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October 2000

Hide and Seek

It's not hard to find the social commentary planted in the works of Thomas Theodor Heine

Thomas Theodor Heine (1867-1948) is best known as a cartoonist for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, which he co-founded in 1896 and, for almost four decades, supplied with a wealth of sharp-witted cartoons and drawings. Even though the title of the fascinating retrospective at the Lenbachhaus, “Der Biss des Simplicissimus,” refers to his biting satire in this notorious weekly, the exhibition shows that Heine was a much more versatile artist and complex character than is generally known.
“Heine stands between the aggression of the bulldog and the sensitivity and friendliness of the pug,” says the show’s curator, Thomas Raff. What sounds like a most unusual characterization is confirmed when visitors to the exhibition discover that Heine not only conceived the Simplicissimus icon, the menacing red bulldog, but also kept and drew pugs, which he considered to be the embodiment of everything philistine. The man with this surprising penchant for an idyllic private life amidst Biedermeier snugness was known, on the other hand, for relentlessly deriding narrow-mindedness in his wicked cartoons. Military or clergy, aristocracy or bourgeoisie — nobody was safe from his attacks, not even the Emperor. Ridiculing Emperor Wilhelm II’s egotism in a cartoon of 1898, Heine earned himself six months in prison for lèse-majesté, which contributed considerably to his fame.
He was feared and admired as a satirist, but what he really dreamed of was being recognized as a proper artist. It was a career he had pursued diligently as a young man, attending the Art Academy in Düsseldorf and later executed plein air studies in the countryside around Munich. Curator Raff managed to bring together some 50 paintings by Heine, most of them privately owned and not publicly exhibited for the last six decades. This broad selection of paintings introduces an ever-neglected and almost forgotten side of Heine.
It becomes clear why, as a young painter, he was praised enthusiastically by critics and colleagues, such as Lovis Corinth, who commented, “Intelligence and talent are equally strong in him; he can do anything he wants.” This perspicacious remark, intended purely as a compliment, might indeed explain why the talented artist became famous not as Heine the painter but as Heine the cartoonist. He could do anything, and he tried everything, changing seemingly effortlessly from one artistic style to the next and never finding his own signature. From light-filled landscapes in the tradition of the French Impressionists to kitschy, only semi-serious symbolist paintings in which he mused about the war of the sexes, he experimented with the most disparate styles, including Biedermeier, Art Nouveau, Neo-classicism and Neue Sachlichkeit. Many of the paintings recall drawings, enlarged and transferred on canvas, while the tongue-in-cheek sweetness of some of the symbolist paintings reveals both Heine’s romantic and cynical side.Working for the Simplicissimus gave him great artistic freedom — he could draw in different styles, use his talent as a writer to come up with clever captions and express his strong opinions by criticizing the state of society, politics and morals.
Nevertheless, as the various rooms of the exhibition show, Heine worked in other fields as well. He excelled as a poster artist and belonged to the first generation of book jacket designers in Germany. Occasionally he tried his hand at sculpting — the retrospective wouldn’t be complete without Heine’s famous devil statue — and even furniture and stage design.
His Jewish heritage and overt anti-fascism led to Heine being forced into exile by the Nazis when they came to power in 1933. In chilling letters the exhibition documents how the Simplicissimus editorial staff quickly got rid of their most famous and most troublesome colleague in order to save the magazine. Fleeing the advance of the Nazis, Heine spent the last 15 years of his life in exile in Czechoslovakia, Norway and Sweden, publishing anti-Nazi cartoons in Scandinavian newspapers, but largely forgotten in Germany. Arranged both thematically and historically, the retrospective follows Heine’s turbulent life, focusing especially on lesser-known aspects. It succeeds in casting a fresh look at this enigmatic artist who was caught in the crossfire of politics, both in the Wilhelminian empire and in the Third Reich and whose conflicting personality was clearly misunderstood by many.

“Thomas Theodor Heine: Der Biss des Simplicissimus”, at the Lenbachhaus until November 26. On October 10 and 24 at 19:00, Joachim Höppner will read from Heine’s autobiographical novel, Ich warte auf Wunder, and other writings.

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