M.ax Klinger will have been astonished when he was contacted by a man whom he had just portrayed, but who had died more than 2,200 years ago. Alexander the Great protested personally to the Leipzig painter in a letter dated July 12th, 1909: “Who among Zeus told you the fairy tale that I was a toddler?” that neither his skin color and posture nor his look or helmet in the picture corresponded to the facts, and he had never worn greaves either. Klinger should kindly take up the objections and take them into account. In other words: Alexander wanted his depiction on Klinger’s most recent painting to be revised. That was not yet revealed, but whoever pretended to be Alexander already knew it. No wonder: the archaeologist Franz Studniczka was a member of the art commission of the University of Leipzig, and it had to decide on a gigantic mural by Klinger that was supposed to decorate the auditorium of the university.
It was more than twenty meters wide and six meters high, making it the largest work that Klinger has ever created, which is to say something about this artist. Twelve years earlier he had already let Christ move into Olympus on fifty square meters, and his Beethoven sculpture from 1902 was more than three meters high and weighed almost five tons. But in the main building of the university in his hometown of Leipzig, for the 500th anniversary of the founding, the task was to fill a wall space in the auditorium that had been left especially for this purpose, and since the picture would be a gift from the Saxon government on the happy occasion, one could even afford the star painter Klinger – for 50,000 marks. However, since he was considered an unpredictable modernist, the Art Commission kept a keen eye on his plans. And Klinger, who had already received the contract in 1896, found it difficult to choose a topic. It was not until 1906 that he decided: “The blossom of Greece” should show the picture. Greece always went in the academic world of that time.
In December 1943, the picture burned in the worst night of bombing that Leipzig experienced. But for the unveiling in December 1909, a celebratory brochure with elaborate color reproduction was published, so that today one can get a precise idea of what the work looked like. And there are preserved design drawings, study sheets and cardboard fragments, which can now be seen in an exhibition of the custody of the University of Leipzig on the lost wall painting, along with many testimonies to the history of its creation. With just under fifty objects, the show is rather small, but very well researched, and it joins the newly awakened interest in destroyed representational murals from the turn of the century, as recently documented by the investigations into Gustav Klimt’s Viennese faculty pictures and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s life frieze in Königstein to have.
In front of an Arcadian backdrop, the mural showed in the left half an exalted Homer in front of a devout audience including the goddess of love Aphrodite and on the right the philosophers Plato and Aristotle in conversation – Raphael’s “School of Athens” sent their regards. However, with Klinger everything was symbolist instead of allegorical, right down to a woman standing in the shade of a tree in the exact center of the picture, who was modeled on his lover, the writer Elsa Asenijeff, and who is the only figure in the picture facing the viewer . Ecce femina.
And to the right of the edge, Alexander the Great storms up, only physically rather small compared to Plato and his teacher Aristotle, but Klinger didn’t care about a uniform perspective or proportions anyway. Effect was important to him, not reality. Studniczka, however, did not want to come to terms with it, although he was one of the supporters of Klinger’s picture. That is why he wrote his ironic letter after the gigantic work had been hung up six months before the ceremonial unveiling. But Klinger didn’t even think about allowing himself to be talked into now. “It was of no use”, Studniczka resigned a week later. “How beautiful was what the original draft was in the same place.”
The design can be seen in the show. Instead of Alexander, it shows two muses in provocatively draped robes. A rogue who thinks simple. After all, Studniczka was not corrupted by the fact that some wanted to recognize his features in Klinger’s final account of Plato. The exhibition shows how meticulously Klinger created his figures from ancient sources. Also in the case of Alexander, for whom he preferred to believe the written traditions than the idealizing portraits of the ruler. Or a German archaeologist more than 2200 years post festum.
Max Klinger and the University of Leipzig. The lost wall painting in context. In the gallery of the New Augusteum, Leipzig; until January 22, 2022. The detailed catalog, published by Passagen, costs 17.50 euros.
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