Mapping Kogan’s Munich
You should count yourself lucky! My father arrived in Munich with just the clothes on his back.
I had arrived in Munich in late March last year to find that there was no way for me to make myself a hot drink in my hastily-booked, budget hotel room, despite its recently installed, gleaming, but, unaccountably, entirely utensil-free kitchen. It was snowing heavily and I had tramped around for some time trying to find myself a mug and a cheap kettle or saucepan to see me through the week. My wry comment on the state of my room had landed badly with the young man behind the counter of the store I had finally found on a deserted back street. His repost brought starkly into focus the multi-packs of everything a newly arrived refugee to Germany might need to set up home, piled up to the ceiling and rammed into every corner of his shop. There was now, unintentionally, a chasm of misunderstanding between us, and the young storekeeper could barely look at me, whilst he was selling me the smallest saucepan in the room. It was evident a mug would be a request too far, and, at a loss to know what to say to express my empathy, I left the store frustrated at the clumsy exchange, clutching my pan.
I was in Munich to give a short talk about Moissey Kogan at a celebratory event, a memorial concert, to mark the 75th anniversary of his death at Auschwitz in 1943. My invitation had come late in the day from the organiser, the genial sculptor from Badenweiler, Torsten Kleiner, so my advance research planning was not to my normal standard.
A lot remains unknown about Kogan‘s time in Munich, aside from some basic signposts, so, as a starting point, some days before my arrival, I had contacted the Lenbachhaus Museum in the hope of viewing again its sizeable collection of works by the artist. Unsurprisingly, I was met by a brick wall—four weeks’ notice was required, I was told, and researchers needed to book to see ‘a sufficient number of artefacts’, which, apparently, I had not done, and so my request was refused. I could perhaps have arranged to visit one of the archives or libraries at this late stage, but, in light of my exchange with the shopkeeper, I decided instead to walk Kogan‘s Munich. He, too, after all, had arrived in the city with little to his name, and I wanted to see what I could learn from what remained of the Munich he first saw in 1903.
I had previously spent three months in Munich—in 2000—when I was invited to join an International Summer Academy, an intense summer school with a packed and fascinating programme at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte (the Institute for Art History; the ZI, as it is known). Some of my fellow participants became life-long friends, I made many connections and had undisturbed nightly access, it turned out, to the Institute’s excellent library. However, ‘my Munich’ was heavily flavoured by the city’s Nazi past. My first lodgings (until my landlady was too ill to continue to host me) were on the Prinzregentenstraße, on the opposite side of the road, I was informed, to the rooms where Adolf Hitler had lived. My daily walk to the ZI took me past the disquieting Haus der Kunst, built between 1933 and 1937 to plans drawn up by Nazi architect, Paul Ludwig Troost. Now a museum of contemporary art, it was then called the House of German Art, and was the site of the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (the Great German Art Exhibition) of 1937, organised to showcase Hitler‘s ideal art as a counterpoint to the Nazi-organised Degenerate Art Exhibition held concurrently elsewhere in the city. The ZI itself, on what is known today as Katharina-von-Bora-Straße, then Arcisstraße, had been built in 1934-35, again to Troost‘s design, as the Verwaltungsbau der NSDAP, the administrative building of the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich. It was there beneath the building, its rear façade heavily pockmarked by bullet and shrapnel damage and its glazing still decorated with swastikas, that I was given replacement, somewhat haunted, lodgings for the rest of my stay in a sparsely furnished bunker, then made available to visiting scholars. I was there to study the arts and architecture of the International Expositions and there was little time for extra-curricular exploration. Frustrated as I was that I was not able to seek out Kogan‘s haunts during this stay, I thought I would be back soon.
I wondered if it was even reasonable to suppose that I could set aside the cataclysmic years of the Third Reich and find my way back to 1903. Watching the relentless footage of Munich 1945 captured by anti-fascist and later SPD politician, Willi Cronauer, in which, street-by-street, the damage to the city caused by war and punitive Allied bombing raids is documented, it was horribly evident to me that the destruction had been even more devastating and wide-spread than I had realised.
In 1945, there were serious debates as to whether Munich should be left in ruins and a new city built on the banks of Lake Starnberg, 25 kilometres to the south-west of the city. Around 60 percent of the Altstadt had been severely damaged, and in Schwabing, the city quarter where I was headed in Kogan‘s footsteps, approximately 70 percent of the building stock had been destroyed. Having lived for a year in Osnabrück, where the Altstadt had been virtually obliterated, I had witnessed the results of the painstaking care employed by the post-war city architects in their meticulous civic reconstruction, using old plans and photographs of the original buildings and streetscapes. So, I knew that one needed to look very carefully to determine what had survived and what was merely a reconstructed, albeit beautifully crafted, façade hiding a modern shell. The streets in Schwabing that I planned to walk were not featured in Cronauer‘s film, so I had little sense of what to expect.
Kogan and the early 20th-century Munich arts scene
If Kogan is mentioned in the literature on the arts scene of early 20th-century Munich, it is generally in a list of the exhibiting members of the avant-garde grouping of artists, the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (the NKVM), the forerunner of the considerably better known Der Blaue Reiter, led by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. By the time of the association’s first exhibition, which opened in December 1909 at the Moderne Galerie Heinrich Thannhauser in premises at the Arcopalais, Theatinerstraße 7, Kogan‘s work largely took the form of bronze plaquettes with esoteric subject matter, such as the one featured at the head of this blogpost: Vergangenheit (The Past).
Perhaps, in part, because of the way in which the history of the NKVM is treated—post-war, it has generally been seen in retrospect from the vantage point of the inception and trajectory of Der Blaue Reiter—no attempt has been made to understand Kogan‘s work within the context of the group’s ethos, as stated in its founding circular of 1909:
‘We proceed from the notion that, aside from the impressions the artist receives from the external world, and from nature, he continually accumulates experiences from his inner world; and that seeking for artistic forms intended to give expression to the mutual interpenetration of these experiences as a whole—for forms that must be freed from all irrelevancies, in order to give forceful expression to the essential,—in short, a striving for artistic synthesis, seems to us to be a watchword around which increasing numbers of artists are again uniting spiritually today.’¹
Kogan as a Theosophist
Kogan became a member of the German Section of the Theosophical Society during his time in Munich, and, from later correspondence, we know he was well-versed in Jewish mystical texts. Already displaying the preoccupation with the female nude as subject that would mark his entire later oeuvre, the prelapsarian, visionary iconography of the bronze plaquettes he showed at the NKVM exhibitions suggests an interest in themes beyond the physically tangible. The imagery of his small plaques is reminiscent of time-worn Pompeiian and other ancient friezes, giving the appearance of souls slipping between the planes of existence. They, and the titles they were given, indicate that Kogan was seeking to depict the cyclical return of the Golden Age spoken of in theosophical texts, or, as fellow Russian and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Madame (Helena Petrovna) Blavatsky termed them, the ‘ancient myths of the future‘. In letters to friends dating from a few years later, Kogan made clear that he received his imagery whilst meditating and aimed with his sculptural work to address his audience via a mutually apprehended, elevated, spiritual vibration. Whilst their work looked very different and employed divergent media, the parallels in Kogan‘s artistic intentions with those of his fellow NKVM member, Kandinsky, also interested at this time in Theosophy, are evident.
Modernist in their focus on the fragmentary body and their recourse to archaic, including Ancient Egyptian, imagery, as is evident in Primavera (below), Kogan‘s bronzes were well-received amongst his peers. Several examples made their way into the collections of fellow NKVM members, and, subsequently, some of those were bequeathed to museum collections. It had been work like this that had prompted the prominent art critic, Julius Meier-Graefe, to send a letter recommending Kogan to the French sculptor, Rodin. Kogan, in his turn, went on more than one occasion to meet the older artist, who praised his work and encouraged him to dedicate his life to sculpture.
As part of my preparation for this last-minute trip, I was delighted to find a map, made freely available online by the Anthroposophical Society of Germany, a successor to the Theosophical Society (German Section), showing who lived where in early 20th-century Munich and focusing specifically on the avant-garde artists and adherents of Theosophy in the circles then frequented by Kogan: Plan Muenchen
Where was Kogan when?
Nothing has yet come to light to document where Kogan lived in Munich before 1909. All inhabitants were meant to make themselves known to the residents’ registration authorities, then run by the police, but Kogan is entirely absent from the records. Over the years, I have compiled an extraordinarily long list of addresses where he lived, aside from his main residences and studios. He was constantly on the move, setting up exhibitions, making contacts and visiting friends. Perhaps unusually, primarily because of the fragility of his work, it is evident, at least later in his career, that he would take a room, or stay with friends, up to three months before an exhibition, so that he could make his sculptures, and have them fired, locally. According to correspondence of 1909 and his entry in the Parisian Salon d’Automne catalogue of 1911, he took a room at Alfonsstraße 9iv, off Nymphenburger Straße, conveniently within reach of the main station, on visits to the city made in conjunction with his participation in the NKVM exhibitions. The building on Alfonsstraße evidently no longer exists and in its place is a car sales dealership, the photograph of it now blurred out on Google maps, for reasons of privacy.
Mapping Kogan’s Munich
In May 1903, at the age of 24, Kogan registered to study sculpture at the Akademie der bildenden Künste, the Academy of Fine Arts. Although, as he explained in later correspondence, his parents, who were wealthy grain merchants in the wine trade, had wanted their sons to be doctors or engineers, he and his brother chose artistic careers against their wishes. He certainly never seems to have had any financial backing from that source, unlike some of the other Russian artists in his Munich circle. The Akademie again has no record of his address, beyond noting the place of his birth in Orgejev (today Orhei) in Bessarabia in the Pale of Settlement (a term describing the sole territories of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed permanent residence from circa 1790 to the Settlement’s dissolution in 1917).
In trying to trace Kogan‘s life in Munich, I was going to have to focus on places he had been, rather than where he lived. Since his registration at the Akademie was the first documented evidence of his presence in the city, I decided it would be the starting point of my walk.
Having suffered extensive war damage, the Akademie is now somewhat simplified in form architecturally. Running the entire length of the northern side of Akademiestraße, today it is bordered to its western end by a Deconstructivist extension, designed by Coop Himmelblau, gleaming white even in the dull, snow-laden, winter light.
In the end, Kogan only registered for one semester at the academy. He would later say that the teaching was too conservative for him, and that he had turned his attention to more avant-garde, experimental circles in the city. This did not feel like Kogan‘s world, so I, too, moved on.
I turned out of Akademiestraße and immediately found myself at the Siegestor. Once dedicated to the glory of the Bavarian army, it has since become a monument to peace, after sustaining severe war damage. It now marks the juncture between Ludwigstraße and the Maxvorstadt quarter, and Leopoldstraße and the district of Schwabing.
Gazing down Ludwigstraße past the triumphal gate, I knew that, sometime back in 1912, Kogan was sitting in the Café Parade writing a letter to a friend and patron on the café’s notepaper. The building, in which he was sitting, is no longer extant, and an underpass, where the Oskar-von-Miller Ring and the Von-der-Tann-Straße now intersect, has taken its place. I headed off north-east up Leopoldstraße in hope of better luck in crossing his path there.
I soon arrived at Giselastraße. As ever a blur now on Google maps, it was here on the third floor of no. 23 that the famous salon, hosted by Kogan‘s fellow members of the NKVM, Alexei von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, took place. There is no doubt that Kogan took part here in some of the discussions so important for Munich Modernism; of especial importance to his later work were the debates around the translation of sense impressions from one medium into another.² Now a pleasant street with infill, new-build blocks between the older houses, and terminating in an Allianz building, it was evidently more leafy and picturesque then, opening directly onto the Englischer Garten, as can be seen in the photo below.
I retraced my steps back to Leopoldstraße. Just beyond the Giselastraße U-Bahn station, I found the book shop marking the beginning of the lane leading to the headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society in Munich and, next door, the church where the memorial concert to Kogan was to be held the following evening. This would prove to be a very moving occasion, organised by the sculptor, Torsten Kleiner, to mark the 75th anniversary of Kogan‘s death. Kleiner himself is anthroposophically trained and came to sculpture later in life. In seeking a mentor, he had alighted upon Kogan‘s work online and had made him his master. He gave a fascinating, in-depth talk to our audience of more than 20 people about his understanding of the artist’s work, both in terms of manufacture, picked up in the making, and spiritual content, whilst noting the many synchronicities in their lives.
Most touchingly, Kleiner spoke of travelling to Auschwitz, following in Kogan‘s last footsteps from the death camp’s arrival ramp to Birkenau, and leaving a small terracotta figure he had made in the manner of Kogan under the birch trees marking the site of the gas chambers, where the artist was killed.
The very talented young cellist, Manuel Lerschmacher, followed Kleiner‘s account with a beautiful, plangent rendition of Pablo Casals‘s The Song of the Birds, a profoundly fitting tribute to Moissey Kogan‘s life and death. Casals was actually born a few years before Kogan was, and the sculptor, with his great love of music, may well have seen him perform in Paris. I closed the concert with a short address on Kogan in Munich.
Now, however, my journey took me on up Leopoldstraße. I made a brief detour into Hohenzollernstraße to see what remained of the Debschitz-Schule at no. 7a, where Kogan attended classes on leaving the Akademie. Located next door to Kandinsky‘s famous Phalanx school of painting at no. 6a, this was an influential private school of art and design, established by the Jugendstil sculptor, Hermann Obrist and painter, Wilhelm von Debschitz, also known as the Lehr- und Versuchsatelier für angewandte und freie Kunst (Instructional and Experimental Workshops for the Applied and Fine Arts). Founded earlier than Henry van de Velde‘s design seminar in Weimar, itself the forerunner of the Bauhaus, the Debschitz school’s innovative programme fostered a dissolving of the distinctions between the fine and applied arts and gave primacy to the concept of design as process. Kogan was a student there at the same time as the soon-to-be Brücke artist, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Paul Renner, designer of the Futura typeface.
Obrist developed a technique of drawing, based on his visionary experiences, intended to train his students to spontaneously unleash creative powers, purported to be hidden within the subconscious. Whilst their work was very different in style and intent, Obrist was undoubtedly an important figure in Kogan‘s artistic development. Nonetheless, Kogan was, perhaps more significantly, involved in responding to the lively debates then happening in Munich sculpture circles around the theories and work of sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand. Far more scholarly attention has been paid to Modernist painting with Munich roots, than Modernist sculpture from the city; a further reason perhaps why the significance of Kogan‘s work is not yet understood by historians of the Munich art scene, especially of the NKVM circle of artists (more of which another time).
Together with Emmy Dresler, a student alongside Gabriele Münter at the Phalanx School, Kogan joined the Theosophical Society. An important contact for him there was the German-Jewish poet, translator and bohemian, Karl Wolfskehl, a member of the so-called Cosmic Circle, a group of writers and intellectuals with esoteric interests around the older Symbolist poet, Stefan George. Kogan and his friends would visit Wolfskehl‘s Thursday afternoon salon, his Teezusammenkunft, as Kogan termed it, on a regular basis.
I now continued up Leopoldstrasse to see if I could find Wolfskehl‘s first Munich residences at nos. 51 and 87. He lived here from 1900 until early 1909. Finding the buildings nondescript and evidently uninspired, post-war replicas of, or replacements for, what had succumbed to bombing, I turned round and headed instead for the poet’s home on Römerstraße, where he and his wife lived from February 1909. I knew from intimate correspondence between Kogan and Wolfskehl in 1914, and other related letters, that Kogan and his wife Nini had visited the poet at this address. It is clear that their relationship had been long-standing by this date, and that the Wolfskehls visited Kogan in Paris. Here, I felt I was standing on ground on which Kogan had walked. Whilst his artistic life revolved around the Debschitz Schule and his NKVM colleagues at the Giselastraße salon and elsewhere, this was another key centre of his intellectual and social life, a place to affirm his esoteric and Jewish mystical interests.
I turned left into Ainmillerstraße, where at no. 36, Kandinsky had lived in the garden house with his lover and fellow artist, Gabriele Münter, from 1908 to 1914/15. It was unsurprising, and disheartening, to see that the current building on the site is a post-war replacement. There is nothing left to give a sense of the atmosphere of the times, aside from a few photographs and paintings of the Kandinsky/Münter home there. We know that Kogan provided an illustration for a children’s book compiled by Münter in 1909, and also that she owned a number of works by the sculptor, some of which are now in the Lenbachhaus‘s collection. She had hidden them in her cellar during the Third Reich, along with the rest of her collection, to protect the works from the National Socialists’ deadly disdain for Modern art. We know, too, that despite the dissolving of the NKVM, a short time after Kandinsky and Marc broke off to found their exhibiting and publishing project, Der Blaue Reiter, there were later apparently no hard feelings between the two Russians. Little documentation survives, but there is enough to know that the connection continued.
From August 1909 until the outbreak of war in 1914, Münter and Kandinsky would spend the summer months in what was known as the Russenhaus (the Russian House) in the village of Murnau in the Bavarian Alps. Although it is hard to know whether Kogan visited them there, it was easily accessible by train, as it is today, and it seems very likely that he was one of the many guests who made the short journey out to see them.
Making my way back to Leopoldstraße, disappointed by the poor marking of such an important site of Munich Modernism on Ainmillerstraße, I decided to invite myself to visit the Russenhaus as a more fitting end to my journey around Kogan‘s Munich.
In her will, Gabriele Münter provided for the Münterhaus (the Russenhaus) to be opened to the public as a memorial site to her work and Kandinsky‘s. Her long-term partner, the art historian, Johannes Eichner, having predeceased her, she was able to arrange for the house to be renovated to its pre-1914 state.
Approaching it from the valley late in the day, it looked entirely other-worldly, nestled amongst other houses on the snow-covered hillside.
As soon as one enters the house’s lobby, one becomes aware of a large portrait photograph of the older, characteristically unsmiling, Münter, dominating the space. Her presence feels almost palpable in the house, despite the many images from Kandinsky‘s Blauer Reiter period in a room on the lower floor and elsewhere in the house. Many of the works on show are displayed behind glass, and many others are reverse-glass paintings. In combination with the light streaming into the rooms from the snow-lit surroundings, they were hard to successfully photograph.
Walking up the narrow stairs, decorated by Kandinsky with folkloric horse-and-rider motifs, presumably carefully restored, I felt a real sense that my feet were walking precisely where the Munich artists, perhaps including Kogan, had trod. On my first day ever of archival research, many years ago, the topmost document in the first Manila folder I was handed was a letter from Kandinsky. I distinctly remember shaking on seeing his signature. That same feeling returned to me now. I wasn’t really sure why, but fanciful or not, it was there again.
The rooms above are so famous from paintings made by both the artists, that there is a sense that they are laid out cameo-like, as recreations of those works of art, rather than of any other documentary or photographic evidence. The furniture is very sparse in its arrangement, and perhaps merely indicative of the way Kandinsky and Münter lived there.
Amused to see on the wall in Münter‘s bedroom, her painting of Kandinsky in bed in the adjacent bedroom, I passed from one room to the next, another visitor obscuring my view to the left. Fascinated by the paint brushes and palettes on a chest to the right of the window, I had not noticed that a mannequin wearing Kandinsky‘s suit was standing in the centre of the room. I backed into it (luckily without knocking it over), and nearly jumped out of my skin. I had been imagining myself into their world far too intently and for too long. Another uncanny experience care of Kandinsky. It was time to go.
In checking information to prepare this blogpost, I was startled to discover that Johanna (Hanna) Wolff, the recipient of that letter of 1912 from the Café Parade, had lived with her husband, the lawyer, Dr Alfred Wolff, on Arcisstraße, until their home, where they hosted Kogan and collected his work, was bulldozed to make way for construction work on Hitler‘s headquarters. It seemed, after all, that I had crossed paths with the artist even in 2000.
From the café on Ludwigstraße, Kogan wrote to Hanna Wolff to apologise for leaving Munich without warning. He was very angered, he said, by what had been happening there and wanted nothing more than to return to Paris and to resume work in his studio in the garden at the artists’ colony of La Ruche. Kogan was undoubtedly referring to the protracted arguments surrounding the break-up of the NKVM and the inception of Der Blaue Reiter. Perhaps the final straw was the cancellation of the proposed 4th NKVM exhibition, and the unauthorised publishing by Otto Fischer of his book, Das Neue Bild, featuring the work of, and short essays on, the members of the artists’ association, which had caused general uproar. By then, Kogan, ever the internationalist, had been made city sculptor in Hagen by the influential museum director, Karl Ernst Osthaus, had taught at the Belgian Henry van de Velde‘s art and design school in Weimar, and was now well-connected within the avant-garde circles of Paris, his chosen base for the rest of his life. He retained life-long associations with many of the people he had met in the Bavarian city— Kandinsky in Paris and at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Marianne von Werefkin in Ascona, as well as theosophist friends, and others, but Kogan‘s time in Munich had largely come to an end, and so, now, had mine.
As I packed to leave, I left my saucepan out on the empty work surface of the kitchen in my hotel room. I hoped it would make its way into the hands of someone who needed it more than I did.
Featured image: Moissey Kogan, Vergangenheit (The Past ), bronze, dimensions unknown, 1909 or before. Illustrated in Hugo Lang-Danoli, ‘Moyssey Kogan – München’, Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, XXV, vol. 4, 1909/10, p. 328. Whereabouts and details of edition unknown.
¹ Translation from the German by Helen Shiner.
² A full-length article on the subject is in preparation and will be published in due course.
All rights reserved. © Helen Shiner, Moissey Kogan Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture & Prints