Etched in memory

Until his relative Nathan Bernstein set up the a museum dedicated to him, the once-famous artist Hermann Struck had been consigned to the dark recesses of obscure history.

The Hermann Struck Museum 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Hermann Struck Museum 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nathan Bernstein has realized a long-held dream: a museum commemorating artist Hermann Struck.
Struck was Bernstein’s aunt’s uncle, and after several years of planning and work, the Hermann Struck Museum finally opened its doors in Haifa on October 3.
Born in Berlin in 1876, Struck studied at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts and soon become one of the foremost practitioners of etching. In 1900, he met Jozef Israëls, a leading Dutch artist, who became his mentor, and in 1904 he joined the modern art movement known as the Berlin Secession.
Struck quickly made great strides in his chosen artistic discipline, and in 1908 he published Die Kunst des Radierens (The Art of Etching), which became a seminal work on the subject. Among his disciples were Marc Chagall, German painter and printmaker Lovis Corinth, Israeli painter and woodcut artist Jacob Steinhardt, and German- Jewish painter and printmaker Max Liebermann.
“They were all great artists in their own fields, but Hermann was such an expert in etchings,” says Bernstein.
In December 1922, Struck relocated to Haifa, where he soon galvanized local cultural life and contributed greatly to the development of the North’s artistic community, especially that of Haifa.
Although he was born after Struck died, in 1944, some of Bernstein’s earliest recollections are of his famous relative’s artistic legacy.
“I grew up in Haifa, where I was surrounded by a lot of works of art in general, but a lot of Struck paintings as well,” recalls the now-New York resident. “My uncle and aunt – she was Struck’s niece – also had a lot of his works in their house, and my brother and I eventually inherited the bulk of the works and Hermann’s estate.”
When Struck made aliya, it was long before the rumblings of Hitlerism began to make serious inroads in Germany, and his relocation was prompted purely by ideological motives.
“He was a great Zionist and was very involved in the Mizrachi movement,” explains Bernstein. “He was also very involved with many of the great intellectuals of the early 20th century, mostly in Berlin. He knew people like Albert Einstein. In 1902, when he was only 25, he participated in an exhibition which [philosopher] Martin Buber organized for the Jewish Congress.”
Struck also did commissioned portraits of famed Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, writer Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Theodor Herzl and other celebrities of the time.
Despite getting out of Germany well before the Holocaust, Struck did experience anti-Semitism. In 1899, when he completed his studies at the Berlin Academy, he was banned from teaching there because he was Jewish. Ever defiant, he had the habit of signing his work with his Hebrew name, Haim Aaron ben David, and a Star of David.
He made his first visit to this part of the world long before he made aliya.
“At the urging of Chaim Weizman and others, he came to Palestine in 1903,” says Bernstein, adding that the artist had made the most of his trip, introducing the world to life here and leaving some important pictorial documents.
“He drew and painted a lot of the early settlements and cities,” Bernstein explains. “It was the first time that people in Europe saw some lively images of people and landscapes of Palestine. The series of works from 1903, of which I have some etchings and drawings, is considered one of his best depictions of cities and settlements in Palestine. He went all over – to Tiberias and Safed, Rishon Lezion and Rehovot and Gedera, which were all small enclaves back then, and to Mount Tabor. Of course, he also did works of Jerusalem and Haifa and Jaffa – it was before Tel Aviv was founded.”
Additionally the series includes paintings of “all kinds of characters, mostly the oriental Jews and Arabs.”
Despite his fervent Zionism, Struck was also a patriotic German and volunteered for military service in World War I, serving as a translator, liaison officer and military artist.
Evidently his performance in those roles was above and beyond the call of duty, as he was awarded the Iron Cross and promoted to officer in recognition of acts of bravery. In 1917 he was put in charge of Jewish affairs at the German Eastern Front High Command.
In between his regular military activities, he also found time for some artistic explorations.
“He was fascinated by other races and ethnic groups and their features,” explains Bernstein, “and he drew and painted people from all sorts of backgrounds that he came across during the war.”
That, says Bernstein, is a feature of the new museum in Haifa. “There is a whole section of works which Hermann created then. He did a series of works of prisoners of war taken by the German army, with prisoners from all sorts of origins.
He was fascinated by their bone structure and all sorts of fine details.
Maybe that’s a German trait, I don’t know.”
Struck maintained his investigative work after the hostilities came to an end.
“He was lucky to come from a wellto- do family so he didn’t have to depend on his art to survive, and he actually lived pretty well,” Bernstein points out. “It was quite amazing that, over 100 years ago, he traveled all over Europe, but also to the United States and to Cuba.”
After making aliya, Struck quickly became a highly respected man of culture all over the Yishuv. He was a member of the board of the new Bezalel School of Art, which reopened in 1935, and also advised former Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff on establishing the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. (It was current – at press time – Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav who facilitated the establishment of the Hermann Struck Museum.) Despite Struck’s impressive artistic output and connections, Bernstein says that until the museum took on corporeal form, his once-famous relative had been consigned to the dark recesses of obscure history.
“He was forgotten, and that’s why I wanted to set up the museum,” says Bernstein. “The generation that would have known him, or of him, during his lifetime is disappearing, and the newer generation doesn’t know enough about him. I think he would have been happy with the museum.”
For more information about the Hermann Struck Museum: (04) 635- 9962.