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.

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  1. Great story.

    I also think that the modern world has been poisoned by materialism, insatiable desire and consumerism, but then I haven't ever owned KaDeVe in Berlin or anything else of note. So I am absolutely impressed that he could find (and fund) a more natural way of living. It might have been a rich bohemian lifestyle, but it was full of art, water sports, gardens and good company.

    In the end though, like Antoinette Saint Leger, it all ended in tears. Thanks for the reference.

  2. Ah, but I noticed that I misspelt your name - I have just made the correction. Glad to make the reference.

  3. very interesting history and art history - and I agree that materialism has poisoned so much of society