Conrad Felixmüller (centre) was born in Dresden in 1897, the son of a blacksmith in a piano factory. A child prodigy in both music and art, he began studying at the Dresden Academy of Art at the age of 15 and became an independent artist in Dresden at the age of 18. A conscientious objector, he repeatedly flouted the military draft until 1917, when he was arrested and classified as mentally ill. He was then briefly conscripted as a medical orderly. His troubling lithograph ‘Soldier in the Madhouse II’ (top left and in the Leicester Collection) was made during this period and reflects his experience of the horrors of war. This served to reinforce his lifelong pacifism. Felixmüller was a great joiner of groups and causes, politically active on the Left from before he left the art academy. His radical commitment was an enduring feature of both his artistic practice and his way of life.
In a later biography he talked about the impulses around this early phase of Expressionism: ‘I was impelled to bold experiments of the kind which were currently shaking up the artistic life of all countries; strong independent colours, radically simplified forms. The goal which obsessed me was to convey not impressions of the external world but the expression of experienced reality.’ Felixmüller became an accomplished graphic artist, making woodcuts and lithographs for left wing journals such as ‘Der Sturm’ and ‘Die Aktion’. In 1919 he both joined the Communist Party and founded the Dresden New Secession group, forging important contacts and friendships. 1921’s ‘Autumn Evening, Klotzsche’ (bottom right and in the Leicester Collection) came about after Felixmüller won a Saxony state award intended for travel to Rome. He chose instead to go to the Ruhrgebiet, an industrial region on the Ruhr, where his brother was a mining engineer. Here he could focus on observing the lives of workers and their families, and comment on the grim reality of working conditions in the mines. In this dramatic painting a factory worker is returning from his shift, conveying not just the drudgery but also the dignity of working life.
His 1927 woodcut ‘Portrait of Christian Rohlfs’ (centre right and in the Leicester Collection) testifies to Felixmüller’s prominence within German Expressionist circles. Rohlfs, considerably his senior, was also a close friend of the Hess family of Erfurt whose generosity has made the Leicester collection possible.
How Felixmüller met my grandparents is not known, but by 1930 they were firm friends. Felixmüller’s wife Londa was from an aristocratic family and had introduced him to a largely Jewish circle of professional and enlightened supporters and patrons. It is also possible, as was common, that my grandfather waived his professional dentistry fees in exchange for artwork. The family acquired a copy of ‘Das Maler Leben’ in 1927 (excerpt top right). ‘Das Maler Leben’ (The Artist’s Life) was a book of 16 lithographs dedicated to Carl Sternheim and printed privately by the artist in Dresden. In 1932 Felixmüller made several drawings of my 17-year-old mother (bottom right), a drawing of my grandfather and a remarkable painting of my grandmother which my grandfather (for reasons that never became evident) sold in London in the 1960s. Felixmüller also gave them a personalised, dedicated watercolour in 1933, wishing them well on their holidays and a woodblock print of lovers. There is some evidence of other works owned by the family in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, but their whereabouts are not known. By 1932 Felixmüller, by then a happily married father of two boys, had moved away from the angular forms and intense palette of Expressionism towards more conventional and recognisable compositions: perhaps because of the wishes of his patrons, or in a search for more harmonious forms. Felixmüller’s shift would not prevent his work being roundly denounced by the Nazis.