Dinner with Secretary of State Abegg in the evening; feeding off small tables in an apartment with furniture hailing from the Nineties (“front room” style), the walls decked with the most modern pictures. The contrast is, like any pointless disharmony, painful. There, among other things, is my portrait by Liebermann, which I see for the first time in fourteen years. Discussion with Nowak (the author of “Versailles”, etc.); there is something of the actor about him. Norah Siemens wandered around amid old junk and Expressionist paintings looking like Clytemnestra.
In one diary entry, in less than a hundred words, we find a potent distillation of the qualities that make German publisher, writer, curator, diplomat and art patron Harry Graf Kessler (born on this day in 1868) as fascinating to posterity as he was to his contemporaries – his ease in the company of the political elite, his association with progressive art, his forthright judgments on matters of taste, his cultured terms of reference, his insistence on knowing everyone. In this instance we find left-leaning secretary of state in the Prussian interior ministry Wilhelm Abegg, leading German Impressionist Max Liebermann, Austrian military writer Karl Friedrich Nowak and industrialist’s consort Eleonore Siemens.
Kessler’s diaries – which he kept from 1880 until his death in exile in 1937 – are inexhaustible in their variety and fascination; the names above represent just four of the 12,000 or so figures who stroll through Kessler’s recollections. In the next entry, for instance, Kessler is privy to gossip about the Marchesa Casati shared by polymath Karl Gustav Vollmoeller, not just the scriptwriter for that year’s Blue Angel, but also a pioneer in the automotive and aeronautical fields. The 57 volumes reflect the headline upheavals in Germany and Europe during Kessler’s lifetime as well as the momentary signifiers of change, such as his lyrical description of light from newly installed electric street lamps reflected in rain-slicked roads.
The life of Harry Graf Kessler as it was lived and recorded is the subject of an exhibition which has just opened in Berlin, entitled Flaneur durch die Moderne (translated by the curators as “Flaneur through Modernity”, “Moderne” as applied to progressive German culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries being not entirely concordant with early use of the English label Modernism). It unfolds in one of the capital’s most prestigious locations, an exhibition space which props up one side of the Brandenburg Gate. The building is a paraphrase of a palatial town villa which stood on the site, the home of “artist prince” Max Liebermann, who painted the portrait with which Kessler was presently reacquainted. At the beginning of the 20th century Kessler and Liebermann were among the co-founders of the Deutscher Künstlerbund (Association of German Artists), which formalised the country’s avant-garde tendencies in the visual arts. Kessler, alert to revealing details, commits Liebermann’s comments to his diary in their original earthy Berlin dialect.
There is no small challenge in illustrating a life whose most significant product was a not overly exhibit-friendly row of hand-written volumes, but the curators cope admirably. Among the displays is a recreation of Kessler’s outstanding collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including some of the original works. With its Seurats, Van Goghs and Gauguins, to say nothing of its provenance, such a collection could conceivably fetch a nine-figure sum at auction today. Among the pieces is Edvard Munch’s full-length portrait of Kessler, his patron. Confronting it, I am vividly reminded of Laird McLeod Easton’s highly apposite description of an “elegant dandy who dispassionately assesses his viewers as if they were works of art themselves, which may or may not meet his standard”. The picture is set high enough on the wall that its subject is, in every sense, looking down on the viewer, and his scrutiny is unsettling.From conception onwards, Kessler was a model European (“the kind we could do with today,” as I overhear an elderly exhibition-goer commenting to her companion). Born in Paris, his father was a wealthy German banker raised to the nobility while Harry was still a child, his mother, a noted beauty, was a member of the Irish landed gentry. His schooling in Germany, France and Britain and their respective languages was later supplemented by the classics in ancient Greek and Latin. In the early 1890s he set off on a world tour during which he devoured Also sprach Zarathustra, returning to Germany a fervent Nietzschean (he later befriended Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth and cast the philosopher’s death mask in 1900). He volunteered for a year’s military service in Potsdam, his fond memories of this time most likely due to his affair with a fellow aristocrat in the regiment.
In Berlin he became involved with the first incarnation of the journal PAN, which reflected contemporary Jugendstil ideals by subordinating words, artworks and decorative elements to an overarching aesthetic. Kessler’s later curatorship of a grand-ducal museum in Weimar allowed him to further the cause of progressive art in an institutional setting while also pursuing a larger project of reviving the city as the centre of high German culture it became during the era of Goethe and Schiller. His first aim, at least, failed when he presented Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst with a collection of Rodin lithographs judged to be obscene. Kessler resigned his position in 1906 to the delight of Kaiser Wilhelm II, implacable foe of the artistic vanguard.
In one sense Kessler – “one of the most cosmopolitan men who ever lived” in the words of W.H. Auden – fit the mode of the dandyish, moneyed, gay aesthete that prevailed in his time. But he courted not just fellow tastemakers but the political elite as well, seeking a career in diplomacy for which the polyglot networker appeared to be an ideal fit. In imperial Germany this path remained largely barred to him, but whether by his avant-garde tastes, his conspicuous bachelorhood or the Kaiser’s disfavour is not recorded.
Kessler remained committed to Weimar, establishing the bibliophile Cranach Press there shortly before the First World War, entrusting it to architect Henry van de Velde as he went off to the front (as an officer, naturally). Kessler emerged from hostilities a pacifist, and in 1919 sketched out a plan for a global organisation remarkably similar to the League of Nations which was established the following year. He also adjusted with alacrity to conditions in the republic which bore the name of his beloved Weimar, befriending representatives of the radical new art such as George Grosz and the brothers John Heartfield and Wieland Herzfelde. Kessler’s loyalty to the new regime also earned him the foreign postings he craved, and in 1924 he stood (unsuccessfully) for a seat in the Reichstag as a candidate for the German Democratic Party.
As the 1920s wore on, Kessler largely withdrew from public life to concentrate on meticulous editions for the Cranach Press as well as his own writing, all the while recording the country’s descent into polarisation and terror in his diary with customary perception. Horrified by the rise of the Nazis, he left Germany following the Reichstag fire in February 1933, settling initially in Paris. A diary entry records an encounter with fellow exile Klaus Mann and the “very pretty” Annemarie Schwarzenbach (also born on this day, in 1908), with the parenthetical comment “(his girlfriend?)” indicating that the otherwise perceptive Kessler had a terrible gaydar.
Kessler died in Lyon, penniless, in 1937. With him died the concept of a classically educated pan-European cultural elite of uncompromising aesthetic ideals in the Nietzschean mould. In later life his political beliefs settled into social democracy, or perhaps something even further left, but you would be hard pressed to shoe-horn “man of the people” among the many labels applied to Kessler. This was vividly apparent when I stepped out of the rarefied hush of the exhibition, with its tasteful storm-hued drapery, video interviews with thoughtful commentators, museum-quality artworks and exquisite first editions, to be confronted with fans streaming through the Brandenburg Gate to an outdoor viewing of a football match between…oh, who cares. I doubt Harry would have. And there, on the facade, was the man himself, looking down on us all. We have not met his standard.
Flaneur durch die Moderne continues until 21 August; it is accompanied by a catalogue in German, English and French.