Freitag, 14.05.2021 00:01 Uhr

Baltic Diary 5/5: Grütters’ Painter from Königsberg

Verantwortlicher Autor: Jochen Raffelberg Kaliningrad, 10.10.2020, 09:53 Uhr
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Kaliningrad [ENA] Cycling through the former Königsberg, now Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, I recalled famous people born here including Immanuel Kant, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Agnes Miegel, Käthe Kollwitz - and my art teacher Johannes Geccelli. But I failed to find his birthplace: it does not exist anymore. Dohna Street 15 and the surrounding city quarter were remodeled by Soviet architects after the Second World War.

The search for traces in the former noble district of Tragheim revealed that his childhood home at Dohnastrasse 15 did not survive the war or the post-war period. Geccelli’s parents and sister escaped from Königsberg, brother Theo did not return from the war. After Johannes’ release from British war captivity in 1947 he moved to Düsseldorf. Geccelli’s youngest son James, also a painter, says after checking with his siblings Nina and Martina that their father had never again visited the place of his childhood. What had connected him with Königsberg was, in his opinion, destroyed in the war.

Geccelli studied at Düsseldorf’s Academy of Arts together with Heinz Mack, Joseph Beuys and Günter Grass; in Cologne he read philosophy and pedagogics. After serving as high school teacher in Mülheim/Ruhr he became a professor and decorated painter with one of his works, the watercolor Body in Blue displayed by State minister Monika Grütters in her Berlin offices. She told ENA she had chosen the picture “very spontaneously” during a visit to parliament’s art collection. Geccelli had depicted the bold blue figures in the center of the picture with rare forcefulness. “Through the color they are present; at the same time they seem fleeting and endangered in their existence - poetic and a little frightening at the same time.”

Bundestag art collection curator Andreas Kaernbach explained that the Geccelli was one of the first works to be acquired in 1968 as the basis of the German parliament’s collection, which had now grown to 5,000 pieces. Ms Grütters’ assertion might touch on what James Geccelli described as his father’s inner conflict: while father Albert, educated as garden architect but running a grocery shop in Königsberg, hailed from Trentino/Alto Adige, his mother Katharina had Slavic-Germanic roots, “a musically talented woman who wrote poems”, and worked as a telegraphist. While she passed away in Danish internment, her husband died three years later in Southern Germany, the year after his son had found and portrayed him.

“The different family mentalities, the rather brooding Eastern European side and the more sensual southern side, which is more turned towards life, often appeared in father's self-descriptions. This is how he explained the conflict in which he saw himself, and I think the profession of teacher was a way for him to live out this southern side in him,” James Geccelli declares. According to this author’s own observation his high school students often experienced the mix of down-to-earth and extrovert approach. Storming into the classroom Geccelli might exclaim “Dein Sekt sei Deinhard”, a slogan for a best-selling sparkling vine.

Or he chanted the “Jimmy Brown from London Town” song that was popular at the time. He than told a related story and made us pick a scene that we had to paint. Hamburg Arts Academy student Peter Nagel, a well-known painter, shared this anecdote. Since soccer was considered too vulgar to be discussed in their painting class, Geccelli engaged him in confidential shoptalk about the subject. During correction talks he came to Nagel’s easel and whispered: "Did you notice how Beckenbauer yesterday flicked the ball past the defense into the goal?” James reports that his father never forgot his humble background in Eastern Prussia where his family lived in a two-room apartment, half an hour’s walk from Königsberg Cathedral on Kneiphof Island.

Referring to his father’s Catholic diaspora upbringing in the Protestant Königsberg environment James tells the story of a dangerous incident when his grandfather refused to distribute a Nazi newspaper that contradicted his view as a devout Catholic. At Overbeck primary school Johannes was shaped by another terrible experience when his friend was hit by a tram before his eyes and died of his injuries. At high school, the Wilhelms-Gymnasium, he is said to have been unhappy because of problems with spelling and not meeting his achievement-oriented mother’s expectations. But he is reported of having drawn a lot, and in 1943 the Königsberg Arts Academy accepted him as a student.

However, the next day Johannes Geccelli is drafted into the tanks troops near Warsaw and trained as a radio operator. According to his CV he wins his first art prize for the design of the officers' mess and serves with the Wehrmacht in Czechoslovakia, Styria and Yugoslavia. When I paid a visit to former Königsstrasse 57 (under the Nazis Strasse der SA, now ulitsa Frunze) all I found was a school. The Academy and its Kunstschule had ceased to exist in 1945. One of Geccelli’s accolades was the Lovis Corinth award; Corinth was an alumnus of the Königsberg Academy. Past prizewinners include Markus Lüpertz, Oskar Kokoschka and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

During my bicycle venture in Kaliningrad I passed the corner of what in Geccelli’s time had been Wrangel und Mitteltragheim streets, now Tchernyachovskovo ulitsa and Proletarskaja ulitsa after sightseeing at nearby King’s Gate, Wrangel Tower and the Amber Museum; however, my hope to bike along Dohnastreet was dashed: the entire quarter has changed with Dohna street and Nachtigallensteig gone, the old buildings replaced by Soviet housing. Dohna street has chiefly given way to a child development center and gardens. Johannes Geccelli was born in Königsberg in 1925 and died near Berlin in 2011. He would have turned 95 on 14 October.

Direction Amber Museum, Schlossteich © J. Raffelberg
Königsberg 1920 and 100 years after. © Dirk Bloch/blochplan

A Berlin exhibition catalogue from 2006 lists over 50 public collections with Geccellis including the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Museum Folkwang (Essen), Neue Nationalgalerie (Berlin) and Deutscher Bundestag. Michaela Derra of the Munich auction house Ketterer Kunst reported that according to artprice, a leading art industry data base, there are currently 173 auction results, including 87 paintings and 58 drawings/watercolors, for works by the painter, the maximum being a surcharge of some €10,000. Artprice claims more than 27m entries commented by its art historians, covering more than 700 000 artists watching 6,300 auction houses in 72 countries.

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