Max Klinger’s Dramen (Dramas) explores the human toll of Wilhelmine Germany’s rapid industrial expansion. The title page, with its mythological imagery and epigraph by the Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin, belies Klinger’s meticulous, unsentimental detailing of six stories of jealousy, murder, misery, and revolution set in 1880s Berlin. Influenced by French naturalist literature, especially the writings of Emile Zola, Klinger wanted these prints to provide an exacting, unmediated transcription of social reality. (He later distanced himself from this literary approach.)
Klinger’s scrupulous rendering of the setting in the print In Flagranti nearly overwhelms the dramatic events. The zigzag composition, however, draws the eye from the still-smoking gun of the cuckolded husband in the upper window to his horrified wife on the terrace below to the legs of her dead lover sprawled out on the ground. Three prints, Eine Mutter I–III (A mother I–III), record the real-life desperation of a battered woman, who in 1881, seeing no way out of Berlin’s carceral back-alley dwellings, jumped into a canal with her son. She was rescued; he was not. Although absolved by the judicial system, she remained trapped in the conditions of her time, just as she is penned in a dark corner in this print. The specter of civil unrest is the subject of Märztage II (March days II), from another three-print sequence within the portfolio. The imagery recalls the uprisings in 1848, when Germans agitated for democracy, unification, and social change. But a Litfaßsäule, a type of advertising column installed only after 1855, places the events in Klinger’s day. With this portfolio, Klinger suggests that revolution might rock Germany once again.
Publication excerpt from Heather Hess, German Expressionist Digital Archive Project, German Expressionism: Works from the Collection. 2011.