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Sascha Schneider’s Homoerotically Inspired Art

by Hans Hafkamp in Theatre, Art & Expo , 08 juni 2014

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

In the spring of 1908 and in a rush, artist Sascha Schneider had to leave Weimar, where he was working as a professor of Nude Drawing at the Großherzoglich Sächsische Kunstschule. He wrote about this to Karl May, a writer friend, in June 1908: “You must have heard the official reasons of my farewell to Weimar. I left not only Weimar, but Germany with great reluctance and entirely involuntary.

You probably will guess what is going on; some time ago, when I was modeling you, I gave you some personal particulars about my natural inclination. This inclination has now come to a head. How about the word blackmail? It says enough and you can imagine the rest.”

Schneider left for Italy, where he would settle in Florence after short stays in Rome and Forte dei Marmi. For centuries, Italy was known as a refuge for men who like men from Northern Europe, wanting to escape the strict moral laws in their respective countries. As early as the eighteenth century, art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann regularly visited this Mediterranean country, where he was appointed at the library of the Vatican by Pope Clemens XIII. In April 1768 Winckelmann traveled to Germany, but a fit of melancholia made him break off his trip, and he booked a room in Hotel Duchi d’Aosta in Triest, where he met Francesco Arcangeli, who was in an adjacent room. In the following days, the men would regularly meet, but after Winckelmann showed Arcangeli some gold and silver coins, he tried to strangle him. When that did not work, he stabbed him with a knife several times, killing Winckelmann.

Being an artist, Schneider certainly must have known about this. It did not stop him from residing in Italy, because in his own life time, his compatriots baron Wilhelm von Gloeden in Taormina and his nephew Wilhelm Plüschow in Rome, less dramatically acquired a certain fame as photographers of (among others) male nudes. In Florence, Schneider regularly met his colleague Elisar von Kupffer, who was active in the early German gay movement and had published the anthology “Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltliteratur” in 1900.

It is unclear as to whether Schneider was occupied with the latest literary production, but it is more likely that both artists discussed their activities as painters. “Both had common goals in their approach to male models. For Schneider, it was the emphasis on masculine physicality, for Elisar von Kupffer it was the androgynous youthful design of self-portraits,” Andreas Sternweiler wrote in 1997 in “Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Jahre Schwulenbewegung.”

Not only were homosexual acts stricken from the Italian penal code in 1889, but Italian men were not averse to sex with other men. The British gay emancipator John Addington Symonds reported in his memories, which were only considered publishable more than ninety years after his death in Rome in 1893, that Venetian gondoliers were “so accustomed” to sexual advances by travelers “that they think little of gratifying the caprice of ephemeral lovers - within certain limits.”

Despite of this climate, Schneider did not settle in Italy, but returned to Germany after his involuntary three-year exile.

The Nude is Alpha and Omega

Sascha Schneider was born on September 21, 1870 as Rudolph Karl Alexander Schneider in Saint Petersburg. His father was, as one of the first articles on the artist around 1895 in “Moderne Kunst in Holzschnitten” reported, co-founder of the “Schweizer Graphische Mitteilungen,” and “an important artist in the field of graphic products.” After his father’s death in 1884, the family moved to Dresden, where Schneider was admitted to the art academy in 1889. In 1893, he moved into a studio with his colleague Richard Müller, and shortly after he had his first solo exhibitions. Early in his career Schneider chose the nude, and the male nude in particular, as his main subject. He was not the only one, as predecessors and contemporaries such as Ferdinand Hodler, Ludwig von Hofmann, Hans von Marées and Schneider’s mentor Max Klinger had also given the nude an important place in their body of work. The latter defended his choice with the following position: “The heart and the center point of all art remains the human body. The study and depiction of the nude are the A and O of every style.” Schneider met Klinger in 1895, who introduced him to the art world.

In 1900, Schneider moved to Meißen where he moved into his own studio. By then he was already a renowned artist. In 1896, in the series “Meisterwerke der Holzschneidekunst,” a folder with twelve woodcuts based upon Schneider’s works and a text by Aemil Fendler was published. The publication saw a second and third edition in 1897 with six additional pages, and a fourth edition in 1900. Schneider also got some major contracts. In 1899 he created the fresco “Der Triumph des Kreuzes im Weltgericht” for the triumphal arch of the Johannes Church in Cölln near Meißen, followed by five murals for the Gutenberg Hall of the Deutsches Buchgewerbehaus in Leipzig in 1900.

In 1901, Schneider completed “Um die Wahrheit,” an enormous polyptych-like work of twelve by four meters with a large number of naked warriors in the center that are armed with swords and spears and are in battle. This art work was extremely popular and was exhibited in many galleries and museums. In Düsseldorf, the crown prince also took an interest in it. “Um die Wahrheit” was so well-known that there was a postcard with two young ladies and their grumpy chaperone, turning away from this group of writhing naked male bodies, while giggling and in a state of shock and anger.

Karl May Visits

It is very likely that the popular German author Karl May saw this work in the beginning of 1902, when the work was shown at the Kunstsalon Richter in Dresden. In any case Klara Plöhn, who would marry May the following year, but was already seeing the writer and his first wife, wrote in her diary: “Saw Sascha Schneider’s painting ‘Um die Wahrheit’ at Richter. Powerful mind!” It is also possible that in 1903 May saw the work that was completed a year earlier, “Auf zum Kampf” (sometimes also known as “Phalanx der Starken”) during an art exhibition in Dresden. This piece is more modest in seize than “Um die Wahrheit,” but still impressive. It shows a group of marching younger and older men with swords, clubs, spears and other objects that can be used as a weapon, while a red flag is flying over their heads.

The exhibition that showed this painting opened on May 6, 1903, and May must have visited the studio of the artist not much later, as Schneider sent him a thank you note on June 12. Much later, Schneider remembers the following about this visit: “A good-looking gentleman came to visit me in the studio and introduced himself: Karl May. I had never heard of him and gave him a questioning look, after which he added ‘Old Shatterhand.’ I asked for an explanation, to which he described the bringing down of his opponents with one blow. To which I grabbed my 50 kilo dumb-bell and told him: I practice with this on a daily basis.”

Both men must have enjoyed this first meeting, as it was the beginning of a friendship that would last until May’s death. The famous author wanted to also get below the arm of the somewhat destitute artist. In October 1903, he ordered the painting “Der Chodem” for the reception room of his villa in Radebeul. The painting is still on display here.

An Impressive Artistic Treasure

Soon, plans got bigger. At another studio visit in the beginning of May 1904, Schneider suggested to make new cover illustrations for May’s books. Klara May, who had been married to the writer for a year now, wrote the following in her diary: “At Schneider’s place. [...] That dear Schneider wants to provide Karl’s books with other cover designs, in order for people to understand Karl and stop using that silly term ‘author for youngsters.’ I jumped on the occasion.” May himself did not have to think long either, as on the 11th of March he wrote to his publisher Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld: “The famous Sascha Schneider is my friend. He, the greatest, most gifted and most wonderful of present day painters, visits me at home. He is the ‘German Michel Angelo.’ He does not only read my work, but understands me, and the thoughts that come to the surface are downright priceless. [...] No publisher has ever had covers from such a master, and none will ever have. I can see the world envying you. And imagine the artistic and impressive treasure each buyer of our books would get, so to speak, for free!

Fehsenfeld agreed and Schneider started working. Soon, he handed in his first pieces. When he submits the illustration for “Winnetous Himmelfahrt” (Winnetou’s Ascension) in April 1904, he writes: “Here’s Winnetou [...]. That lovely long hair he’s kept, it won’t harm him in those fields [the Elysian Fields, ed.], even though, even to our standards, it has a feminine touch. On the other hand, he loses the symbol of his dignity as an Indian chief: the eagle’s feather.

Winnetou rose fully naked to the sky, but Schneider chose a side-view which must have been considered acceptable for May’s readers. Several months later, problems arose when Schneider handed in the cover for the third volume of “Im Reiche des silberen Loewen” (In the Kingdom of the Silver Lion). Unfortunately not all of May’s letters to Schneider have been saved, but on the 2nd of August 1904, the artist replied to him: “Why are you returning my last drawing? You really can’t use the small naked angel? I refuse to accept this, I really don’t understand you. - Absolutely not! - If you really insist that I should veil this innocent boy (because something else is not possible: nude is nude!) than I will do it, but you will take away all enthusiasm for the work.” A week later, Schneider wrote to May: “Because of your friendly letter I will make the little angel sexless; but it is ridiculous and makes me sad.

And that is the problem, why are you listening to 3 million asses and idiots? Those are the monkeys to which you are the Indian and Arabic May under a good Catholic sign. These people see neither the artist nor the prophet in you. Precisely those rogues won’t have anything to do with you as soon as you have revealed your new and impressive thoughts. The way I got to know you, you are for the few, not for the 4 million, and that is what my work connects to in the awareness that I am also one of the few chosen, for which audiences are small in numbers but refined, and whose work will only be understood in later time, or, if you prefer, will be dissolved.”

The Embodiment of ‘une brute’

After this tirade, Schneider must have realized that May, most likely, was not solely responsible for the change request, and continued: “if the publisher is afraid that he will lose half of these idiots because of my contributions and ‘sales figures’ will fall, this would really depress me and prevent me from continuing.”

Schneider was probably right to think so. Fehsenfeld was more than happy to accommodate his reader’s favorite author, but must have found out quickly enough that the general public didn’t understand Schneider’s symbolist work. In 1905 however, the publisher was willing to publish an art portfolio of Schneider’s works for May’s books with a foreword by professor of Theology Johannes Werner. But the sales figures were disappointing, which must also have been true for the Schneider edition of May’s works. In June 1906, the publisher paid Schneider a visit. Schneider then wrote the following to May: “He claimed that when it came to a new popular reprint of your work, you would be the one to tell me about it. You know what I think of popular. You have a different way of thinking, and it would not occur to me to go against your opinion. Fehsenfeld told me the portfolio is not selling, and that my title illustrations are generally incomprehensible.” May then wrote a conciliatory letter in which he claimed he isn’t happy with his publisher’s plans either, and that he would only allow them under strict conditions. Eventually this new popular edition was published, and the Schneider edition became a collector’s items.

Undoubtedly, this must have disappointed Schneider, but the project was completed, and he started working on new projects. Besides, he was promoted to professor in Weimar in 1904, partly thanks to the mediation of his friend and mentor Max Klinger. But not everyone was happy with this choice. Art collector, writer, politician and diplomat Harry Clemens Ulrich von Kessler, who was a prominent figure in Weimar’s art scene, wrote the following in his extensive diary on July 7, 1905: “[Schneider] both in spirit and behavior, is the most complete embodiment of what the French call ‘une brute’; a kind of Caliban. From what he said today, the following stuck: ‘In nudes, the expression of the eyes is the essential thing.’ We discussed the subject for over an hour. He does not even seem to understand the counter-arguments.”

‘This Innate Natural Inclination’

Kessler’s objections were probably sincere. The fact that he was also a lover of men could have played a part however. In the year Schneider had to flee Weimar, Kessler visited his friend Von Gloeden in Taormina with another friend of his, the French sculptor Aristide Maillol. A year earlier, Maillol had made the sculpture “Le cycliste,” for which the then sixteen or seventeen-year-old Gaston Colin had modeled in the nude. Kessler was romantically involved with Gaston Collin from 1907-1908 onwards. It therefore may be the case that Kessler considered the presence of someone whose love for men was not a big secret a threat to his own personal life in a time when all homosexual acts were punishable under the infamous paragraph 175 of the German penal code.

That Schneider did not consider his erotic preference to be an intimate and big secret becomes clear from the fact that he pointed this out to Karl May within a year after their first meeting, and subsequently wrote May on May 19, 1904: “This innate natural inclination cannot be fought or repressed. And why should it? There is no such thing as sin in that respect. And has it prevented me from thinking about the great and noble? - Not redemption from this world, but freedom in this world is my deepest wish.” About six months later, Schneider’s sister Lilly informed May’s wife Klara about her brother’s preference, and noted that even though she was carefully keeping the secret: “Unfortunately, this information has gotten around more than you know.”

Schneider did not go out of his way to hide his preference. From the beginning, he was sharing his apartment in Weimar with 1885 born Hellmuth Jahn, a young painter he had met during his time in Meißen, and whom he was probably teaching art when Jahn was studying at the Königlich Sächsischen Kunstgewerbeschule in Dresden from 1902 to 1904. After Schneider realized that the Public Prosecutor Paul Naumburg lived in the apartment below his apartment, he wrote the following to Kuno van Hardenberg on October 18, 1904: “We’re living on a powder keg.”

A Vengeful Lover

Even before moving to Weimar, their relationship was problematic. In a letter to Von Hardenberg from August 31, 1904 Schneider wrote: “It’s complicated with Hellmuth. While my passion and artistic interest draw me to him, his coldness compared to my fieriness, his terrible upbringing & his pronounced selfishness repel me. My moods go up and down, and a complete helplessness comes over me in situations that keep me prisoner as a kind of fate, without him respecting my wishes in any possible way. I almost wish I could get rid of him, or at least: I wish I had never met him! But the idea of a separation, and moving to that dead place [Weimar] alone, almost drives me insane. [...] Oh, if only he could love me one tenth of how I love him.”

A little over a year after their move to Weimar, Jahn decided to leave Schneider and headed for Berlin. In a letter to Von Hardenberg Schneider seemed both sad and relieved. The separation was not amicable, to say the least, because on January 16, 1906, Lilly Schneider informed Klara May that “that monster,” meaning Jahn, had spoken of “revenge” at their parting. He also substantiated his threat and tried to blackmail Schneider because of his homosexuality, forcing him to flee Weimar. At the time of the move to Weimar, Max Dittrich, who was friends with Schneider, but particularly with his sister Lilly, wrote to Klara May that he was worried: “In Weimar, the climate is very different from Berlin or Italy.” Before this, he had already sighed: “I do hope his road to the glorious heights of fame does not end in the marsh of madness and misfortunes à la painter Allers or poet Oscar Wilde.” By mentioning these names, Dittrich was referring to the legal problems of both artists. Christian Wilhelm Allers had been sent to prison in Naples in 1903 because of his homosexuality (which he escaped by fleeing the country), while in 1895 in London, Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison, which he served.

‘The Brat Traveled to Cairo’

What Jahn probably didn’t realize when he tried to blackmail Schneider, is that he was subjecting himself to prosecution as well, and therefore had to leave Germany also. Schneider gave him money to go to Cairo and never return. However, in May Schneider wrote Hans Olde: “H. J. did not leave for Cairo, but came to me because of his passport.” About a month later, he reported: “Maybe you [...] have heard the news already, I am no longer in danger. The brat has traveled to Cairo, where he is thinking about his deeds without any means. You can imagine how I am regaining my breath.”

But the story doesn’t end here. In 1909, Jahn appeared in Florence, where Schneider was concentrating on sculpting. He was living with the 1886-born painter and sculptor Robert Spies, and had also closely befriended the Russian painter Daniel Stepanoff. Stepanoff seems to have disappeared from our collective memory, because there is no trace of him. (Although it is possible that there is some information to be found on him in the chapter on Schneider that Donatelle Cingottini contributed to “Artista: Critica dell’arte in Toscana” in 1998, but I have no command of Italian.) It was Stepanoff who came to Schneider’s rescue when Jahn reappeared in Florence. He “staged a true Russian diplomatic stratagem” and first made sure Jahn first went behind bars to be deported later and disappear into the mists of history.

This does not hold true for Schneider, although obscurity was around the corner. Shortly after his death on August 18, 1927, a large memorial exhibition was organized in the beginning of 1928, which attracted a lot of publicity and visitors. In the twentieth century, the art world changed and the symbolic works of Schneider, among others, had to make way for artists following different directions. In 1967, Hansotto Hatzig published an edition of the documents about the friendship between Schneider and Karl May. In the introduction he wrote: “The time has come to re-appreciate, not to say: rediscover Sascha Schneider,” especially because of the renewed attention for Jugendstil in the 1960s.

‘I Go My Own Way...’

Since Hatzig’s book, Schneider’s work acquired a place in the May studies, but its rediscovery in the general world of art would take more time. In 1997, some of his works were shown at the exhibition “Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Jahre Schwulenbewegung,” which was compiled by the Schwules Museum in Berlin. In 2012, his work was represented at the innovative exhibition “Nude Men” in  Vienna’s Leopold Museum.

The highlight of the revival of interest for his work was the major retrospective Sascha Schneider: Visualizing Ideas through the Human Boy,” which was held from March 28 until 21 July 2013 in the Kunsthalle “Harry Graf Kessler” of the Stadtmuseum in Weimar. On this occasion, a beautiful, bi-lingual (German and English) publication appeared, in which a large number of Schneider’s works are reproduced and in which a closer look is taken at his life and work. At the end of 2013, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York presented “Nude in Public: Sascha Schneider - Homoeroticism and the Male Form circa 1900.”

This exhibition can now be seen under the adjusted title ‘I go my own way...’ Sascha Schneider - Art and Homoeroticism ca 1900” in Berlin’s Schwules Museum until June 30.

Even if Schneider’s place in the collective art memory might still not be too deeply rooted, with this exhibition on both sides of the Atlantic his life and work are now an integral part of gay history.

Schwules Museum
Lützowstraße 73
10785 Berlin



In the New Issue of Gay News, 328, December 2018

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