“Alles möchte ich immer”.
This phrase, which translates more or less as “I want everything all the time” or “I always want it all”, sprang from the pen of German writer Countess Franziska zu Reventlow, and it perfectly captures her hunger for experience in a life which spanned and scandalised the Second Reich.
It also serves as the title of an exhibition about that fragile existence which is working its way through Germany, in part following the stations of the countess’s life, currently stopping over in Berlin. While the exhibition itself is modest in scale, the accompanying catalogue represents an exhaustive survey of Reventlow-related text and images, greatly enriching our understanding of one of the key figures of the bohemian adventure.
Her life began in aristocratic comfort in 1871 in the Schleswig-Holstein town of Husum, in the family’s palace, an oddly institutional-looking building within gull’s cry of the North Sea. In 1889 her father decided to move the family from provincial Husum to the slightly more worldly port city of Lübeck; “Fanny”, as the family called her, would continue this trajectory alone. Her intellect fired by Ibsen, Nietzsche and Zola, she threw off the burden of social expectation and the dull, easy life she could have had, in search of more stimulating company.
The journey was hazardous; along with hope and passion came the constant buzzkill of hard-scrabble day-to-day existence, no more so than during Reventlow’s Munich years. She was proclaimed as the “Bohemian Countess”, the best-known female figure in a milieu of artistic and social experimentation based in the district of Schwabing, but for her it was a period marked as much by penury as liberation. Often ill, she was regularly turfed out of rented accommodation after falling behind on the rent. A map showing her various residences in and around Schwabing is as eloquent as any chronicle of this time – it shows no less than 26 different addresses. One of the most poignant tokens of her life’s twists is a set of silver spoons, the archetypal symbol of inherited wealth, which bear her monogram. While they would survive long enough to form part of Reventlow’s deceased estate, they were repeatedly pawned along the way.
And from 1897 there was another mouth to feed – her son Rolf. The then-unmarried countess never named the father and schooled him herself, concerned that her “sapling” would otherwise be “stunted”. Despite the hardship, Reventlow declared “this artistic/bohemian life has been the best part of my life to date.” The exhibition’s period photographs bring the Schwabing scene to life; there’s po-faced poet Stefan George, for instance, dressed as Dante for a Fasching (Carnival) ball. Or a pyramid of party-goers leering drunkenly at the camera. A nude photo of Reventlow on the beach in 1900 may well have been taken in Greece, but the theatricality, daring and self-conscious allusions to antiquity are pure Schwabing.
The beautiful countess was idealised by numerous men of the Munich avant-garde, and her husbandless motherhood only fuelled their adoration; with no Joseph around they could freely enthrone her as a Madonna with Child. They described her variously as a “heathen Madonna”, “heathen saint” or a “Schleswig-Holsatian Venus”. A painting by one-time lover Friedrich Fehr, which was exhibited at the Munich Secession, shows Reventlow with Virgin-like lilies. A young Rainer Maria Rilke used to pen verse for the countess; one such poem sent from Florence is written on the back of a reproduction of a Botticelli Madonna and Child.
If the men in her circle weren’t trying to put her on a pedestal they were trying to push her down on the bed; few of them looked her in the eye as a peer. And yet her vision and energy were the equal of anyone around her. She was infected with the reforming zeal which marked her age and particularly the Schwabing scene, but she didn’t write manifestos. It was her own life which informed her writing and it is the sense of lived experience rather than vacuous theory which gives her works their vitality. No-one could have accused the countess of not walking it like she talked it.
As well as her novels, her diaries and the articles she wrote for Simplicissimus and other journals, her Stakhanovite work rate produced translations of no less than 49 French novels. Admittedly she sometimes cut out boring passages – any translator will tell you what a temptation this is, though few act on it.
Reventlow was inspired as much by painting as literature and fin-de-siècle Munich was acknowledged as one of the great artistic centres of Europe; in 1897 Pablo Picasso proclaimed that if he had a son he would send him there to study art rather than Paris. However lack of funds forced the countess to abandon her art studies. The handful of original works on display – and there’s no nice way to say this – don’t indicate that a great artistic talent went unfulfilled. Whether she had any more flair for her other great passion, acting, is unknown – she was let down by her health which was unequal to the rigours of performance.
Writer Erich Mühsam convinced Reventlow to move to the Swiss town of Ascona, where the utopian Monte Verità circle held dress rehearsals for a better world. There she hoped to enter into a financially advantageous sham marriage and while she did indeed marry in 1911, through a typically Reventlovian turn of events she never saw any return.
The Weimar era lay ahead, an era of experimentation in which Reventlow should rightly have flourished as an inspiration to the headstrong youth who took up the countess’s battle cry of “everything all the time”, and whose kicks, kinks and crazes were shaping the post-war era. Sadly she never made it: during surgery following a bicycle accident, Franziska zu Reventlow died on this day in 1918.