Elisàr August Emanuel von Kupffer was born on 20 February 1872 as the third of four children. As the artist was later to point out in a remarkable way in his autobiography, his place of birth — Sophiental in Estonia — is situated on the same meridian as Delos, the “island of Apollo, giver of light”.
His father, the doctor Adolf von Kupffer (1833–1896), came from a venerable aristocratic family of German origins which can be traced back to the 16th century. As part of an ethnic minority in the Baltic region, the family determinedly upheld German culture.
Eilsàr’s youth was defined by his delicate health; at the early age of five he was afflicted with meningitis and rheumatoid arthritis. Furthermore, he suffered from a general “sensitivity of the nerves” which kept him away from all kinds of “youthful games and activities”. As an eight-year-old, he contracted scarlet fever which led to single-sided deafness. A spell of measles was the cause of his nearsightedness. He described his physical existence as the entrance to a “world of confusion” brought on by “stepmother nature”. However, in spite of all health-related obstacles, he was a quick-witted child. He could read by the age of five, developed literary interests, and wrote his first play “Don Irsino” at the age of nine.
Elisàr often mentioned his German-Baltic routes as an explanation for the development of his intellect and his talents. He described himself as a child with a love of beauty and an “instinctive fear of ugliness”.
With hindsight Elisàr was able to recognise components that were subsequently to define his oeuvre: the spirit of “German superiority”, the leading position of a class that continued to “refine” itself from generation to generation, a distinct appreciation of aesthetics, but also an awareness of the transience of human existence and political systems.
A first impression of this instability became apparent in 1881 after the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, a ruler who had supported the linguistic and religious rights of the German minority in the Baltic States. Elisàr’s school enrolment in Reval in 1883 coincided with Alexander III’s coronation festivities. During his reign, Pan-Slavism thrived and the inhabitants of German decent were forcibly russified. This development also affected the von Kupffer family. At the age of eight, Elisàr started to learn Russian – a language that he did not accept as part of his culture and that he never learned to speak flawlessly. In the same year, 1883, the family moved from Sophiental to the Manor of Jootma. Until the end of Elisàr’s life, this Baltic Empire style mansion with its temple-like porch not only represented the epitome of a home, but also his vision of an unspoilt paradise.
At the age of nineteen, Eilsàr was sent to the German St. Anna School in Saint Petersburg where he concluded his schooling. In the nearby village of Levashovo he met Eduard von Mayer who, like Agnes von Hoyningen-Huene, a girl of the same age, was to become an important friend, and later on, also his life partner.
In 1892 his mother developed a cancer to which she succumbed in April of the following year, shortly before Elisàr’s final school exams. The death of this important person in his life manifested itself as a crucial turning point. Under this emotional burden he finally distanced himself from his “old faith”.
In 1893 he decided not to return to his hometown, but to study Oriental languages in Saint Petersburg. It was not long before he gave up these studies which he found too “school-like”, and changed to the legal faculty where he passed his first exams in 1894. At the same time, his friend Eduard von Mayer left Saint Petersburg to travel to Southern Russia, and subsequently to Geneva where he took up a degree. Elisàr was left behind feeling indecisive and wrote:
“There is an uncanny lull in my soul. However, I do not feel that a storm will follow. Now that I am moving from one decision to the next, I feel calmer than ever…. I hope that my faith will continue to save me from shipwrecks.”
At Jootma he wrote the play “Die toten Götter” (The Dead Gods), an expression of his lapsed protestant faith which had already filled him with doubt as a twelve-year-old boy. He tried to deal with his disorientation and religious awakening by relocating to Germany. He believed the world into which he was entering to be cold and saw himself as a kind of Perceval. However, he knew that somewhere in this world he would found a grail castle — a “sacred castle”.
He saw Germany for the first time in October 1894. Berlin was exciting for him but also forbidding. Relating to Catholic Munich was equally difficult. Apart from studying history and philosophy, he also became engrossed in his own writing. In 1895 he had a few minor literary successes, such as the publication of his book of poems “Leben und Liebe (Life and Love)”. However, this year was also defined by his friend Eduard von Mayer’s suicide attempt in January. He himself described this period as a time of “self-realisation” and “evolutionary transformation”. At this time, Gerhard Hauptmann was having success with his naturalistic works which led Elisàr to believe that his own literary ambitions had failed.
Elisàr spent the summer of 1894 in Estonia. At Jootma he realised that the German-Baltic aristocratic world had become too stifling for him. Emotionally he found himself between Agnes von Hoyningen-Huene and Eduard von Mayer. He described the emerging theories on sexuality as “out of kilter”, while classifying his own sensations as platonic and as those of a “born antiquitist”.
In autumn he moved to Berlin where he rented a room together with Eduard von Mayer and enrolled at the art academy. Together they attended lectures on history, ethnography, social economy, and art history.
In the spring of 1896 Eilsàr’s father died. At the same time, Eduard von Mayer went through a second major crisis after breaking up with his childhood sweetheart and decided to immigrate to America. Elisàr was only able to dissuade him from these plans with the greatest difficulty. Eduard von Mayer continued his studies in Halle, while Elisàr broke with Agnes von Hoyningen-Huene.
For Elisàr, this time was defined by great literary productivity. He wrote the drama “Der Herr der Welt” (Master of the World), and also three one-act plays with the title “Irrlichter (Ghost Lights). None of the plays were ever performed. The topics religion, ethics, and sexuality defined this period of literary creation. This also applies to “Ehrlos” (Infamous), an anthology that was published a year after Elisàr had started writing it in 1897. This was the start of the collaboration between the two men which was to become more intense in time.
“We both believed that, in many respects, and for the sake of new and more honest ideals, we had to advocate ethics that were fairer than those defined by the traditional sense of honour; we also felt strongly about social injustice.”
While Eduard von Mayer completed his degree in Halle in 1897 with a dissertation on Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, von Kupffer abandoned his studies at the Berlin Art Academy because, in his opinion, it was too much like school for his taste.
From then on, he continued to pursue his artistic training as an autodidact. After von Mayer passed his final exams on 18 June 1897, the two men started sharing their lives. They journeyed to Venice via the Gotthard Pass and Lugano. From there they travelled to Florence, Rome, Naples, Capri, Ischia, and Pompeii, which, as Elisàr wrote, had a strong impact on him. He made copies before they moved on to Taormina, Messina, Catania, Syracuse, Palermo, Rome, Monte Carlo, Avignon, Geneva, and once again, Berlin. The memories of Pompeii remained.
Further trips followed at regular intervals. Because Elisàr suffered from heart trouble, and his friend from asthma, they tried to escape the urban climate. They spent the summer in Thuringia and Heiligendamm. Back in Berlin, Elisàr started working on a “time-consuming sideline”, namely research for “Lieblingsminne und Freundesliebe der Weltliteratur” (Love of Favourites and Love between Friends in World Literature), an anthology with texts on “so-called homosexuality”. In this context he also became acquainted with his landlady’s young son, Adolf Schmitz (1886–1916) who often features in the artist’s works as “Fino von Grajewo” or “Eros Messager”.
The next excursion to Italy took place in 1899. This time Elisàr stayed in Pompeii for several weeks in order to make copies. In his later works the stylistic influence of antique murals is unmistakable. In autumn his health continued to deteriorate and by Christmas he was living in fear of death. He was forced to stay in Rome and his doctor prescribed absolute rest. In the course this crisis, Elisàr found his “new faith”. During his slow recovery, he saw the approach of 20th century as an “incipient spring of the world”. His belief developed in 1900 and was to flourish three generations later. As it was intended as a counter design to monism, which was popular at the time, he called his new faith Klarismus (The term Klarismus is derived from the German word “klar” (clear), and can be translated as “Clarism”).
He started to call himself Elisarion von Kupffer, and from 1911 onwards, just Elisarion. In the same year, in 1900, his anthology was published in Berlin. Because of their extensive trips to Italy, the two men spent less and less time in the city. In 1902 they left Berlin altogether, not only for health reasons, but also because Elisàr von Kupffer “had come to understand that, in view of the naturalistic trend in the theatre world, his plays would not help him to find a niche on stage from where he could convey his ideas to the public.”
The two men moved to Florence. In the course of the following years, they dedicated themselves mainly to the thematic and artistic definition of Clarism and also to the study of Italian Renaissance. The supremacy of Naturalism and poor health were definitely important incentives for the move. However, it should also be mentioned that, due to paragraph 175 of the Reichsstrafgesetzbuch (Book of Imperial Criminal Law), relocating to Italy was a popular measure for many men who lived together and hoped to avoid being blackmailed.
In 1911 Eduard von Mayer and Elisarion founded the “Klaristische Verlag Akropolis” in Munich. The publishing house was intended as a medium for their new faith. In the same year, the two programmatic works “Hymnen der heiligen Burg” (Hymns of the Holy Castle) and “Ein neuer Flug und eine heilige Burg” (A New Flight and a Holy Castle) were published there. “Der unbekannte Gott” (The Unknown God) followed in 1912, and an array of further programmatic writings appeared in 1920. In April 1913, the Brogi Gallery in Florence hosted the first exhibition with works by Elisàr von Kupffer who had started calling himself the “Painter of Clarism”.
The founders of Clarism only left Italy in 1915 due to the growing animosity towards Germans. They moved to Ticino where they were granted Swiss citizenship in 1922. In 1923 they became acquainted with Rita Fenacci. She was a friend and housekeeper to the men until Eduard von Mayer’s death.
In the bedroom of his apartment in Muralto, Elisarion started working on the “Klarwelt” cyclorama. In 1924 parts of this work were exhibited for the first time in the gallery of a friend.
By then the two men had already founded a Claristic community in Weimar in 1911 and another one in Zurich in 1913 in order to spread their faith. The Elisarion Community followed in 1926. The centre and meeting point of this new religion was supposed to be situated in a sacred building in Eisennach, however, these plans were never realised.
Elisàr and Eduard purchased some property in Minusio in 1925, and on 1 August 1927 the Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion opened which also served as their home.
During the following years, Elisàr concerned himself with the decoration of the rooms and with his cyclorama “Die Klarwelt der Seligen” which was only completed in 1930. His literary production dwindled dramatically during these years. The founder of “the new religion” seemed to be more concerned with receiving visitors to his “sacred site”, his propagandistic activities, reacting to criticism, and finding financial means for the complementary rotunda. This part of the site only opened in 1939 after public support, an inheritance, and various private contributions had made its completion possible. Hence the cyclorama received a permanent exhibition room.
The promising stream of visitors that had started in the 1930s gradually abated with the onset of the Second World War. Resigned and in fear of isolation, Elisarion continued to spread the message of Clarism. However, due to increasing health problems he retreated further and further until his death on 31 October 1942.