In Search of Hans Baluschek

Mark Hobbs on the life and legacy of Berlin artist Hans Baluschek…


On a fine and warm summer’s morning I headed to Schöneberg, a well-to-do suburban neighbourhood to the southwest of the city centre, in search of the Berlin artist Hans Baluschek (1870-1935). Disembarking from the train at Innsbrucker Platz I took a short walk to the Ceciliengärten, a Weimar-era housing estate comprised of four-storey apartment blocks ranged around a narrow tree-lined park.

Hans Baluschek, self-portrait, 1918. Public domain/Wikimedia.

It was quiet, and I marvelled—as I always do—at the preponderance of trees in this city; how they line most streets, providing protection from the heat of the sun and adding colour and life to the scenery, with their vivid scents of pollen and the incessant chirping of sparrows. I walked a circuit around the Ceciliengärten. I knew what I was looking for, but hadn’t found it yet, and who in their right mind would be in a hurry on a glorious day such as this?

Finally I caught a glimpse of what I’d come to see: a clay plaque on the wall above my head, depicting a cobbled street scene in which an elderly woman talks to a younger woman with a young child clambering over her shoulders. Alongside the picture there was a caption. It read: “Here lived, painted, drew and wrote: Hans Baluschek, 1929–1933.” 

I knew that Baluschek lived on this estate, in an apartment given to him by Berlin’s government in recognition of his services to the city, but until now I had not known the specific dates. Knowing that Baluschek died in 1935 at the age of sixty-five, I wondered why the elderly artist didn’t live here until his death. But then again 1933 is an ominous year in German history, marking as it does Hitler’s accession to power. What happened to Baluschek in those final years of his life? To find the answer I needed to go back to the artist’s earliest years.

Baluschek was born in Breslau (Wroclaw) in 1870. Back then, Breslau was part of Prussia, now it lies in Poland. Baluschek’s father was a civil servant and supporter of the German Social Democratic Party, which had been founded in 1863. In 1876 Baluschek’s father took up a post in the civil service and moved his family to Berlin. According to Friedrich Wendel, Baluschek’s first biographer, two experiences in young Baluschek’s formative years bore an influence on his later art. First, he saw much of the city’s working-class quarters and factories at close-hand while accompanying his father on his professional errands. Second, Baluschek was profoundly affected by Zola’s novels: Germinal and L’Œuvre in particular, both of which were published in the 1880s.

Baluschek’s formative years coincided with the period of Berlin’s most intensive industrial urban development, when corporate giants such as the electrical engineering firms Siemens and AEG were rapidly expanding. At the time the Baluschek family was living in Schöneberg, close by to one of the city’s emerging new tenement districts known as the Rote Insel, or Red Island.

The Rote Insel was so called because it was surrounded on all sides by railways lines, and because of its inhabitants’ Social-Democratic leanings, creating a proletarian neighbourhood in the midst of a largely middle-class district. At the heart of this new neighbourhood lay Sedanstraße, now called Leberstraße, a long and straight street of uniform tenements. Construction activity along Sedanstraße ebbed and flowed through the 1870s to the 1900s, as the German economy went through a succession of crises quickly followed by building booms. So, for many years Sedanstraße existed as a mix of isolated tenement buildings and empty building plots.

Hans Baluschek, Neue Häuser, 1895. Copyright: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin

Baluschek’s watercolour sketch Neue Häuser (New Houses), painted in 1895, depicts a long straight street on which a handful of tenement blocks stand amidst an otherwise empty and muddy landscape. Now, Baluschek did not specify the street’s name in Neue Häuser, but it is tempting to think that he had Sedanstraße in mind when he drew it. And here lies the art historian’s dilemma when it comes to understanding and interpreting Baluschek’s works. Almost without exception Baluschek’s art depicts the city of Berlin and its inhabitants. And yet it is rarely possible to state with confidence what and where Baluschek is painting.

Take as another example the Schöneberg gasometer, one of the district’s most dominant topographic features that continues to tower over the rooftops of the neighbourhood today. It repeatedly appears in Baluschek’s art, offering us a tantalising sense of being able to situate a work. But it is rarely possible to pin down. So, when we see the gasometer in Baluschek’s art, are we looking at a representation of Schöneberg, or an idealised image of the city? “I am no photographer,” Baluschek once claimed. Instead, he constructed his drawings and paintings from a toolbox of ideal types, stowed away in his mind: a repository of tenement blocks, street lights, railway line signals and locomotives, gasometers, of workers, prostitutes, the unemployed masses, and children.

So where should we go to find Baluschek in Berlin? A different approach is required. We might start at the Akademischen Hochschule für die bildenden Künste (University of Fine Arts), which Baluschek attended at the age of nineteen. It still exists as the University of the Arts on Hardenbergstraße in Charlottenburg. Here, Baluschek pursued his interest in Berlin’s new industrial districts and their inhabitants, cultivating his own distinct brand of critical urban realism that owed much to the literary descriptions of Zola’s novels. But in spite of his obvious talents, Baluschek’s choice of subject matter ensured that opportunities were limited for him in the thin air of academicism that still circulated around Berlin’s artistic institutions. 

Hans Baluschek’s Großstadtbahnhof, 1904. Image via Wikicommons.

The journey to find Baluschek continues on Fasanenstraße where, in 1898, a the group of artists including Baluschek, Max Liebermann and Franz Skarbina, founded the Berliner Secession, an art group that enabled them to circumvent the academic salon system. Baluschek joined the Secession at its inception and participated in the group’s first exhibition in Charlottenburg in 1899. At number 208 on Kurfürstendamm, a plaque announces that here stood the Secession’s second exhibition space between the years 1905 and 1914, where Baluschek exhibited works that displayed increasing ambition.

In 1907 he exhibited his first large oil painting Sonntag auf dem Tempelhofer Feld (Sunday on the Tempelhof Fields)—a huge canvas, now lost, depicting Berliners enjoying their Sunday on one of Berlin’s many green spaces. The Tempelhofer Feld lay quite close to the Rote Insel in Schöneberg, and was used by the city’s working classes as a leisure space. Between 1923 and 2008 the fields were part of Tempelhof airport, before being returned to the city’s population as a leisure space.

Sunday at Tempelhof Field by Hans Baluschek, 1907. Image via Wikicommons.

Another large-scale work exhibited at the Berliner Secession exhibition in 1909 is Sommerfest in der Laubenkolonie (Summer festival in the garden colony). This painting survives, and I’ve seen it for myself in the Stadtmuseum’s storage depot in Spandau. It is a vast piece, 1.9 metres high by 2.5 metres wide, and – when I saw it in early 2009 – desperately in need of a clean. Nevertheless, Baluschek’s intentions – of depicting Berlin’s working classes on a scale usually reserved for classical subject matter or romantic landscapes – was clear. But this time, however, unlike the Tempelhofer Feld work, the location was ambiguous.

Hans Baluschek, Sommerfest in der Laubenkolonie, 1909. Via Wikicommons.

In those years running up to the First World War, Baluschek found himself and the themes of his art shifting from the margins to the centre of political debate. The reason for this was that Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had started out in his childhood as a radical, outsider party, had become an increasingly powerful presence in German politics. It did so to the extent that, in the national elections of 1912, the SPD became the biggest party in the Reichstag.

Baluschek’s art, with its focus on the plight of the working classes, was becoming increasingly acceptable to the establishment. Now his work could be seen not just in the form of huge canvases in the annual exhibitions, but as sets of prints in the windows of booksellers, and in popular books and magazines that sat on shelves in apartments of the city’s inhabitants. The work that he and others like Käthe Kollwitz and Heinrich Zille did towards the causes of social democracy brought gradual changes to the lives of ordinary Germans—particularly to their working and living conditions.

In August 1914, SPD representatives in the Reichstag voted in favour of war, the view being that the conflict was defensive, and a justified response to Russian aggression. Like most Germans, Baluschek was an enthusiastic supporter of the war. In the first years of the conflict he contributed works to a number of patriotic publications, including Paul Cassirer’s wartime magazine Der Kriegszeit (Wartime), and a 1916 portfolio of drawings supporting the German Red Cross entitled Der Krieg 1914-1915. In 1916 Baluschek volunteered for military service, and served on both the western and eastern fronts. In the political upheaval that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War in 1918, Baluschek joined the SPD. 

Hans Baluschek, Bahnhofshalle, 1929. Image via Wikicommons.

Baluschek was no longer the outsider artist he had been before the war. In a photograph taken in 1923 Baluschek can be seen guiding the German president Friedrich Ebert around an art exhibition held in Berlin. Baluschek was subsequently commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of Ebert in 1928. Between 1929 and 1932 Baluschek chaired the committee of the Great Berlin Art Exhibition. Nevertheless, Baluschek did not stop being politically engaged. He continued to support proletarian causes, such as the Bund für proletarische Literatur (Association for Proletarian Literature) and continued to depict Berlin’s downtrodden classes amongst the working-class districts of the city.

However the democratic political system that lay at the heart of Germany’s new Weimar Republic remained fragile at best, and throughout the 1920s chasms opened up between Germany’s political parties. For a start there was a widening gulf between the centre-left Social Democratic Party, and the parties to its right, including the increasingly popular National Socialist Party. Even more problematic for the Social Democrats were the fissures opening up on the left, between Social Democrats and the increasingly powerful Communist Party of Germany. Ultimately, it was the inability of the Social Democrats and Communists to bridge their differences and negotiate compromises that gave the National Socialists the opportunity to seize power.

Baluschek at the opening of the “Große Berliner Kunstausstellung” at Berlin’s Schloss Bellevue, 1931.

What this meant for Baluschek was increasing criticism of his art from critics on both the right and the left. Writing in the communist newspaper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) in 1930, radical critic Alfréd Keméyni noted the shift in perceptions of Baluschek’s pre- and postwar work. He praised Baluschek’s earlier work for the attention it drew to the plight of the proletariat, singling out the artist’s portfolio of Opfer (Victim) drawings from 1906 as being “hard-hitting, uncompromising reportage which met in full, with denouncement and social criticism, the developments of the time.” By contrast, Keméyni regarded Baluschek’s postwar output as little more than petit-bourgeois trumpery—as “a flirtation with the bourgeoisie.”

This apparent lack of connection with the working classes and communist ideas is reflected in our inability to pinpoint the geographies of much of Baluschek’s art of the twenties. Whereas an artist like Otto Nagel was clearly committed to the Communist cause, thanks to his unambiguous portrayals of the working classes of the industrial district of Wedding where he himself lived, Baluschek, in comfortable Schöneberg, was less so.

Großstadtlichter by Hans Baluschek, 1931. Copyright: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin.

Take Baluschek’s 1920 painting Arbeiterstadt (Workers’ city) as an example. On one hand the work clearly shows an elevated S-Bahn railway threading its way through the city. But the topography of the scene, with tenements and factories climbing up a steep hill, is more reminiscent of Manchester than Berlin. Großstadtlichter (Lights of the Metropolis, 1931) depicts a busy traffic intersection bustling with Berliners. Neon signs in the background pick out a café and a cinema, but there are no specific names attached to them, making it impossible to determine where this might be. Similarly, Großstadtwinkel (Street Corner in the Metropolis, 1929) depicts a long straight street lined with tenements. Perhaps we are back on Sedanstraße, but again, the scene is too generic and cannot be identified as being any particular place.

This sense that Baluschek was contriving scenes made from a stock of symbols (railway line, gasometer, tenement) and working class characters (factory worker, vagrant, prostitute) is reinforced by a series of paintings he made towards the end of the 1920s that were of specific places in Berlin. The titles and subject matter of these works clearly indicate as much: Jungfernbrücke (1926), Alt-Berlin Waisenstraße and Friedrichsgracht (both 1927), Molkenmarkt (1929). These paintings focus less on people and more on the city’s buildings. The more specific Baluschek’s paintings were, the less politically engaged they became.

In January 1933 the Nazis seized power in Germany. Labelling Baluschek’s work as ‘degenerate’, they stripped him of the posts he held in Berlin, and evicted him from the studio apartment in the Ceciliengärten. Two years after his eviction, Baluschek died, his loss barely registered amidst the climate of fear that now prevailed. After the Second World War and the partition of Germany and Berlin, neither the east nor the west were particularly interested in recovering Baluschek’s legacy. On one hand, the art world in the west shunned figurative art, promoting instead those modernist trends that had found their apogee in the abstract expressionism coming out of America.

For them, Baluschek’s work was too literal, too florid. Behind the Iron Curtain, social realism became the official style of the Soviet Union. But for the Communists, Baluschek had not shown sufficient commitment to the cause. His work was tainted by his association with the SPD, and too detached for the city’s communists, who preferred their art to be drawn directly from the brutal reality of everyday life. Since German reunification however, there has been a reappraisal of Baluschek’s art, and you will find his works on display in the Bröhan Museum in Charlottenburg, the Stadtmuseum’s collections at the Märkisches Museum and the Ephraim Palais, and at the Akademie der Künste.

Memorial plaque for Hans Baluschek at Ceciliengärten 27, Berlin-Schöneberg, Germany. Source: Wikicommons. User: OTFW. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Back at the Ceciliengärten estate, I took a photograph of the plaque mounted on the wall of Baluchek’s former home, which made me feel that I was both an odd sort of pilgrim and an impostor. Never mind, I told myself. At least here, if nowhere else in this city, I could content myself with knowing that I’ve finally tracked down the elusive and sometimes misunderstood Hans Baluschek.