward Liszt, the sight of Halley's comet piercing Taurus in the east toward Leipzig came as a long overdue omen. An omen of a defeated Napoleon-a bleeding Napoleon.
To Frederick, the sight came as an omen as well, but he was much less certain as to what he should read into it. That evening, he traveled to the School of Arts and Crafts to say his good-byes to Heinrich and Henry van de Velde. Word had spread from far and wide about the morning's sighting, so students and faculty gathered at nightfall on the green off Geschwister-Scholl-Strasse in anticipation of Halley's return. Frederick stayed on to join them.
Late that evening, the comet's tail rose up out of the east as hoped, to great cheers from the green and across the town below. Through the night, the sky remained clear, as the tail arched longer and brighter until just before daybreak the comet itself appeared, again piercing Taurus, to a further round of cheers, applause, toasts and stolen kisses. And through the night, the talk was again of omens. Here Frederick's diaries are of little use, as he seems lost at the speculation that whirled around him. One can only imagine. Where Edward Liszt looked to the past, Henry van de Velde and his gathered disciples looked to the future and it was a truly remarkable future they must have speculated on through this most remarkable night. 1910 was a time of great peace and unparalleled prosperity. The motor car, the aeroplane, the telephone, electricity, motion pictures, recorded music, ships of previously unimaginable luxury-there was little room for anything but optimism in these opening days of the 20th century. And no one did more to shape that future in the fields of architecture, typography and design than Henry van de Velde, his faculty and students. So however much of a struggle it was for Frederick to make sense of the evening's intercourse, he surely would have found it to be a night like no other.
Despite the euphoria, Frederick kept to his word, never mentioning to Heinrich or van de Velde his discovery of the previous morning. As the comet gave way to daylight and the gathering dispersed, Frederick said his good-byes, but van de Velde asked him to wait a moment, while he retrieved a parcel from his office. Knowing Frederick was returning via Hannover, van de Velde had bundled up several books that he asked Frederick to deliver to the young artist Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters was a student at the Academy of Arts in Dresden, but had returned home to Hannover early for the summer. Frederick obliged and upon entering Schwitters' studio the following day was overwhelmed at the similarity between the few pieces of his uncle's work he had seen in Edward Liszt's barn and the odd bits of unfinished assemblage he found dotting tables and chairs. The paintings on the wall he describes as unremarkable: tired post-impressionist landscapes and still-lifes. Choosing to be polite to the young artist, he avoided mention of the paintings, inquiring instead about the assemblages. This brought Schwitters into full animation, sending him into what Frederick records as an incomprehensible tirade about breaking down the borders between the disparate modes of art. "Merz! Merz!" he kept yelling, to Frederick's bewilderment. His further diary entry for May 23, 1910 reads, "I have met a young man and his name is Schwitters. His confidence, his arrogance, his absolute belief in himself will take him far. Somewhere in the heavens I pray, Onkel Johann, you are looking down on this man Schwitters with a smile and a nod. He will break down those walls you never could. He will lay the groundwork for the world to appreciate all that you've done. Patience, Onkel Johann, patience. The future rests with Schwitters. Merz, sie kommen."
But what a long time the future would be in coming. There has been heated debate in more recent times as to how the course of modernism might have changed had Frederick Wassmann exposed his secret to either van de Velde or Schwitters in May 1910. Abigail von Bibera, the influential Paris-based writer and founding member of Critiques Sans Fronti ères, has gone so far as to call Frederick Wassmann a "coward" for not mentioning what he had learned, at least to Schwitters; he had only sworn not to tell van de Velde, she contends. In the same article, she labels Edward Liszt a "fascist" for so thoroughly suppressing the works of Johann Dieter Wassmann in Europe.
I must take umbrage at both assertions. 1910 was not 2002: Frederick surely believed the honor of his word extended to van de Velde's associates, as well. And however reactionary Edward Liszt's politics might have been, if not for his one act of tolerance and generosity in arranging for the shipment of the works to the United States, it is most unlikely these works would have survived the wholesale destruction that would ravage Germany over the next 35 years. Liszt may well have been right. Henry van de Velde's resignation from the directorship of the School of Arts and Crafts in 1914, suggests Weimar was no more ready for the works of Johann Dieter Wassmann then, than Leipzig was in 1898. His future rested in America.
Frederick Wassmann was overwhelmed at his serendipity. His family was less so. They had barely enough room to accommodate his 78-year-old mother, let alone 56 crates of bric-a-brac. Fortunately, the crates took some time to arrive. Unfortunately, the news only got worse in the time they took to land. What Frederick learned in the ensuing months was that the importation of art works from Europe involved massive Customs duties-levied at a rate of as much as 100% of the value of the work. The family was outraged that Frederick had placed himself in a situation that could well bankrupt them. His wife, Adolphina, demanded he wire Edward Liszt, asking him for money to cover whatever duty Customs might levy. This, he knew he could not do. If there was any chance Ilsabein might open or otherwise see the telegram, he would have broken his word to Edward.
His brothers were sympathetic, but could do little to help; his older brother, Henry, ran a small bistro on Pennsylvania Avenue; his younger brother, Dietrich, worked as a laborer. When word came in November of the shipment's arrival in the Port of Baltimore, it was Henry he approached for advice. Frederick at first argued they should abandon the shipment and be done with it, but Henry was wary; this would only raise suspicions, he cautioned. Tensions in Europe were on the rise and he was deeply concerned that 56 crates of an unknown nature, imported from Germany by a naturalized German, left on the docks unclaimed, would bring the family under the unwanted gaze of the federal government. Here, he was probably right.
Henry knew they would have to meet their fate, so on December 6, 1910, the three brothers made the short trip by train to Baltimore. One by one, the crates were pried open to the grand amusement of Customs officials. Who in their right mind, they asked, would have paid well over a thousand dollars to ship 56 crates of useless books, papers, manuscripts and peculiar wooden boxes-most of which were filled with shattered glass-across the high seas? Henry and Dietrich thought much the same thing. They were appalled at what they found and at what tumult Frederick had put them through for these endless crates of unintelligible flotsam and jetsam.
In the end, the shipment was decreed by Customs to be wholly without value, so only a nominal fee was levied. The brothers were, however, ordered to remove the shipment from the docks at once. This they had not expected; they had only intended to ascertain what duty was owed, returning at a later date, once the funds had been raised. The following morning, they secured a truck for cartage of the crates and themselves back to Washington, at the then exorbitant cost of $45. As they gloomily made their way along the rutted, muddy highway, through the first snow of the season, the decision was made to store the crates in the basement of Henry's bistro, where they could be stacked next to the coal bin. There the crates remained, largely untouched, for the next two decades.
The War Years
Until his death in 1941, Frederick never gave up hope that some permanent home might be found for his uncle's disparate writings and much maligned boxes. He repeatedly approached both the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but with the onset of war in Europe he made little headway. No publicly funded museum, he was told, would spend the considerable money it would take to catalogue, repair and then exhibit works by some obscure German sewerage engineer, while the Allies and later American boys were being mowed down in the trenches of Europe, by those same Germans.
Ironically, the first glimmer of hope appeared at the onset of the Depression. Henry's youngest son, Karl, had come to know something of the contents of these crates as a child, surreptitiously picking through the few he could get at. On winter nights he would eagerly volunteer to shovel coal into the furnace and boiler so he might linger afterward, playing with his favorite finds on the dirt floor. He often spoke fondly of Guardian Angel, 1888, Johann's whimsical bagatelle game.
By the time of the Great Crash, Karl was a Georgetown educated attorney, but was soon out of work and selling used automobiles; his wife Gladys was employed as the office manager of Gifford Pinchot, former (and first) Secretary of the Interior under Theodore Roosevelt. In 1930, Pinchot made the decision to return to his home state of Pennsylvania, to run for governor; he appealed to Gladys to move her young family (which included 4-year-old Karl, Jr., who 40 years later would become the first director of the Wassmann Foundation) to Harrisburg to join him. When Pinchot offered to pay for the family's relocation, Karl gingerly asked his Uncle Frederick if he might take the 56 crates with him; he knew his father would be joyous at the prospect of ridding himself of this burden. Frederick was disappointed to see them go, but pleased someone in the family had taken an interest, so he bid them farewell. Pinchot, however, questioned the large inventory he found on the family's shipping manifest. Reluctantly, Gladys showed him the works, but rather than balking at the expense, his interest was piqued. As one of the founding fathers of the American environmental movement, Pinchot was intrigued with the boxes from Johann's "Biedermeier" period, works such as Et in Arcadia Ego, 1887.
Pinchot spent many hours in Harrisburg in the early 1930s sorting through the crates with Gladys, Karl and Karl, Jr., but with the threat of yet another war against Germany looming on the horizon, Pinchot's political instincts overruled any aesthetic curiosity these works might have twigged. His interest flagged and the works were returned to storage, again next to a coal bin, for a further 30 years.
The Wassmann Foundation, Est.
After the death of Karl, Sr. in 1966, the fate of Johann Dieter Wassmann came to rest on the frail shoulders of his widow, Gladys. Despite limited assets, Gladys realized she could not simply pass along to the next generation the burden of storing 56 crates for a further 30 years. As such, she set aside a small amount of money in her will to establish The Wassmann Foundation, "dedicated to overseeing the scholarship, conservation, publication, exhibition, and promotion of the writings, personal archives and constructed works of Johann Dieter Wassmann." With her passing in 1969, the crates were returned to Washington, D.C. and finally opened, once and for all-many for the first time since 1910 when they were inspected by Customs officials.
The task was formidable and funds were few, so the early years of the Foundation-under the stewardship of Karl Wassmann, Jr.-were devoted solely to cataloguing the collection and conservation of those works most at risk. One by one, each piece was cleaned and documented, objects within them were re-secured according to Johann's extensive notes, and glass panes were cut and replaced, as few of the original sheets had survived. By 1989, this painstaking work was largely complete, allowing Karl Wassmann, Jr. to retire from the directorship, knowing his 20 years at the helm had made an invaluable contribution to our knowledge and appreciation of one of the most important, if little known, modernists of the 19th century.
Since 1989, the more ambitious directorship of Karl, Jr.'s son, Jeffrey Wassmann, has been dedicated to building on this knowledge base, while securing the financial viability of the Foundation. The critical success of the Centenary Exhibition in 1998 was largely to his credit, notwithstanding the regrettable publicity surrounding the show's operating losses and subsequent investigation. He and his remaining staff are currently undertaking the translation of Johann Dieter Wassmann's sizable catalogue of short stories. The publication of a volume of these works, scheduled for 2005, should add valuable insight into the thinking of this stand-alone pioneer. Under the guidance of the recently revamped Board of Trustees, the Foundation hopes to broaden its role in the years to come, with the aim of positioning itself as a pivotal institution dedicated to exploring the early roots of the modern movement.
Or maybe it won't; foundations come and go. Only great works stand the test of time. Long last, Johann, rest assured; your seminal efforts will receive their due. God bless your patience, Johann, your time is now. Sie kommen, Johann, sie kommen.