Brücke-Museum | Artists | Erich Heckel (2024)


31 July 1883, Döbeln at Freiberger Mulde, Germany

27 January 1970, Radolfzell at Bodensee, Germany


The young artist (1883–1905)

Erich Heckel was born in Döbeln, Saxony, in 1883 as the youngest of three children. His father’s work as an architect on the Royal Saxon State Railways required the family to move frequently, and he spent most of his childhood and school years in Dresden and Chemnitz. In the literary debating club at the classical grammar school in Chemnitz he met Karl Schmidt (later Schmidt-Rottluff) and became interested in writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Henrik Ibsen. Soon Heckel was attending sketching classes given by the head of Chemnitz’s art association Kunsthütte and producing his first studies of nature in China ink and watercolours. In 1904, he gained his high school leaver’s certificate and won a prize at the Kunsthütte for one of his drawings. In April of the same year, Heckel enrolled to study Architecture at the Royal Saxon Technical College in Dresden, where he met fellow students Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Fritz Bleyl through his brother Manfred. Shortly thereafter, Schmidt-Rottluff also registered for an architecture degree and joined the friendship group. On 7 June 1905, the four young men founded the Brücke group of artists. As its business manager, Heckel teamed up with Schmidt-Rottluff to rent empty retail premises in Dresden, which became the Brücke group’s first studio.

The early years of the Brücke (1905–1910)

In the autumn of 1906, Heckel abandoned his degree but continued to work as a technical draughtsman in the architecture office of Wilhelm Kreis and at the same time worked intensively on organising various group exhibitions for the Brücke. In the course of the next two years, Heckel made multiple trips to Dangast, where he met art historian and author Rosa Schapire, who became the first dormant member of the artists’ group in 1907. She was one of the first women in Germany to gain a PhD, which she was awarded in 1904. In early 1909, Heckel spent four months travelling through Italy, spending a lot of time in Rome, where he was more interested in sketching in his tiny studio apartment than in seeing the city and its sights. Alongside initial sojourns at the Moritzburg ponds – which became a popular subject amongst the Brücke artists – he travelled to Dangast again for the summer, and in the following spring also spent some time in Berlin, where his intense contact and friendship with Otto Mueller took root.

Move to Berlin and the end of the Brücke (1910–1913)

At the end of 1910, Heckel met his later wife, the dancer Milda Frieda Georgi (1891–1982), who went by the stage name of Siddi Riha. The couple began spending their summers on the Baltic Sea coast, where Heckel found further inspiration for his works. After a year, Siddi Riha and Erich Heckel moved to Berlin-Steglitz together in December 1911. At this time, Heckel’s brother Manfred was working as a construction engineer on the railway in the colony of German East Africa (now Tanzania, Burundi and Ruanda), and from there he brought back sculptures and utility items that Heckel would incorporate into his works and his artistic style. In Berlin, he soon met art historian Walter Kaesbach, an assistant at the Nationalgalerie Berlin, who became not only a mentor but also one of Heckel’s key collectors. Around this time Heckel became more engrossed in the works of Dostoyevsky. In 1913, the Brücke group of artists fell out with one another over the planned Brücke Chronicle, and on 27 May the group officially announced its dissolution. That same year, Heckel’s first solo exhibition took place in the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery in Berlin.

The First World War (1914–1918)

The following summer saw the outbreak of the First World War and Heckel volunteered for the army only to be deemed unfit for service. Instead, he completed a training course with the Red Cross in Berlin in the autumn of that year and in early 1915 he started work as a medical orderly in a Berlin military hospital. In March, he was deployed to Flanders in a medical platoon under the command of art historian Walter Kaesbach. Kaesbach made certain his platoon brought together his artist friends – amongst them not only Heckel, but also Max Kaus, Otto Herbig, Anton Kerschbaumer, and lawyer and poet Ernst Morwitz. The artists continued to pursue their art alongside their medical service, and joint works were also produced. In May 1916, Heckel took over command of the medical platoon from Kaesbach. In addition to art, the group was also interested in literature, and Morwitz introduced Heckel to the poetry of Stefan George, which he would continue to study even after the First World War. He also began studying the writings of Jean Paul intensively, and these served as inspiration for a number of different works. Examples include the painting Roquairol (1917), which is based on a figure from Jean Paul’s novel Titan (1800–1803). While the war was still ongoing, Siddi and Erich Heckel married in Berlin and Siddi Heckel handled the artist’s business while he was away at war. In November 1918, he returned from the front once and for all.

Emerging as an artist in the Weimar Republic (1918–1932)

Having moved back to Berlin, Heckel became a founding member of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst and was temporarily also a member of the November Group. In the years that followed, Heckel was able to establish himself as an artist whose works interested German museums and were included into public collections. He was even selected for a commission at the Crown Prince’s Palace in Berlin. During the course of the 1920s, Ferdinand Möller became one of Heckel’s most important art dealers. In 1921, Kaesbach commissioned Heckel to paint murals in a room in the Erfurt Angermuseum, and the series of images created for this between 1922 and 1924, Lebenszyklus (Life Cycle), depicted the poet Stefan George surrounded by his followers on one of the walls. Heckel was a frequent guest of his former Brücke colleague Otto Mueller in Breslau/Wroclaw, where the latter taught at the academy of art. When Mueller died in 1930, Heckel managed his estate together with Schmidt-Rottluff. In the same year, Siddi Heckel began compiling a systematic record of Heckel’s paintings.

The Nazi Period (1933–1945)

During the early years of the Nazi Period, Heckel still had some advocates on his side – including in the Völkisch movement –and he was lauded as a representative of the “Germanic” concept of art. In the hope of gaining recognition, in August 1934 he signed the “Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden” (the “Proclamation by Artists”), which was a pledge of loyalty to Hitler as the new head of state. Even though Heckel found himself exhibiting far less than during the interwar years (not least due to voices within the Nazi regime critical of his oeuvre) he still held some solo shows in 1934 and 1935. The works that went on display there – primarily landscapes with a naturalistic thrust – were reviewed positively by the press. As the Nazi regime continued, however, Heckel found himself facing increasing oppression. As part of the “Degenerate Art” propaganda campaign, almost 800 of his works were seized from German museums in the summer of 1937, some of which were then exhibited polemically in the subsequence propaganda exhibition of the same name. Unlike Schmidt-Rottluff, for example, Heckel was not prohibited from working, but he was no longer given opportunities to exhibit and found it difficult to obtain art materials. His artistic output was therefore limited primarily to watercolours in the years that followed. During the Second World War, with bombing raids on the increase, he grew afraid that his works would be destroyed and therefore stored them at various different locations in Germany; a number of them were destroyed nonetheless. In January 1944, Heckel’s apartment and studio on Emser Strasse in Berlin were wrecked by a firebomb. He subsequently moved to Hemmenhofen on Lake Constance.

Post-war years on Lake Constance and working as a university professor (1945–1970)

Even after the end of the Second World War, Heckel did not return to Berlin but rather remained on Lake Constance until his death. Although he was offered a teaching position at Berlin’s Academy of Fine Arts, he chose not to take it. Instead, in 1949 he took up a professorship at the newly opened Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts, where he worked until 1955. After 1945, Heckel repainted some of the works that had been destroyed by the bombs and revisited some of the subjects of his older works. He also found himself able to exhibit much more frequently again, too. In 1947, he held his first solo exhibition after the Second World War at Hamburg’s Galerie der Jugend. With Siddi, he bought a plot of land in Hemmenhofen in 1952 and had a house built on it. Heckel’s 70th birthday in 1953 was not only marked by multiple celebratory exhibitions, but the artist was also honoured with the Grand Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1955, he took part in the first documenta in Kassel, while 1964 saw the publication of a two-volume catalogue of Heckel’s prints, followed a year later by a monograph with a catalogue of his paintings. In the same year, Heckel bequeathed a substantial body of work to Brücke-Museum, a move initiated by Schmidt-Rottluff. However, poor health prevented him from attending the museum’s opening in December 1967. In 1968 he suffered a stroke, after which he went on to produce his final works on paper. Heckel died on 27 January 1970 at the hospital in Radolfzell. His wife Siddi managed his estate and was herself awarded the Grand Cross (first class) of the Federal Republic of Germany. She died on 9 May 1982 in Hemmenhofen.

Isabel Fischer and Nora Hogrefe


Andreas Hüneke, Erich Heckel. Werkverzeichnis der Gemälde, Wandbilder und Skulpturen, vol. 1: 1904–1918, vol. 2: 1919–1964, ed. Erich Heckel Foundation, Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2018.

Erich Heckel. Aufbruch und Tradition. Eine Retrospektive, exhib. cat., Brücke-Museum, ed. Magdalena M. Möller, Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2010.

Erich Heckel und sein Kreis: Dokumente – Fotos – Briefe – Schriften, gesammelt und ausgewählt von Karlheinz Gabler, ed. City of Karlsruhe, Städtische Galerie, Stuttgart & Zurich: Belser-Verlag, 1983.

Flucht in die Bilder? Die Künstler der Brücke im Nationalsozialismus, exhib. cat., Brücke-Museum, eds. Aya Soika, Meike Hoffmann & Lisa Marei Schmidt, Munich: Hirmer Verlag 2019.

Brücke-Museum | Artists | Erich Heckel (2024)


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