The Berlin Wagner monument and the threat of greasepaint

The controversy about the Richard Wagner statue erected in the Berlin Tiergarten in 1903 unfolded in slow motion as the Wagner family delayed their final decision about attending. That allowed the papers to report on all the important figures who had accepted the invitation to attend the unveiling ceremony, and then on their subsequent cancellations. I have been thinking more about the press’s response to the mismanagement of the festival’s arrangements, and have done some more research on the monument’s instigator and financial backer, Ludwig Leichner (1836-1912).

Detail from Werner’s painting of the Wagner Denkmal depicting Ludwig Leichner

Leichner was able to spend half a million marks on the statue because he had made a fortune in manufacturing cosmetics. He is an important figure in the history of the makeup industry, as I found out from the admirable website devoted to “cosmetics and skin: stories from the history and science of cosmetics, skin care, and early beauty culture.” During his career as an opera singer, Leichner recognized the need for an improved form of greasepaint that could cope with the increasingly bright lights on stage. His chemistry background helped him find ways to extend the staying power and coverage of what was basically a mixture of lard and suet. Leichner founded a makeup school and produced books on how to use his products to produce different kinds of looks in the theater. His line of products was also used early in the film era.

According to this article, greasepaint or “Fettpuder” was not intended for “general use.” In the previous post on Leichner I assumed Fettpuder was face powder instead of greasepaint. Leichner was also famous for face powder, and the caricature of the monument features someone having their nose powdered. In Germany, there were ads for Fettpuder (Leichner’s and other brands) by the end of the 19th century, and in the ad pictured below, it is identified as face powder. Why the word for greasepaint was also used for face powder is a mystery to me at the moment. In any case, greasepaint came to be marketed not only as something for performers but also as something for women. Leichner’s name became synonymous with greasepaint, and it also was aggressively marketed as a brand of cosmetics. To entice women to purchase beauty products that were also used by stage entertainers–what an outrage! This must have been what specifically caused such hostility to the idea that Leichner could pay tribute to Wagner.

ad for Leichner’s Fettpuder in the Neue Musik-Zeitung 18 (1897):66.

This understanding of the complex of associations conjured by Leichner’s name helps explain another item that mentions the controversy in the periodical Jugend, some verses entitled “Das Lied von den vielen Dollars.” It proclaims the trope of America as a land of no culture, with not an inkling about art; it simply buys what it wants indiscriminately. Leichner had nothing to do with America, as far as I know; the poem makes the connection via the conductor Felix Mottl, who had cancelled his appearance at the Wagner Denkmal, but then committed a far worse betrayal of Wagner by agreeing to conduct Parsifal in New York. The implications of “America” are similar to those of greasepaint: it is modern, disruptive, threatening to traditional values, and fueled by mass markets. Both were seen as antithetical to high art.

Jugend nr. 34 (1903): 622.

Finally, here is an amusing parody, also from Jugend, that tells the story of the “Denkmalsdämmerung”1by “Frido” in Issue 22 (1903): 403.

Wonnefreuden wichen
Dem Widerspruch,
Von rauem Zorne
Zeuget der Zank.
Auf lauen Lüften
Lind und lieblich
Lachte der Leichner,
Holdeste Düfte
Hauchte er aus.
Er, den der König
Kürte zum kühnen
Weh, seine Blicke,
Wonne sonst webend,
Zücken jetzt Blitze,
Blendend und blind.
Leichner, dem Lichtalben,
Weckte die Norne
Wahrliche Neidlinge.
Murrend wuchs ihm als Feind der Mottl,
Rache Schwur ihm der niedliche Richter,
Kosima koste nimmer den Mann.
   Der aber zürnte
   Und schrieb in der Zeitung:
   Was ihr auch gehrt
   Nach Groll und nach Grimm
   Wegen der Wallhall-
   Weihe von Wagner,
   Weh, ist mir Wurst!
   Dass ihr parteiisch
   Plagt mich und peinigt,
   Ist mir Pomade.
Friedmund darf ich nicht heissen,
Frohwagner möcht’ ich wohl sein,
Doch Wehwagner muss ich mich nennen.

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6 thoughts on “The Berlin Wagner monument and the threat of greasepaint

  1. ah, so the mystery of the Wagner family’s anger at the Wagner statue is solved! This is so fascinating!

  2. Hilarious. Great research, Sanna. I’d say the America/Leichner connection is also about commodification and the money economy and, more broadly, the resistance to modernity which is also so central to the Wagner image, despite (or maybe because of) Wagner’s own self-marketing and love affair with money. It’s an example of the particularly German schizophrenia about tradition vs innovation which is what the Nazis exploited so perfectly, and then also fueled the Wagner-Hitler symbiosis. Sorry…. I tend to go on and on…

  3. In my little New England town, the richest man in the 19th century (Joseph Burnett, 1820-1894) also started out as a pharmacist and made his fortune in the extraction of vanilla. Just think of the great novels we would have lost if Theodor Fontane had been more attuned to his professional opportunities . . .

  4. Fettpuder (literally fat powder) is a powder but has some cold cream added for extra cling. Lots of powders of this type were made and were often referred to as Cold Cream Powders in English. See:
    I’m not sure why the Wagner family did not like the statue but if this is the case my guess would be that they would be against anything that broke their monopoly on him
    There will be a complete story on Leichner up on the website in the next few months.

    1. Thank you for the explanation, and I look forward to your Leichner story! And yes, the Wagner family wanted to keep control of EVERYTHING.

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