The paintings with the stigmata of suffering
by Domenico Maria Ardizzone
Rome, 31 March 2004 - I am writing these words just two months shy of my 78th birthday. I was born in Messina but have lived in Rome since 14 March 1976. I left Sicily to take on a hugely stimulating professional challenge: the setting up of news programming on Italian state broadcaster RAI's third radio channel. It was a unique adventure and one well worth a chapter by itself. But here my aim is to describe how I came to find out about the human and artistic drama of the German painter and sculptor Louis Christian Hess and what steps I took to help bring his work back to life and save his art from oblivion. I can remember all too clearly the disastrous state to which Hess' paintings had been reduced by continual moving and neglect.
It should first be stated that following Italy's entry into the Second World War the canvasses - most without frames - were wrapped in coarse paper coverings to facilitate their removal to a place of safety away from the danger of air raids. When in the 60's I was shown the paintings, the hairline cracks caused by their having been rolled up, certain rips and tears, all seemed to me like stigmata: a sort of scourging which all Hess' art had been forced to endure on its difficult journey towards salvation, fleeing first Nazi persecution and then the ever-present threat of destruction during the war. Seeing the paintings in such a poor state it was difficult to believe they could be restored and recovered. To such an extent that not even Hess' most ardent admirers, who had been aware of the paintings' conditions for at least a decade, had sought to bring about their restoration and promote their rediscovery. And yet those very wounds seemed to embody the works' suffering: they were the historical symbol of the perilous flight from tyranny. Many works testify to that risk; none more so than the oil painting "Doves on the Terrace". In a central area and the lower right-hand corner of the restored painting several sections are without paint and clearly show the new lining applied behind the canvas during restoration. Despite these scars - indeed precisely because of them - the compositional force of the painting has in no way diminished. On the contrary, it has been strengthened by the visible signs of the work's troubled history.
Furthermore, "Doves on
the Terrace" is a work which clearly reveals
the suffering which lies at the heart of Hess'
artistic creativity. Judging from a sketch
found apart from Hess' collected studio papers the artist may well
have attributed another special meaning to the work. Unless it was
prompted simply by a spasm of reminiscence, it is natural to ask why
Hess should have decided to make a sketch for the painting on the
back of a political leaflet the front of which is covered with
swastikas. Is it not logical to suppose he wished to contrast his
doves of peace with the symbols of hatred which may be seen as a
kind of watermark in this "political revisitation".
The truth is not one
single modern art gallery in Germany has one of Hess' paintings on
display; no German art encyclopaedia mentions his name. And this
despite the fact that in 1978 the city of Munich, where Hess forged
his artistic career, had the honour to be chosen as the final stage
of the travelling exhibition of the rediscovered art. Even at that
time the return of one of the key protagonists of the 1930's Munich
art scene attracted little comment in the Bavarian capital. In
today's Europe, which is proud of its defence of human rights,
Germany should at least acknowledge its moral and historical
responsibility and cancel the obscurity into which the art of
Christian Hess was plunged by the Nazi regime of the 1930's. It
should be emphasised that Hess' work was not opposed because the
artist was considered "degenerate", but rather because it was the
fruit of the free anti-conformist thought typical of the leading
light of the movement known as "Juryfreie", that is to say "Without