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First steps

Art Academy

Old masters


His Sister Emma

His friend Marya



Between Sicily and Switzerland

by Domenico Maria Ardizzone

The inquiry into the mysterious fire which in the summer of 1931 destroyed the Glaspalast in Munich and more than a thousand paintings displayed there quickly established the blaze was the result of arson. Although the individuals responsible were never identified, there was no doubt who had sent them: in those years arson was a typical method of intimidation used by the Nazis. The destruction of the Glaspalast was clearly a precisely aimed warning from the zealous bully boys of the SA for that small group of young artists “without jury” who were seeking freedom of expression. Indeed not long after the blaze the the Juryfreie movement was banned by the Nazi regime which then issued a decree dissolving the group because of its ‘bolshevist tendencies’. Christian Hess had no choice but to leave the city he had grown to love so well. Leaving Munich, he had no doubts where to seek refuge during his voluntary exile: Sicily.

Allegoria mezzagosto messinese (1933)
the year of the inauguration for Messina cathedral's reconstructed bell-tower with its magnificent astronomical clock

He had gone there many times to see his sister Emma and her family. He knew the warm welcoming spirit of the people on the island that was to become his home in exile. He also knew that this time it would not be a holiday but a period of separation from Bavaria, from his artistic roots and from his friends. There was the sweet memory of successful exhibitions and the nauseating stench of his burnt paintings.
Hess begins his self-imposed exile in Messina at the home of his brother in law Guglielmo Starrentino first in the Principe quarter of the city on the banks of the Strait of Messina, then at Mili Marina and finally in “Casa Preggi” a small villa at Tremestieri on the Ionian coast. Here he has his own two-storey house alongside his sister’s new home. It is 1933, the same year that Albert Einstein fled anti-Jewish persecution in Germany and sought refuge in the United States.

The house of exile
in Hess’ paintings

The haus where Hess lived in 1930's.

Hess carried out a series of water-colours at the villa Casa Preggi in Tremestieri on the Ionian coast. They featured the house itself and also the surrounding countryside with its views of the sea and the Straits of Messina with the mountains of Calabria in the distance.

His wife leaves him

The nameplate of the house at Tremestieri in Messina where Hess lived nearby his sister Emma. The second name is that of his wife Cecile, who followed Hess to the island but never settled down. After a few months she left Hess and returned to Switzerland. She later filed for divorce so she could regain her Swiss nationality.

If Hess had remained in Munich he could only have painted in secret. In Sicily he regains freedom of expression and there follows a fertile period of production inspired by the landscapes and the warm humanity of the island. Hess’ splendid palette helped record a marvellous year of rebirth for Messina that included the inauguration of the cathedral’s reconstructed bell-tower containing one of the world’s greatest astronomical clocks and the Madonnina del Porto – the huge bronze statue of the Virgin Mary which stands as protectoress for the harbour. In a special ceremony it was illuminated for the first time by a radio signal sent by the Pope in Rome thanks to equipment provided by Guglielmo Marconi. For Hess the warm and lively atmosphere of Sicily is further enlivened by a female admirer from the north. Cecile Faesy is a Swiss teacher of theology; a devout Lutheran but also a passionate and knowledgeable devotee of art. She writes letters to Sicily full of enthusiasm for Hess' paintings. Such is her admiration she has sought to spark interest among art dealers in Lucerne and Zurich. Hess is naturally flattered but is all too aware that he was introduced to Faesy by his close friend the singer Marya Neitzel when he accompanied her for a concert in Switzerland.

A marriage that quickly fails

But Hess' friendship with Neitzel has cooled and Cecile knows it. Her letters are warm and passionate, and offer hints of consolation for the artist during his Sicilian exile. And so in 1934, at Hess' invitation, Cecile arrives in Messina. Love and then marriage swiftly follow. Then Cecile pursuades Hess to leave with her. Instead of living next to his sister's family in Sicily why not continue his voluntary exile in neutral Switzerland next to the woman of his life? But once in Lucerne Hess finds limited artistic opportunities. Through friends he manages to sell a few - unsigned - paintings. He finds some work in the theatre, both directing and designing scenography, and he carves some figures for the puppet theatre. But none of this makes much money. Germans are viewed with hostility and suspicion in Switzerland after Hermann Goering accused the country of having sold out to the Jews and subsequently banned Swiss newspapers from the Third Reich. Berne replied by banning German newspapers and closing down its German language radio broadcasts.


Hess with his wife Cecile

One morning Hess and Cecile find a swastika daubed on the wall of their house. Both view it as a warning and a threat; not only is Hess German but Cecile has acquired the same nationality by becoming his wife. They decide to return to Sicily taking furniture and paintings with them. For Hess Messina represents a haven of peace, far from political battles and bitterness. In Sicily he can work  with freedom; deep in nature, among simple, friendly people and under a splendid meditteranean sky. But the dream was to be short-lived and vanished with a rude awakening. After a few months Cecile begins to show signs of restlessness. She finds it hard to adapt to her new secluded existence, despite the beautiful setting. She paces nervously to and fro in the garden reading the "Confessions of St. Augustine", while inside the house lunch is burning. She is unable to get used to life in Sicily and she is disappointed by married life. When Cecile returns to Switzerland Hess sinks into deep depression. If on a personal level the outlook is bleak, the future in Italy is also far from rosy as already the first winds of war begin to stir. He carries out a few experiments with new techniques but he is hardly working.

Dry point portrait of Cecile

Among one of Hess’ finest graphic works is this dry point portrait (36x37cm) of his wife Cecile Faesy which was produced in Lucerne in 1935. She was a devout Lutheran and Hess portrayed her clasping a bible. Some of the artist’s works are placed in the background, including Hess’ striking wooden statue of Christ.

Only one copy of the portrait was reproduced. Plate destroyed.


A deep spiritual crisis leads him to the brink of suicide but with the support of his sister he finds the strength to carry on. In 1938 he returns to Switzerland and stays in Liestal with his friend Jurg Spiller. He makes ends meet by giving painting lessons - lessons which he is obliged to give clandestinely. He applies to the Swiss authorities for stay papers but is refused and so leaves for Germany. Here, however, all artistic and cultural  activities are firmly under the control of the Nazi regime. Exile in Switzerland or Sicily is no longer an easy option. His last years were the hardest: the endless wanderings between Bavaria and the Tyrol; hardship, sickness and poverty. The tuberculosis which hardens its grip on his body and then the allied air-raid on Innsbruck which leaves Hess buried and injured in the rubble. He died at Schwaz hospital on 26 November 1944. He would have been 49 in December.