Kurt Tucholsky and the Elisarion
Kurt Tucholsky’s novel Castle Gripsholm is a fantastically serene and mildly utopian book about love, happiness and escape from everyday life. Written at a time when the author began to suffer from the strains of his tireless political journalism. The openness, sophistication and generosity of the main characters are a stark contrast to the small-minded, reactionary German society which Tucholsky steadfastly criticized.
The book begins with the request of the publisher Rowohlt, that the author write him a light love story. A moment later, the narrator embarks with his “Princess” Lydia on vacation to Sweden. On the way they stop in Copenhagen:
… We looked at everything: the Tivoli Gardens, the beautiful town hall and the Thorwaldsen Museum, where everything looked as though it was made of plaster. “Lydia!” I called, “Lydia! I almost forgot. We absolutely have to visit the Polysandrion!”
“The … what?”
“The Polysandrion! You've got to see it. Come along.” It was a long walk, because the little museum was right outside the city.
“What is it?” asked the Princess.
“You'll see,” I said. “It's where a couple of Balts built a house for themselves. One of them, Polysander von Kuckers zu Tiesenhausen, imagines he can paint. But he can't.”
“And we're going all this way just to see that?”
“No, not exactly. He can't paint, but he does – and he always paints the same thing, his adolescent fantasies: young boys and butterflies.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” asked the Princess.
“Ask him, he'll be there. And if he isn't, then his friend will tell the whole story. Because it has to be told. It's wonderful.”
“Is it at least improper?”
“Would I be taking you if it were, my raven-haired beauty?”
There stood the little villa – it was unattractive, and it didn't fit in here at all, either; you might have expected to find it somewhere in the south, in Tuscany or somewhere. We went inside.
The Princess' eyes grew round as saucers, and I beheld the Polysandrion for the second time.
Here a dream had become reality – may God protect us from the like! The good Polysander had covered about forty Square kilometers of expensive canvas with paint. There were the youths, standing and reclining, floating and dancing. It was always the same picture, always the same young men. Pale pink, blue and yellow; the youths in the foreground, the perspective at the back.
“Those butterflies!” exclaimed Lydia, and took my hand.
“Shh!” I said. “Not so loud! The cleaning woman is following us round. She'll report everything back to the artist, and we don't want to hurt him.” But really, those butterflies. They fluttered in the painted air, they had landed on the plump shoulders of the young men, and if until now we had thought that butterflies liked to settle on flowers, this was shown not to be the case. These butterflies much preferred to perch on the young men's bottoms. It was all highly lyrical.
“Now I ask you …” said the Princess.
“Be quiet!” I said. “His friend!”
The painter's friend appeared, quite an old, pleasant-looking man. He was very respectably dressed, but he had the air of despising the standard grey clothes of our grey century. And his suit got its own back by making him look like an emeritus ephebe. He murmured an introduction, and began explaining. In front of us was the picture of a young man who stood very upright with sword and butterfly, his right hand raised in salute. In the most beautiful, lilting Baltic tones, with all the r's rolled, the friend said, “What you have before you is an entirrely spirritualized verrsion of militarrism.” I turned away – quite appalled. We saw dancing lads, in sailor-suits with floppy collars, and over their heads hung a little lamp with tassels – the kind you have in corridors. It was a sort of furnished version of the Elysian Fields. A whole Paradise had blossomed here, little bits of which so many of the painter's bosom friends carried around in their souls. Whether it was through being unjustly persecuted, or whatever it was, when they dreamed, they dreamed in soft sky blue, the pinkest shade of blue, so to speak. And they indulged in an awful lot of it. On one wall was a photograph of the artist in his Italian phase, dressed only in sandals and a Zulu-type spear. So paunches were all the rage in Capri.
“It takes your breath away!” said the Princess, once we were outside. “They aren't all like that … are they?”
“No, you shouldn't blame the species for that. That house is just a plush sofa stuck in the 1890s; they're not all like that by any means. That man could just as well have peopled his chocolate-box paintings with little elves and gnomes … But imagine what a whole museum would be like, full of those fantasies come true – exquisite!”
“But it's so … anaemic!” said the Princess. “Well, it takes all sorts! Let's drink a schnaps to that!” So we did.
More than 80 years ago Kurt Tucholsky published his classic novella Castle Gripsholm, in which he liberally cloaks literary fancy in autobiographical tone. The correspondence with publisher Rowohlt? – total invention. Staying overnight in the castle? – poetic license. And his princess, the secretary Lydia? “She does not exist,” Tucholsky admits in a letter to a reader, and muses “Yes, it's such a pity”.
However, one episode that seemed for decades to have sprung purely from the author’s imagination, is actually based upon reality: The visit to the Sanctuary Artis Elisarion, which Tucholsky portrayes as “Polisandrion”. Who knows how many of the Gripsholm readers have searched Copenhagen in vain for the Polysandrion? No one would be able to find it there. Even in the comments of the Complete Edition, Volume 14, say only: “No traces found.” But Tucholsky had indeed left intimations about the cyclorama and where the strange work should be found:
Northern Italy is quite good, or in that area is even better. The real-life inspiration for Lydia, Tucholsky’s lover Lisa Matthias owned a holiday house in the southern Swiss Canton Ticino. Several times the two stayed in Lugano. Tucholsky spent several weeks in the summer of 1930 in Locarno and Brissago providing adequate opportunity to visit the real “Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion” in Minusio. It is said that Tucholsky visited it at least twice before paying tribute to it in his summer story. The builders of the villa were actually two Balts, Elisar von Kupffer (1872–1942), who painted the oeuvre, and his lifetime partner Eduard von Mayer (1873–1960). Anyone knowing the lives of the two and the Elisarion, immediately recognizes all of them in Tucholsky’s “Polysander von Kuckers zu Tiesenhausen”, his partner Edward von Mayer, the “cleaning woman”, the long-time housekeeper Rita Fenacci, they are all aptly described.
Eduard von Mayer bequeathed the house with a complex will to the public, while the housekeeper was given a right of residence. After her death in 1970, the house stood empty – now owned by the municipality Minusio – until it was radically renovated in the late seventies and converted into the “Centro Culturale-Museo Elisarion”. Harald Szeeman knew and loved the house. He was able to save at least the cyclorama “The Clear World of the Blissful” and convince the community of the cultural importance of this legacy. Thanks to this initiative, the circular painting was preserved, although it lives a sad, decaying existence in a dark pavilion at the Monte Verita.