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First steps

Art Academy

Old masters


His sister Emma

His friend Marya




A meeting of art and love
between two talented people

by Domenico Maria Ardizzone

Christian Hess and Marya Neitzel in 1925

They met in the autumn of 1925 at a concert in Munich. The spark which enflamed Hess’ emotions and left him spellbound was struck by an aria from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice sung enchantingly by the warmly expressive mezzosoprano Marya Neitzel. Transported as she was by the singing, the intimate perfection of music and poetry so typical of Gluck, Neitzel instantly struck the artist’s sensibility. Hess was also smitten by the singer’s undoubted beauty. It was an extraordinary meeting between two artists who liked each other at first sight.

Hess is so taken that a few weeks later, in the middle of December, he writes to his sister Emma in Messina to tell her about the meeting with Neitzel. At that time in Munich Hess is sharing an apartment-studio with three artist friends (Florian Bosch, Sigfried Kuhnel and Konig). The atelier is untidy and very cold and Hess complains to Emma: “… I would like to receive her in the best possible conditions, inviting her to a place that is cleaner and more agreeable. She is the widow of a state functionary and has three lovely young boys. At the moment she is working only occasionally as a singer as she is without a regular contract. She is as tall as me - and very pretty. She is now in Switzerland, from where she writes me many letters. If I can earn enough money to travel to Italy in the spring, she will come with me - naturally paying her own way. She gives me a hand for many things and she takes great concern over me; no bad thing as I’m a bachelor and disorganised artist.”

A concert performer for Radio Munich

A brochure featuring the German mezzosoprano  Marya Janke-Neitzel, a concert performer for Bayerische Rundfunk, a renowned interpreter of a vast repetoire ranging from lieder by Beethoven,   to cantatas by Telemann and operas by Gluck (Orfeo ed Euridice) and Richard Straus (Ariadne auf Naxos). Among her teachers was her brother in law Otto Neitzel, a celebrated pianist, composer, conductor and music critic. She received plaudits for her appearances at the Berlin Opera and a series of recitals between the mid 1920’s and 1930’s in theatres and concert halls across Germany, Austria and Switzerland was greeted with rapturous praise. (See reviews). She was also a serious student of popular music and a talented author of songs for the theatre.  From her collection “Zwei gedruckte Notenhefte“ the composer Alfred von Beckerath produced a highly successful musical play for children, "Der Schäferreigen", in 1962.

At the beginning of February 1926 Hess writes again from Munich to his sister: “I am in the new atelier at Schellingstrasse 46. It’s on the fourth floor, is small and narrow but comfortable and cheap.” Towards the end of May he confesses: “The only reason I stay on is my friend. She is singing at the Berlin Opera and I hope she’ll be back to Munich soon. I don’t think I’ll be able to come to Sicily in the summer.” And on 26 July he writes to Emma: “I’m sitting in the living-room of my friend’s house at Amalienstrasse 14; I’ve moved in here. The apartment is on the first floor. All the walls are covered with my paintings, water-colours, drawings and  Models. It is elegant and artistic here. Let’s hope this marks the beginning of my ‘seven fat years’.” On 21 August he sends a joyful letter to his sister: “In the last few weeks I decided to completely renovate my friend’s house. It’s been repainted, there are new carpets, everything’s been scrubbed and polished.

Hess is so happy with Marya  and gets on so well with her three children, he feels the need to become an integral part of the family. At the beginning of 1927 he proposes marriage to Marya. She is flattered, but feels unable to accept for financial reasons. If she were to marry Hess, she would lose her widow’s war pension and the allowance for her children. How would it be possible to survive without the security offered by this fixed income? They both know only too well how difficult it can be first to sell a painting and then how long actually it takes to receive the money.
Hess is bitterly disappointed. He does not want to be a burden and he also feels the need for a period of reflection. He leaves for Sicily, but the separation only makes his affection for Marya grow stronger and he returns to Munich. In order to contribute to the family budget he sells some of his paintings in installments receiving 100 marks a month.

The Worthsee with the Zugspitze in the background 

The sense of family harmony grows; in the autumn of 1928 Hess writes to Emma: “I’m with Marya and the boys at Worthsee. The atmosphere here – the lake, the clouds – is marvellous. I lounge in the back of the boat and the boys row me round the lake. Not far away we can see the Zugspitze; on the summit – around 3,000 meters – it’s two degrees below zero. All around is the sweet smell of freshly mown grass. Right behind the house is a wood full with hares, deer, foxes and owls. Marya takes care of everything with such calm joy: cooking, cleaning, making the beds, cooking again - and all the time singing,” Marya added to the letter: “We’re sitting on our verandah; we can’t see the Straits [of Messina] but instead the Worthsee which is heavenly too. With my four men to look after I’ve got a mountain of work, but here in the country everything’s easier – although there’s not much sun.”At the beginning of 1930 Hess writes from Munich to his sister: “At last I received the money from the council for my painting. I paid off some of my debts which left me with 10 marks.” Later that spring Hess was commissioned to paint a series of frescoes at the spa in Bad Oeynhausen near Hannover. The job would pay him 2,000 marks. On 4 October the artist writes to Emma: “Dear sister, I sold the painting I told you about in Switzerland for 1,000 marks to friends of the patron and collector Karl Hofer. I’ll be paid in installments.”

Marya with Hess and his niece Luisa in Messina, summer 1930

A few years later Hess would be forced to leave Munich because of the politica tension in the Bavarian capital. Already in March 1931 he writes to Emma: “A few days ago we staged a protest at a conference on modern art. Hartmann and me were thrown out; two other colleagues were beaten by the SA.” In subsequent letters to his sister Hess adds: “… I’m very involved in legal business and am called upon to be a witness…” and “… the whole political situation is extremely turbulent. You can’t even open your mouth to say a word of common sense and people think you want to enter politics. How I would love to be in Sicily and hear none of this.”
In the summer of 1931 Hess’ paintings are among a thousand works destroyed in a massive blaze at the Glaspalast – a fire that later proved to be arson. Then the Nazi regime orders the dissolution of the Juryfreie movement which it accused of being a Bolshevik organisation. The economic situation is critical: “In Germany it’s now impossible to make any kind of living by painting,” Hess writes to his sister, “Send me some recipes and I’ll work as a cook. Luckily I’ve got some friends abroad and I sold two water-colours in Switzerland.”

In a letter dated 19 June 1932 Hess writes to Emma: “All these continual decrees are cutting seriously into Marya’s pension. The children’s allowance stops when they’re 15, but expenses just keep on rising. I sold a painting; we spent a third of the money on food and the rest on coal which we’ll need of course for the winter.” Simply getting by is more and more difficult, not least because of the unremitting ostracism towards artists in the Juryfreie. Hess can stand the regime no longer and wants to get out of Munich. On 17 July 1933 he sends a postcard to Emma: “I’ve just bought a train ticket for Messina. It wasn’t cheap. If I can get a visa, I’ll leave today or tomorrow.” A week later Hess says goodbye to Marya and the boys and moves to Sicily where he intends to stay a long time.

The birthday collage

In the spring of 1934, when he was in exile in Messina, Hess created a special collage for Marya’s birthday. He folded it twice, popped it into an envelope and sent it to Munich so that it would arrive in time for 24 April – Marya’s 43rd birthday. The collage is redolent of the couple’s memories of journies and times spent together: springtime in Sicily – la dolce vita – love – Marya’s orchestral concerts -  the Bach Gesellschaft – her performances on the radio. Surrounding the outline of the cloth vase a spray of faded petals and sprigs mostly made from thin strips of newspaper covered with sweet greetings for his beautiful German sweetheart whom he calls by the pet name of ATA. At the bottom of the page a flurry of greetings and best wishes from Sig. Luigi (the painter’s Italianised nickname), his sister Emma, his brother in law Guglielmo and his nieces Luisa and Antonia. Thanks to the kind permission of Frau Leonore Neitzel, in the summer of 2008 the collage was displayed as part of the major retrospective of Hess’ work at the Rabalderhaus Museum in Schwaz, the  Austrian city where the artist died in 1944. The same exhibition will be held from November 2008 to January 2009 at the Municipal Museum in Bolzano, the city where Hess was born in 1895. 74 years after it was made the collage has maintained all its special artistic character – and its sheen of melancholy. 

Marya’s family decimated by two wars

Marya was the daughter of Dr Lorenz Janke, a highly regarded researcher in chemistry and botany who headed the State Laboratory in Bremen. Janke loved flowers and designed and tended an alpine garden that was his pride and joy. He died aged just 53 in 1906.  Marya and her younger sister Luise were sent by their mother to the Meon Misail boarding school at Neuchatel in Switzerland to finish their education.

Right from childhood Marya was blessed with a beautiful voice and in Neuchatel she began singing lessons which she was to continue in Bavaria. Marya grew up in the Gauting district of Munich – the Bavarian capital’s equivalent of Montmartre – a quarter with a lively and varied cultural life. She was artistic and well-read, qualities appreciated by Professor Walter Georg Neitzel whom she married in 1913 and bore three sons. A renowned jurist and diplomat, Neitzel was fluent in several languages, lectured in Roman law at Harvard University and acted as government legal consultant for the German community in China, a country he visited several times. He was a high-ranking officer in the Wermacht during the First World War and was seriously wounded in fighting in the forest of Argonne in north-eastern France. He died of his injuries on 17 December 1918, just over one month after the Armistice and six months before the birth of his third son. The two World Wars were to decimate Marya’s family. The Great War left her a widow with three children. She was forced to abandon her home and move to the village of Herrsching just outside Munich to stay with her mother who helped her look after the children. The Second World War proved even crueller: all three of her sons saw combat; two were killed, one - the eldest - survived but only because he was wounded and sent back from the front in the final stages of the conflict. 

Hess’ last letters

Letter by Hess sent from Innsbruck  
to Marya in Munich, autumn 1944

Letter by Hess, dated 22 October 1944,
sent from Innsbruck to Marya in Munich

Hess’ last letter, dated 13 November 1944,
sent from Innsbruck to Marya in Munich.

Most likely one of the happiest periods in Marya’s life was that between the autumn of 1925 and the summer of 1933 when her friendship with Christian Hess wakened her intellectual and sentimental affinities. Once again there was a man in the house who could spend time with the boys and could offer paternal affection as they grew up. In these eight years Marya accompanied Hess on several of his trips to Italy and his stays in Sicily. She became close to the painter’s family and would exchange letters with his sister Emma, brother in law Guglielmo and the two nieces Luisa and Antonia, who called her Aunt Maria.

And when Marya was on concert tours around Europe Hess often went with her. In the  autumn of 1930 in Zurich Marya introduced Hess to Cecile Faesy, who would later take care of selling the artist’s work in Switzerland. Marya could not have known that her young friend would also become a rival for Hess’ affections. When Hess abandoned the political turmoil of Munich and sought exile in Sicily, Cecile wrote frequently to the painter. She was aware that Hess’ separation from Marya had led his feelings for the singer to wane. Her letters to Hess became more and more affectionate. Before the artist moved to Messina he went to Lucerne and met Cecile to collect some money from paintings she had sold. She later followed him to Sicily and on 20 August 1934 the couple were married. Just sixteen months later, however, they split up. Divorce would follow.

The bitterness of this brief interlude for Marya and Hess was far overshadowed by the tragic events of the war. The couple  resumed contact, exchanging letters marked by firm friendship. Indeed, a few weeks before Hess died from injuries received in an allied air-raid on Innsbruck the last two letters he ever wrote were to Marya. The content was dominated by the war: the deaths of common friends and acquaintances, Marya’s concern for her son Walter, missing in action. In one of the letters Hess includes a sketch of himself in hospital – almost certainly the last drawing he ever made. In his final letter Hess recounts the air-raid of 20 October 1944 and the anguish of being abandoned among the rubble by a supposed friend. In 2002 Hess’ last two letters were donated to the Tirolerlandesmuseum “Ferdinandeum” in Innsbruck by Frau Leonore Neitzel, the widow of Wolfgang, Marya’s first son and the only one of her children who survived the war.