(dma) - The life of Louis Christian Hess included two world wars and fierce ostracism from the Nazi regime. The human and artistic drama would seem the perfect plot for a film. He is still a teenager when his family is devastated by consumption; in the space of ten years four of its six members were to die - only he and his sister Emma did not perish. After a brief dispensation he is called up for military service in 1916 and assigned to a searchlight unit of the Engineer Corps. He sees service at the hell that was the Somme and is lucky to survive.
He rejects war and carries out a series of postcard drawings of angels over the trenches which he gives to his comrades-in-arms. His fellow soldiers call him Christl prompted by his Christ-like air of bewildered innocence. It was to become his artistic nickname. On his return to civilian life Hess completes his studies at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich. He soon makes a name for himself among contemporary artists and his works appear on the covers of specialist magazines, but his freedom of expression is suffocated by the regime.
In 1931 a mysterious fire at the Glaspalast destroys all the paintings on display. The Juryfreie Movement, off which Hess was the leading member, is banned by the authorities. There follows exile in Messina, a failed marriage, suicide attempts, the fruitless search for asylum in Switzerland and the friends who are friends no longer. Then there is the adventurous return to Bavaria where he is discovered by the Gestapo, the hardship and deprivation which damage his health still further and lead to spells in sanitoriums. Events press on with perilous rhythm until the air raid on Innsbruck in which Hess suffers injuries that prove fatal. But the real finale was to come 30 years later, when the artist's work was to be reborn in Sicily thanks to the courage of his sister Emma who made sure the paintings were safe from wartime bombardments and then continued to watch over them until the Rediscovery could take place. Of course I could have told the story in an exclusive article, but without that ending what was the sense of some ephemeral scoop? Much else was needed if Hess' art was truly to live again: documentary research into the political adversities which marked his all too brief career, cataloguing the known works (those which had been photographed), those which had been lost and restoring those paintings which had been damaged during the various moves throughout the war.
An extensive documentary presentation including
as many pictures of the works as possible was clearly vital to
drumming up support for the Rediscovery project; but what was the
best format? A well-printed professionally produced catalogue would
have been the logical choice, but there was not enough money. So I
came up with the idea of producing a monograph using the same
methods used to make the documentary albums.
With his customary altruism Dominici agreed to
take care of any necessary camerawork without payment, joining
enthusiastically in the project. Another committed recruit was
Nuccio Cinquegrani, another enthusiastic supporter of Hess' work who
had married the artist's other niece, Antonia, almost ten years
before. My brother-in-law's contribution to the project was to prove
highly valuable. Several years were needed to carry out in-depth
research on Hess' life and work. Information had to be verified and
evidence collected in Bavaria, Hess' home town of Bolzano, in Sicily
where he was exiled (and where a young Renato Guttuso was to watch
Hess paint) and in Innsbruck where the artist spent his teenage
years and was to die. Emma worked unremittingly hard, translating
documents, taking notes of dates, names, places and events. Her
contribution was vital in using articles and reviews to establish
the exhibitions Hess took part in throughout Europe in the 1920's
and 1930's and in tracking down witnesses of her brother's travels
in Germany, the Tyrol, Switzerland and Sicily.