Hermann Hesse’s Unseen Oeuvres

An Exhibition at the Leopold Museum Reveals The Writer’s Late-Life Obsession With Painting

The rainfall increased sharply as a friend and I approached Vienna’s Museum  Quarter. As we turned up the final stretch to the Leopold Museum, the wind joined the rain, as if to stop our climb to the exhibit of Hermann Hesse’s painting and poetry, to discover the artist in him that was not a writer. It was almost metaphorical for Hesses troubled life. However we ventured on and managed, to reach our goal, against all odds.

A portrait of Nobel-Author Hermann Hesse by pop-art founder Andy Warhol | Photo: Andy Warhol Foundation

Hesse was born on the 2nd of July 1877 in Calw, Germany, the son of protestant missionaries working for the Basler Mission in India, where the foundation were laid for Hesse’s fascination with the subcontinent and Buddhist philosophy, and his 1911 trip to Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka.

The exhibit was located in the basement of the Leopold, and started in a lofty white hall, covered in large panels. Here were told the basic biographical overview of Hesse’s turbulent life, from an early adolescence in a series of schools and psychiatric institutions, to economic instability and two unhappy marriages.

Quotations from his novels and poems were selected to create a compelling narrative, revealing how his artistic work was deeply woven to his private life.

After working as a watch mechanic, a young Hesse soon realised he yearned for a more intellectual vocation. He got a job at a bookstore in Tübingen, Germany and began reading in every minute of his precious free time, educating himself and writing poetry. When he finally molted from reader to writer with his first nober Romantische Lieder, published in 1898, his new endeavor received little attention.

Recognition came only after Hesse moved to Basel and found in Samuel Fischer a patron, who published his first acclaimed novel, Peter Camenzind.

The several rooms of the exhibit are accessible from the main hall, and we began with the one to the left. It was divided between a video presentation on Hesse’s life and some private belongings, a hat, an umbrella and some gardening tools, giving a eerie sense of his presence as we absorbed the work. A large timeline simplified the abundant biographical information provided in the main hall.

We wandered on, and came to a large space covered with Hesse’s own paintings, and we took a seat at one of the two small circular benches in the middle of the room. Settling in, we listened to a rare recording from 1958 of Hesse reading and commenting on his work.

There was calmness in his voice that compelled one to listen, seducing the listener through a series of texts, excerpts from novels and poems, intimate reflections on the process of aging and some recollections of his experiences in the First World War. Afterward, he became an active opponent of war, with ideas clearly traceable to these experiences. He organised a library and started a newspaper for German prisoners of war, and published essays calling for intellectuals to abstain from the war effort and the nationalistic propaganda that was swamping Europe at the time.

Having conquered the literary world, steadily producing masterworks in regular intervals (1906: Unterm Rad, 1910: Gertrud, 1919: Demian, 1922: Siddharta, 1927: Der Steppenwolf, 1943: Das Galsperlenspiel), he developed a fascination for painting later in his life, particularly after 1919, when he moved to Montagnola, a picturesque village on the lake Lugano close to the Swiss-Italian border. At first, he risked only watercolors on paper, and his motives were predominantly landscapes and buildings around his new home. But his style improved steadily with time, when he started adding ink to frame the watercolors.

Interestingly there weren’t many paintings from his trip to Ceylon, just some ink silhouettes depicting a tropical landscape and animals. Considering how strong an influence Buddhist culture had on his writing, it seemed that the exhibit was missing something.

Beautiful in themselves, Hesse’s paintings also have a powerful biographical value, showing us his view of his surroundings through the lens of the watercolors. Montagnola became Hesse’s home until his death in 1962.

The last room of the exhibition had Hesse’s later paintings as well as pages from handwritten poetry books, neatly illustrated with small drawings. The other half of the room was turned into a reading corner, with couches and a large assortment of Hesse’s writing in a variety of languages. French books lay peacefully next to German editions, joined by illustrated Japanese and Russian translations.

Next to the couches were Hesse’s portraits by his friends including Gunter Böhmer, as well as a famous pop-art portrait by Andy Warhol. When we arrived, people were sitting around reading and discussing. It was nice to hear excited chatter in the usually very quiet atmosphere common in museums, where one doesn’t dare sneeze, for fear of attracting the wrath of a fellow connoisseur. But after all, this was an exhibition about a writer, and language is meant to be heard.

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