I enjoyed photographing the apricot and other fruits earlier this week. In part, I was inspired by Carl Hofer‘s Bowl of Peaches and his other fruit still life paintings. I did not know he was an artist when I began researching his life, nor could I imagine how much I would love his work.
My research began with only a name engraved on custom stationery and a signature at the bottom of a handwritten letter, dated 1948, addressed to Joseph A. Horne, the Director of the Offenbach Archival Depot. The script was beautiful but illegible for me since it was in German. Horne’s son remembered his father referring to the man but no other details about who he was or how his father and this Hofer might have met.
As part of my ongoing walk through history with Mr. Horne, I wanted to know more about this man in his life. Translation of the letter would come later, but I began by researching the only words in the letter I could immediately understand, his name.
I quickly learned that Carl Hofer (1878-1955) was a noted German expressionist painter, printer and illustrator whose work had been appearing in exhibits around the world since the early 1900s. At the end of this post are some of the links I found describing this important artist and teacher whose name may not be that familiar today outside of art circles. If not for Horne’s letter, I would not have learned of his work.
Of the many documents lost over time, that letter was one of the few that Horne retained. For those of you familiar with my Interludes series, you know that Horne was involved with the recovery and restitution of stolen artwork, books and other cultural items in post-war Germany. And he was also involved with those activities to foster and reinvigorate the artist communities in a war-ravaged Germany. It is undoubtedly through these activities that Horne and Hofer met in the late 1940s.
Earlier, in the 1920s Hofer had been teaching art at a respected German institution and his work celebrated world-wide. But, by the 1930s, he’d made Hitler’s list of degenerate artists. He was removed from his teaching post. Over 300 of his works were confiscated from museums and several included in a traveling exhibit of degenerate art alongside the works of Beckmann, Chagall, Kadinsky, Klee, Nolde and other artists. By the war’s end, in Allied Occupied Germany, he would be reappointed as teacher and director of a new arts academy. As for the years in between and soon after …
In his memoir, From the Ashes of Disgrace, sociologist Hans Speier describes what happened to Hofer under the Nazis and Speier’s impressions of the man after they met in late 1945:
“…The failure to find a safe place to work and live pushed [Hofer] to the brink of despair. In 1943, a fire destroyed his studio along with all his paintings from the past ten years. He resumed work at once in a room in his apartment, only to be completely bombed out and lose everything in November 1944. Thereafter he finally found refuge in a sanatorium in Babelsberg near Berlin, where the Nazis were hiding the French politician Herriot … Now [in November 1945] he owns no furniture, and he is hungry. Nor has he suitable quarters for doing his work. However, as president of the academy, which has been reconstituted … he is quite busy. I was almost awed merely by seeing the expression on his face, and by his reserve and his dignity.” (page 25)
I was especially excited to find Speier’s 1945 account because his words corroborated and complemented what Hofer would write to Horne three years later in March 1948. Once translated, the poignancy of the content came across although the specific meaning of words and references were not immediately clear. Hofer writes of being touched by Horne’s inquiry into his well-being. Then, he writes, after having been in the insane asylum for years, “now we are back in an asylum again.” He alludes to the monetary reforms of postwar Germany that result in the “black market blossoms as never before, only this time prices are higher.” Finally, he writes of “the American planes drone above our heads, reassuring us day and night that we won’t starve, unless the red Hitler gobbles us up. It has been a crazy time, so different from what we pictured in our naive hope three years ago.”
It wasn’t until I spoke with a woman who grew up in the Soviet Union that I understood that the reference to red Hitler was Stalin. And when I looked more closely at the letter’s date, then did I understand the reference to crazy times, the security of American planes overhead and the possibilities of starvation. Hofer wrote the letter only a short time before the Berlin Blockade. As the Soviet blockade took place (June 1948-May 1949), Western Allies dropped food and other supplies into Western Berlin by air. While the blockade would eventually end, the Cold War was only just beginning. Hofer survived the blockade, and would continue to teach and to create art for several more years.
Today his work is found in museums, galleries and private collections around the world. While there are a few more bits of correspondence between Hofer and Horne that I’ve found, their translation is a future project. For now, it has been my pleasure to learn just a little bit about this influential artist, his perseverance, and the beauty he created until the end of his days in 1955.