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FRIEDRICH WILHELM KUHNERT



On The Safari Trail of Europe’s
First Plein-Air Artist To Paint Africa

Was it mere coincidence that the Kuhnert color plates had been removed from Siever’s 1891 natural history of Africa and Governor Götzen’s book was missing altogether from the New York Public Library? That The Animal Art of Wilhelm Kuhnert had disappeared from the Metropolitan Museum’s library, and the artist’s file at the Frick was empty?

Kuhnert is hot. In 2008, his A Pride of Lions on the Prowl sold for $590,00, and dozens of his oils, etchings, watercolors, pastels, and drawings have changed hands in recent years. Yet the more I researched Kuhnert, and his four safaris to German East Africa and Sudan between 1891 and 1912, the less I found. Even his grandson’s official-sounding www.wilhelmkuhnert.com Web site has piddled out with Hansjörg Werner’s passing. Everywhere the same banal biography, while Kuhnert’s richly detailed travel-painting-hunting diaries from Europe, East Africa, India, and Ceylon have never been published, and his enjoyable, wonderfully illustrated 1920 African narrative, Im Land Meiner Modelle, remains untranslated. The fans are out there; the art historians are not.

Europe’s first plein-air artist to portray Africa’s wildlife, landscapes, and people was born in 1865 in Oppeln, the German-speaking administrative center of Upper Silesia, located since the end of World War II in southern Poland. Although Kuhnert’s family quickly recognized his prodigious innate talent, his civil-servant father’s finances obliged him, at age 14, to apprentice in a machining factory in Cottbus (Brandenburg) over 300 kilometers away. But ­ he studied the Old Masters,such as Holbein and Vermeer, on his own, using his pastor as a model. At 17, his uncle arranged his move to Berlin to live with a cousin and study fine art.

After supporting himself for two years as a portrait artist and calligrapher of elaborate calling cards, the self-taught 19-year-old applied to Berlin’s Royal Academy of Art. The classically structured four-year Studium included drawing with pencil, charcoal, and chalk; human anatomy and proportion, working from both plaster casts and live models; perspective and shading. Kuhnert also studied landscape painting under Ferdinand Bellermann, a plein-air enthusiast who’d spent four years in Venezuela, depicting its rainforests in exuberantly exotic, but scientifically accurate, landscapes.

By 1827, the Academy had already recognized the importance of applying traditional disciplines to animal portrayals, contributing to the 19 th-century fashion for scenes with sheep, cows, and horses. Kuhnert studied animal painting under Paul Meyerheim, who’d done credible works of lions from circuses and zoos, and taught the connection of skeleton and musculature to movement and expression, fur and its sheen.

Kuhnert could quickly internalize a scene and rapidly recreate it in two dimensions. He reputedly never used an eraser on a single drawing, or made a correction to any of his 137 etching plates—all of which, unfortunately, are lost. Success came early, and by age 20 he could already afford his first of many Berlin ateliers, while his itch for adventure would carry him as far as his yearnings and pfennigs would go.

That same year, 1885, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck formalized Germany’s position in the “Scramble for Africa” by granting an imperial charter to the protectorate of German East Africa (1885–1919), located between Great Britain’s Kenya colony and Portugal’s Mozambique, and encompassing yesterday’s Tanganyika and today’s Rwanda and Burundi.

Barely five years later, the 27-year-old artist set off on his first 18-month African safari, funded by earnings from illustrating a dictionary of animals published by Hans Meyer, the first European to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

From Tanga on the Indian Ocean near the Kenya border, Kuhnert walked inland in the footsteps of Arab slavers through Masailand to the foothills of Kilimanjaro, his 25 porters carrying his camp, staples, exchange goods, and extensive art supplies.

On his G.E.A. safaris, Kuhnert was his own professional hunter. In his diaries, he complains of having to exchange his brushes for his hunting guns to fill the bellies of up to 60 ever-hungry men. But he recounts his stalks for elephant, lion, and buffalo, shooting distances, and locations of recovered bullets with the passion of a big-game hunter.

Kuhnert described and measured his subjects from horn tip to tail hairs with the curiosity of a 19 th-century natural scientist, but perceived their natural environment with the vision of a landscape artist. He chronicled African skies and weather and painted themin a bright, tropical luminescence—so different from Berlin studio light. Although he preferred gray skies, he painted blue ones to offset the striking markings of giraffes and zebras or the exploding lavender fields of the Masai steppe in bloom.



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He recorded accidents, illnesses, loads lost in rivers, and both the kindness and truculence of natives. Overwhelmed by the verdancy of the rainy-season savanna, he swore off abusing the greens of his daringly vivid palette. He described the shapes of umbrella acacias and shimmering yellow fever trees, and the misery of painting during East Africa’s two rainy seasons with their clouds of annoying insects. Yet he loved living as free as his subjects, whose body language and physiognomy he noted is not the same as the caged zoo animals.

In 1893, Kuhnert displayed his big, dramatic African scenes at the Berlin Art Exhibition and won its Medal of Honor. Despite his wanderlust, he married an 18-year-old maiden and fathered a single daughter, but was often gone for years at a time. In 1907 his wife left him, and in 1909 they divorced while he was abroad.

Kuhnert’s field knowledge led to his illustrating major zoological works, hunting narratives by science-oriented sportsmen such as Hermann von Wissman, and the memoirs of G.E.A.’s first governor, Count Adolf von Götzen, who bloodily suppressed the colony’s 1905 Maji Maji Rebellion, which Kuhnert accidentally experienced first hand.

In June 1905, he’d started his second safari, this time from Dar es Salaam to the Southern Highlands, moving between today’s Ruaha National Park and the Selous Game Reserve. Caught up in the native uprising against colonial tax and labor policies, he was confined for weeks in the primitive garrison post of Mahenge, and later Madibira, but took advantage of the relatively comfortable conditions to work despite being under attack.

Six years later, at the suggestion of a Leipzig newspaper, Kuhnert accompanied Friedrich August III, the last king of Saxony, on safari in British-Egyptian Sudan. But the constraints and protocol perturbed him, especially the oversight of procuring his hunting license.

He quickly returned to G.E.A. in 1912, lingering weeks in game-rich spots with reliable water. His journals convey his feeling torn between hunting and painting: “Although the hunter in me has a difficult time overcoming the desire to shoot, the artist in me is stronger, and I have come just to observe as much as possible.” But when a rifle breaks, so does he: “I can’t hunt, and thus can’t work . . . I am entirely broken.” A compromise is struck with a waterbuck: “I shot it in a way to get the most meat, but can also use such a piece for my work, so the two are united.”

Because landscape and animal painting were taught as separate genres, much has been made of Kuhnert’s painting animals in their habitat; until then, correctness of an animal’s biotope was unimportant, and usually invented in the artist’s head. Although Kuhnert’s approach was innovative, his considerations were painterly rather than scientific. For the impressionistic realism of his settings, he employed loosely painted grasses, clumps of thornbush, and fallen deadwood as compositional tools, which better flatter his untamed subjects’ inherent strength and substance than zealously copied details. And to create tone or mood, he concentrated light and dark areas in different parts of the canvas.

Kuhnert often divides the canvas into horizontal bands of fore-, mid- and background, varying their importance to establish both point of view and depth of field. For close-ups, he fills the canvas with his subject framed only by darker boulders or silhouetted against the sky. A line of riverine forest or islands of worn mountains in the distance suggest Africa’s far horizons.

After returning to Berlin, Kuhnert remarried in 1913. Although the Great War (and possibly age) ended his travels to Africa, it allowed him to paint the last herds of wisent, the European bison, in the Bialowies Forest, the German-occupied game reserve of former Czar Nicolas II. Just months after his wife passed away on his 60 th birthday, Kuhnert died while on cure for tuberculosis in Flims, Switzerland, in February 1926.

The art historian’s trail ends, at present, with Kuhnert’s descendents, whose silence some attribute to the preparation of a catalogue raisonné of the remains of Kuhnert’s estimated 5,500 works, including 3,500 major oils. Hundreds disappeared in the conflagration of Berlin in WWII, or were carted away from the Reich’s estates and hunting lodges by the victors. Until then, it seems we’re limited to what this generation wants us to know.

Walking too closely in Kuhnert’s footsteps, Brooke was in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands during the August 7, 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Dar es Salaam. Tracking wisent in Poland’s Bialowieza National Park, Europe’s last primeval forest, Kuhnert put her up to the neck in snow.

 

 

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