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photo of a  German men’s clothing store, circa 1930


“I am a camera,” runs the most famous line from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Set in the early 1930s, the years when Hitler rose to power, Isherwood’s fiction would yield, on stage and film, some of our most vivid images of Berlin on the brink of disaster: the abrasive decadence of Sally Bowles and Cabaret. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive,” pronounced the narrator, effacing himself in humble awareness that he just happened to be an accidental witness to the 20th century’s terrible turning point; that his role as an artist was to take literary photographs for the historical record.

During these same years, Siegbert Feldberg, a prosperous German lawyer and businessman in his early thirties, was completing his personal collection of self-portraits by contemporary German artists. Like Berlin Stories, this collection came to constitute a record of that fraught moment in history.

Feldberg assembled his gallery of some 70 self-portraits over the course of 10 years, adding the last painting to the collection in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Feldberg, who managed his family’s business in men’s clothing in the Baltic port of Stettin (now Szczecin, in Poland), originally began his collection with the eccentric notion of trading coats and suits from the business to struggling artists in Berlin in exchange for their self-portraits. He was generous in these exchanges, and he enjoyed friendly relations with some of the artists he patronized. As the collection developed, Feldberg also purchased self-portraits by some celebrated artists who certainly did not need to trade paintings for clothing. By the time Feldberg ceased collecting, he must have begun to realize that he had constructed something of historic significance as well as artistic value.

Last fall at BC’s McMullen Museum of Art, Feldberg’s vision was dramatically vindicated as, for the first time in the United States—and only the third time ever—the paintings from his collection went on public exhibit. Attracting national attention, the exhibit was also chosen by the Boston Globe as one of the city’s top 10 of 2002.

A few of the represented artists are famous—Käthe Kollwitz, Max Liebermann, and Oskar Kokoschka, for example—but most are less well known, and some would be completely unknown today were it not for the fact that they once traded a self-portrait to Siegbert Feldberg for a woolen suit or a warm winter coat. These were artists of the Weimar Republic, the interlude of democracy and cultural modernism that flourished briefly in Germany between the end of World War I and the ascendancy of Hitler.

The self-portraits are by no means photographic representations. Unnaturally vivid in their coloring, distorted in their physiognomy, many of them hold to the extreme emotional logic of expressionism. Yet standing in the museum, with the portraits ranged around me, I wondered whether Feldberg had some sense that he too was a camera; that he was documenting his moment for posterity: the collective visage of civilization on the verge of a historic breakdown.

These self-portraits, taken together with the artists’ life stories, suggest a cohort of emphatic individuals of dramatically different temperaments. Franz Heckendorf engages you directly with big dark eyes and serpentine lashes, all curves from his hairline to his chin, boldly dressed in red. He was a native Berliner, a bomber pilot for Germany during World War I: “The whim of the war sent me as a flyer towards the Balkans and the Orient, wonderlands of fullness of light and a fairytale richness of color, which my fantasy had long dreamed of.” He came out of World War I with his sense of artistic fantasy complicated and enriched, but his experience of World War II was very different: He spent two years in a concentration camp.

Even more violent in expression is the self-portrait of Gert Wollheim, glaring at you in a spirit of fierce alienation. The swirling lines of his face meet the wildly uncombed strands of his red hair, making his head into an electrical tangle of loose wiring. Wollheim painted his portrait in 1931, and left Berlin for Paris two years later when Hitler came to power. He had to go into hiding during the war, emigrated to America after it was over, and went on painting. He died in New York in 1974.

More whimsical is Heinrich Ehmsen, who shows himself armed with palette and paintbrush, dressed in the peppermint stripes of an unbuttoned red and white shirt. He isn’t looking at you at all; you see him in perfect profile while he stares intently at his model, who appears in the painting only as a reflection in the mirror behind him, sprawling plump and naked and perhaps asleep. Ehmsen fought for Germany in both world wars, but was sympathetic to communism already in the 1930s and died in East Berlin in 1964, a member of the communist East German Academy.

The most outrageous portrait in the collection shows Rudolf Schlichter, who, like many of Feldberg’s artists, was associated with the modernist movement in German art that exhibited under the banner of Sezession—secession from academic convention and bourgeois stuffiness. Schlichter’s values were volatile, taking him from communism and dada to conservative Catholicism, and he painted himself in the act of fiercely biting into a leafy green vegetable. His curvaceous red lips are parted, teeth bared, his ear dissolving into the washes of color that surround his contorted face and that frame his furious expression.

In spite of their different spirits and the varied trajectories of their lives, there was (aside from their relationship with Feldberg) at least one thing that Heckendorf, Wollheim, Ehmsen, and Schlichter all had in common: Each was condemned by the Nazis in the 1930s as a “degenerate” artist.

The Exhibition of Degenerate Art, which the Nazis mounted in Munich in 1937, was supposed to demonstrate to Germany and the world the kind of art that was no longer acceptable under Hitler. And many of the painters whose self-portraits had been solicited by Feldberg were among those denounced as degenerates. Their works were seized by the Nazis, stripped from museums and collections, and held up as objects of mockery and excoriation. Wollheim, for instance, had three paintings in the 1937 exhibition; Kokoschka had 12. The Kokoschka self-portrait that hung in the McMullen Museum was, in fact, a print, not a painting, and another print from that very same series had been displayed as degenerate art in Munich.

Hitler took a personal interest in the Munich exhibition, for, as is well known, he himself had wanted to study painting as a young man and was rejected by the Academy in Vienna. In Mein Kampf, written in the 1920s, he denounced dadaism and cubism as manifestations of spiritual degeneracy, and in his general incoherence he must have had German expressionism in mind when he condemned artists who “passed off all sorts of incomprehensible and obviously crazy stuff on their amazed fellow men as a so-called inner experience.” He still seemed to be smarting at the rejections of his youth when he railed against “the apostles of Bolshevistic art, who furiously attacked anyone who didn’t want to recognize the crown of creation in them and pilloried him as a backward philistine.”

It was around the time of Hitler’s election as German chancellor in January 1933 that Michel Fingesten, one of Feldberg’s artist friends, drew a title page for the collection portfolio, featuring a representative image of the German artist hanging by the neck with his palette in one hand and his paintbrush in the other. The brush is bleeding drops of blood. This was not just ironic self-deprecation or darkly humorous pessimism. At the end of that year Feldberg sent out a 1934 New Year’s card, with the figure of a tightrope walker and also a poem: “If you want things to go well for you on earth, / You’d better become a master on the tightrope.”

As a German Jew, Feldberg must have felt the tightrope beneath his feet swinging dangerously. He read Mein Kampf. In 1934 he emigrated to British India and settled in Bombay, where he worked as the sales representative for an Austrian automobile company. He left behind in Germany his wife Hilde, his two sons, Hans, eight, and Heinz, six, and his prized collection of self-portraits.

Many of the Feldberg artists painted themselves with paintbrush in hand, the badge of artistic identity. Others, however, preferred to depict themselves not in the act of painting, but smoking a cigarette or a pipe. They puffed in a cloud of nervous anxiety or inhaled in a spirit of intensely private preoccupation. On the BC campus there is no academic building that permits smoking nowadays, but in the McMullen Museum there was actually a corner set aside for the nicotine-addicted artists of the Weimar Republic, fiercely smoking their way through the 1930s.

Jan van Ripper is encircled by the painted ribbon of pale smoke that rises from his cigarette, the emblem of a smoldering sexuality of satanic intensity. The smoke provides a ghostly illumination of his visage with its sharp angles and flat planes. Beside him Walter Simsch pulls on a pipe, breathing in and looking inward, as the artist recedes into the aqueous currents of smoke and watercolor. Among all of the accounts of arrests, denunciations, deportations, survivals, suicides, and murders, the biographical data on these two men are perhaps the most moving in the collection. About Jan van Ripper with his eloquent cigarette there is no biographical information at all, and about Walter Simsch, with his brooding preoccupation, the exhibit text simply states, “Were it not for this self-portrait nothing would be known about this artist.”

We know only that these artists lived in the waning years of the Weimar Republic, that they were remarkably talented, that they crossed paths with Siegbert Feldberg, that they smoked. And then they vanished in the 20th-century apocalypse.

There was a portrait of Siegbert Feldberg himself in the Boston College exhibit, the work of Ernst Honigberger, much of whose art was destroyed, along with his studio, by an Allied air raid in 1943; Honigberger continued to live in Germany until his death in 1974, painting civic murals and altarpieces. In the portrait, Feldberg has a hooded gaze, a high forehead, and slightly puckering red lips. In a dark jacket and tie he looks dead serious, a man with many worries, but the nocturnal scene is radiantly illuminated by a flash of lightning, weirdly green, exploding behind Feldberg’s head. It is a portrait that suggests a certain mystery of personality, as Honigberger the artist studied Feldberg the collector.

“My grandparents liked order and structure,” commented Georgina Feldberg, the granddaughter of Siegbert and Hilde Feldberg. A social historian of women and health, Georgina Feldberg was speaking with me in Cambridge, Massachusetts, some 70 years after her grandfather left Berlin, and 30 years after his death. She remembers his formality, his sense of occasion, his readiness to entertain his family in celebratory fashion. “He was not a bohemian,” she remarked emphatically. “He was a member of the bourgeoisie.”

The art world of Weimar Berlin in the 1930s was, however, intensely bohemian, just as Isherwood described the self-consciously outrageous cabaret world of Sally Bowles. Bristling with extreme ideological perspectives and radical cultural undertakings, notorious for its seedy sexual underworld, this was the city where Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill created The Threepenny Opera in 1928, making a charismatic criminal hero out of Mack the Knife.

Siegbert Feldberg, as a friend and patron of artists, was very close to this bohemian world, and yet, as his portrait suggests, and as his granddaughter confirms, he could not have been fully a part of it. The mysterious green light that illuminates his tense reserve in Honigberger’s portrait seems to suggest something of the bourgeois spirit that separated him from the artists in his collection, and, at the same time, the inner impulse that attracted him to them, their world, and their work.

Georgina Feldberg remembers her grandfather visiting her family in New York City during her childhood, and remembers the attentive formality with which he would dress for an evening out in the city with old friends—artist friends from the vanished world of Weimar Berlin. He might have been meeting Gert Wollheim, who was living in New York at that time.

Feldberg, after 1934, tried to create a new life for himself in India, hoping to establish himself in business and then send for his wife and children. They very nearly waited too long. Hilde Feldberg, in Berlin, eventually received a warning call, from an employee of the Feldberg business, who told her, “If you ever want to see your husband again, get out now.”

Photo of Siegbert and Hilde FeldbergSo, in 1939, six months before the outbreak of the war, she left Germany by train with both boys, now 13 and 11, and with all the self-portraits packed up in an oversized crate. On the train she made the friendly acquaintance of a Nazi officer, and his company proved invaluable to her in escaping scrutiny when the time came to cross the border. For she was not only bringing her Jewish family out of Germany, but was also traveling with paintings by artists who had been publicly denounced as degenerates. Given the risk, Hilde Feldberg—and her husband in India—must have wanted desperately to preserve the collection.

Their oldest son, Hans, now a retired chemist and businessman living in Florida, was on the train out of Germany with his mother and brother in 1939, and he was also at Boston College last October for the crowded opening of the exhibition. “It is so nice to see so many old friends,” he said to me with emotion. He meant the paintings, of course, and he was remembering them from his childhood in Germany and in India. His conversation moved somewhat hesitantly between English and German, for these old friends clearly called up German memories. I asked him whether there were any particular favorites that he remembered from his childhood. “The one-eyed man,” he replied with little hesitation, and he looked around the gallery to locate the self-portrait of the artist Ludwig Meidner.

Bending with brush in hand, Meidner has only a single seeing eye. That eye seems to unbalance the painting, tilting the subject to one side, while the other blank eye dissolves into the splashes of paint that form Meidner’s unsmiling face. Wearing a Jewish skullcap, the one-eyed artist has the air of a fairy-tale figure who might well be especially memorable to a child.

Ironically, Siegbert Feldberg was interned by the British government in India at the outbreak of World War II as a German citizen. Eventually he served in the British army and gained British citizenship. After the war, and after Indian independence, Feldberg moved to Karachi, Pakistan, where he worked for a German company while Hilde directed a classical music program on Pakistani radio featuring German music. In the 1960s, they returned to Europe and settled in Lugano, in Italian Switzerland. Siegbert Feldberg died in 1971 in Heidelberg, Germany, on his way to Berlin to visit old friends, and in 1976 his widow sold the collection of self-portraits to a museum in Berlin.

“I have looked after my collection of 70 self-portraits and preserved it as a whole throughout all the difficulties,” Feldberg once wrote. “Although I have often had attractive offers for individual self-portraits, I have always turned them down since I believe that the complete, undivided collection will one day find a dignified home in a museum, in either East or West Berlin.”

photo of Hilde with sons Hans (left) and Heinz, circa 1933Georgina Feldberg told me that her grandfather, in spite of having been forced to flee for his life from Nazi Germany, spoke only positively about Berlin when he recalled that earlier era of his life. Yet she thinks her grandfather would have found it unbearable to live in Berlin when he returned to Europe after the war, and therefore chose nearby Switzerland, where she can remember visiting museums with her grandparents during her childhood. When Hilde Feldberg decided that she needed to sell the paintings after her husband’s death, her son Hans opposed the choice of a museum in Germany, and argued for an American museum as a more suitable home for the collection. According to Georgina Feldberg, her grandmother, like her grandfather, believed that the collection belonged in Germany, that it was an important part of German history.

It is hardly surprising that the Feldbergs should have had mixed feelings about Germany and German history in the aftermath of the Nazi horrors. More surprising, perhaps, is that the German art world has not responded with greater attention to the artistic value of the collection. Though the paintings have been in Berlin for 25 years now, they have never received there the sort of comprehensive exhibition that took place at Boston College.

“I am a camera,” wrote Isherwood. “Someday all this will have to be developed.” Photographic memories of 1930s Germany are still being developed to this day, whether by historians in archives or curators in museums. The word “camera” also means “chamber,” and, in the history of artistic patronage, collections were famously kept in the “camera” of the collector. Collections can be very personal and sometimes mysterious, reflecting not only the taste but also the deepest inner impulses of the man, woman, or child who collects. Siegbert Feldberg collected German self-portraits. His son Heinz collected Inuit sculpture.

Feldberg never offered an explanation of why he collected self-portraits. “My grandfather was very interested in the portrayal of self,” Georgina Feldberg told me. He also kept a huge family photo collection, arranged in albums. I thought of Feldberg’s sense of self and family, in Cambridge, as I watched 16-month-old Susanna at play, Siegbert Feldberg’s great-granddaughter, who will grow up in the 21st century.

Self-portraiture, more than any other artistic form, expresses the complexity of human identity, of how we see ourselves. The art historian Joseph Koerner sees the self-portrait, dating from Albrecht Dürer, as the artistic genre that defined the modern sense of self, of Renaissance individualism, 500 years ago.

Every self-portrait since has depended upon one simple piece of technology: a mirror. To paint a self-portrait the artist must look into the mirror and then try, brush in hand, to represent the reflection. Yet, as we all know, there are moments when we catch ourselves by surprise in the mirror, and hardly recognize the alien figure reflected there. Feldberg’s collection is a hall of tilted mirrors, a gallery of distorted reflections, a chamber of unbalanced selves, from a historical moment of tremendous artistic energy and profound social crisis.

In November 2001, two months after the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center towers, there opened in Manhattan a brand-new museum, the Neue Galerie, in a handsome mansion on Fifth Avenue, dedicated to Austrian and German art of the early 20th century, including the paintings of Weimar Berlin. When I visited the Neue Galerie, the stately rooms were jammed with New Yorkers admiring the masters of the Sezession, and experiencing, for an afternoon, the thrill of modern German culture before the advent of Hitler.

What is it that makes the Weimar moment, the world of Cabaret, so exceptionally interesting to us? It’s not just an infatuation with what Sally Bowles called “divine decadence,” but some recognition of the real vitality in a culture that was nevertheless doomed to the supreme vandalism of Nazi terror. The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross recently remarked, “If I could travel to any time and place in the musical past, it would be to the Berlin of 1928.” He was thinking of The Threepenny Opera, but a film critic might have said the same thing about Berlin in 1930, when Josef von Sternberg directed The Blue Angel, introducing the screen goddess Marlene Dietrich in a celluloid haze of swirling sexuality. Yet Berlin, in those very years of creative excitement, was already on the verge of becoming not the capital of music and cinema, but the capital of mass murder and political terror.

The visitors to the Neue Galerie in New York were, I suppose, partly compelled by the imaginative potency of German culture—all the more brilliant for its unnerving intimations of impending collapse. In the autumn of 2001, New Yorkers could well appreciate such precariousness and vulnerability.

If you could escape from the present moment by stepping through the looking glass, and could travel to any extraordinary place in the artistic past, you might not choose Berlin in 1928. After all, you would know what was coming in 1933. The survival of Feldberg’s collection of self-portraits brings the art world of Weimar Berlin into our own times, and permits us to see the face of the 20th century as German artists saw it when they looked into their mirrors, not knowing what was coming next.

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Larry Wolff is a professor of history at Boston College. His book Venice and the Slavs: The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment was published in 2001. His essay on libraries as civilizations, “Shelf Life,” appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of BCM. The exhibit Reclaiming a Lost Generation: German Self-Portraits from the Feldberg Collection, 1923­33 was featured at the McMullen Museum from October 6 through December 8, 2002.

Photos (from top):

A German men’s clothing store, circa 1930, from the Feldberg family album. The identities of the men are no longer known for certain, but the second from left is thought to be Siegbert Feldberg. Courtesy of Georgina Feldberg

Siegbert and Hilde Feldberg, circa 1930. Courtesy of Georgina Feldberg

Hilde with sons Hans (left) and Heinz, circa 1933, a year before Siegbert escaped from Germany. Hilde and the boys fled in 1939, smuggling 70 banned paintings with them. Courtesy of Georgina Feldberg

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