It was a public event of the highest calibre: the unveiling of a monument to composer Richard Wagner on 1 October 1903. The impressive sculpture, and the huge painting to go with it, had been commissioned by Ludwig Leichner, a manufacturer of cosmetics and former opera singer. It was a good example of how the industrial bourgeoisie had stepped into the shoes of the old aristocracy, not only as patrons of the arts, but also in their desire to parade their grandeur. Leichner made his riches by inventing and then producing lead-free stage make-up. To record the spectacle in Berlin’s Tiergarten and decorate his company headquarters, the industrialist turned to the highly reputed court painter Anton von Werner (1843–1915). For five years the artist worked on this space-filling canvas, which is more than three metres wide. It is a key feature in the Berlinische Galerie’s collection, as it represents the dominant style around 1900 – and is the very antithesis of the modernist trends that began to emerge in Berlin at that turn of the century. While the impressionists, for example, were capturing moods of light with flickering dabs of paint, Werner depicted the solemn scene with almost photographic precision. The monument shines bright in the mild autumn sun, but at least as important are the many celebrities from political, industrial and cultural life portrayed here by the artist.
Unveiling of the Richard-Wagner Monument in the Tiergarten
Öl auf Leinwand
227 x 312,3 cm
Erworben aus Mitteln der Stiftung DKLB und aus Mitteln des Senators für Wissenschaft und Kunst, Berlin 1975
The larger-than-life marble statue of the composer is enthroned on an ornate plinth. In sublime pose, his gaze lost in the distance, Richard Wagner clenches his right hand into a fist. It rests on a pile of musical scores – an energetic gesture that Anton von Werner underpins in his canvas by the use of light and shade. The monument was made by Gustav Eberlein, a highly successful sculptor of the day. It stylises Wagner, surrounded by his operatic characters, as a musical hero. This reflected the zeitgeist and taste of the years around 1900.
There are far more than a hundred guests assembled around the monument to Richard Wagner. They have all turned out in their finest clothes, befitting the occasion: the gentlemen in uniform or tails, the ladies tight-laced and lace-trimmed with elaborate hats. The person detached from the crowd at the foot of the plinth is the very man who commissioned the monument and the painting, Ludwig Leichner. He bows slightly as he indicates the statue of the composer. Behind him stand a group or eminent Berlin artists, among them Gustav Eberlein, who built the monument. To the right Prince Eitel Friedrich, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, greets the patron of the arts.
Anton von Werner was the very personification of art and art policy under Kaiser Wilhelm II. He made his name with historical paintings representing important events in great detail. From 1875 until his death in 1915, Werner directed the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, as well as exercising other important offices. His views on art matched the conservative tastes of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Neither the Kaiser nor his court painter had any time for incipient modernism.