Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Max Emden's Art of Living on the Brissago Isles

                     The Brissago Isles in Lake Maggiore, Switzerland

When Antoinette Saint Leger was forced to sell her beloved Isles of Brissago in 1927, the islands were bought by the multi-millionaire Jewish German business man Max Emden.  Emden had built a profitable empire with department stores spread across all of Germany, including the world famous KaDeVe in Berlin. By the late 1920s he had decided that he had had enough of the business world. It was time to turn his mind (and body) to the delights of the world. Ironically for a shopkeeper, (admittedly a very rich shopkeeper), he believed that the modern world was poisoned by materialism, insatiable desire and consumerism. Happiness could only be found by turning back towards a more natural way of living. The magical Swiss shores of Lake Maggiore, with Alpine scenery, a Mediterranean climate, a lively arts scene and experiments in alternative ways of living, seemed perfectly suited to his designs. Emden, deciding to start a radically new life, divorced his wife and sold his 150 department stores. He bought the islands and, while preserving the marvelously exotic botanical garden that Saint Leger had so painstakingly created, he had a thirty-room neo-classical palazzo built, together with a Roman style outdoor bath. From this point until his death in 1940 he lived in the palazzo on his own island and indulged to the full in what he called "the Art of Living".

                   Max Emden

This entailed enjoying and extending his exquisite art collection, playing host to a long list of artists, art collectors and spiritual gurus and surrounding himself with young, beautiful men and women. The Roman baths became the centre of many parties and led to widespread rumours of orgies. Last week I visited the exhibition of photographs in Emden's palazzo that provide an insight into the lifestyle this rich bohemian cultivated. Certainly there was a great deal of nudity: beautiful young women posing on the edge of the bath, naked; nude young men water skiing on the lake; Emden sailing a yacht with a young woman, both of them topless. There were also photos of Emden that reflected his interest in Asia – Emden dressed in kimono, doing yoga and meditation, receiving visitors who specialized in "alternative", Eastern forms of spirituality.

   Although the title says Ascona, this photo was taken at Emden's Roman Bath

Despite the rumours of wild parties and orgies, according to his only biographer, Francesco Welti, it seems that Emden himself remained monogamous during his 13 years as the lord of the island. His one and only lover was just 17 when the nearly fifty year old Emden persuaded her to join him on his little kingdom, and she remained loyal to him through the good times and the hard, and was with him when he died.

     The only biography of Max Emden

And hard times there certainly were. In 1933 the grand majority of German citizens killed their young democracy and 47% voted for the anti-Semitic Nazi Party. Within a short few years Emden's income from investments in Germany had ceased, his wealth was confiscated and his German citizenship revoked. The good Swiss provided him with Swiss citizenship, not for humanitarian but for financial reasons – he was still rich after all. But their generosity did not extend to his son. When the Nazis began their killing, the Swiss denied asylum to Emden's son. Luckily he managed to buy Haitian nationality and succeeded in fleeing to Chile. Emden himself was forced to live from the sale of parts of his art collection. But buyers were aware that Jews were desperate. Consequently, Jewish art collectors like Emden were forced to sell their most precious possessions for knock down prices. (Here is a link to a Helen Webberley blogpost on retrieving stolen art.) Ironically, the buyers were sometimes the German Nazi government who scoured the continent for objects for the planned Führer's Art Museum in his hometown of Linz. Today many of the great museums of the world display works of art that once belonged to Max Emden and hung in his palazzo on the Brissago Isles. But these works could prove to be an expensive embarrassment. Today Emden's family are fighting to have their paintings returned, or at least for the new owners to pay a fair price, rather than the pitifully small prices that were paid to a desperate and struggling Max Emden. It was discovered quite recently that a former Emden painting was hanging in the dining room of the German President's official residence – it has been removed, and the Emden heirs are battling the German state. The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia is locked in a legal dispute with Emden's grandson regarding "The Lady with the Fan" from Dutch 17th century master Gerard ter Borch.

       Gerard ter Broch, The Lady with a Fan

Most controversial of all is Monet's Poppies near Vètheuil. I have already written about this work in a previous blog posting on the Buhrle Collection. The painting was sold by Max Emden to E. M. Bührle, Swiss industrialist, weapons exporter to Nazi Germany and art collector. Some years ago the lawyers of Emden's grandson contacted the managers of the Bührle collection and announced that they were making a legal claim for ownership of the painting. Two years ago, amazingly, the painting was stolen, but found in a Zürich car park. The Bührle collection has now been turned over to Zurich's Kunsthaus and was recently put on exhibition, including the Monet. The Kunsthaus intends for the entire collection to be put on permanent display in a new wing of the museum which is to be opened in 2015. It remains to be seen if the Monet will still be in the Kunsthaus' possession. Lawyers and judges will decide.

       Living Room in the Villa Emden, with Monet's Poppies near Vènteuil

Max Emden died in 1940 of heart failure. Upon hearing of his death, his friend, author and fellow exile Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his notebook: "One needs a strong heart to live a life without roots". In 1949 his heirs sold the islands to the cantonal government. The Brissago Isles now belong to the canton of Ticino. The garden and palazzo are open to the public. The palazzo has a restaurant and café and its beautiful rooms can be booked for small conventions and seminars. The views from the windows are stunning, much as they were during Max Emden's time; Lake Maggiore remains one of the most beautiful places on earth. But no nude young things frolic in the Roman baths and no art hangs on the walls of the palazzo.

Read more essays on Switzerland in my ebook.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Baroness on Brissago Islands

We often think of the Victorian era, and rightly so, as being a period of prudishness and strictly imposed public morality. But there was a counter-movement, which did much to contribute to those 20th century social mores we often consider to be modern. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty marks a milestone in this counter-movement. Published in 1859, the same year as Darwin's Origin of Species, Mill claimed that society should never censure any act that did not directly harm another. In other words, what consenting adults do to each other is no business of their government and no business of their neighbours. A healthy society, according to Mill, would embrace a huge variation in ways of living. In the late 19th and early 20th century a number of utopians, socialists, anarchists, hedonists and spiritualists discovered the northern shores of Lake Maggiore in southern Switzerland. They put into practice ways of living that couldn't have been further from Victorian prudishness.

                Antoinette Saint Leger

One such pioneer was the eccentric Baroness Antoinette Saint Leger. Born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1856, possibly the illegitimate daughter of Tsar Alexander II, she had discovered the charm of the Mediterranean climate during a visit to Italy aged 16. In an age when women's lives were regulated and confined, Antoinette seems to have been determined to follow Mill's advice and to experiment with different ways of living. By the age of 25 she had already seen off two elderly husbands and had married a third: the Anglo-Irish Lord Richard Fleming-Saint Leger. In 1885, after an uncle died leaving him a fortune, she persuaded him to buy the deserted Brissago Islands, just off the coast of the village of Ascona in Lake Maggiore, close to the border that separates Italy from Switzerland. The baroness loved to play piano (her teacher had been Franz Liszt) and to collect art, but her greatest love, besides the company of handsome men, was gardening. The couple proceeded to import thousands of plants from all over the world and created a garden paradise on the larger of their two islands. As the wealthy and generous Lady of her own islands, the baroness attracted an increasing collection of composers and musicians, artists and writers to her little colony. She loved the company of artists and among those she supported were the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo and the painter Giovanni Segantini.

             The botanical garden, Brissago Islands

In 1897 her husband abandoned Antoinette, due to, it is said, her insatiable desire for erotic adventures and risky commercial escapades. Meanwhile, a newer, younger artistic colony was taking root outside the nearby village of Ascona, on a hillside known as Mount Verita – the Mountain of Truth. Neo-pagans, vegetarians and a variety of communists tried to invent alternative ways of living and Ascona, rather than the Brissago Islands, became the main artistic magnet. On the islands themselves, surrounded by her  garden and her memories, Baroness Antoinette gradually lost her good looks and gradually wasted away her fortune on bad investments. In 1919 she was visited on her island by Rainer Maria Rilke and James Joyce. The Irish novelist was not impressed, referring to her as a woman who had buried seven husbands without shedding a tear. He may have had her in mind as he wrote the chapter of Ulysses about Circe, the Greek goddess who bewitched those men unlucky enough to be stranded upon her island. By the 1920s she was alone on her island, her only company the thousands of plants and trees and the hundreds of homemade puppets that populated her large house. In 1927, close to bankruptcy, alone and elderly, the baroness was forced to sell her beautiful islands and her magnificent garden to a German owner of a department store empire, Max Emden.  Emden wished to create his own hedonist way of living. Antoinette lived nearby for over two decades more, gradually succumbing to poverty. She died in an old people's home in 1948, close to penniless.  Her remains were moved to the island during the 1960s. Hers is the only grave on the island.

    View of Ascona from the Brissago Islands ferry

Her garden island is much visited today.  Tourists by the thousands trample through the paths that she first laid down, between the plants and trees that she planted. But at night, everyone leaves, and again she is alone, surrounded by the waters of Lake Maggiore, rimmed by Alpine peaks.

Read more essays on Switzerland in my ebook.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Fountain of Ahmed III in Istanbul

In the blog THE BLUE LANTERN Jane posted an entry on the Fountain of Ahmed III in Istanbul.  Seeing as I was travelling to Istanbul I was wondering if I would see it. My first stop was the Topkapi Palace. Of course I was impressed, not just by the harem, the library, the jewels and buildings and the view over the Bosphorus and across to Asia, but I was also impressed by this young Turkish woman with whom I fell into conversation. As you can see, she was pretty upset because that morning she and the rest of the Turkish nation discovered that nine of their compatriots had been killed by the Israeli armed forces. My whole week there was punctuated by funerals of the victims and anti-Israel demonstrations.

I left the Palace by the main entrance, the Imperial Gate, and there was the kiosk, or fountain, immediately recognisable.  Unfortunately there were no attendants giving water or sherbert free of charge.  Instead the kiosk is surrounded by a sturdy fence and locked gate and there is no running water in sight.  Still, the building is a little gem.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Aoife in the National Portrait Gallery

Here is a painting that hangs on my living room wall. It is entitled "The Birdfeeders". It was painted by my friend, Paul Smith.  The three models are my three daughters.

The lake, the sky and the fog merge into a vague horizon.  Each child is lost in her own world, enveloped in a mysterious aloneless.  Despite the children and the presence of the birds, a silence reigns.  One child, Aoife turns and catches your eye.  Her stare penetrates.  Paul has captured that look that she used to have, just at the moment before she breaks into a beautiful smile.  When the National Portrait Gallery on Trafalgar Square turned 150 years old, they celebrated by inviting 150 artists to submit a small portait drawing, to be auctioned at a ball for an invited audience.  Paul was one of the artists chosen.  He submitted this drawing:

It is of course Aoife, with that penetrating stare of hers.  The portrait was sold by the National Portrait Gallery. The purchaser was a friend of John Major, former Prime Minister of Britain and former leader of the Conservative Party. It is probably hanging on a wall in some country house in Buckinghamshire. Paul gave me a copy, printed on high quality paper and framed - almost as good as the original. I have it hanging in my bedroom. There is something renaissance like about it - Michelangeloesque. Her look makes me reflect upon myself, to stop a moment to check if I am the person who I intend to be. I am worried that I will not meet her approval.  I am hoping she will break into that beautiful smile of hers, but she doesn't.  Instead, she stares, she queries, and I reflect upon my too many imperfections.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Growing up in England

When Philippe Aries published his Centuries of Childhood in 1960, the history of childhood was still very much in its infancy. The publication of Anthony Fletcher’s latest work, Growing up in England: The Experience of Childhood 1600-1914, demonstrates that the history of childhood has reached maturity. Read my review of the book, just published on the History Today blog.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Eyup in Istanbul and The Legitimisation of Power

I have just returned to Zurich having spent most of the past week in Istanbul, Turkey.  I took the above photo of these two little chaps in the courtyard of the Eyup Mosque. The boys are dressed like princes because this is a very special day in their lives.  They are about to be circumcised.

After Mehmet the Conqueror, Sultan of the Ottomans, succeeded in taking the Byzantine capital Constantinople on May 29th 1453, he faced one major problem. How could he justify the fact that he was now the greatest ruler in the Islamic world? Earlier, powerful rulers of Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo could all claim descent from the prophet Muhammad. Mehmet II however, couldn’t even claim to be an Arab. In other words, he suffered from what political scientists and historians refer to as a "legitimacy deficit".

      Entrance to Eyup

The problem was solved when Mehmet’s spiritual advisor had a dream which indicated the location in Constantinople/Istanbul of the remains of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s right hand men, Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari. Ayyub had hosted Muhammad in his home in Medina way back in the 7th century. Ayyub thereby gained the title “Host of the Prophet”. After Muhammd’s death in 632, Ayyub participated in wars of conquest in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Cyprus. In 669, at the age of 80, he died at a siege of Constantinople and, according to legend, was buried near the infamous walls. Now, nearly a thousand years later his body had been miraculously found.

        The ancient walls of Constantinople, near Eyub

This was very convenient for the Ottomans. As Philip Mansel put it in his book Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924, “This convenient discovery provided a charismatic link between the new capital and the Prophet himself”. Clearly the leaders of the most powerful Muslim military force in the world, Mehmet II now found his regime being blessed by the Muslim devout. It was taken as a sign of Allah’s good will towards Ottoman rule that the remains of the Host of the Prophet had been miraculously recovered. Naturally Mehmet ordered for a new mosque to be built in 1459 and for Ayyub’s remains to be interred within the mosque. The Ottomans were now the protectors of the holy city, with its holiest of mosques. The new mosque, known as Eyup, is still the most revered Muslim site in Turkey and one of the ten holiest places in all of Islam. It is a conservative mosque, always busy, even at night, with pilgrims at prayer. Last week it was particularly busy as some of those killed by Israel’s attack on the Turkish flotilla were buried near Eyup.

        At prayer in Eyup
By building Eyup Mehmet II had legitimised his rule and turned Istanbul into one of the holiest cities of Islam.  The Ottoman Sultans had therby become protectors of the faith.