One of the very earliest examples of art intervention – confrontational performances or manipulations arising out of artistic practice yet eschewing the consoling frame of the gallery – occurred one hundred years ago today, when a man walked into a building in central Berlin and proclaimed:
Christus ist euch Wurst!
… literally ‘Christ is sausage to you’, but meaning ‘you don’t give a damn about Christ!’. It would have been an antagonistic declaration in any context, but particularly here: the city’s Protestant cathedral. During a Sunday service. In a time of utmost turmoil in the immediate aftermath of World War One, just one week after the Kaiser had abdicated and a German republic was called into being, a week that had seen suffrage extended to women*, and a revolution in Bavaria following the proclamation of a Soviet republic.
The accusation came from Johannes Baader, usually mentioned in connection with Dada, but a man with a history of such provocations reaching back long before the anti-art movement, beginning in 1899 when he wrote a letter to the magazine Jugend and signed it ‘God’. He belongs to a messianic strain linking an eccentric selection of German artists and writers in the 19th and 20th centuries, including Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Gusto Gräser, Fidus and gustaf nagel.
War and religion were fixed as implacable adversaries in Baader’s mind; in 1917 he formed a group of deserters under the banner of ‘Christus GmbH’ (Christ Corp.) with fellow provocateur Raoul Hausmann. And in his harangue in the cathedral the following year, Baader did not simply accuse the congregation of mouthing the words of the gospels without living up to them, but further claimed that their – and by extension society’s – failure to follow the true example of Christ had resulted in the unexampled calamity of the Great War. The action was briefly dismissed as an ‘unsettling incident’ in a newspaper report the following day.The dean of the Cathedral, Ernst Dryander, had been court preacher to the recently departed Kaiser. Baader was arrested after his action, but released after police decided that he was suffering from mental disturbance. Baader followed up with a letter to Dryander in which he proclaimed himself president of both Earth and space, which did little to contradict the verdict.
Baader carried out further actions which blurred the line between art prank and manic episode. In 1919 he disrupted the conference in Weimar that was debating the constitution for the new republic by throwing out flyers in which he again self-identified as the highest authority in creation, and announced that he would build a pyramid one-and-a-half kilometres high as the place of worship for his new creed. Perhaps reflecting that he would need to start building on a slightly smaller scale, he contacted Walter Gropius about a position with his newly established Bauhaus, but was unsuccessful.
In the ensuing years Baader produced collages and dedicated himself to journalism while loosely aligning himself with the new breed of ‘inflation saints’ including Ludwig Christian Haeusser and Friedrich Muck-Lamberty who, partly inspired by Baader himself, took their religio-megalomania to the masses, with surprising success. But Baader’s patience with these false idols was limited, and his last, most spectacular intervention came in 1930, when he convened an open-air conference of these imitations of Christ in a field – and convinced Lufthansa to fly him right into the middle of it.
His supremacy thus established, Baader largely slipped from view, and died in 1955.
* on the 100th anniversary of women gaining the vote in Germany, i.e. last Monday, the first English translation of a visionary 1899 feminist novel that foresaw precisely that outcome was published by Rixdorf Editions – We Women Have no Fatherland. I recommend it, and not just because I translated it.