Tigers in Berlin

Museums have reopened in Berlin, and one goes to museum again. The ancient collection of the Altes Museum on Museum Island is an intimate acquaintance, I missed it. Coming out, I sit down on the stairs to flip through, in the spring sunshine, the catalog of the new exhibition on Greek portrait sculptures, about which I will soon write. And as I raise my head, I suddenly take notice of something I have seen a thousand times: the two bronze statues flanking the steps of the museum. Two equestrian statues to the right and left, their riders stabbing two big cats: the woman to the right a tiger, and the man to the left a lion. They did not get there today: the amazon in 1843, and the man in 1861. Yet now I think about it for the first time: why are here, in front of the house of fine arts, the temple of the spirit, two such action statues, whose figures in obvious superior position – on horseback, hunting with weapon – are brutally massacring endangered protected animals?

altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1

I am not alone with this question. The Reclam Kunstführer Berlin, to which I first turn for an answer in the museum shop, is also perplexed, stating that “the sculptures have nothing to do with the museum’s program.”

How and why did they get here anyway?

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the designer of the museum originally wanted to place here the equestrian statues of the two Prussian kings donating the museum, Frederick William III and IV. In fact, the museum, built between 1823 and 1830 as Königliches Museum, housed the royal private collections, and aimed at sharing their antique heritage with the educated bourgeoisie. The museum thus logically fits into the building complex surrounding the Lustgarten, the royal ornamental garden: to the south the royal palace (whose reconstruction, after the devastation of the war and the hiatus of the GDR times, will be finished this year) as the symbol of power, to the east the Berliner Dom as that of the church, to the west the Zeughaus, the armory and then military museum as that of the army, and to the north the museum as that of the spirit.

However, Frederick William IV did not want royal statues here. Nevertheless, the idea was already on its way, and the stair railings cried out after equestrian statues.

Friedrich Thiele: The Altes Museum, 1830, with two equestrian statues that never existed.

The first equestrian statue, the Amazon killing a tiger or simply Amazon by the Silesia-born but Berlin-educated sculptor August Kiss was placed on the right rail in 1843. The September 30 issue of Illustrirte Zeitung reported in detail about its set-up and also provided art criticism. According to the author monogrammed L. R., the greatest merit of the work is that it was cast from public donation. The artist “was bold enough” to model the sculpture in life size in his studio, and only later a “large association of enthusiastic friends of art, led by the King” (of which Schinkel was also a member) collected the sum necessary to casting. This is, then, the first – albeit not visible – link between the museum and the sculpture: the active participation – “sacrifice” – of the educated burgeoisie in the enrichment of the new center of bourgeois culture – or, in the vocabulary and conception, its “temple”.

Illustrirte Zeitung, September 30, 1843. The muscle men setting up the statue in the engraving seem to be helping the amazon with their sticks against the tiger.

The spirit of the age also saw in the sculpture the embodiment of the victory of the spirit over animal savagery, that is, exactly the Bildungsziel the museum served for. It is no coincidence that August Kiss’ other masterpiece was the statue of St. George (1855) in front of the Nikolaikirche, whose dragon has been traditionally associated with evil, and its knockdown thus symbolizes the victory of good.

The prolific critic Karl August Varnhagen also praises the sculpture for this reason: “It is a great, bold, expressive and powerful work. … One can see that the horse is already lost, but the person is triumphing. The beautiful amazon radiating with spiritual superiority will survive, and will at least take revenge for the horse.” This concern for a secondary figure is unusual from a critic, but we know that Varnhagen fought the Napoleonic wars under Austrian, Prussian and Russian flags, and was able to exactly gauge what it means to lose a horse in an emergency.

However, no one is yet concerned for the tiger at this time. The only criticism of Illustrirte Zeitung was that while the amazon and the horse are beautifully crafted, the tiger hangs around the horse’s neck as a “shapeless, bag-like mass”, and one cannot find a vantage point from which its entire figure can be seen at once. I can confirm this myself as a photographer.

Photo by Adolphe Braun & Compagnie, ca. 1860-66

The statue was a great success. Prussia entered it for the 1851 London World’s Fair, where it stood in the Eastern Wing of the Crystal Palace, among the exhibits of the German Customs Union (there is no Germany yet at that time!). Michael Leapman writes about it in his The world for a shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 shaped a nation (2011):

„A little further on was the German sculptor August Kiss’s depiction of an Amazon on horseback attacked by a tiger, whose combination of energy and delicate modelling made it many people’s favourite work in all of the Crystal Palace. The tiger’s claws were embedded in the horse’s body while the Amazon held her spear aloft, ready to deliver the decisive blow.”

John Absolon: The Eastern Wing of the Crystal Palace, 1851

The statue’s popularity in Britain is evidenced by the fact that George Eliot used it as a metaphor in one of her critiques four years later. Speaking about a short story by Charles Kingsley, she praises its romantic impetus and faithfulness to nature, as opposed to the mass of writings that merely copy each other and use neo-classical commonplaces. And she suddenly uses this parallel: “After a surfeit of Hebes and Psyches, or Madonnas and Magdalens, it is a refreshment to turn to Kiss’ Amazon.” The memory of the statue was obviously still alive among the educated English audience if Eliot could refer to it like this, without any introduction. Interestingly, the thirteen year older critique of the Illustrirte Zeitung criticized the sculpture exactly for what Eliot praised it: that it does not follows the neo-classical ideal of beauty, and “instead of maximizing the unfolding of the nobility and force of the most beautiful organic forms” it aims at terror and horror”, and instead of “spiritually recharging and moving the bosom and the emotions” at the “strong arousal of the nervous system”: “plastic art here has completely gone in the direction of modern romantic literature.”

And John Ruskin could refer to the memory of the exhibition even as late as 1859 in his Berlin report published in Scotsman: “Kiss’ Amazon makes a good grotesque for the side of the Museum steps; it was seen to disadvantage in London.”

In this 1854 photograph, the Amazon is still alone along the steps of the museum. But her mate, the lion killer, “der Löwenkämpfer” is already on the way. It was created between 1847 and 1856 by Albert Wolff, who was a student of the same Christian Daniel Rauch, founder of the Berlin School of Sculpture and leading sculptor of 19th-century Germany, as Kiss. As early as 1843, the Illustrirte Zeitung mentions a small statue seen by its author in Rauch’s workshop around 1831, depicting a naked Numidian rider stabbing an attacking lion with a spear. According to the author, this model inspired – with the mentioned changes – the statue of Kiss, and it was also followed, probably without significant changes, by Wolff’s lion killer.

The Löwenkämpfer. Above, in the 1860s photo by Senior Moser, and below, in the 1940s picture by Heinz Stockfleth

According to the literature, Rauch from the outset intended his lion killer for the stairs of the museum, and Schinkel, who died in 1841, knew and supported this. This may have helped the setting-up of the earlier completed Amazon, and this explains why August Kiss undertook so boldly, without an adequate financial background, to model his statue life-size: he probably recognized that Rauch’s model tuned the audience to such an equestrian statue. However, by 1861 this mood has largely passed. The critic Franz Kugler, who in 1843 still praised the setting-up of the Amazon, saying it fitted well to the (since then destroyed) frescoes of Schinkel in the museum lobby, in 1861 already wrote about the lion killer the same what is our first thought a hundred years later, in a completely changed atmosphere of reception: “In vain we look for a connection between the temple of peaceful arts and such a wild depiction of barbarian roughness.” Yet the sculpture is much more neo-classical, more balanced than its 1843 predecessor.

Albert Wolff managed to place one more equestrian statue in front of the Altes Museum: that of Frederick William III, in 1871. This statue was fused in 1944 for war purposes.

Such neo-classical genre statues are often inspired by ancient sculptures, or at least by ancient descriptions of works of art that did not survive. What could have been the ancient inspiration of the two big cat killers?

We know no statue of a tiger or lion killer from antiquity. But we do know reliefs or two-dimensional representations of this topic. One of them is right here, in the museum: a mosaic from around 130 AD from the Tivoli Villa Hadriana, on which centaurs, i.e. horse-men fight with three big cats: a tiger, a lion and a panther. The tiger bites with its claws into the body of the centaur laying on the ground just as the tiger of the Amazon does with the horse. The museum purchased this mosaic around 1840, so both sculptors could see it.

For today’s recipient, this image feels like an overwritten fantasy. It is too much by half. Three big prey cats attacking at once? and centaurs? But most probably this was the originally intended effect. The mosaic had to convey concentrated exoticism, and the key elements of this were the transitorial human-animals living somewhere far away, on the edge of the oikumene, as well as the tiger. For the Romans, tiger was a trademark of exoticism. In the 4th-century Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, one of the largest surviving Roman mosaic ensembles, the floor of the great central cross corridor is adorned with the scene of the “great game hunting”, where we see hunting and animal capture in Africa to the left, and in Asia to the right. The scenes on the left are quite authentic, as the Romans knew Africa well, and probably the owner of the villa played an important role in capturing large African animals and transporting them to the Roman circus. On the right, however, which they only knew from hearsay, hell breaks lose. Alles geht, from rhinoceros to griffin. And among the exotic animals, the tiger plays an emblematic role, sort of a hallmark of being in a world of fairy tales.

The Romans first saw a tiger in 20 BC, which was brought by an Indian embassy to the island of Samos as a gift to the emperor. And Augustus, as Pliny reports in his Naturalis historia 8.25, managed to stage a tiger in public only in 13 AD, at the inauguration of Marcellus’s theater. True, in the Gladiator, the late 2nd-century emperor Commodus was able to muster up as much as twelve tigers into the Colosseum just to end up unfairly with Centurion Maximus, but that’s not the only excess in that film.

The Asian scenes of the Villa Romana also include a Pliny story from Naturalis historia 8.25, the one which Centurion Fungus Maximus Tertius wanted to see on his mosaic floor in Zeugma. That is, if the hunter abducts the tiger’s kids, it will follow him, but then the hunter throws a round mirror (a polished metal sphere or convex metal plate) in front of it, in which it sees itself small and lingers with it for a while, believing seeing its kid. Here we see the hunter with the caterpillar-like little tigers on his chest galloping up the boat ready to depart, and the busy tiger behind him. The mere fact that this form of hunting was portrayed as a promising opportunity on the floor of the villa of an otherwise serious large-scale African animal capture specialist shows how exotic an animal the tiger was.

The exotic character of the tiger is also evident in the villa’s sea scene. Here the artists, inspired by the horse / water horse (hyppo-potamos) dichotomy, created some similar aquatic animals for the depths of the inexhaustible sea, next to the sea gods and nayads. Among them is the water tiger.

Probably the exoticism of the tiger attracted the amazon as an additional character, as it did the griffin on the mosaic of the villa. An exotic animal needs an exotic hunter, like on the floor of Villa Hadriana. And besides, the verses of Virgil (Aeneis 11.576-577), well known to every Bildungsbürger say that the amazon wears tiger skin:

Pro crinali auro, pro longae tegmine pallae
Tigridis exuviae per dorsum a vertice pendent.

(Instead of gold jewelry on her hair and a long robe, tiger skin hangs down on her back.)

And someone had to kill that tiger. The statue at the entrance of the Altes Museum was seen as an illustration of this verse by the little Bildungsbürgers coming here on a class trip, as long as this category existed.

The world has changed a lot since then. It became clear exactly here in Berlin, that human spirit did not prevail over animal savagery. And we have learned to see in the tiger and other animals the spirit of nature endangered by human savagery. Like here next to me, on the firewall of the Birkholz senior center in Charlottenburg.

“[Can you] see me? My life matters.” “Let’s imagine a world, in which every being is protected.”

We see this humanization of the tiger on the front page of today’s Die Zeit, where it figures as an illustration of the article “Can we still trust?” both as a scary animal (whom we may not be able to trust) and as a being endangered and longing for trust just like us. Following the pattern of the biblical topos where the lion lies with the sheep and the tiger with the amazon.

No hay comentarios: