Empire (1871–1918)

On occasion of the Prussian Sale we have divided the timespan between 1701 and 1918 into chapters, introducing their most influential players, commentators, and styles. Take a look and let us surprise you!

There could have been no greater triumph for Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck than to sit down in the Baroque palace of Versailles, symbol of French hegemony, to finalise the crowing of the Prussian King William I as German Emperor. Ironically, the last person Bismarck had to convince was the Emperor himself. For William, the raising of his rank as a monarch must have seemed like a dirty trick, as it was directly followed by an expansion of democracy. On the same day, a new federal constitution came into effect and had to be passed by the federal governments. From the King’s anti-democratic point of view, he had “exchanged the glittering crown of Prussia for a tarnished one.”

„This young man will surely pose us some riddles in the future.” Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke

His grandson, crowned Emperor William II in 1888, had a far more positive attitude towards the Imperial honour. For him, the Empire not only came with a mighty navy and imperial boasting rights, but was also a symbol of a Germanic heritage whose triumphs had their logical culmination in a German Empire. This was no easy task for a nation that had only been known as “Germany” since 1871 and had previously regarded its heritage as belonging to the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian tradition. 

As if to compensate for this, William II ordered the construction of a large number of colossal, highly conspicuous German national monuments. They derived their forms from Renaissance architecture or the medieval buildings of the Staufer era. One of the most imposing is that near Leipzig commemorating the Battle of the Nations, which William II inaugurated 100 years after the German Campaign against Napoleon. The crypt of the 96 m high domed monument is watched over by four guards supposedly representing the German virtues of courage, strength of faith, national power, and sacrifice. Thirty years later, these same ideals upon which William II had formed cult of militarism would also suit the violent ideological delusions of the Nazis. 

Alongside the cult of the Hohenstaufen era and the Wilheminian Baroque, which produced imposing top-heavy edifices such as Berlin Cathedral, the architecture of the “Gründerzeit” (founders’ style) became the style of the middle classes. The French reparations paid after 1871 and the profits of industrialisation blessed the country with an economic boom. The newly founded businesses provided the funds for villas with turrets, gables, and merlons reminiscent of the Renaissance or with sumptuous moulded facades in the spirit of the Baroque. Prussian Historicism also found its expression in tableware. The three silver salts with dolphin mascarons made for Prince William and Princess Auguste Victoria in 1881 are an excellent example of this (lot 294). Another is the prize cup made for the Prince Frederick Leopold Steeplechase, which is based on the forms of medieval pilgrims’ flasks (lot 309). Rheinhold Begas’ sculpture “Phryne” (lot 290) is a minor sensation: Begas was one of the leading proponents of the Neo-Baroque style in Berlin, known for his sensuous designs. 

„We are not Baroque people, we don’t live in the Renaissance, so why should we pretend to?” Hermann Bahr

Another, utterly opposing style was to crystallise towards the end of the century, namely the Jugendstil. It was the voice of an industrialised, dynamic society in which old feudal structures were collapsing faster than the Emperor could watch them fall. “We are not Baroque people, and we don’t live in a “Renaissance”. Why should we pretend that we do?” wrote the Austro-German author Hermann Bahr, expressing the general feeling within society that it was time to create something new to suit a contemporary world. Prerequisite for this was the gradual dismantlement of formal and ideological hierarchies. The object became part of a “gesamtkunstwerk” in which the design of a vase was as important as that of a room, painting, or item of furniture. The result of these developments is plain to see in the form of the vase attributed to Theodor Schmuz-Baudiss (lot 297). People began to accept, and even celebrate, the closing of the gap between high art and design. The style also characterises the prize cup for the Berlin-Totis Mens’ Long-Distance Race of 199 (lot 310). 

Jugendstil, Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism – the early 20th century saw an explosion of new artistic styles, all of them bringing form to a new vision of man for a new era ushered in by the technological advances of electricity, steam power, and the railway. Two works by Heinrich Zille form the close of this chapter. His work “Weibliche Schornsteinfeger und Uniformierten” (Female Chimneysweeps and Uniformed Figures, lot 342) is by no means a celebration of gender equality in the workplace, but a document of how women were forced into male-dominated professions during WWI. The image “Kartoffelstehen” (Queueing for Potatoes, lot 343) from 1913 is a sad reminder of the difficult supply situation on the home front.