Kaiser in Studio

I just recently found a translation I did a few years ago of a famous article written by my cousin Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann for the German newspaper Das Reich. It has been around the internet for a while, but, to the best of my knowledge, never in English. Elisabeth described life in her famous grandfather’s, Fritz Schaper’s, house. It should be of interest to descendents of this famous sculptor. Please take some time to read this and see if you agree. I will be glad to answer questions you might have – you may post comments below the article and I will respond. Also, please use the subscribe form to join the mailing list!

Historical Text.

Elisabeth Noelle

The Kaiser [emperor] in the Studio.

An Artist’s Home in Berlin ca. 1900

[Published] in “The Reich”, July 27, 1941

On the table in the living room are pale letters and brownish photographs. They show a house decorated with towers and balconies and overgrown [with ivy], a dark den with gas lamps, Gobelin rugs and plates on the walls and, above the door, a garland of dried corn cobs[i], poppy seed containers and decorative pumpkins. Also a high artist’s studio containing white sculptures: Mommsen in the robe of a professor, a woman awakening, a Greek bust and Schlüter’s war masks appearing gigantic [in contrast to everything else]. And diminutive, among all this, a shape in a long velvet jacket and a soft artist-type bow tie, with white beard and deep sunken eye sockets behind glasses and a clear forehead, clay lump in his hand along with a spatula: my grandfather. Again and again, conversations about him re-appear in the past few weeks and just the other day we retrieved the crate with the Boccia balls from the basement, to attempt to play the old game, again.

Birthdays have always been very important feasts in his house, with rhyming theater performances and charades. Now, on July 31, is his own one-hundredth birthday. That is the reason for the strewn out letters and photographs and the conversations.  I never knew much of him, and when he was mentioned, I always remembered that walk, as a child, through the Siegesallee in Berlin to the Great Elector [statue], where I read with great admiration on the base his name: Fritz Schaper. A little bit dimmer was the memory of a brief vacation visit on [the island of] Helgoland, when the monument of Hoffmann von Fallersleben was being looked at, between meals of lobster and shopping for coral necklaces. Now, all of a sudden however, I am inundated with hundreds of stories.

The great difference in age between him and his children encourages me as participant in these conversations, even if there are no personal experiences to relate. “How shall I build this house for you: married or not married?”, asked the architect Kayser of him, when he bought at this age of 49 the lot at the end of the Buchenstraße, in the old Western part of Berlin. “Can’t you possibly arrange it for both cases and leave ample room for all eventualities?”, answered the already famous, but still uncertain man and changed the subject immediately to questions about the billiard room and how the studio was to appear: facing North, and with a view of the garden, and best of all, equipped with tracks leading out to the graveled place. Then one could roll the great statues into the open, like the Luther for Erfurt or the Krupp for Essen, and one could study the effect of the trees in the background.

Ten years later the ample amount of room was put to good use by a lady from the Rhineland and four children. But, since the man of the house was by then already a famous sculptor, from the very first day everything was arranged in such a manner that he did not notice anything of the liveliness in the house while he was working. Of course, every morning at 7:30 and Sundays a half-hour later, at breakfast the table had to be complete with six persons. However, no one entered the studio, to which he retired at eight o’clock, without being asked. And the “second breakfast” stood on the balcony at ten o’clock, without a soul being around. Should he visit in the garden, in his ribbed velvet coat or white artist’s mantle, weighed down with plans, and admire, somewhat absentmindedly, his Alpinum of plants brought back from the vacations as souvenirs, or the grape arbor on the South wall, one would plan a careful detour around him.  Sometimes he would pause on the graveled space to inspect and criticize the drawings, which his children had scratched on the ground, by a right they had attained through a long-term custom, while they would wait there for this “audience” with him.

But if it was always a true pleasure to reap praise for drawings and piano performance at school, it appeared that at home, the father always seemed to espy the mistakes. That was not the case for the pictures in the gravel, but especially for the weekly recitals on Sundays on the grand piano, during which he severely criticized the certain and very stylish improvisations by his son, when he encountered parts where the memory failed.  And there were wonderful experiences with him, when, for example on a certain Christmas Eve he disregarded the shoe bag, carefully embroidered with “Pleasant Journey”, but instead opted for the stick horse with moveable legs and ears, which the same daughter had hand carved and painted, just for fun.

One cannot relate any true artist legends from the house in the Buchenstraße. The Schaper children always were anxious about that with their classmates. Nothing was to be said about the famous father. Alas, almost the opposite was true. While others were dressed in many colors or wore white lace dresses, the three sisters and their brother wore navy middy blouses[ii] with braid on collar and cuffs. And from the home mealtimes one could only report that, while on each setting at the table there was a wine glass, the lady of the house, from the Rhineland, was generally the only one who drank a little Mosel wine from it now and then.

However, from time to time, the aura surrounding the father became quite apparent. The Buchenstraße was barricaded off, three carriages drew up and the Kaiser arrived to view the new works in the studio. At such festivity the children also stood in the broad dark entryway for the welcoming, and later they looked on from the windows through the curtains, as the Bison Hunt Group or the Great Elector was rolled out into the garden for the emperor. By the way, they especially loved the Bison Hunt Group (Figure 80). They had been with the father a few times in the zoo, by the Bison cages for early studies for this monument, and therefore they knew, that the head of the fighting German with the upbraided hair was a self-portrait. (Figure 81).

Also, it was a great ado every time the sculptor donned the court uniform with knee breeches and three-cornered hat, to attend an event at the court, and the bon-bons which he brought home from there, still play an important role in their memory. Such official occurrences broke the otherwise unchangeable schedule for the week: On Monday a social circle of friends would meet in the Buchenstraße, painters, poets, university professors, with wives. The Wednesday evening belonged to the societies of the social reformer Hedwig Heyl, and the Friday belonged to old friend, architect Kayser. Generally Thursday evening was the bowling evening, which however, often was replaced by concerts. Finally there were almost a regular number of guests at lunchtime and in the afternoon visits to the studio, which always captured the old-Berlin painter and friend from early youth, Julius Jacob, for the longest critical discussions.

But every conversation about my grandfather ends at the Monday evening events. The ladies sat, by the tuff[iii] grotto, drinking tea, while the gentlemen played Boccia on the gravel place until it got dark. Inside the house the table was being set for the late dinner with three or four courses. In fiery discussion the company remained even after dessert until the traditional closing time at about eleven o’clock.


[i] I remember this garland from the Buchenstraße. My first encounter with corn, or “Mais” (the Indian name for corn), as it is called in German. We never ate corn while I was in Germany!

[ii] Middy blouse: a loose blouse having a sailor collar, worn by women and children.

[iii] Tuff: porous rock composed of scoria (loose lava-like gravel) and ashes about the crater of a volcano. (I remember this one, white in color, very well from my boyhood).


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