Christian Drobe

The resilience of inconspicuous things? Rudolf Wacker and the memory of the First World War

Christian Drobe

The resilience of inconspicuous things? Rudolf Wacker and the memory of the First World War

This was originally a paper held at the Austrian Studies Association Conference (2022) and now slightly expanded and changed for the Blog.

How does one recover after five years as a prisoner of war in Siberia?How do you find your way in Austria after 1918 or 1920, not only a shrunken version of the former Habsburg empire, but also in poor condition and supply after the war? Where does one find hope in the bleak everyday life after the war?

These are not easy questions in view of the many activities Wacker turned to after coming back from Siberia. Benefiting from the support of his family in the Austrian province Vorarlberg he managed to finance his travels and extended stays in Berlin. In the bustling metropolis, he sought success as an artist and also found distraction in the artistic circles. Yet, memories of the war were always present, despite or precisely because he never addressed the events directly in his art.

Fig. 1: Rudolf Wacker, Self-Portrait, 1918, pencil on paper, 20 x 14,3 cm

Unlike many other artists such as Otto Dix (1891-1969) or Max Beckmann (1884-1950), who depicted the horrors of war, he found other coping strategies. Therefore, an often-overlooked aspect of his aesthetics will be the focus here. It is the praise of inconspicuous things, the joy of everyday objects, of nature, the world of flowers and the garden, which Wacker formulates in the wake of Romanticism and other influences. These aspects appear in his diaries and are visible mostly in his landscapes and still lifes, but it pervades his entire oeuvre. How he came to terms with the war period after his return in 1920, how he remembered the war and how he recovered, will be the focus of the article following a brief biographical overview. 

Rudolf Wacker 

Wacker was born in 1893 in Bregenz in Vorarlberg, the westernmost province of Austria. He strongly oriented himself to the German art world. In his landscapes, portraits and still lifes, he analysed his close surroundings in Austria utilizing a razor-sharp realism. He took drawing lessons at an early age at his local school and later studied in Vienna. When the Tyrolean painter Albin Egger-Lienz (1868-1926) became a professor at the art academy in Weimar in 1911, Wacker followed him and studied with him until 1914. However, he soon distanced himself from his teacher, whom he accused of an opposition to modern art. In 1913, Wacker began to write a diary in which he critically commented on his experiences as an artist.¹ Soon after the beginning of the First World War, he enlisted for military service. In 1915, he fell into Russian captivity in Poland and spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Tomsk in Siberia – a formative time for him. The war interrupted Wacker’s youth and his development as an artist. As a graduate of an art academy, Wacker ended up in a rather comfortable officers‘ camp and could spend his time with creative work. Yet, he only found his way back to art after some time of struggle. The landscapes, the alien feel of the region and the lively exchange with other prisoners and local Russian officials helped him pick up his artistic production.² After returning from captivity, he lived alternately in Bregenz and Berlin from 1921 to 1924. He was very much aware of current discussions in the German art scene and tried to position himself, debates that revolved around the search for a new style of art. Around 1923, having focused mostly on drawing in a broadly Expressionist vein in the POW camp, Wacker began painting and choosing an idiom closer to that of German New Objectivity, of which he is regarded today as the main representative in Austria. New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) was a neologism created by the museum director Gustav F. Hartlaub (1884-1963), who used it in response to realist trends in German art after 1918 and presented them in a major exhibition in Mannheim in 1925.

Fig. 2: Rudolf Wacker, The Window, 1931, oil on wood, 91 x 106 cm, Vorarlberger Landesmuseum. Source Wikimedia

The sober style was also seen as a sign of stabilisation in the country. Wacker saw only moderate success as an artist in Germany or Austria, and if so, it was mostly bound to his home region Bregenz and around Lake Constanz. He had to keep his head above water as a drawing teacher and by selling flower still lifes and simple landscapes. He remained as an engaged intellectual and repeatedly studied Marxism, and professed his support for the peace movement. With the rise of National Socialism, his political pronouncements became increasingly critical.³ He gained late success as an exhibitor in the Austrian pavilion at the 1934 Venice Biennale, but this did not lead to a professorship in at the Art Academy in Vienna, as he had hoped. That honour was awarded instead to the painter Herbert Boeckl (1894-1966). Wacker later openly criticised the Degenerate Art exhibition staged by the Nazi regime in Munich in 1937. After the Anschluss in 1938, events came to a head. Following a house search and interrogation by the Gestapo, Wacker suffered two heart attacks and died shortly afterwards in 1939. An eventful and also troubled life came to a sudden end. 

Memories of the Great War 

 

The time in the prisoner-of-war camp was a formative period for Wacker. After the war, he often visited his comrades from Siberia. The memory of the war accompanied him throughout the 1920s, often triggered by his reading. He writes in his diary on 27 January 1925: 

I have read The Fire, Henry Barbusse. The whole war is in this book. The comradeship of the men, the hardship and humiliation of the soldier, the humanity and bestiality of the fighters, the nonsense and horror of war. Everything! It stirs everything up again and it is so true, so convincing, that every man would have to say „never again! […]4

Like many in the 1920s, he read one of the great novels about the First World War, Le Feu (The Fire, 1916) by the French novelist Henri Barbusse (1873-1935). The novel caused a stir for its critical perspective on war, and later triggered the founding of the pacifist Clarté movement in 1919, which was supported by Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) among others.5

 Barbusse’s book awakened Wacker’s memories of his time during the war. It reminds him of the camaraderie, but above all the unimaginable horrors, and so he embraces the pacifist message fully. Yet, this was followed by more reflections on the topic. In the same entry of the diary, Wacker excerpts a passage from a letter by Franz Marc (1880-1916), the German artist who died in war. It reads as follows:

I saw the image that refracts in the eyes of the moorhen when it submerges: the thousand rings that frame each little life, the blue of the whispering sky that the lake drinks, the rapturous emergence in another place – realise, my friends, what images are: the emergence in another place.6

 

Seven months later, on 3 August 1925, Wacker wrote about ‘Van Gogh’s Verism’, thus using a term that applies to artists such as Otto Dix and New Objectivity, but here means the literal search for the truth. There, in the face of a Van Gogh exhibition, he says succinctly: ‘Pictures in which the objects are of that frightening thing-ness [Dinglichkeit, underlining by Wacker] which has something mystical about it.’7

Wacker refers to a magical realism in his role model Van Gogh, perhaps the right way to figuratively translate what Franz Marc said. Magical Realism was another term associated with New Objectivity, precisely describing this uncanny liveliness of the simplest everyday objects. Then, on 8 September 1925, Wacker reports from his visit to the great International Art Exhibition in Zurich, where he saw paintings by Otto Dix, whom he always admired. Dix’ direct confrontations with the war reminded him again of his own fate. The Trench (Schützengraben, 1925, now lost) made a huge impression on him, one of Dix’ major works of the time, and Wacker defends the paintings in his diaries against the waves of criticism it received. Following Barbusse, Wacker describes the realism of Dix’ depiction, the ‘Verism’, as something that unfolds true meaning and is not a mere drastic view of the fighting.

The split heads with brains hanging out, coagulated blood, bone splinters, barbed wires, the smell of corpses literally rising, this indictment must have more effect than all the peace speeches of the pacifists, Wacker argues. Yet, the exhibition again provided him with a moment of relief. Wacker reports that he saw another painting: ‘His daughter from the year 24, a blond child in a red dress surrounded by flowers! A cheerful picture reminiscent of Runge. After all the horror of war and post-war times, like a beginning to a new fresh life, self-deprecatingly built up cheerfully on a small untouched spot.’8

It is this optimism that Wacker carries into nature and wants to elicit from the little things. During this period, Dix produced portraits of his daughter Nelly that are strongly reminiscent of Romanticism. Wacker’s reference to the German painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) fits and also points at the same time to a strong adherent of pantheism in art. After the depiction of the trenches, then, Dix’ innocent child and the flowers granted Wacker respite. 

The joy of inconspicuous things 

 

 

The memory of the war and the time as a prisoner followed him throughout the interwar period. On 16 January 1930, Wacker again remembered the war years in his diary and thereby recorded a central aspect of his aesthetic under the heading ’In Praise of the Inconspicuous’. It reads as follows: 

I remember how, at the beginning of the war, we often clung to the very small things. How much comfort the glitter of a drop of dew on a blade of grass gave us in the mechanical life of the parade ground, or the sight of a beetle at the front in the midst of all the inhumanity. – We have long pondered the connections of world events – but again we return to the life of inconspicuous things, it does our eyes, our soul so much good. We find a reality of rich order, much beauty and a wondrous permanence in them. 9

More than ten years after the end of the war, Wacker still remembers the time and what made the war bearable. The political events remained incomprehensible to them at the time; healing was promised only by the realm of nature. Many soldiers in the First World War looked for something to cope with the horrors. This also included an interest in nature, not only as an artist but for example in dilettante biology or natural history. Starting leaf or beetle collections was part of many activities during the war which later turned into habits and interests in the post-war period. In 1931, Wacker thematised a simple collection of things from everyday life in a still life (fig. 2). The paintings shows sprats in front of a box, a lemon, an orange, a large spring onion and a pan – all seemingly essential things of life. This simplicity, which is present in the section of his diaries, is shown in some of his still lifes, which are about nourishment and basic provisioning, yet also praise the inconspicuous – which saved him through the war years. One of his later still lifes showed a device for measuring and keeping beetles, a small plant, a tube of glue and a tear-off calendar symbolising the constant study of objects. Two weeks before this letter, shortly after the turn of the year 1930, he writes: 

I read Dwinger’s „The Army Behind Barbed Wire“ during the holidays. At this time of the year, thoughts of my childhood are joined by memories of Siberia. – I read until morning and drank schnapps with it. A book cannot contain everything, but this one contains almost all the essentials of our experience in 1915-18 – and what is there is true and genuine. I would like it to be read as much as Remarque’s ‚Nothing New in the West‘ – for surely the war is even more terrible here.10

Edwin Erich Dwinger (1898-1981) is a German writer who, like Wacker, was also imprisoned in a POW camp in Siberia and recorded his experiences in a trilogy of books. Wacker read the first volume of the trilogy, published in 1929.

Fig. 3: Rudolf Wacker, Still Life with Sprats, 1931. Source: Wikimedia

As literary historians have shown, a broad recollection of the First World War took place during this period in the late 1920s, starting with writers such as Ludwig Renn (1889-1979) and Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970).11

 Wacker again recalls his experiences in the war by reading Dwinger’s, which then triggered the described reflection on the aesthetics of inconspicuous things two weeks later. This constant back and forth between remembrance and relief was an essential part of his coping strategy. For artists who did not explicitly depict war scenes, this strategy of coping in silence is still little explored. 

If Wacker is thus following a general strand in the late 1920s, the recollection of the war, his work was linked with nature and inconspicuous things since the days in Siberia. His drawings from the prison camp in Tomsk are characteristic of this interest, and of his expressionist style. The drawing style, working with billowing lines, captures not only his volatile ego, but also the picturesque sunflowers in the camp (and trees in the surrounding area and landscapes). After his return from captivity in 1920, he continued in this style, setting the stage for a new beginning in Berlin. Yet, he never directly addresses the war and violence like Otto Dix or many others. In this way, Wacker is close to other artists in Austria after the war, such as Anton Kolig (1886-1950) or Fritz Schwarz-Waldegg (1889-1942), who often expressed inner feelings rather than thematizing the war directly. These differences in depicting the war can only be touched upon briefly here, as Wacker preferred to move his struggles into his diary. 

Many years lie between the young student Wacker, who sketched in nature, and the renowned artist of the mid-1920s. In the meantime, he has been able to establish himself as an artist, albeit mostly on a modest level, with occasional sales in his hometown of Bregenz, not in Berlin. Nevertheless, he feels himself to be an accepted, middle-class artist. He liked to present himself in a Russian shirt, which was reminiscent of his time in Siberia. Classic still lifes continue to alternate with landscapes or flower bouquets, which Wacker has to sell to keep his head above water. The pleasing landscape paintings depicted life in the provinces, the Bregenz hinterland on Lake Constance. The once sharp and sober New Objectivity had turned to uncritical tranquillity latest in the 1930s. The inconspicuous things have not become a grand critical theory, just a way of dealing with oneself and one’s own stuff in the garden. Wacker withdrew, even if he remained a critical reader and diarist. The truth of things in his paintings, their ‘Verism’, saved him from the horrors of the world. Finally in the 1930s, the mushroom picker Wacker follows nature as a devote mushroom picker with his dog Seppl. 

Fig. 4: Edwin Erich Dwinger, The Army behind barbed wire. Siberian Diary (Jena, Eugen Diedrichs Verlag 1929). Source: Wikimedia.

The cover image: Rudolf Wacker, Landscape of Lake Constance, 1928, oil on cardboard, 50 x 65 cm 

  1. Rudolf Wacker, Tagebücher 1913-1939 (Vaduz: Topos Verlag 1990).
  2. Andreas Rudigier, Jürgen Thaler (eds), Wacker im Krieg. Erfahrungen eines Künstlers (Salzburg: Residenz Verlag 2018).
  3. Elio Krivdić, Künstlerschicksale: Artur Nikodem, Rudolf Wacker, Johannes Troyer, Alfons Walde und Leo Putz. Fünf Ausnahmesituationen, in Wolfgang Meighörner (ed.), Zwischen Ideologie, Anpassung und Verfolgung. Kunst und Nationalsozialismus in Tirol (Innsbruck: Tiroler Landesmuseen 2018), pp. 296-308.
  4. ‘Ich habe das Feuer, Henry Barbusse gelesen. In diesem Buch ist der ganze Krieg. Die Kameradschaft der Männer, die Not u. Erniedrigung des Soldaten, die Menschlichkeit u. die Bestialität der Kämpfenden, das Unsinnige u. Scheußliche des Krieges. Alles alles! Es wühlt alles wieder auf und es ist so wahr, auch so überzeugend, daß darnach jeder Mensch sagen müßte „nie wieder!“ […]’, Wacker, Tagebücher, Vol. 2., p. 433.
  5. Nicole Racine, The Clarté Movement in France, 1919-21, in Walter Laqueur, George L. Mosse (eds), Literature and Politics in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper Row 1967), pp. 187-200.
  6. ‘Ich sah das Bild, das in den Augen des Teichhuhns sich bricht, wenn es untertaucht: die tausend Ringe, die jedes kleine Leben einfassen, das Blau des flüsternden Himmel, das der See trinkt, das verzückte Auftauchen an einem anderen Ort – erkennt, meine Freunde, was Bilder sind: das Auftauchen an einem anderen Ort.‘ Wacker, Tagebücher, Vol. 2, p. 433-434.
  7. ‘Bilder auf denen die Gegenstände von jener erschreckenden Dinglichkeit sind, die etwas Mystisches hat.‘ Wacker, Tagebücher, Vol. 2, p. 442.
  8. Wacker, Tagebücher, Vol. 2, p. 451.
  9. ‘Ich erinnere mich wie wir uns zu Kriegsbeginn oft an die ganz kleinen Dinge geklammert haben. Wie viel Trost das Glitzern eines Tautropfens an einem Grashalm in dem maschinellen Leben des Exerzierplatzes gab oder an der Front mitten in aller Unmenschlichkeit der Anblick eines Käfers. – Wir haben lange den Zusammenhängen des Weltgeschehens nachgegrübelt – aber wieder kehren wir zurück zu dem Leben der unscheinbaren Dinge, es tut unsern Augen, unserer Seele so wohl. Wir finden eine Wirklichkeit von reicher Ordnung, vieler Schönheit und einer wundersamen Beständigkeit in ihnen. – ‘, Wacker, Tagebücher, Vol. 2, p. 577.
  10. ‘Ich habe an den Festtagen Dwinger „Die Armee hinter Stacheldraht“ gelesen. Es hat sich eingeführt, daß sich mir um diese Zeit zu den Gedanken an die Kindheit die Erinnerung an Sibirien gesellt. – Ich habe bis gegen Morgen gelesen und Schnaps dazu getrunken. Ein Buch kann nicht alles enthalten, dieses enthält fast alles Wesentliche unsres Erlebnisses von 1915-18 – und was da ist, das ist wahr u. echt. Ich möchte dass es so viel gelesen würde als Remarques Im Westen nichts Neues – denn sicher ist hier der Krieg noch scheußlicher.‘ Wacker Tagebuch, Bd. 2, p. 576.
  11. Hans-Harald Müller: Der Krieg und die Schriftsteller. Der Kriegsroman der Weimarer Republik, Stuttgart 1986.