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K. W. Diefenbach, from Silhouette to Sculpture

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by Antonia Tafuri, Roberta De Martino

On June 11, 1971, a substantial number of works created by artist Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (Hadamar 1851 – Capri 1913) were donated by the heirs to the Italian state. Thirty-one paintings (thirty by Diefenbach and one by Ettore Ximenes, portraying the german artist) and five plaster sculptures found a worthy home in the Certosa di San Giacomo, thanks to Raffaello Causa, then Superintendent of the Historical Heritage of Campania. He understood Diefenbach’s greatness, as not only an artist but also a reformer of life, calling him an «intense and lucid authentic artist»〈1〉. On September 12, 1974, the Diefenbach Museum, a new national museum and the first ever dedicated entirely to the German artist, reformist, pacifist, freethinker, symbolist, sun-worshipper and theosophist, was officially opened to the public. He was a sui generis personality for his way of understanding and facing life, for being against and outside the rules. «Erecting himself as a “pioneer of humanity,” he expressed in his artistic creations the ideas he preached» 〈2〉. As he himself wrote: «I regard art as a religion that must raise spirits to the beautiful and the good… The purpose of art must be exclusively moral» 〈3〉.

Often referred to as a visionary painter, he did not intend to be just a landscape painter, but regarded art as preaching: «The artist must use his art as a means of expressing his ideas, as an educator leading humanity from earth to heaven. I try to achieve this in my art with all my strength. Each of my paintings is a sermon» 〈4〉. The tendencies of his mission as a man and as an artist are the enfranchisement of mankind from the thousand miseries of the age, the «redemption of a culture informed by the most exalted divine humanism, freed from errors and lies, and based on the sure foundation of the laws of nature» 〈5〉.

Following the basic tenets of the Lebensreform (“Life-reform”, the naturist movement that had Rudolf Steiner and Herman Hesse among its adherents), Diefenbach decided to abandon all luxury, chose to wear a long white tunic and sandals on his feet, and began preaching in public about peace, love, universal brotherhood, and a return to nature, in complete contrast to Wilhelm-era German society, which was bent on industrialization and rearmament.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach in Capri.

He arrived in Capri in December 1899, after a long journey that had taken him from the Alps first to Egypt and then to Trieste, and decided to live on the island until his death in 1913: «I chose Capri in order to found on this wonderful island with all my strength a new existence that could offer me that peace so much desired…» 〈6〉.

Here he had found his ideal dimension, dazzled by the mirage of a new, primitive norm of life, free from the many conventions of bourgeois society. The island, with its nature pervaded by a strong cosmic sense, had proved to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration, and the thirteen years of his stay were very dense for his creative activity, with the development of a new painting of great emotional impact, based on color modeled in relief with the addition of further materials. «Capri will be enough for me all my life with these rugged cliffs that I adore, with this tremendous and beautiful sea…» 〈7〉.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Self-portrait and portraits of parents Therese Wolfermann and Leonhard Diefenbach, early 20th century, molded plaster, h. cm. 70, Capri, Certosa di San Giacomo, Diefenbach Museum (photo © A. Tafuri, R. De Martino).

During the Capri period, the Master also tried his hand as a sculptor, producing several plaster works: busts of his parents, a self-portrait, and two full-length statues of ephebes.

In the half-length portraits of his father, Leonhard Diefenbach, and mother, Therese Wolfermann, there is a meticulous attention to expressive features and a delicate finesse of modeling. The works, exhibited in the Casa Grande (as the house-atelier in which Diefenbach lived from 1906, near the Piazzetta, was called), must have had a special consolatory value for the artist. In the bust-self-portrait Diefenbach represents himself as a young man, shirtless, reflecting his ideals of life through more realistic modeling.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Ephebes, early 20th century, molded plaster, h. cm. 167, Capri, Certosa di San Giacomo, Diefenbach Museum (photo © A. Tafuri, R. De Martino).

In the full-length statues depicting two ephebes, the Master takes up the classical aesthetic ideal, according to which the natural grace of a naked human body is the highest expression of beauty. In the balanced posture of the bodies, the search for equilibrium, perfection and harmony is evident. These creations are characterized by a formal classicism of intense idealization, aiming to regain, therefore, the composure and rigorous plasticity of the classics, and testifying to an education based primarily on drawing and the study of classical sculpture, learned during the period of training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich 〈8〉, as evidenced by the inscription ACAD-DFNBCH placed at the base of both sculptures.

Detail of the base of one of the two Ephebes (photo © A. Tafuri, R. De Martino).

The first ephebe is depicted with its arms outstretched upward. His right hand must have been holding a palm, as evidenced by the figure already drawn on the cover of the 1899 Diefenbach exhibition catalog in Trieste 〈9〉. Indeed, the silhouette of the young boy is depicted on a rock, in the act of holding up a palm tree with his right hand. In the background is the sea, two boats and the sun.

The artist often depicted the palm tree, attributing to it an important symbolic value that goes far beyond its Christian meaning. The sacredness of the palm tree has ancient origins. In Greek mythology it is a solar plant, as it is sacred to Apollo. In secular themes, the mythical figure of Victory appears in the act of delivering a palm branch to the victor. It was considered a connecting element between the earthly and the divine. Palm tree is also a symbol of the union of male and female: the trunk recalls the phallus, while the leaves and its fruits are femininity. In the palm, Sun, Moon and Fire are connected: the rays recall the day star, the leaves the lunar cycle, and the fire for being related to the mythical bird that rises from its ashes, the Arabian phoenix, in that after a fire it is the first plant to be able to “revegetate.” The palm tree becomes a symbol of Christ conquering death, victory over sin, and the triumph of peace 〈10〉.

Cover of the Diefenbach Exhibition Catalog, Trieste 1899.

The painter had arrived in Trieste in February 1899, “stripped of all the means necessary to sustain his existence; fallen into the contest of creditors with all his possessions and many paintings; forcibly dislodged without any possibility of procuring another dwelling; shackled by the curatorship provisionally pronounced against him, and in danger of losing his personal freedom and beloved children; shunned by “cultured” society; persecuted by the authorities; mocked by the press; insulted and targeted by the Street plebs – shameful picture from life of the humanitarian and artistic spirit of Vienna! – Diefenbach abandoned New Babel and came, bereft of means, to Trieste, to make his way from here to a remote asylum, where he could finally find solace for his afflictions and quiet to create new works. He is like a castaway thrown to the beach and who has saved nothing but his own life! ” 〈11〉.

Here, in the far reaches of the Austrian Empire, the artist brought with him his children, the young pupil Paul von Spaun and Mina Vogler, his nurse and personal secretary. In Trieste, despite widespread vilification in the Viennese press, he managed to win the respect of the city and its citizens through his works. The Trieste Art Circle supported him and allowed him to use the large hall of the Old Stock Exchange as an atelier and exhibition venue. Here, with the help of Paul von Spaun, Diefenbach tried to relocate the last exhibition held in the Austrian capital, which opened on March 11, 1899, and was a success, prompting him to stay in Trieste until the fall of that year. Thus in his works, the tragic allegories of his harsh fate stand side by side with the sweet poetry of the childlike life of a humanity rejuvenated in its spirit.

The ephebe depicted in the act of holding a palm tree returns in a detail of the frieze Per aspera ad astra, the German artist’s most significant creation, considered the manifesto of the Lebensreform, and his spiritual testament. Indeed, in the poetic text that accompanied the depiction of the silhouettes, the artist described the “fable of life,” his personal belief in the hope of reaching the longed-for Sonnenland (“land of the sun”). Already from the subtitle Meines Lebens Traum und Bild (“the image and dream of my life”), it becomes clear that the work was also meant to represent the story of the Master’s own life, the autobiography of a man who, shattered by the gigantic struggle of his past life, sees before him the goal of his ambition: the entrance to the happy land, the laughing Eden.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Per Aspera ad Astra, silhouette with ephebe holding a palm branch (Wikimedia).

The silhouette technique, established as early as the 18th century, was revived and revalued by the artist by now late in the 19th century, at a time when precise and detailed photographic reproduction was preferred. The choice of silhouette and the master’s preference for black figures on a white background accorded well with his message, offering him the opportunity to depict nudity in an innocent manner.

Kindermusik was the first series of silhouettes executed by Diefenbach; thirty sheets drawn in chalk and charcoal, whose white figures on a black background highlight the slight contour lines of the bodies. The series was begun by the young Diefenbach in Munich, to ease his ailing mother’s pain, and then completed during his stay in Höllriegelskreuth, between 1881 and 1886 〈12〉. This is how Hugo Höppener (Lübeck, 1868 – Woltersdorf, 1948), Diefenbach’s most faithful disciple, so much so that he deserved the nickname Fidus, described the work: «When I went to Diefenbach’s in the summer of 1887, I saw the Kindermusik, a marvelous series of childlike figures, playing and dancing, already almost completed, waiting only for the last touch. I saw something extraordinary and yet so spontaneous, a deep inner call. The figures were poetic images in which the primitive musical force of Böcklin, the pure grace of Schwind, and the simplicity and stylistic elegance of the Pre-Raphaelites were harmoniously combined […] I can find no comparison to this work, which, first of all, was able to express the new spirit through a conscious beauty of forms, in a serene and optimistic style…» 〈13〉.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, four silhouettes from the Kindermusik series.

From the drawings of Kindermusik Diefenbach then wanted to create, with Fidus’s collaboration, a long frieze that was meant to give a broader idea of his life’s journey: thus was born the masterpiece Per Aspera ad Astra, a monumental execution 68 meters long, created in 1888 in Höllriegelskreuth. Diefenbach created this work in response to the sad moment when he was separated from his children. The work, which was followed by the publication of the “fable,” in which the author narrated the ideal life of redeemed humanity depicted in the frieze, was later exhibited in 1898 in Vienna and was very successful. The artist took up the technique of silhouettes and transferred it to oil on canvas, producing a painting of gigantic dimensions, an extraordinary masterpiece for its time; as many as thirty-four individual panels measuring 100 x 200 cm. each, which came as a gift in 1988 to the Hadamar City Museum. The same frieze was made, in a second version, as an exterior decoration of his house in Capri, but unfortunately no trace of it remains.

Casa Grande (Diefenbach’s house-atelier in Capri) in a period photo.

The protagonists of the “tale” are Diefenbach, his sons and Fidus, in search of that realm of peace and love. Through his experience, he wanted to convey an optimistic message to humanity: the journey ad astra cost great sacrifice, but was possible for man, according to theosophical conceptions. In front of the protagonists is thus the path to God, populated by a host of carefree children and animals. The dancing, playful figures and the many animals, in a “parade of joie de vivre“, are shown in a state of cheerful nudity, in a riot of movements that praise music, dance and play. Naked figures, young, slender, healthy and strong bodies move in the pristine nature. Playfully dancing figures, regardless of gender and free from conventional constraints, move caressed by the elemental forces of nature: light, air and sun.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Per aspera ad astra, complete sequence of the silhouettes composing the frieze.

Tympani, fifes and trumpets announce spring to mankind, harps and bells sound and invite dancing and circling; more and more solemn becomes the pageantry of the heavenly procession, and more and more powerful echoes of the harmonious sound of instruments of all kinds, produced in divine harmony by young maidens and children, animated by noble enthusiasm. The masterpiece Per Aspera ad Astra can thus be considered the manifesto of the ideals pursued by the Master: the culture of nudity, childlike naturalness, clothing reform, vegetarianism and pacifism that would make it possible for man to enter an earthly paradise in harmony with nature.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Per Aspera ad Astra, three silhouettes with figures playing salpinx.

A message of peace echoes throughout the frieze, reflecting Diefenbach’s struggle against war in support of the pacifism he pursued throughout his life 〈14〉. Some silhouettes play, holding it with one hand, the salpinx. The salpinx, among the reedless metal aerophones equipped with a single reed, normally straight and terminating in a bell shape, whose length could vary from eighty to one hundred and twenty centimeters, ranks among the principal wind instruments used among the Greeks. It is a suitable instrument for open spaces and large masses because of its powerful, ringing sound: in fact, it emits sounds of great intensity, allowing signals to be transmitted over great distances. According to Greek writers, the salpinx was distinguished by the sheer terror it instilled in the listener in times of war 〈15〉. The salpinx is used by Diefenbach not for battle but to proclaim holy peace according to the Master’s message, «You must not kill! Stop the slaughter of animals and men! Peace on earth! For men and animals, holy peace to the whole of nature!» 〈16〉.

Two photographic details of the plaster ephebe playing salpinx (photo © A. Tafuri, R. De Martino).

A study of the frieze and in particular the poses and instruments depicted in it allows us to hypothesize that the other ephebe, portrayed with his right leg forward, his right arm raised, his palm facing up, and his cheeks puffed out to make the sound, was probably playing salpinx.

〈1〉 R. Causa, Un nuovo museo: Diefenbach alla Certosa, “Nferta napoletana”, 1975, p. 14.

〈2〉 A. Tafuri, R. De Martino, Diefenbach e Capri, Grimaldi & C. Editori, Naples 2013, p. 9.

〈3〉 Testamento, Capri, july-august 1909, Diario n 27.

〈4,5〉 Quoted in P. von Spaun, Catalogue of the Diefenbach Exhibition, Trieste 1899, pp. 14 and 12.

〈6〉 Testamento, Capri, july-august 1909, Diario n. 27.

〈7〉 Quoted in E. Petraccone, Un artista d’eccezione, “Emporium”, n. 229, january 1914, p. 295.

〈8〉 See A. Tafuri, R. De Martino, op. cit., p. 86. 

〈9〉 See P. von Spaun, op. cit., p. 12.

〈10〉 See G. Teresi, Il simbolismo della palma e delle sue radici, “Il pensiero mediterraneo”, 7 agosto 2022

〈11〉 P. von Spaun, op. cit., p. 12.

〈12〉 See A. Tafuri, R. De Martino, op. cit., pp. 59-61.

〈13〉 Quoted in M.P. Maino, M. Chiaretti (ed.), Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (Hadamar 1851-Capri 1913), catalogo della mostra, Galleria dell’Emporio Floreale, Rome 1979, pag. 52.

〈14〉 See A. Tafuri, R. De Martino, op. cit., pp. 63-69.

〈15〉 See F. Berlinzani, Strumenti musicali e fonti letterarie, “Aristonothos. Rivista di Studi sul Mediterraneo Antico”, 2010, pp. 11-109. 

〈16〉 K. W. Diefenbach, Per Aspera ad Astra. Capri 1900. La follia è un’isola, La Conchiglia, Capri 1989, pag. 65.


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• M. Schiano, Conoscere Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, “Conoscere Capri”, n 7, 2008.

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Homepage and below; Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Per Aspera ad Astra, two silhouettes (Wikimedia).



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