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 The Donnerstag-Gesellschaft zu Alfter

 by Maxi Sickert

The black and white images of photographer Kate Augenstein, who had photographed the artist group around Bertold Brecht before World War II, show happy and festive faces on the Day of Abstract Art in the summer of 1947. Even the painters themselves have dressed up nicely, with suit, white shirt and tie. Only Hubert Berke wears his collar open, his eyes are laughing. It is a special day when the festive crowd gathered in the garden of Fürst (Prince) Salm-Reifferscheidt's palace. While the surrounding towns were still in ruins, in the village Alfter, located in the foothills between Cologne and Bonn, an artist group of painters, art historians, and writers (who had returned from war and captivity) had formed supported by the Fürst to organize lectures, concerts and exhibitions. Prior to each event, a written approval by the Allied authorities had to be handed in. Visitors who wanted to cross the boundary of a zone of occupation had to present an approved invitation.

On this 20th July 1947, the Donnerstag-Gesellschaft (Thursday's Society) had already been formed formally. So, they were able to act officially as organizers towards the authorities and ask for the respective permissions.

It was the first exhibition of abstract art in Alfter. The village converted from 1947-1950 into a meeting place of artists and intellectuals craving for political, literary and artistic information. Visitors came from far and wide, including scientists, politicians, artists and actors. For the first time in years a free exchange of ideas was possible again. It was a key experience for the participants to discuss the issues of the day from a political, economic, social and artistic perspective and to be able to say their opinion freely. As the art historian Eduard Trier remembered: "Germany was a desert of rubble, and there were hardly any news or newspapers and no transport to go anywhere."

How much the concept of abstract art in this period has been a synonym for a liberated art and was, at the same time, perceived as an extreme provocation is shown by the artists' memories about prohibited exhibitions that were claimed as "scribbling ridiculing society" and about articles published in SPIEGEL magazine, which was founded in the same year. (see text by Hubert Berke for reference) It becomes obvious how much the current meaning of "abstraction" differs from the one at that time, when it was not about the radical nature of an aesthetic that ran through all areas of art, but about reconnecting to an artistic development, which was cruelly demolished by the defamatory cultural politics of the Nazi regime. The artists of the Donnerstag-Gesellschaft were influenced by their pre- war teachers: the professors for painting at the art academies like Paul Klee. These teachers were representatives of modernism and universal thinkers rooted in humanistic tradition. The first works after the war demonstrate very clearly that this influence was still present.

On the Day of Abstract Art, a selection of romantic and dithyrambic literary texts without aesthetic breaks was presented. The abstraction in the exhibited works of art was lyrical and related to nature. Later, the theatre critic Albert Schulze-Vellinghausen described the Day of Abstract Art in an essay (excerpt): "There is something sacred in the presented art, in abstract art, too. The festive crowd in the castle hall, the drawing of the demonic virtuoso painter Berke on the front page of the invitation.

'Contra Torrentum' (against the current) is the motto of the House of Salm, since the salmon swims up the rivers upstream. After dinner (potato soup), we found the room beautifully changed: around 25 images, small and delicate despite all formal aggression, even if their size is not really dangerous.

The Fürst and Fürstin sent out the invitations and updated the guest lists. Visitors who came from outside the restricted area of Alfter had to request special permissions from the police. Despite the difficult or non-existing transport facilities, up to 200 people attended some events. The entrance fee during the forced regulation was 20 Reichsmark and 5 grams in "Fettmarken" (vouchers necessary to purchase fat, e.g. butter, after the war).

The Day of Abstract Art on 20th July 1947 was the first event in Germany after the war that included several artistic disciplines. The program lasted all day and was opened by a lecture by Dr. Werner Haftmann "The artist in time". After that, the writer Rudolf Hagelstange read some of his own texts and Fritzleo Liertz read from Kafka's "First Sorrow" and Rilke's "V. Duino Elegy." The pianist Tiny Wirtz played the "Sonata 3" for piano by Paul Hindemith.

After dinner, the exhibition was opened. It included 32 works, paintings, monotypes, watercolours and prints by Eugen Batz, Hubert Berke, Joseph Faßbender, Georg Meistermann, Erich Mueller-Kraus and Hann Trier. At the end of the day a play for children was presented in the park as well as the controversial slide lecture by Hermann Schnitzler "Picasso in us".

Another significant event was the staged reading of Jean Paul Sartre's play "The Flies" on 15th February 1948, performed by theatre actors from Cologne. In this resistance drama, Sartre developed a concept of freedom which is closely related to his philosophy of existence and which he expressed at the same time in his philosophical masterpiece "Being and Nothingness": The human who does not rebel against his bondage. The play was premiered in Paris in 1943 and in Germany on 7th November 1947 in Düsseldorf.

Berke, Faßbender and Trier designed around 60 blackened scratch images on glass plates for the staged reading, which were projected over the actors on the walls of the palace hall during the lecture. Hann Trier directed the projections. He had already worked as a scene builder in Nordhausen (Thuringia), before moving to Bornheim. Three woodcuts of the painters were handed out with the programme as tickets, and a portfolio with 9 woodcuts was offered for purchase to the guests. The number of eople who responded to the invitation was so great that the reading had to be performed twice on the same day.

Wernher Witthaus wrote in Rheinische Zeitung on 21st February 1948: "The actors were sitting at a table wearing suits and dresses of our days, completely devoted to their roles. High above their heads the images flashed. This attack on the Flies was a nosedive towards abstraction', in this case, paradox as well as appropriate."

Later on, Hermann Schnitzler planned a "Day of Surrealism" for the middle of 1948 based on the Day of Abstract Art , with texts by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Aragon, Breton and Eluard were supposed to be presented. But this project was never realized.

In the following years, the improving economic situation due to the currency reform of 1948 favoured the reconstruction of museums and art schools. The outsourced works of art in the cellars of the castle were returned to Cologne, as well as the Kölner Kunstverein (Arts Association of Cologne). The painters themselves later lectured as professors at universities. E.g., Hann Trier at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin, Joseph Faßbender at Düsseldorf Academy of Art, and Hubert Berke at Technical University of Aachen.

Between February 1947 and April 1950 the Donnerstag-Gesellschaft sent out a total of 34 invitations for readings, lectures, debates, concerts and exhibitions. The last time the Donnerstag-Gesellschaft invited was to a concert with the cellist Ludwig Hoelscher on Wednesday, 26th April 1950.

Memories of Brunhilde Berke
Our days in Alfter

(from: Sabine Fehlemann/Werner Schäfke (ed.): Hubert Berke "Masken im Sumpf", Kölnisches Stadtmuseum, Köln 1992)

We had survived the war. Our friend, the lawyer Willi Weber, brought Eva and me to Alfter, where he found us a furnished room. Eva was playing with the children in the courtyard of Weber's estate, the guesthouse "Spargelweber" (Asparagus Weber). There, I saw the stable with a "Knechtestube" (servant room), which was not completely in ruins. We whitewashed it and Eva and I moved in.

Several months later, Hubert returned from captivity. The joy was great! The years in the stable of Alfter were very hard. The walls were damp and the clothes went mouldy in the closet. Ice crystals sparkled on the walls and the juice bottles burst from frost. (...)

Now we could make up for all what we had missed during the war. In the cellars, bunkers and forests we had been doomed to doing nothing while waiting for the air raid warning. For Hubert, those years in the stable were very productive.

After two years, the Webers had built a small kitchen, a living room and a bathroom, which made our life a little easier. Willi was good at organizing and we made purchases on the black market, like coffee, flour, sugar, bread, vegetables, etc. I cooked and baked for the visitors every day. (...) Meanwhile, our friend Franz Zöllner, pianist and conductor, returned from captivity. He refurbished the chicken stable at the other end of the barn and moved there. I organized an evening with him, where I read poems and he played the piano. I read E. A. Poe, Else Lasker Schüler, Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud, and others. The audience was thrilled and Willi donated some wine afterwards. That was at the end of 1946.

Soon after, I risked inviting to a second evening, where I danced to music by Bach, Froberger, Schumann and Brahms. Franz was playing . Toni Feldenkirchen and Hermann Schnitzler arrived late. The gallery owner Rusche told them that they had missed something beautiful. So, I danced the Sarabande by Bach again. (...)

The evenings were held at the "Gasthaus Weber" (Weber Inn). After the second night, Willi said: "It is so much fun," and he announced to organize an evening lecture himself, "even if I have to pay it from my own pocket".

With his friend Dr. Feldenkirchen and Prof. Schnitzler they decided to invite Prof. Otto H. Förster of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum to Weber's big living room, the so-called "Sälchen" (little hall). Prof. Förster presented a slide show there about "the consolation of paintings ". The Fürst of Alfter Salm-Salm-Reifferscheidt also received an invitation to that evening. That night, they persuaded the Fürst that many people were interested in such evenings and that only the space for the many visitors was missing. The Fürst then decided that the next events could be held in his castle.

As that day was a Thursday, the group was named after it. The painters Faßbender and Trier, who were sheltered in Bornheim, had also been present on that night. Furthermore, the village's doctor, Dr. S. Schwartmann, the teacher Budéus, Franz Zoeller and the farmer Schmitz, Weber of course, Feldenkirchen, Schnitzler, the Fürst and Berke. That was at the beginning of 1947.

The Day of Abstract Art was a great success. Werner Haftmann lectured about "The Artist in time" and Hermann Schnitzler about "Picasso in ourselves." The guests Meistermann and Batz contributed paintings to the exhibition.

On the Day of Abstract Art our son Michael was just two years old. That is why I returned to our apartment right after the lectures. When I woke up the next morning, Hubert was not there. I was worried and went over to Weber's. The men were still sitting there or lying in the living room, totally exhausted after heated debates and Willi's good wine.

The second sensational evening was the performance of Sartre's "Flies". The actors were sitting behind a desk, reading their texts. Berke, Faßbender and Trier had painted illustrations on glass, matching the text, which were projected on the wall above the actors. They appeared blurred, then became sharp and disappeared again. The programme came with woodcuts by the three artists and a pen drawing by Berke. (...)

The enthusiasm caused by those evenings was enormous. So we started to plan building an academy in the country. Spontaneously, the Fürst offered to provide grounds for that purpose. The Cologne architect Rümpler made construction plans with studios, lecture hall, guest rooms, etc.

But one day, during a dinner at the Fürst's palace, Schnitzler, Faßbender and Trier announced to bring the Donnerstag-Gesellschaft to an end. Schnitzler made the "funeral speech". Obviously, the visitors did not have any money. (...) By hearing this, the visitors sorrow was great. (...)

The lecturers rarely received any money. But they were more than happy when they were paid with a bucket of molasses, vegetables, fruits and a little "Knolli Brändi", a brandy that was illegally distilled in Alfter. There was always a little basket at the entrance when the events were about to start. The visitors who could afford it donated some money. Unfortunately, the diplomats from Bonn, which had been invited by the Fürst, did not pass our baskets, because they entered the auditorium straight from the Fürst's apartment.

Concert on the Day of Abstract Art
Interview with Prof. Tiny Wirtz (1924)

 by Maxi Sickert

Cologne, 2010. The sun is shining into the salon of the 86-year-old Grande Dame of the uncompromising and highly virtuosic piano play, who was the first post-war performer of contemporary and Avant-garde music. While the audience left the room furiously, the artists celebrated her excitedly. The two large pianos are covered with notes and books. The bookshelves are full of books, too, and stand in several rows up to the ceiling. She already donated most of her documents to Berlin, to an archive especially dedicated to her at the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts). She shows her memoirs, which she has been writing since 1945, they include newspaper cuttings about her concerts, reviews and announcements and many drawings by artist friends. An early drawing shows her playing and the audience listening with open mouths and horrified, angry faces. She had pasted the invitation to the Day of Abstract Art and the programme from 20th July 1947 into the book.

Mrs. Wirtz, how did it occur that you participated in the Day of Abstract Art?

You have to imagine the situation; the war had just ended and Cologne was completely destroyed. There was no concert hall, except the one at university. The Schnütgen Museum of Ancient Art had been transferred to Alfter, situated at the foothills between Cologne and Bonn. Toni Feldenkirchen was born in that region. He was the director of the Kunstverein then and the one who initiated the transfer of the museum. At that time, the Faßbender family lived in the foothills, too. They had found shelter there. At first it was his wife only because he had been called up to the war. Living in Cologne was too dangerous then, because the great attacks started in 1941. Mrs. Berke did not come back until the war was over.

Everybody came to Alfter because of the lawyer Willi Weber, so did Faßbender and Berke, too. Today, everything is beautifully restored, one can hardly recognize it. I was there some years ago.

In the afternoons, we used to sit together. Berke, Weber and Prof. Schnitzler, who lived in the castle with his family. The Berke family lived above the stables of the so-called "Wirtschaft" (farm). It was very primitive; the wooden steps were broken and the chickens were running around downstairs. That was the situation when everything was broken after the war, all the cities. Art was no longer practised. Only in the auditorium of the university. I played a Bach concerto there in December 1945 already, together Günter Wand and the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra. And in January 1946, I played a Beethoven concert.

The Donnerstag-Gesellschaft used to gather in the Fürst's salon. Around 50 people fit in there, if it was filled with chairs. The people came to the various events from the whole Ruhr region even though there were no transport links. The Rhine bridges were destroyed and the people from the other side of the Rhine had to come over with small boats or pass the pontoon bridge that had been erected by the Americans. Those who wanted to go to Alfter usually had old cars that ran with a wood engine. It was powered with coal and the gases escaped through a stovepipe. I think those cars could make 10 km/h only. But at least they could move!

The Donnerstag-Gesellschaft organized many nice events. A member list is still existent, which the Fürst administrated very precisely. There you can see the all the important people who were members. They had exhibitions, staged readings with important actors and music nights. I played there a few times.

Was there an artistic exchange?

At that time, many painters attended concerts. While musicians are actually hardly interested in visual arts, painters have always been interested in music. That was quite strange.

What was the kind of music performed in Alfter?

That depended and differed a lot. I performed the "Sonata 3" for piano by Hindemith. I was the very first person who played his music in Germany, even before Erdmann did. But I also gave a classical and romantic piano concert with a modern piece there. Maybe I already played something by Alois Zimmermann, whose works I premiered, the first one in 1946. On that day, I had made the entrance examination for university in the morning and in the evening I gave the piano concert with - at that time - modern music.

How did you meet the composer Alois Zimmermann?

The first meeting occurred through Zimmermann's teacher, Lehmann. He asked me to perform a modern evening with works of composers that had been prohibited in the Third Reich. It is unbelievable, but Scriabin, Ravel and Debussy - they were all prohibited. Only students' works were allowed. Those concerts were given at university only. I documented everything. In 1998, an archive was set up for me at Akademie der Künste in Berlin. And everything that has to do with my music goes there.

Heinrich von Zimmermann's composition teacher was Heinrich Lehmacher. We met in September 1945. I was going by bicycle to my teacher's house, Hans Anwander, who lived 19 km away and had also lost his home because of the bombs. He had found shelter outside of Cologne, at Sulzgürtel.

Until I was 7, I had lessons with the organist of our village. After that, I came to Hans Anwander. After the lesson, I wanted to to Cologne to have a look what it looked like. So I went to the old opera. There, I met Heinrich Lehmacher. I had been in his class for music teachers at music school. He knew about my talent; In September 1942, I had already passed the exam for music teachers with distinction when I was only 18 years old.

Lehmacher's home had been destroyed as well and he lived in Westerwald. He took me to Wand's office in the opera house. I was 21 and had just had had my first piano lesson after war and did not have a piano at home. My piano and all my music sheets had been outsourced to Bergische (area around cologne).

Wand was supposed to become the new music director. I entered the room and two gentlemen were sitting there. I played Beethoven and Chopin. Wand, said to me: "I will phone you." When I said: "You cannot phone me; I haven't got a telephone at home", he replied: "I will send you a telegram then." Indeed, the telegram arrived some weeks later. He offered me to play with him, Bach D-minor. That was in December. At that time, it was common to play with the orchestra at the final rehearsal in the morning. I had never played with an orchestra before and I had never been to a symphony concert - there were no concerts during the war.

We were sitting in the auditorium and the musicians could not play because their fingers were ice-cold. And the brass players could not play because everything was frozen. There were no heating, no glass in the windows, nothing. So, Wand said: "Gentlemen, the concert cannot take place tonight." Two evening performances had been planned, Monday and Tuesday, as it was and still is the tradition of Gürzenich orchestra. We made a poster with the information that the concert was cancelled because of the cold and that we would repeat it when it would be warmer.

In the evening, people came from the other side of the Rhine with small boats or crossing the pontoon bridge. Those who did not have a bike came walking. Most of the cars had been confiscated. Everybody had to go back home. The concert was performed two or three weeks later, with a packed audience, even though it was December, only some days before Christmas.

In January, Wand and I played the B-major Concerto by Beethoven. I used to play with Wand every year till 1953. We played the German premiere of Hindemith's "Four Temperaments". Walter Gieseking played it four weeks later in Frankfurt as well, and Wand said: "He played it from the sheet, you played it by heart."

On the day of the Beethoven concert, Lehmacher gave me some music sheets by Zimmermann that had never been played in public before. We wanted to play it on the "Promotional concert for New Music". It was scheduled on the day of my entrance exams. There was this priest, who had gathered his whole community, and they drove on a small truck to Cologne, because there had to be some audience! In the end, a lot of people were waiting there, Heribert Eimert as well. He had published a book about atonal music in the early 1920s and was the most important critic in Cologne until he retired. Eimert brought Stockhausen to the electronic studio of WDR (broadcaster of North-Rhine Westphalia), which Eimert directed and assigned to Stockhausen later.

Eimert came to me and noticed that my fingers were as cold as ice. There was no heating and people had already been waiting for an hour. Then, it turned out that the meeting of the City Council was going to be held and that it would take at least another hour. Eimert sent everybody home. The next day, when the concert was repeated, the number of people who came had even doubled.

From then on, I was branded as "the interpreter of New Music" which was not true at all, as I played many Schumann and Beethoven concerts in 1946. But at that time, it was absolutely outrageous that someone played modern music, as, during the Nazi period, people did not have any contact with contemporary avant-garde music. But my teacher Anwander had all these music sheets. And that is why I always used to rehearse at least one modern piece with him.

How did you meet the painters?

The painters knew me because they always came to my concerts. At that time, the painters were much more advanced than the musicians. The musicians even rioted when they had to play a modern piece and so did the audience. Wand played Hindemith for the first time and the audience left, banging the doors. Just imagine! Wand just turned around and said: "Ladies and gentlemen, I think they have not really captured the meaning of the piece yet. We will play it again."

In one article, somebody wrote that your way of playing the piano was regarded as a work of art itself, as a "sculpture of musical design". Has the abstraction in art affected your musical interpretation? No, I had always played vividly; the painting had nothing to do with it. I already had my own personality; otherwise I would not have played with Wand when I was only 20 years old. And I have kept my definition of sound all my life.

How did the time in Alfter end?

After the introduction of the currency reform, the last event was organized in Alfter. Prior to the reform, people still had to pay with food stamps for bread, meat and fat. But the response was great, because many important actors made readings in Alfter.

After that, we established a workshop in Cologne, and we gave a concert in the university's lecture hall IV every month. We played new music in order to put it up for discussion. I played and Zimmermann gave the explanations - that was in 1951. When people had even smashed the doors when we played Hindemith, you can imagine how they reacted to contemporaries. Even though those pieces were 40 years old already.

From 1955-57 you were in Paris and did not perform.

No. I did not want to be labelled as "interpreter of New Music" anymore. I was the only one who played contemporary modern music in Germany and that was a nightmare for the people. It did not matter how well I played Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. I did not want to be restricted anymore.

I got a scholarship then from the Cultural Committee of German Industry. With that money I went to Paris. Until then, I had barely heard others play; I had never been anywhere else. In Paris, I heard fantastic musicians and conductors. This really broadened my mind. When I came back, I did not have the label anymore. And in the meantime, other interpreters apart from me had appeared and become well known in the scene.

Later, the painters were accused that their art lacked a social positioning. Günther Grass, at that time president of the 'Akademie der Künste', criticized the abstraction and the post-war Art Informel in an informal speech on 6th May 1985 as being "escapist" and "non-committal". On 10th May 1985, his speech was published in "ZEIT" magazine with the heading "Given freedom - failure - missed opportunities." How do you see that? Do you think concerts can be a forum for political ideas?

No, not at all! Art has nothing to do with politics. It is only about skill.

The consequences

After World War II, Germany had lost its artists. Their books were burned, and so was their art and music; defamed as "degenerate" and therefore banned. Innumerable artists and all the schools, like Bauhaus, had left the country.

On 30th October 1945, the painter Willi Baumeister, who was 56-year-old by then, wrote in his diary: "The year 1945 did not bring a general artistic rebirth in Germany as occurred in 1919. The artists' enthusiasm was poor, because of the systematic deception and intimidation they had experienced. Young people had not seen real contemporary art. Klee and Kandinsky were abroad. Schlemmer had died in Germany and Kirchner had shot himself in Switzerland…"

Concreteness was discredited due to its ideological abuse by the Nazis. The abstracts orientated in Baumeister, interior landscapes were presented abstract. In 1950, Alfred Hentzen, former director of Kestner-Society and later director of Hamburger Kunsthalle , organized an exhibition in Hanover, with the title: "Ancient myth in new art". That was from1947-49. After the Second World War, the humanistic ideals were considered a way to overcome the cultural crisis.

In 1955, Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann curated the first documenta in Kassel and presented new German painting and sculpture. The entry fee was DM 1. When the abstracts were shown again five years later, criticism had arisen already. The works were compared to mannerism and the contents were being questioned.

In 1985, with the anniversary of "40 Years of German art," Günther Grass and Dieter Honisch, at this time president of Neue Nationalgalerie , stated their opinion on that matter. In the catalogue, "Art in the Federal Republic of Germany 1945-1985" he describes the abstraction after 1945 as a loss of reality. And the successive return to concreteness as an abandoning of illusion. "Nobody knew what art really was, not even the artists themselves, because their work was hardly about submitting their ideas on what art had been once, but submitting their ideas about reality. (...) The artists wanted to find out about the performance an artwork could bring. So they did not orientate in the audience's expectations, but in their own reflections. (...) The artists were not manipulable anymore and had found their identity only in the artwork itself. They confronted it with a society, whose ambitions differed

completely from theirs, and with those people who still considered art as a vehicle of the ideas of others. This is the result of a loss of tradition and a search for identity. The integration of the arts in society was not only an aesthetic or sociological, but also a social problem".

After that dispute, people had almost forgotten about the founders of the second generation of modernism and Art Informel from the Rhine region, who were, among others, Hubert Berke, Joseph Faßbender, Hann Trier and Eugen Batz. The Donnerstag-Gesellschaft and the groups "Zen 49" and junger westen ("young west") represented an emerging art. The very intense debates about this art, which was lyrical and introverted rather than radical, demonstrate its importance for subsequent generations of artists. The selected works show how the artists approached their mode of expression with almost poetic delicacy, and how the artists themselves achieved rather similar results at first, even if their approaches differed.

out of the book „DONNERSTAG-GESELLSCHAFT 1947-1950“
published in 2010 by ZELLERMAYER Galerie Berlin, Carsta Zellermayer

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