(Copyright 2008, Society of Industrial Archeology and reprinted with permission)
From the author:
This article was published earlier in Industrial Archaeology: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology, vol. 34, nos. 1 & 2. It is reproduced here on H-Labor Arts to make it available to a wider audience. I wrote this article while I was in the midst of finishing a book-length manuscript on Erich Mercker, who was, undoubtedly, one of the top industrial artists in Germany from 1919 to 1945. He and his contemporaries (e.g., Fritz Gärtner, Franz Gerwin, Ria Picco-Rückert, Leonhard Sandrock, and Richard Gessner) constituted a school of artists who I have provisionally labeled the “Heroic School” of German industrial art from 1919 to 1945. The Grohmann Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has paintings produced by virtually all of these artists. It also has more than 90 paintings by Erich Mercker, more than any other art museum in the world. Thus, it is fitting this article should appear on the H-Labor Arts site titled “From the Grohmann….” I also hope this essay will spur more research into Mercker and his “Heroic School” contemporaries, all of whom produced some of the most stunning examples of industrial art during the course of the early twentieth century. Those interested in reading the full-length biography on Erich Mercker (for which this article paved the way) should contact the Grohmann Museum at email@example.com.
The Industrial Revolution spawned a sense of amazement as mammoth industrial plants and new technologies dazzled the Western mind with their scope and complexity. However, these same smoke-belching factories also created a sense of anxiety as they radically transformed both the landscape and the social relations that had defined labor for many centuries. Artistic representations of industry, not surprisingly, reflected these contrary sentiments. Early visual depictions of the Industrial Revolution initially continued traditions that had emerged during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and focused upon industrial processes, particularly mechanization, rationalization, and organization.
The period from 1870 to 1945 (often called the Second Industrial Revolution) was a time of great industrial expansion that witnessed a shift as artists began to focus upon industrial workers and working-class society. These decades also saw the rise of the labor movement and the bitter and often violent disputes that accompanied it. Thus, while many artists represented the new factories and other industrial facilities as secular temples that glorified mankind’s great technological and commercial achievements, others employed a style of social realism that depicted the often exploitive relationship that industry (and the capital that created it) had with the working masses. The political implications of these two positions were enormous, for the growth of industry increased the power of the increasingly centralized state, particularly for nations such as Germany, Great Britain, and France, that had long-standing rivalries, which ultimately found their expression during the catastrophe of World War I. The social and economic situation of the workers, on the other hand, often was expressed in the militant political movements based upon internationalist socialism and communism that sought to undermine nationalist aspirations. Artists, not surprisingly, often produced works that fell squarely onto one side or the other of this ideological divide.1
This brief survey does not do complete justice to the broad spectrum of artistic representations of these new realities extant in industrializing nations, but it allows for the examination of one painter, Erich Mercker (1891–1973), who believed that the great factories in his native Germany were sources of strength and pride (figure 1). Mercker lived in the industrial city of Metz as a youth, and later studied for a short time as a civil engineer; these experiences instilled in him the notion that the great industrial complexes of the age, as well as other technological wonders, had their own innate beauty. He believed that artists had to understand the technical details of the work process (Arbeitsgang) to render industrial scenes accurately; they also had to possess an aesthetic engagement with their subjects so that the result was not simply a cold, photographic reproduction.
Mercker began producing paintings of industrial scenes shortly after World War I. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Mercker’s paintings caught the eye of the Nazi art establishment. Indeed, he became one of the best-known painters of industrial scenes in Germany during the Weimar period (1919–1933), and particularly during the Nazi regime (1933–1945). Not surprisingly, this rapid ascendance was followed by an equally rapid decline after 1945, although Mercker continued to work as a painter until his death in 1973.
Very little has been written about Mercker, even in his native Germany; indeed, only two substantive works exist, although their recent publication indicates that scholars are beginning to gain a greater appreciation for his art.2 Mercker is virtually unknown in the United States and other English-speaking countries. Currently, the largest collection of Mercker’s paintings in the world (and one of the major repositories of Mercker documents) is in the Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an institution that also possesses one of the largest collections of industrial landscapes and artistic representations of labor in the world. These resources make it possible to bring Erich Mercker’s artistic depictions of industry to the Anglophone world.
Mercker produced about 3,000 paintings during his lifetime. The exact number is not known, for while he kept logbooks of the paintings he produced, he did not initiate this practice until 1945. Still, the extant logbooks record a total 2,488 paintings, all of them oils. The logbooks also clearly indicate that Mercker painted more than just industrial scenes; in fact, for most of his career, he was primarily a landscape painter who also produced cityscapes, seascapes, and harbor scenes. Of the 2,488 paintings that Mercker logged, he listed 399 as industrial scenes. However, he included other types of representations within the category of die technische Motive (or technical subjects) including thirty-two paintings of road construction (particularly of the German Autobahn), thirty-seven construction scenes, and forty-three bridge paintings (most of which depict bridges that were built as part of the Autobahn).3
Mercker was born in 1891 in what is today the French province of Alsace in the town of Saverne, a city the Germans called Zabern. His father, Georg Mercker, was an officer in the local military garrison, for Germany had annexed the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Thus, Georg was a member of the German forces that occupied these two French provinces until the end of World War I. In Erich Mercker’s youth, his family later lived in the industrial city of Metz in Lorraine. Metz was particularly influential for the young Mercker, for he later noted that the city was “an area in which the furnaces spew smoke and the song of work can be heard all around.”4 His father retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel when Erich was still a young boy. Rather than steering him toward a military career, Georg strongly encouraged his son to pursue an interest in art, particularly painting. By 1906, the Mercker family was living in Munich, the foremost city of art in Germany. While Berlin by this time was competing with Munich as an art center, Munich still boasted significant state support for artists, as well as important public art collections and art museums such as the Glyptothek, the Pinakothek, and the Neue Pinakothek. The Glaspalast (or Glass Palace), built in 1854, had, for half a century by Mercker’s day, been the principal venue for major art exhibitions, and Munich was also the home of the famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts. However, Mercker never attended the academy; indeed, except for a short period of study under Professor Martin Körte in Berlin, Mercker was an Autodidakt, or self-trained artist.5
Mercker came of age during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the German art scene experienced significant changes, many of which originated earlier in France. From the 1830s to the 1840s, the French Barbizon School moved away from contemporary conventions and heroic themes common in earlier landscapes, and sought instead to portray nature in a more humble, unpretentious manner. The Barbizon artists were also well known for their practice of plein-air (open air) painting out of doors rather than in studios; this allowed them to capture light as it shifted and danced on surfaces. A related movement was Realism (also called Naturalism), pioneered in the 1850s by Gustave Courbet, which presented unidealized depictions of rural life and the simple folk who labored in the countryside. The Barbizon and Realist painters influenced other French artists such as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, who employed smaller, discontinuous brushstrokes in a new style that, by the 1870s, became known as Impressionism. Berlin emerged as an important conduit by which these innovations became established in Germany. Adolph Menzel was particularly influenced by French Realism from the 1860s onward, and he produced the famous painting The Iron-Rolling Mill (1872–75, Berlin, Staatliche Museen), one of the first industrial representations of the age. By 1900, Impressionism had become established in Berlin and Munich through the works of artists such as Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, and Fritz von Uhde.6
These artists may have influenced Mercker; he most likely saw their works during his lifetime, although such a conclusion (lacking as it does any sort of evidentiary basis) is ultimately speculative. Mercker is definitely known to have been influenced by the work of another German painter, Fritz Baer, although Mercker never studied under him or even met him. Baer, like Mercker, was a landscape painter who was heavily influenced by the Barbizon School and the French Impressionists. Baer, according to one source, exhibited a “ragged, nervous technique in applying paint,” reminiscent not only of the French Impressionists but also German Impressionists such as Corinth.7 Mercker’s logbooks indicate he utilized the Pinsel, or paint brush, to produce paintings with varying levels of detail; those where he used loose brush strokes in the Impressionist style bear a particularly strong resemblance to the works of Baer. Mercker also developed a much looser style of Impressionism by applying paint with a Spachtel or palette knife. Expressionism—with its bold use of color and primitive forms derived from the art of Africa and the South Pacific—emerged as an original style of German art in Dresden in 1905 with die Brücke (The Bridge) and another artists’ group in Munich, Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), in 1911. However, this avant-garde movement and others that emerged in the years after World War I failed to influence Mercker in any substantive way. Indeed, his paintings exhibit a remarkable consistency in tone, style, and subject matter throughout the long span of his career.8
Initially, Mercker sought to become a civil engineer and studied for a short time during the winter of 1910–1911 at the Königliche Technische Hochschule in Munich, and later at the Technischen Hochschule Charlottenburg in Berlin. Presumably, during his time in Berlin he studied briefly under Körte; it was definitely during this period that he developed an interest in painting, particularly industrial landscapes. Mercker later said of his time in Berlin that, “purely as a hobby, I wished to capture the industrial experience through painted images.”9 By 1914, he had decided to become a painter, although the coming of World War I and his service in the German army temporarily interrupted his plans.
World War I had a devastating effect upon an entire generation of young Europeans, and many German artists returned from the war wounded both physically and psychologically. The bitterness of the German defeat also drove many disillusioned veterans into the arms of radical, right-wing groups such as the Nazi Party during the post-war years. Mercker, however, had a very different experience, for he served from 1915 to 1918 in relative safety behind the lines in Frontwetterwarte 241, a weather observation unit. In fact, his service, involving as it did constant observations of the sky, greatly affected him as an artist. His daughter, Annemarie, later recollected that, “Cloud forms and cloud movements due to the changing effect of light had always fascinated him much more than politics. That could have led to that which…, in art circles, was spoken of as the ‘typical Mercker sky'.”10
After the war, he returned to Munich and began his career as an artist in earnest. His first formal exhibition came in 1920, and he exhibited two landscapes at Munich’s Glaspalast. This was one of the large annual events which for many years was hosted by the Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft (Munich Artists Association, or MKG) and the Münchener Secession, or Munich Secession, a rival artists’ group founded in 1892 in response to what it saw as the narrow and provincial nature of the MKG. This was the first of several artistic secession movements that swept through Germany and Austria in the coming decades. In 1921, Mercker became a member of the more well-established and larger MKG rather than the Munich Secession.11
Mercker enjoyed significant success as an artist in the 1920s. This was no small feat given the deplorable state of the German economy in the post-war years. In addition to painting works for various town halls in Germany, he produced four large paintings (about 59 ✕ 47 inches) in 1929 for the sitting room of the express steamer Bremen, the property of the Norddeutschen Lloyd shipping line. He produced another three paintings for the New York offices of the shipping company known as the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft (more commonly known as Hapag). These paintings demonstrated the varied number of subjects that characterized Mercker’s artistic portfolio during the 1920s. In the case of the town hall of Saarbrücken, he painted an industrial landscape (titled Eisenwerk, or Iron Works); he produced a similar work for the Hansabank in Munich (Industrie). For the town hall of Frankenthal he produced a cityscape (Hamburg), while for the city of Heidelberg he painted a harbor scene (Heidelberg Dampfer, or the steamship Heidelberg). For the Hapag offices he produced a landscape (Chiemsee, a lake in southern Bavaria), and two cityscapes (Heidelberg and Hamburg). His four paintings for the Bremen were landscapes whose titles indicate the four great German rivers they depicted: Rhein, Isar, Weser, and Elbe.12
Thus, Mercker was not exclusively an industrial artist during the 1920s; he exhibited frequently with the MKG during this decade, and the extant catalogs of these exhibitions illustrate his varied subjects as well.13 Nevertheless, industrial art was seen as a novelty in the 1920s, and Mercker was not its only practitioner. Leonhard Sandrock (1867–1945) and Ria Picco-Rückert (1900–1967), two other German artists, painted many of the same subjects as Mercker (and in strikingly similar styles), particularly German factories and, later, the bridges of the new Autobahn. In 1928, the Folkwangmuseum in Essen hosted an art exhibition titled Kunst und Technik (Art and Technology) that celebrated the creative forces of German industry as well as the artists who sought to aesthetically represent this new subject. Mercker exhibited two industrial paintings: Elektrizitätswerk Essen, and Zentrale des R.W.E. Essen. Moreover, the works of other well-known industrial artists such as Sandrock, Otto Bollhagen, Richard Gessner, Arthur Kampf, Max Liebermann, and Constantin Meunier were also exhibited.14
Thus, the genre of industrial art was a new, exciting, and burgeoning field in the years after World War I, not only in Germany but in other industrializing nations, as well. Nevertheless, Mercker probably would have continued to primarily paint the other subjects that constituted the majority of his artistic portfolio: namely landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes, and harbor scenes. Because he made his living selling paintings to clients, he could not afford to focus on any one subject, at least not from 1920 to 1933.
The seizure of power by Adolf Hitler in 1933 had a dramatic effect upon the German art community and did much to alter the fortunes of Mercker and other artists. Hitler himself had been an artist, albeit a rather unsuccessful one, who painted watercolors of street scenes in Vienna and, after 1913, Munich. He attempted and failed three times to enter Vienna’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. Even after he had seized power, Hitler often said that he wanted nothing more than to retire from politics and devote himself once again to art. Not surprisingly, Hitler took an immense interest in the German art scene. The government of Hitler’s Third Reich became the foremost patron of the arts and artists in Germany, at least those artists whose aesthetic sensibilities matched those of the Nazi art establishment.15
Upon Hitler’s assumption of power, the government of the Third Reich began a four-year campaign to rid Germany of what it labeled entartete Kunst, or “degenerate” art. This included virtually all avant-garde styles such as Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and any other modernist styles that did not fall within the Nazis’ narrow aesthetic spectrum. Many academic artists lost their positions in the prestigious art schools and academies within Germany; other artists fled the country. The culmination of this campaign came in 1937 with the Munich exhibition of degenerate art that coincided with the opening of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), and the first of eight annual national art exhibitions between 1937 and 1944 known as the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition, or GDK), which showcased art that reflected the Nazi aesthetic. Afterward, those works deemed as degenerate were destroyed or sold on the international market to buyers in other countries. As part of its campaign to achieve Gleichschaltung (or coordination) within the German art community, the MKG and other artists’ associations ceased to exist after 1938, and the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Cultural Chamber under Joseph Goebbels) and its various subordinate bodies, such as the Reichskammer der bildenden Kunst (Reich Chamber for Visual Arts), were the only official organizations allowed to represent the interests of artists. While practitioners of avant-garde art suffered tremendously under the Third Reich, those artists whose styles and subjects were acceptable to the Nazi art bureaucracy found that the new regime could be a source of considerable largesse. According to one art historian, Hitler loved nothing more than “the straightforward realism of the nineteenth-century German school” as well as those artists who produced traditional landscapes, idyllic depictions of rural life, and representations of Greco-Roman antiquity (which, more often than not, included male and female nudes that expressed the Nazis’ ideal of Aryan beauty).16
This aesthetic ideal (which Hitler believed was necessary to inspire the German people with proper ideas concerning beauty and strength) resulted in a rather uninspiring and imitative brand of art that even Hitler found disappointing at times. Nevertheless, some aspects of modernism wove their way into Nazi aesthetics, particularly the design of the Autobahn. Unlike other architectural projects in the Third Reich (many of which unimaginatively aped the Greco-Roman style), the bridges and roadways of the Autobahn were characterized by simple, powerful, and visually stunning lines and curves. Many works of art that depicted the Autobahn and other industrial and technical subjects were also exceptional within the often lackluster artistic corpus of the Third Reich. Industrial art, in the eyes of the Nazi art bureaucracy, reflected Germany’s national strength. One apologist expressed these sentiments perfectly when he wrote that a modern factory “towers over time like a fortress of the Holy Grail, like a smithy of the entire nation, in which a proud awareness of our strength, a self-confident drive for power, and an active spirit of community are combined in ceaseless labor.”17 Additionally, the labor that occurred in these great cathedrals of industry was celebrated as a source of Germany’s strength, as were the laborers themselves. Not surprisingly, industrial laborers (as well as soldiers, farmers, and other societal elements in the Third Reich) were depicted as strong, muscular, confident, and heroic. In contrast, works that represented industry and technology as dehumanizing and laborers as exploited proletariats were seen merely as degenerate art.18
While there are only a few extant works that record Mercker’s ideas concerning industrial art, they are enough to demonstrate that throughout his career he saw an innate beauty in industrial and technical subjects, and this made his paintings attractive to the Nazi art bureaucracy. Mercker noted in 1940:
A strong motivating factor for me painting technical subjects was to counter the widely held view at that time which held that only dirt and noise can be seen in work, in the shipyard, in the factory, etc. I wanted to show that one only needs to open one’s eyes to find something eternally beautiful in these industrial areas. Not insignificantly, the race of men who labor in tireless, hard work impressed me. I wanted to show the worker how much beauty surrounds him every day, beauty he had not seen before.19
He expressed similar sentiments in 1963, long after the Nazi state had ceased to exist, in a speech to the MKG:
The image of technology, can one paint technology at all? That is something cold and impersonal, many people say. Have you never had the opportunity to see how the side effects of technology, such as fire, smoke, fumes, and dust, quite unappealing in daily life, can actually result in beautiful combinations of color when in conjunction with the natural lighting of the scene? This is what the artist has abandoned himself to. The technology to him is only a means to an end!20
Just as important as light and color in the composition of a technical subject was the proper depiction of technical detail. However, Mercker did not believe that this could be accomplished simply by producing a painting that aped reality as though it were a photograph. It is easy to see how this goal, as well as his earlier training as a civil engineer, developed in him an eye for the technical:
The industrial image carries, for the artist who does not have sufficient technical knowledge, unexpected hazards. Out of insecurity, he may try to paint with photographic accuracy. Then the goal of the painting is lost. Or, because he does not understand the work process he is painting, he may change or leave out the most important parts, rendering his painting technically worthless. Just as a painter of the human figure absolutely must master the anatomy of the human body, the painter of technical subject matter can only fulfill his task properly, if he not only sees his subject with an artistic eye, but also with technical understanding.21
This appreciation for both the technical and the artistic distinguished Mercker as one of the foremost industrial painters of his day and also served to raise him to professional prominence during the twelve years of the Nazi regime. Moreover, he did not have to change his style of painting significantly. Mercker generally employed a less impressionistic style and utilized tighter, more detailed brushwork in the paintings he produced for the Nazi regime, but this was hardly unique as many of his paintings produced before 1933 exhibited this characteristic as well. What changed was not his style or palette (which, throughout his career, was subdued and dominated by earth tones) but his subject matter. Indeed, he dedicated himself almost exclusively to technical subjects during the era of the Third Reich.22
While artists were not required to join the Nazi Party (and party membership did not necessarily ensure career success), Mercker became a party member on May 1, 1933, only three months after Hitler came to power. His motivations were not political, for he had no interest in politics, and, as mentioned, neither his father’s military background nor his service during World War I were precipitating factors in his decision. Moreover, he was not driven by anti-Semitism, for he worked closely with Jewish art dealers before 1933, and his daughter had Jewish school friends. Germany’s most rabid anti-Semites and German nationalists generally joined the party before Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933. After 1933, new party members consisted largely of those in the middle classes who were attracted by the Nazis’ promises to revive the country’s moribund economy and especially those who believed that membership might be a path to professional and personal advancement. Mercker clearly fell into this category. He may also have been attracted to the Nazi Party’s strong support for the arts, for Hitler in the years before his seizure of power had unequivocally stated his intent to revive the arts in Germany.
Mercker was hardly alone in falling under the Nazis’ spell, for after Hitler’s ascension, party membership soared from 129,583 in 1930 to 849,009 by 1934. By 1945, the number of party members reached a staggering total of 8.7 million persons in a country of 80 million inhabitants; more than 10 percent of the population. After joining the Nazi Party, Mercker’s attitudes towards Jews demonstrated no discernible shift. He continued to frequent a local delicatessen owned by a Jewish family and to have his paintings sold by a Jewish gallery owner in Karlsruhe. He did not associate with those in the highest levels of the Nazi hierarchy. Mercker never met Adolf Hitler (although he was present at Munich’s Künstlerhaus on Lenbachplatz for a large social gathering in the 1930s when Hitler and his entourage arrived unexpectedly); nor did he ever meet Goebbels, who was in charge of cultural affairs for the Third Reich.23
The only significant party official with whom he had direct contact was Dr. Fritz Todt, one of Germany’s most gifted engineers and the intellectual and artistic genius whose office, the Todt Organization, built the German Autobahn. Todt’s residence in Munich, across the street from Mercker’s studio, brought the artist to his attention. In 1936, Mercker was one of many artists contracted by Todt to produce various artworks that depicted the construction of the Autobahn and its many large bridges. Eleven of Mercker’s paintings along with those produced by other artists were shown in an exhibition titled Die Strassen Adolf Hitlers in der Kunst (The Highways of Adolf Hitler in Art) that traveled between Munich, Berlin, and Breslau in 1936 and 1937. Mercker also exhibited one of his industrial landscapes, Eisenhüttenwerk (Iron Works) at another major exhibition in Berlin in 1936 named, fittingly, Lob der Arbeit (In Praise of Work) sponsored by the party’s Kulturgemeinde (Cultural Community).24 Clearly, Mercker’s star was on the rise.
Mercker’s Autobahn paintings, probably more so than his industrial landscapes, illustrate his goal of capturing technical detail without sacrificing aesthetic quality.25 One of the best examples is his work of the Autobahn bridge constructed over the Werra River (Construction of Autobahn Bridge over Werra River, Germany, figure 2). The painting carefully depicts the construction of a riveted steel box girder and the cantilever construction and guy wires required to build it. Even the layman can gaze upon this painting and understand the engineering. Most significant aesthetically is Mercker’s use of perspective, which employs wide angles between the lines of perspective and barely discernible, almost Lilliputian human figures to communicate to the viewer the sheer size and monumentality of this bridge. His use of perspective is more clearly evident in Bridge Construction with Arches (figure 3) in which wide angles between the lines of perspective and diminutive human figures are again used to illustrate the gargantuan size of the great concrete spans. When one examines the study Mercker used to produce the painting Study for Construction of Rohrbach Bridge Near Stuttgart, Germany (figure 4), one can see how, in the final painting, Mercker accentuated the size of the spans by bringing them into the foreground and changing the vantage point to widen the distance between the lines of perspective. This same use of perspective and technical detail illustrating the work process is also seen in his Rhine Bridge Construction, Cologne, Germany (figure 5).26
Mercker’s Autobahn paintings opened the door to the top rungs of the art world in the Third Reich, for the year 1937 saw Mercker’s career reach impressive heights. During the spring and summer of 1937, Paris hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life). For the exhibition’s German pavilion, Mercker produced four enormous paintings, all of which measured roughly sixteen feet by thirteen feet (figure 6). The subjects were not exclusively industrial; one illustrated a ship hoist (Schiffshebewerk Niederfinow), another was of an Autobahn bridge (Mangfallbrücke), and one was a cityscape (Nürnberg). The fourth was one of the few overtly fascist paintings that Mercker ever produced, and it depicted an SS officer at the head a Nazi rally in Nuremberg (Reichsparteitag Nürnberg). Mercker received a Grand Gold Medal in recognition for his contributions at the exhibition.27
The year 1937 was a turning point in other ways for Mercker, for this year witnessed the first GDK exhibition in Munich’s Haus der Deutschen Kunst. Mercker exhibited three paintings at the 1937 GDK, and his paintings were included every year thereafter. These exhibitions were certainly not the only ones in Germany; there were hundreds of others. Nevertheless, the GDK became the most prestigious national exhibition during the era of the Third Reich. Of the twenty-nine paintings Mercker exhibited at the GDK exhibitions, most depicted technical subjects; eight were landscapes, seascapes, or cityscapes. The technical paintings included Im Reiche der Hochöfen (In the Realm of the Blast Furnaces, figure 7), a painting he exhibited at the 1942 GDK and which he reproduced several times during his career (the Grohmann Museum possesses three versions of this work). He also exhibited paintings of construction scenes, one of which, Marmor für die Reichskanzlei (Marble for the Reich Chancellery, figure 8), was exhibited at the 1940 GDK and depicted marble being quarried for Hitler’s new chancellery in Berlin. His exhibited works also reflected the fact that Germany was a nation at war. During the war years, he traveled in occupied France and painted the construction of fortifications along the Atlantic coast and the submarine docks at La Rochelle. At the 1942 GDK, he exhibited two paintings of German naval vessels. The organizers of the GDK even had several of Mercker’s paintings reproduced in the GDK exhibition catalogs, specifically in 1938, 1940, and 1943.28
Mercker’s renown brought him significant financial rewards, for the Nazi regime purchased many of his paintings. Between 1936 and 1940, the German government purchased eighteen of Mercker’s paintings (almost all of which depicted technical subjects) to embellish Hitler’s new chancellery in Berlin. Extant documents reveal the payments that Mercker received for these paintings totaled 97,000 Reichsmarks (about $628,028 in 2011 dollars); a considerable sum for the day. He painted another six that were installed in Hitler’s personal residence in Nuremberg. Indeed, paintings of technical subjects were in high demand during the era of the Third Reich, and Mercker benefitted professionally and financially as a result.30
There is little doubt that Mercker would have continued in this professional vein had the Nazi state remained in power. The collapse of the regime meant a severe reversal in the fortunes of millions of Germans, and Mercker was no exception. Toward the end of the war, the United States and Britain increased their strategic bombing of German cities. In July 1944, Mercker’s Munich studio on Franz-Joseph Strasse was damaged by bombs, and he moved his family to rural Bavaria, first to Oberstdorf and later Kempten. During this period, Mercker was often forced to trade his paintings and studies for necessities such as coal and even dinner plates. The family did not return to Munich until 1954. Mercker rebuilt his career after World War II by dedicating himself to the organization that had been critical to his success during the early years of his career in the 1920s: the MKG, which, along with other artists’ associations, slowly reemerged during the post-war years. By 1950, the MKG had come back into existence and began to hold annual exhibitions. Between 1950 and his death in 1973, Mercker participated in every one of the annual MKG exhibitions in Munich, all of which were held in the Haus der Kunst (the House of Art, formerly the Haus der Deutschen Kunst during the Nazi era). In fact, these were the only formal exhibitions in which Mercker participated after World War II.31
Mercker also broadened his artistic portfolio and began to paint many of the subjects that had dominated his work in the years before the Nazis came to power. He continued to produce paintings that depicted technical subjects, but he also painted landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes, and harbor scenes. The MKG exhibitions between 1950 and Mercker’s death in 1973 were much smaller and more modest affairs than the GDK exhibitions of the Nazi period and occupied only a fraction of the Haus der Kunst. Mercker’s paintings were often selected for reproduction in the MKG exhibition catalogs, and he frequently served as a member of the exhibitions’ juries. During the 1960s he served as the secretary of the MKG, and in 1965 he became the president of the MKG. He only held the position for a short while due to poor health; in 1971 he was appointed the honorary president of the MKG and remained in this post until his death two years later.32
In many ways, this appointment was the crowning achievement of a long career. While after 1945 Mercker never achieved the great acclaim or financial rewards he had enjoyed during the era of the Third Reich, he nevertheless became highly respected within the Munich art community during the post-war years. He even continued to produce and sell paintings that depicted the industrial scenes and technical subjects which he had first conceived during the Weimar and Nazi eras, including several handsome late canvases, Blast Furnaces on Ruhr River I, Germany (1967) and In the Foundry (1969), both in the Grohmann Museum. Upon learning, after the war, of the scope of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, he, like many Germans, became deeply ashamed of his complicity with the regime. Indeed, he never talked about this period of his life in the years after World War II. However, one constant during his career was his idea that art allowed a person “to escape the darkness of everyday life, freeing him for the beautiful and holy.”33 That he was able to accomplish this sublime goal with subjects as varied as a mountain landscape, a busy harbor scene, or gritty Ruhr Valley steel mill speaks volumes about his skill as an artist.
Several persons must be thanked for making this article possible. Dr. Eckhart G. Grohmann, founder of the Grohmann Museum on the Milwaukee School of Engineering campus, deserves a tremendous amount of credit for having the vision to build one of the greatest art museums in the world dedicated to the art of labor and industry. Thanks to Dr. Grohmann, the museum that bears his name also possesses the world’s largest collection of paintings by Erich Mercker as well as one of the largest depositories of documents and images related to Mercker. Dr. Grohmann also provided the generous financial support required to research this article. Annemarie Mercker, Erich’s daughter, made many of his papers available to me during my visits with her in Munich. Reproductions of these are now available in the Grohmann Museum. I also want to thank Dr. Carma Stahnke, my colleague and co-author of a planned book on Erich Mercker, for the translations she provided for this article. Finally, I want to thank Dr. Betsy Fahlman for providing excellent guidance and scholarly advice during my journey into the field of art history. Any errors, shortcomings, or omissions are my own.
1. Dennis Costanzo, “Industrial Scenes,” in The Dictionary of Art, Jane Turner, ed., 34 vols. (New York: Grove, 1996), 15:828–831 (this collection hereafter cited as DOA); Klaus Türk, Man at Work: 400 Years of Paintings and Bronzes (Milwaukee: MSOE Press, 2003), 12–29.
2. The most significant works on Mercker are Volkmar von Pechstaedt, Erich Mercker: Landschafts-, Industrie- und Städtemaler (Göttingen: Hainholz, 2003); and Lars Scholl, “Hochöfen an der Ruhr: Ein Gemälde des Industriemalers Erich Mercker,” in Hans-F. Rothert und Brigitte Schubert-Riese, eds., … wird die fernste Zukunft danken’: Kiels Geschichte und Kultur Bewahren und Gestalten: Festschrift für Jürgen Jensen (Neumünster: Wachholtz, 2004), 549–571. Additionally, a 1991 exhibition catalog provides many details about his life; see E. Mercker: Ausstellung zum 100. Geburtstag, 16. Dezember 1991 bis 29. Februar 1992 (Munich: Galerie Gronert, 1991).
3. Erich Mercker, “Painting Logbooks,” 2 vols., Erich Mercker Manuscript and Image Collection, box 1, Grohmann Museum Archives, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (this collection hereafter cited as Mercker MSS, GM); Patrick Jung and Carma Stahnke, “Annemarie Mercker Interview Notes, 2010–2011,” p. 1, Mercker MSS, GM, box 3, folder 6.
4. Pechstaedt, Mercker, 9, 71n; Eleanor Turk, The History of Germany (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999), 73–76, 133–142; quoted from “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde,” Das Werk: Monatsschrift der Vereinigte Stahlwerke Aktiengesellschaft (Düsseldorf), 20, no. 10, (October 1940): 200.
5. “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde,” 200; Maria Makela, The Munich Secession: Art and Artists in Turn-of-the-Century Munich (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 3; Frank Büttner, “The Academy and Munich’s Fame as a City of Art,” in Christian Fuhrmeister, et al., eds., American Artists in Munich: Artistic Migration and Cultural Exchange Processes (Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2009), 27–42; Annemarie Mercker to Carma Stahnke, 20 April 2011, Mercker MSS, GM, box 2, folder 7; Pechstaedt, Mercker, 9–10; Paul Weiglin, “Die Industrie in der Kunst: Zu dem Gemälde ‘Riesen der Arbeit’ von Erich Mercker,” Daheim (Leipzig), 74, no. 5 (November 4, 1937): 9; “Körte, Martin,” in Hans Vollmer, ed., Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, vol. 21 (Leipzig. E.A. Seemann, 1978), 186; “Mercker, Erich,” in Allegemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler des XX. Jahrhunderts, vol. 3, Hans Vollmer, ed. (Leipzig: E.A. Seamann, 1956), 373.
6. J. H. Rubin, “Realism,” DOA, 26:52–57; Ralph Mayer, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969), 192–193, 299, 323; Dorathea K. Beard, “Barbizon School,” DOA, 3:212–213; John Rewald, The History of Impressionism, 4th ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973), 93–94; Grace Seiberling, “Impressionism,” DOA, 15:151–158; Franz Roh, German Art in the 20th Century (Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1968), 9–21; Jens C. Jensen, “Menzel, Adolph,” DOA, 21:139–143; Christos M. Joachimides, et al., eds., German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture, 1905–1985 (Munich: Prestel, 1985), 426; Bettina Brand, “Uhde, Fritz von,” DOA, 31: 537–538; Makela, Munich Secession, 81–100.
7. Jung and Stahnke, “Mercker Interview Notes,” p. 1; Gertrud Wendl-Kempmann, Fritz Baer, 1850–1919: Der Landschaftsmaler (Munich: privately published, 1985), 8–22; Roh, German Art, 11, 18–20; quoted from “Baer, Fritz,” in Allegemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, vol. 2, Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker, eds. (Leipzig: E.A. Seamann, 1908), 342.
8. Mercker, “Painting Logbooks,” vol. 1, p. 2; Roh, German Art, 44–85, 112–150; Georg Rollenhagen, “Kunstlerreise durch Deutschland mit Landschaften Zeitgenössischer Maler,” Velhagen & Klasings Monatshefte (Berlin), 54, no. 8 (April 1940): 453; “Mercker, Erich,” Vollmer, Allgemeines Lexikon, 373; Alice Bauer and Janine Carpentier, Repertoire des Artistes d’Alsace des Dix-Neuvieme et Vingtieme Siecles: Peintres-Sculpteurs-Graveurs-Dessinateurs (Strasbourg: Editions Oberlin, 1987), 250; Mortimer Davidson, Kunst in Deutschland 1933–1945: Eine Wissenschaftliche Enzyklopädie der Kunst im Dritten Reich, 2 vols. (Tübingen: Grabert, 1992), 2:364; exhibition review in Sonderdruck der Lindauer Zeitung, 12 (March 1954), in Erich Mercker Papers, folder IC, 17, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany (this collection hereafter cited as Mercker MSS, GNM).
9. Pechstaedt, Mercker, 12; Weiglin, “Die Industrie in der Kunst,” 9; quoted from “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde,” 200.
10. Joachimides, German Art, 26–27; William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 32–50; Pechstaedt, Mercker, 12–14; quoted from Mercker to Stahnke, 20 April 2011, Mercker MSS, GM, box 2, folder 7.
11. Makela, Munich Secession, 58–62; Christine Dixon, Secession: Modern Art and Design in Austria and Germany, 1890s-1920s (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2000), 7–11; Münchener Kunst-Ausstellung 1920 im Glaspalast, 1. Juli bis 30. September (Munich: R. Oldenberg, 1920), 39; Pechstaedt, Mercker, 15; Jung and Stahnke, “Mercker Interview Notes,” p. 2.
12. Davidson, Kunst in Deutschland, 2:364; Turk, History of Germany, 103–108; Scholl, “Hochöfen an der Ruhr,” 554–555; Lars Scholl, “Biographical Notes Concerning Erich Mercker, 2010,” p. 2, in Mercker MSS, GM, box 3, folder 2; “Mercker, Erich,” in Dresslers Kunsthandbuch, vol. 2 (Berlin: Karl Curtis, 1930), 664.
13. For examples, see Münchener Kunstausstellung 1922 im Glaspalast, 1. Juni bis 30. September (Munich: Knorr & Hirth, 1922), 59; Münchener Kunstausstellung 1925 im Glaspalast, Dauer 25. Mai bis Anfang Oktober 1925 (Munich: Knorr & Hirth, 1925), 36; I. Allgemeine Kunstausstellung München Glaspalast, 1926, Dauer 1. Juni bis Anfang Oktober 1926 (Munich: Knorr & Hirth, 1926), 25; Münchener Kunstausstellung 1927 im Glaspalast, 1 Juni bis 3. Oktober 1927 (Munich: Knorr & Hirth, 1926), 19.
14. Klaus Ollinger, Kohle und Stahl: Leben und Werk der Industriemalerin Ria Picco-Rückert (Merzig: Merziger, 2007): 19–63, 136–140; Dorothy von Hülsen, Leonhard Sandrock, 1867–1945: Ausgewählte Werke aus Öffentlichem und Privatem Besitz (Verden/Aller: Galerie Pro Art, ), 43–53; Kunst und Technik, Ausstellung anlässlich der Tagung des Vereins Deutscher Ingenieure, 8. Juni bis 22. Juli 1928 im Folkwang-Museum zu Essen (Essen: W. Girardet, 1928), 5, 50, 56, 61, 66–67, 73.
15. Türk, Man at Work, 26–29; Mercker, “Painting Logbooks,” vol. 1, p. 2; Jung and Stahnke, “Mercker Interview Notes,” pp 1–2; Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2004), 1–15, 79–86, 123–132.
16. Stephanie Barron, “Modern Art and Politics in Prewar Germany,” in Stephanie Barron, ed., “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991), 9–22; Dagmar Grimm, et al., “The Works of Art in ‘Entartete Kunst,’ Munich 1937,” in Barron, “Degenerate Art,” 193–355; Berthold Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, trans. Robert and Rita Kimber (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), ix-x, 1–11, 20–21, 43, 77–83, 102, 118–147; Alan E. Steinweis, Art, Ideology, & Economics in Nazi Germany: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 3; Toni Roth, “Zum hundertsten Geburtstag der Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft, 1868–1968,” Weltkunst (Munich), 38, no. 6 (March 1968), 227; Bettina Best, “Die Geschichte der Münchener Secession bis 1938: Eine Chronologie,” in Jochen Meister, ed., Münchener Secession: Geschichte und Gegenwart (Munich: Prestel, 2007), 25; quoted from Spotts, Hitler, 35, 152–159, 176–177.
17. Spotts, Hitler, 159–160, 176–177, 358–362, 388–395; Davidson, Kunst in Deutschland, 1:30–32; quoted from Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, 83.
18. Peter Schirmbeck, “Darstellung der Arbeit,” in G. Bussman, ed., Kunst im 3. Reich: Dokumente der Unterwerfung (Frankfurt: Frankfurt Kunstverein, 1975), 162–181; Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, 83, 110–112; Edgar Schindler, “Denkmale der Arbeit,” Die Kunst im Dritten Reich (Munich), 2, no. 5 (May 1938): 132–139; Türk, Man at Work, 26–28; Alfred Rosenberg, “Wege Deutscher Kunstpolitik,” Die Kunst im Dritten Reich (Munich), 2, no. 1 (January 1938): 4; Spotts, Hitler, 162.
19. Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, 15; quoted from “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde,” 200.
20. Quoted from Erich Mercker, “Speech before the Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft Frühjahrsaustellung,” 3 March 1963, p. 3, Mercker MSS, GM, box 2, folder 1.
21. Quoted from “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde,” 200.
22. Weiglin, “Die Industrie in der Kunst,” 9; “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde,” 200.
23. Spotts, Hitler, 88; Erich Mercker, Nazi Party membership card, Microfilm Publication A3340, Series MFOK (NSDAP Ortsgruppenkartei), Reel 0065, Frame 2028, Berlin Document Center Records, Record Group 242, Foreign Records Seized, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (a copy of this document can also be found in Mercker MSS, GM, box 2, folder 3); Mercker to Stahnke, 20 April 2011, Mercker MSS, GM, box 2, folder 7; Pechstaedt, Mercker, 32–33, 36; Michael H. Kater, The Nazi Party: A Social Profile of Members and Leaders, 1919–1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 26–30, 72–115; Steinweis, Art, Ideology, & Economics in Nazi Germany, 20–31; Alexander J. Groth, “Demonizing the Germans: Goldhagen and Gellately on Nazism,” The Political Science Reviewer 32, no. 1 (Fall 2003): 118–158.
24. Spotts, Hitler, 388–394; Pechstaedt, Mercker, 33–34; Scholl, “Biographical Notes,” 6–7; Ausstellung die Strassen Adolf Hitlers in der Kunst, 1936, Berlin-Schloss Schönhausen (Munich: C. Wolf & Sohn, 1936), 18; Die Strassen Adolf Hitlers in der Kunst, Ausstellung Breslau 1936, Schlesiches Museum der Bildenen Künste, Breslau, Dezember 1936–Januar 1937 (Breslau: W.G. Korn, 1936), 14; Kunst-Ausstellung Lob der Arbeit Veranstaltet von der Nationalsozialistischen Kulturgemeinde, 25. November bis 20. Dezember 1936 (Berlin: n.p., 1936), 9.
25. In response to client requests, Mercker regularly made later versions of paintings that had been originally painted in the thirties and forties. For instance, the Grohmann Museum has three copies of Im Reiche der Hochöfen (Rheinhausen Steelworks, Duisburg, Germany I) (figure 7).
26. Türk, Man at Work, 309, 312, 314.
27. E. Mercker: Ausstellung zum 100. Geburtstag, 8; Pechstaedt, Mercker,30; Davidson, Kunst in Deutschland, 2:364.
28. Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, 1–5, 31; Spotts, Hitler, 178; Scholl, “Hochöfen an der Ruhr,” 559, 565; Mercker, “Painting Logbooks,” vol. 2, p. 25; James Kieselburg, ed., Man at Work: The Eckhart G. Grohmann Collection at Milwaukee School of Engineering Alphabetical Catalog, 2009 (Milwaukee: MSOE Press, 2009), 174, 186–187; Türk, Man at Work, 266, 276; Pechstaedt, Mercker, 34; Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1937 im Haus der Deutschen Kunst zu München, 18. Juli–31. Oktober 1937 (Munich: Knorr & Hirth, 1937), 60; Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1938 im Haus der Deutschen Kunst zu München, 10. Juli–16. Oktober 1938 (Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1938), 39, 67; Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1940 im Haus der Deutschen Kunst zu München, Juni bis Oktober 1940 (Munich: Knorr & Hirth, 1940), 47, 62; Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1943 im Haus der Deutschen Kunst zu München, Juni bis auf weiteres (Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1943), 41, 46.
29. Spotts, Hitler, 28, 47, 89; Konrad Praxmarer, “Feste der Kunst im Krieg,” Kunst dem Volk (Vienna), 11, no. 7 (July 1940): 41; Heinrich Hoffmann, “Die Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1939: II Teil. Plastik und Graphik,” Kunst dem Volk (Vienna), 10, no. 8 (August 1939): 18; Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1939 im Haus der Deutschen Kunst zu München, 16. Juli bis 15. Oktober 1939 (Munich: Knorr & Hirth, 1939), 59; Hinz, Art in the Third Reich, 184; Kunst dem Volk: Monatschrift für Bildende Kunst (Wehrmachtsausgabe) (Vienna: Heinrich Hoffmann, 1942), 17; Erich Mercker, Der Hamburger Hafen im Sonnenglanz, reproduced in Der Türmer (Berlin), 40, no. 1 (October 1937): 92; Weiglin, “Die Industrie in der Kunst,” 8–9; R. Kutsch, “Das deutsche Industriebild. Ein Beitrag zu dem Thema ‘Kunst und Technik,’” Das Werk: Monatsschrift der Vereinigte Stahlwerke Aktiengesellschaft (Düsseldorf), 20, no. 10, (October 1940): 191; “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde,” 200; Bettina Feifstel-Rohmeder, “München, 1940,” Das Bild (Karlsruhe), 10, no. 7 (July 1940): 101, 104–105.
30. Angela Schönberger, Die Neue Reichskanzlei von Albert Speer: Zum Zusammenhang von nationalsozialistischer Ideologie und Architektur (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1981), 194–201; Weiglin, “Die Industrie in der Kunst,” 9; “Wie ich Industriemaler wurde,” 200. The sources used to convert Reichsmarks to 2011 dollars are R.L. Bidwell, Currency Conversion Tables: A Hundred Years of Change (London: Rex Collings, 1970), 22–24; and “CPI Inflation Calculator,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed July 26, 2011, http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.
31. Michael Lyons, World War II: A Short History, 5th ed. (New York: Prentice Hall, 2010), 224–229; Pechstaedt, Mercker, 40–47, 83–85; Jung and Stahnke, “Mercker Interview Notes,” p. 3–5; Münchener Künstler Genossenschaft Kunstausstellung 1968 unter der Schirmherrschaft seiner königlichen Hoheit Herzog Albrecht von Bayern, Haus der Kunst München, 9. März bis 12. Mai (Munich: Karl Thiemig, 1968), n.p.; Roth, “Zum hundertsten Geburtstag,” 227.
32. For representative examples of the MKG exhibitions and sources of other information provided in the text, see Mitgliedern der alten Münchener Küstlergenossenschaft stellen aus im Haus der Kunst vom 3. bis 31 März 1950 (Munich: C. Wolf & Sohn), 3; Herbstausstellung der Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft in dem Haus der Kunst, 8. Oktober–19. Dezember 1954 (Munich: J.B. Weiss’sche, 1954), 39, 64; Früjahrsausstellung der Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft im Haus der Kunst, München, 27. März–29. Mai 1960 (Munich: J.B. Weiss’sche, 1960), 17, 41; Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft Kunstausstellung, 1964, Haus der Kunst, München, 1964, 11. März–10. Mai 1964 (Munich: J.B. Weiss’sche, 1964), 23–31; E. Mercker: Ausstellung zum 100. Geburtstag, 8; Jung and Stahnke, “Mercker Interview Notes,” p. 2; Artur Eitler to Erich Mercker, 15 September 1971, Mercker MSS, GM, box 2, folder 1; Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft Kunstausstellung, 1973, Haus der Kunst, München, 17. März–6. Mai 1973 (Munich: J.B. Weiss’sche, 1973), n.p.
33. Kurt K. Tilsner to Anna Mercker, 1 October 1973, Mercker MSS, GNM, folder IIA, 21; Eitler to A. Mercker, September 1973, Mercker MSS, GNM, folder IIA, 21; Eitler to A. Mercker, 16 September 1973, Mercker MSS, GNM, folder IIA, 21; Bill of Sale, Kunstausstellung der Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft, 22 December 1972, Mercker MSS, GNM, folder IB, 12; Kieselburg, Man at Work, 164, 181; Jung and Stahnke, “Mercker Interview Notes,” p. 3; quoted from Mercker, “Speech before the Münchener Künstlergenossenschaft,” 4.