You are here

The Bookplate Years of Heinrich Vogeler

My work in Japan was just about totally engrossing — mostly long hours and seven days a week, so it was essential to take a week or so several times in the busy year to travel about Japan and very many parts of the world.

A favourite country frequently revisited, was Germany. On one memorable fortnight, I travelled from Aachen on the comfortable, not too fast Deutsche Bahn rail network, to the little artistic township of Worpswede in North Germany. It was early evening when I arrived and in the warm old hostelry, a meal of eisbein and sauerkraut with a half bottle of Goldtropfchen, was most welcome. 

Worpswede is well known as a centre for the Worpswede Werkstatte, which was founded by Vogeler with his brother in 1908, and as the former home of Vogeler (1872-1942) and his family. The house called Barken Hoff seemed to me a rare gem of Art Nouveau and was still in perfect condition with a garden much as it had been in Vogeler’s time. I lay awake at night thinking of the idealistic life in which that house had been the focal point. 

At about my collecting time, Vogeler’s bookplates were by far the most expensive classic plates, and several were on sale (framed) in some of the pretty art and book shops about the town, but all at very ambitious prices. I bought a few, but found a few more of his run-of-the-mill plates still in place in some second-hand books in the same shops, astonishingly, at very reasonable prices.

After struggling during one evening through the German Language guidebooks and some illustrated booklets on Vogeler’s work, I returned to that lovely house early the next morning when the dew was still on the grass, and looked at it inside and from every angle outside for an hour or so, comparing it in my mind with the architecture with Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, and Charles Voysey in the home counties of England.

The craftspeople and artists of Vogeler’s Golden Age time were probably unconscious of and uninterested in the assassination of a fat Crown Prince in Sarajevo, which was to bring down with a hideous crash the artistic world as they knew it, but Kaiser Wilhelm had swiftly grasped the nettle, and the whole ugly process of WWI was set in motion.

The Curvilinear aspect of Art Nouveau (if it may be so termed) ended for all time in the shambles of that war. The armies on the Western Front officered by competent, though often ruthless Germans, faced a mostly amateur army led by some of the most vain and incompetent generals in military history (Lions led by Donkeys in common parlance), and the struggle continued in the Flanders mud for four years until the Yanks finally settled the affair. But by then the Geometry and flaccid curves of Art Deco (the Hercule Poirot period) had taken over the art world.

We see both styles in Vogeler’s work. The ‘Spring Morning’ look of his early work had gradually changed to an ‘Autumn and Winter of Discontent’ as may be seen in the harsh lines of his ‘View of Moscow’ (1923), and tells something of the quarter century or more to come, when the promise of that Spring Morning seemed so far away.

Vogeler’s output was not outstanding because, of course, he had other graphic and associated work as well as all his Werkstatte commitments. The finest collection of his bookplates I knew of, was in Japan and consisted of 107 plates.

My collection is only half the size, but has one or two plates not included — the total output seems to have been about 130. Bookplate work started from 1896 when he was 24 with family and household plates, and continued at a steady trickle up to the WWI years when few were produced. There were rather more plates for women than for men, and a few for German nobility and foreigners. There were none in 1915, but business quickly picked up from 1919 to 1923 when the last plate is noted.

Vogeler was not an outstanding portrait painter, even his medal of Goethe on his Wilhelm Oelze plate is not very convincing, but by and large, he was a leader of graphic art in Germany and his influence was considerable. To feel the atmosphere of those heady days of Art Nouveau, it is worth the pilgrimage to Worpswede where the perfume can still be detected — or could be at the time of my visit many years ago.

Ex Libris Chronicle
Director: James P. Keenan