Dear Mendelsohn – a life’s legacy in letters

March 25, 2014

Germany, USA

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that last Friday I attended the launch of the “Erich Mendelsohn Archive” in Berlin. I was actually there as part of my day job for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, but I am so enthused by this fantastic archive, I wanted to tell you a bit more about it.

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EMA – Erich Mendelsohn Archive (screenshot)

 

First of all, who was Erich Mendelsohn? I have to admit, before we moved to Berlin I was only marginally aware of him. Mendelsohn (1887 – 1953) was a Jewish German architect, and one of the most important pioneers of modern architecture. He fled with his wife to England in 1933, in the wake of growing anti-Semitism and the rise of the Nazis, and set up a new business partnership there. In 1935 he also opened an office in Jerusalem, later dissolved his office in London, and in 1941 emigrated again, this time to the US. His architectural legacy spans seven countries and three continents, and he is particularly well known for his use of curves.

But what is just as astonishing as his architectural career, is the legacy of letters he left behind. Mendelsohn and his wife Luise were avid letter writers, and their correspondence ranged from 1910 when they first met, to just before Erich Mendelsohn’s death in 1953.

A selection of letters displayed in the exhibition "3 Continents - 7 Countries" at the Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 19.09.2013 to 26.01.2014

A selection of Mendelsohn letters displayed in the exhibition “3 Continents – 7 Countries” at the Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 19.09.2013 to 26.01.2014

 

The letters give a fascinating insight into Mendelsohn’s way of thinking and working, but also document the events of two World Wars, for example his time as a soldier on the Russian Front. Did you know that in 1917 the Front was actually very quiet? His letters tells us that Mendelsohn found the time to plant flowers and lettuce, with seeds sent by his wife from Oberammergau, and he writes:

“Die Front is ruhig und mein Salat schiesst”

(the Front is quiet, but my lettuce is sprouting madly). He also created lots of sketches during his time on the Front, some of which were on display in an exhibition at the Kunstbibliothek which had closed in January but was reopened again for one day exclusively for the archive’s launch.

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Some of Erich Mendelsohn’s sketches from his time on the Russian Front, displayed in the exhibition “3 Continents – 7 Countries” at the Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 19.09.2013 to 26.01.2014

 

Something else you learn from the letters, is that the Mendelsohns planned their emigration to England well in advance. After five years there, they were able to apply for UK citizenship, changing the spelling of their names officially to Eric and Louise. From that point on they also switched to writing exclusively in English, save for a few words they did not know the translation for such as Eiderdaun Bettdeck, Unterhoeslen, Straeusselkuchen and Zwetschgen.

“I need badly my Eiderdaun Bettdeck – if possible by air freight!” (E. Mendelsohn, San Francisco, 9.11.1945)

“It is clear and cold, and I change again to my “Unterhoeslen”. (E. Mendelsohn, Washington, 09.11.1947)

“The German nurse made Straeusselkuchen and Zwetschgen.” (L. Mendelsohn, Tacoma, 16.09.1955)

In 2011, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Kunstbibliothek (home to Erich’s letters and drawings since 1975) and the Getty Research Institute (home to Luise’s letters since 1979) began a co-operation – funded by the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung – to digitise the letters and reunite the correspondence online. A staggering total of 2738 letters were not only scanned and digitised, but also transcribed, annotated and cross-referenced! Here is a close up of one of the letters to show the challenges involved in transcribing the handwriting:

Close-up of one of the letters displayed in the exhibition "3 Continents - 7 Countries" at the Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 19.09.2013 to 26.01.2014

Close-up of one of the letters displayed in the exhibition “3 Continents – 7 Countries” at the Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 19.09.2013 to 26.01.2014

 

To make it possible to read the original letters and the transcripts side by side, the digital archive sets out the latter with the spaces, line breaks etc. in exactly the same places. You can search the archive chronologically, search via a number of categories, or do a full text search of the transcripts. Within the individual letters, any place names have been geo-tagged and thousands of works of art, music, literature and architecture have been identified and, where available, linked to other online databases where you can see or hear the works in question.

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Searching the letters in the archive via the chronological timeline – the colour coded overview clearly shows the author of each letter (screenshot)

 

A full text search of the transcripts shows that there are 8 letters referencing 'Salat' (lettuce)

A full text search of the transcripts shows that there are 8 letters referencing ‘Salat’, i.e. lettuce (screenshot)

 

The archive really is a labour of love, and one emotional moment at the launch was when a letter was read out, from Mendelsohn’s surviving granddaughter in California, offering heartfelt thanks to the project team for all their hard work and for making accessible to millions what previously was only seen by a few. You can browse the Mendelsohn letters for yourself at ema.smb.museum

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Please note that although I work for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and attended this event as part of my work, all views presented here on the blog are my own.

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