A Noble Life in Art and Politics

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Noble Life in Art and Politics


Byline: Stephen Goode, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Harry Kessler began his diary, now a classic of German literature, in June 1880. He had just turned 12 and for the next nearly 60 years, until his death in 1937, he kept at it, turning it into a work of several volumes. The diaries have been best-sellers in Germany for many years, unusual for a book of epic proportions. A shortened version, covering the period between 1918 and 1937, appeared in English nearly a half-century ago. Now the diaries from 1880 to the end of World War I, long feared lost, have come out in a truncated version ably edited and translated by Laird M. Easton, who published a well-received biography of Kessler in 2002.

Kessler's father, Adolph, was an enormously successful businessman who was made a count for his service to the German state. His mother, Alice, came from Anglo-Irish gentry and was one of the great beauties of her time. As an adult, Kessler recalled crowds on the streets of Paris struggling to get a glimpse of her when the family carriage passed by.

Kessler grew up fluent in German, French and English, becoming one of the most cosmopolitan of the influential men of his time. His wealth permitted him to become one of Europe's great art collectors. He bought van Goghs before the Dutch artist was acclaimed a genius and his paintings became costly.

Kessler owned Gauguins, Seurats, Rodins and works by other major modernists, many of which he sold in late life to survive when his opposition to Adolf Hitler forced him to leave Germany. But it was Kessler's gift for friendship, his lucid, direct style and his modesty - he lets others speak, without taking center stage himself - that turn the diaries into the great works they are.

What makes the diaries unusual, and perhaps unique, is that Kessler knew two separate worlds - the world of artists of all kinds and the world of statesmen and politicians - and knew both of these worlds and their denizens intimately.

The writers who appear in these pages read like a who's who of literature: Nobel-prize winning French novelist Andre Gide, the German playwright Gerhardt Hauptmann, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmansthal, an Austrian poet, and many others.

Kessler was a close friend of the German composer Richard Strauss and Strauss' difficult wife, Pauline. Among the great painters and sculptors of his time, Kessler knew and spent much time with Monet, Rodin, Munch (who painted his portrait) and a host of others.

The most intimate - and best - of the artist portraits he gives is of Aristide Maillol, the French sculptor who emerges as a warm, intense, highly intelligent man totally devoted to art and close to his peasant origins which Kessler believed helped make Maillol's art great.

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