Johann Dieter Wassmann, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1887. 20 x 16 x 12 cm.
As autumn approaches, with the world around us seemingly in free-fall, I thought it might be useful to reflect for a moment on the very birth of our tempestuous modern era. In recent weeks I’ve been looking at the rise of modernist sensibilities in the work of the pioneering German artist Johann Dieter Wassmann. Johann’s later works would come to wholly encapsulate the energy and hopefulness of the modern era, but his early works express an anxiety and apprehension not unlike that which grips us in our current deleveraged age.
In posts over the past several months, I’ve been looking at this contemporary anxiety through the melancholy of Daniel Birnbaum’s upcoming 50 moons of Saturn for the Turin Triennale. By the 1880s, Johann Dieter Wassmann similarly found himself troubled by a deep melancholy, one which he responded to initially by retreating into the romantic past of his forefathers, a response having clear relevance today. From here, I’ll hand it over to Maime Stombock, quoting from her seminal essay, A Carpenter’s Tale:
“It is this very relevance, a relevance permeating his entire oeuvre, that imbues these works with the ability to not only leap through time, entering into our 21st century lives, but more importantly to side-step the rat race of time, a trait unique to the arts in general and great art in particular. I can imagine no sweeter compliment befalling a man whose life’s ambition was to re-unite the wonder of space with the splendor of time, all the more so given how thoroughly disenfranchised the two have since become. The works from these early years would become known as the “Dresden Boxes” after their extended display in a Dresden clinic. (Their brief popularity played a small part in the eventual establishment of Dresden’s Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in the 1920s, an institution that thrives even today.)
“Despite his considerable achievements, Johann felt increasingly troubled as the century hastened toward its close... His suspicion that the deliberate progress of modernity was fast bearing down overwhelmed him with regular fits of fear and uncertainty. When he first caught sight of this brooding monolith his response was to back-pedal his way out of the 19th century and into his romanticized view of an earlier, less pressured era. As he came to feel more at ease with the medium of the wooden box he staged his retreat by venturing into works that he hoped might help him to combat this anguish. Here his creative impulse was most Germanic: a return to the ancient wood, with Goethe looming large, although his influences were equally eclectic. His great love of the American Transcendentalist authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau is apparent in several works. He had grown fond of their writings while living in Washington, D.C., where he consulted on a long overdue sewerage system for the nation’s capitol during Restoration—the first in the world to be built of concrete, a pioneering design solution born of necessity amid the poorly-drained swamplands of the Potomac.
"Whether conscious or not, his impulse to celebrate the ancient wood twenty years later can be read as an unsurprising response to the soulless concrete, brick and mortar that dominated his professional life. Johann had long found solace in the wood, a passion so deeply imbedded in the German psyche it was the subject of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus’ classic Germania; or, On the Origin and situation of the Germans, recorded in the year 98. For Roman readers, Germania served to explain why these primitive arcadians were such barbarians. For the Germans themselves, Tacitus’ portrayal of them as little more than arboreal hunters, gatherers and warriors was taken as a compliment. Germania eventually became a raw staple in their literary diet, all the more so after the first native translation was published in Leipzig in 1496.
“For Johann, delving into the ancient wood was an essential catharsis, just as it would be a hundred years later for his compatriot Anselm Kiefer. In a letter to his brother Wolfgang, dated November 10, 1885, Johann writes that from the moment his saw broke the grain of his rough planks of birch, oak, pine, beech, ash, walnut, elm or whatever else might be at hand, he was magically propelled through the looking glass, moving into the wood, first physically—as he cut, planed, joined and finished the timbers—and then mentally—as he deliberated what world might inhabit the inner space of these exquisite boxes.
“His experience of the wood spared none of the senses, however. The sweet freshness of pine, the acrid harshness of elm that burned the eyes and throat, the gentle pleasantries of oak: he genuinely believed as his father had that the souls of men inhabited these timbers and only by cutting into them and experiencing them fully could these souls find release. He reminded Wolfgang of the stories their father would tell them as children, the stories they would insist on hearing again and again of the family workshop in the years that followed the Battle of Leipzig, a time when their father himself was just a child. The terrible destruction of the city and surrounding villages had left such an abundance of floorboards, panelling and structural timbers that Leipzig’s woodcutters found no cause to fell a single tree for three years, instead harvesting their bounty from the rubble. But unlike fresh cut timbers, which house only old souls, August commanded to his sons that recycled timbers uniquely house the souls of those more recently departed.
“The oak parquetry of Madame Troufold’s salon, gracefully planed and mitered by their grandfather to make a small corner cupboard, had overwhelmed the workshop for a week with the perfumed elegance of a life cultured beyond their dreams. The softly worn pine floorboards of Herr Zächer’s bäckerie, despite being scrubbed with bucket and brush each morning, had brought such hunger to the journeymen when they cut into them to frame the carcass of a veneered chest of drawers that they finished their daily bread before noon, venturing out to find more before returning to their work. The walnut panelling recovered from Kapitän Brunheld’s library, the walnut that their grandfather fashioned into several fine wardrobes, had surrendered thick smoky tobacco, aged whiskey and a thousand tales of Saxon glory before the wardrobes left the shop. And the narrow ash planks from the stairway of Fräulein Nau’s bordell, the planks their grandfather had hoped to shape into dough bins, brought work to such a halt and lowered the integrity of the conversation to such a degree that he gave up in disgust, burning them as firewood, although the smoke from the fire provoked one of the men to partake in a debaucherous drinking binge lasting three days, ending with his arrest for committing unnatural acts in the public square.
“Wolfgang’s reply to his letter was that old men tell tall tales, so leave it at that, but Johann was undeterred, at least for the moment. While this period was both cathartic and crucial in defining the roots of Johann’s dissatisfaction, and while his output might seem to us today to be quite charming, within the decade he too would come to question the romantic overtones in his response.”