Theme week ahead…
This coming week it’s all about the unexpected undercurrents of Munich, concentrating on but not exclusive to the bohemian community which gathered in the Schwabing district around the beginning of the 20th century.
We’ve talked about enough obscure, unfairly forgotten people here, but with pre-World War One Schwabing a whole milieu remains largely unexamined, in the English-speaking world at least. With the honourable exception of Elizabeth Wilson’s Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts, accounts of this incredibly fertile period are generally absent from overviews of counterculture.
In the Bavarian capital, the already reactionary tendencies of the German Empire were aggravated by Catholic conservatism. But these forces produced a reaction, and it’s worth returning to Thomas Mann’s quote on this paradox: “on that healthy, earthy crust the most singular, the most delicate, the boldest exotic plants could sometimes thrive under truly favourable conditions.” This was the birthplace, lest we forget, of both Sissi and Ludwig. There were surprising sources of enlightenment from above, from classicist King Ludwig I to Prince Luitpold. Munich’s apogee coincided with, and was to a degree fostered by, Luitpold’s regency. His relatively progressive views contrasted with those of the arch-conservative Kaiser Wilhelm II, who took an invasive interest in his subjects’ artistic activities.
Among the odd blooms in Munich during this time were “Cosmic Countess” Fanny zu Reventlow, “Kohlrabi Apostle” Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Rainer Maria Rilke, Alastair, Paul Klee, Stefan George, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Erich Mühsam, Gusto Gräser, Franz von Stuck, Frank Wedekind, Alfred Kubin, Oscar A. H. Schmitz, Franz Hessel and Henri-Pierre Roché, to name just a few. Numerous writers recorded the criss-crossing relations among these figures in romans à clef, titillating the bourgeoisie with their unconventional lives and loves. Munich’s unrivalled position as a centre for teaching and practicing visual arts attracted hundreds of artists. Most were comfortable in the academy, but as in Berlin and Vienna, there were others artists who made their dissent official under the banner of Secession. Like Berlin and Vienna, too, early 20th century Munich had a dynamic café culture, with establishments such as Café Stefanie encouraging the exchange of ideas and the hatching of manifestos.
While Berlin was by no means a cultural backwater during this time, Munich had the edge. After World War One these polarities reversed and the national capital monopolised the attentions of Germany’s avant-garde. Under the Third Reich Munich was singled out for special attention by the Nazi regime (with, it must be noted, minimal opposition). But even after the Second World War – as this newsreel footage from 1959 shows – Schwabing retained (or recovered) a reputation for youthful artsy hi-jinks. Three years later students – including a young Andreas Baader – rioted in Schwabing, years ahead of the pan-European 1968 upheavals. And Munich, remember, is where the ensemble around film and theatre director Rainer Werner Fassbinder came together in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Hanna Schygulla, Peer Raben, Ingrid Caven, Harry Baer, Irm Hermann and Kurt Raab, among others. Numerous Fassbinder films were shot in Munich, frequently exposing the bleak, cynical flipside of Germany’s post-war prosperity and social conformity.
But while Munich can today claim a healthy economy and enviable standard of living, the spaces and scenes which might foster a genuine underground culture are now largely absent. One of the last ungentrified parts of central Munich was the bar Schwabinger 7, which closed in 2011 (although it still had a surprise in store).
So although the coming week’s posts will be more eulogy than celebration, the people, artworks and lifestyles it remembers continue to influence us to this day.