Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –


An Idol with Kley Feet


by Rick Marschall

Heinrich Kley is an artist whose talents were virtually (and wonderfully) schizophrenic in their impressive variety, but who remains generally a cipher to historians and students of cartooning.

This dichotomy, in itself, is not a rare thing that needs to confound researchers. It is we, rather, who are perched between curiosity and selfishness, wanting to know everything we can about those creators whose work impresses. When all is said and done – anyway, not a horrible status to settle for – an artist’s work will speak for itself.


When I engaged in research for my biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, I was struck (and, yes, dismayed) by the paucity of information about the man, particularly by the man. There were comments by some other composers, occasional letters by his children, a few minutes of town-councils and church boards. But scarcely any diaries or letters or journals by old Bach himself; no introspection.

… except through his music. Which is exactly what satisfied Sebastian.

So with Heinrich Kley. We know what he did – although, you eventually will see, far from all of it has been reprinted – and we know what jobs he held through the years. But like Bach and other geniuses through the centuries, we have little sense of what he was like; his creative inspirations; his prejudices and enthusiasms; whether his multi-facted output reflected his passions… or were some activities jobs-on-commission?

Again, we don’t have to know everything. His work does not merely speak to us: it shouts. Kley was born in Karlsruhe in 1863 and died in Munich in 1945. In his 82 years he was a remarkable artist, impressing cartoonists, painters, and connoisseurs in Europe and the United States; and mastering – seemingly from the very start – several distinct genres.


Any one genre would have been astounding. But Heinrich Kley was a superb pen and ink artist and illustrator; he became identified with fantasy and erotic drawings; he executed hundreds of watercolor cityscapes and landscapes; he depicted, in exquisite and accurate details, mighty industrial scenes; he illustrated several books, from The Swiss Family Robinson and Reynard the Fox to science-fiction novels. Were all these thematic preoccupations passions of the same man? None ever betrayed a pedestrian approach.

It is difficult to make too much of my own “crowded life” in relation to Kley, for I was born after he died. Yet, like countless readers and aspiring cartoonists, I discovered his work in two trade paperbacks that Dover published in the early 1960s. Thereafter the story became a little personal, because I eventually was able to collect many European first editions; runs of the magazines he drew for; original artwork; rare art portfolios; the post cards of his stunning watercolors… and even tracked down, on a trip to Germany, the house that seemed to be his when he died. (There is no plaque there, nor any memorial. And his burial was in a small-town cemetery, marked by a small and modest stone.)


(watercolor of Maria Kirche church)

Mystery about aspects of his life are, and were, many; and mostly, as mysteries anyway, silly. His modesty possibly invited some of it. When the American magazine Coronet in the 1930s published portfolios of his work in three succeeding issues, it stated that Kley “reportedly went insane” and was institutionalized; other writers were to suggest that he died a suicide. But that all too likely was to cover for old-fashioned piracy, the unauthorized theft of his work.

“Sanity” and strange seclusion were also convenient explanations for those who could not understand any artist, or any one, not fleeing Germany or consigned to a labor camp, during the Third Reich. But he remained, he continued to draw – as did other cartoonists for Jugend and Simplicissimus – even through the War, and was a creative force who continued to create. Similar putative anomalies were Wilhelm Furtwangler and Carl Orff (the composer whose output and personality, as far as we can tell, bore resemblance to his fellow Munchner Kley).


The satyrs and orgies of blended creatures never were judged “degenerate art” by the Nazis. And while on the subject, it is interesting to note that many of  Adolf Hitler’s own watercolors and submissions to art schools in Munich and Vienna, in the days prior to the Great War’s outbreak, closely resembled Kley’s popular postcard art.

Heinrich Kley can be characterized as a male Aphrodite – he appeared, full grown and almost perfect, on the scene in 1886. (Maybe not a real stretch; Aphrodite was born of sea-foam, and the famous petrified sea-foam called Meerschaum is native to Kley’s Bavarian Alps… and “kley” means loam or clay) To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the University of Heidelberg in that birthplace of the university-system, a “Leporello” book – one drawing, folded accordian-style, depicting a parade of scholars and townspeople of the five centuries – was drawn by Kley in incredible detail.



I have mentioned the other fields he visited, and conquered, and for now, for here, that will suffice. I share with you images not usually seen… a couple of sketchbook pages from my collection (almost all his drawings were virtual sketches, masses of lines coalescing into perfect anatomy) that show that Kley did use a pencil! … and a letter from his widow Emily.

She wrote this letter to publisher Emanuel Borden of Los Angeles. It seems that Borden was at first another pirate, but after the war he produced two more handsome Kley collections; and appears – from this letter – that he earned Emily’s trust, and perhaps paid her royalties. Her letter is pathetic, sad. Three years after the War’s end; Munich devastated and still occupied; and the widow of one of the century’s great artistic geniuses – she is hardly a military threat to the American troops – finds it difficult to send or receive mail, or find bread.

I hope this letter, from my collection, is legible. Click twice and squint.


It might be appropriate that the genius who was Heinrich Kley be relatively obscure to us and more than a little enigmatic. Already attracted to his work when our eyes meet it, we are, perhaps, compelled not to merely look, but to enter his scenes – his fantasy-flavored perceptions of reality, and realistic depictions of the his wild imagination.


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