Who builds bunkers, also drops bombs – remembering the painter Herbert Weitemeier
Art from places called cities: A forgotten painter from Berlin-Kreuzberg.
The view of a Kreuzberg building facade. Interlocked old buildings. The houses appear curved. They twist and seem to be pushed into each other like layers of earth. It’s as if someone has broken them open, revealing their interiors. Amidst them, tiny people. They sway individually, between the shafts, dancing, fleeing, and falling. They are ghosts mingling with birds, taking flight and growing larger towards the sky.
Looking closer, the houses resemble faces. Dark holes for windows, the facades blurred in gray. Everything is black, brown, dirty, half-ruined. Torn posters hang on the wall, providing brighter colors. In the background, a bunker stands like a fortress. On it is written in red letters: “Who builds bunkers also drops bombs!” An adaptation of: “Those who burn books will ultimately burn people.” Both are encapsulated in the painting: war, destruction, rearmament, new destruction. Herbert Weitemeier painted this in 1994, four years before his death.
Kohlfurter Straße in Berlin-Kreuzberg is short. It’s easy to overlook. It lies within a complex of new buildings planned in the 1960s. The street was created a hundred years earlier, with narrow houses and modest apartments built cheaply for factory workers from Poland. The street starts from Wassertorplatz and leads to the canal. To the north, it is bounded by the elevated railway track, marking the course of the former Berlin city wall, leading south along the main artery of Skalitzer Straße.
Ambitious architects promised millions to create an entirely new neighborhood here in the 1960s. Around 30,000 residents were to be “relocated” from their old buildings left by the war. After the plans were announced, property owners stopped investing. Tenants were supposed to move away. Property owners let their buildings decay or drove out the tenants. This led to a situation in Kreuzberg in the sixties and early seventies, reminiscent of the immediate post-war period: areas filled with ruins, wastelands, and heaps of rubble. The squatter movement emerged in response to this. It is thanks to them that the construction plans stalled.
Kohlfurter Straße Number 39 is a remnant. It survived the so-called urban renewal with the wrecking ball. On March 12, 1935, the painter Herbert Weitemeier was born there. His father taught him how to draw. He was talented. Then came the war, and he only saw his father when he got leave from the front. The war affected everything, even Herbert’s daily life when he was seven, the air raid alarm dominated his daily rhythm.
In late 1944, he and his brother were taken to a distant relative in Aussig, now Ústí nad Labem in the Czech Republic. Everything seemed calm there; the aunt was kind, but one day, she was gone. “Just gone,” said the neighbor, and Herbert immediately decided to return to Berlin. He and his brother traveled with refugee streams and endured six months of hardship. He had recurring dreams of it: low-flying planes, death, and constant beatings and shouting. On their way back to Berlin, the two brothers ended up in some kind of institution, where they were watched by nuns, tied up, beaten, interrogated, scolded, and beaten again. Yet they managed to escape. Since then, he has been known as Jimmy.
Children marauded through eroding frontlines. They lived almost like animals and stole wherever they went. It was best when they formed gangs, as Brecht sang about in the “Kinderkreuzzug” (Children’s Crusade).
It is not known how they managed to finally return home, but it is known that the two brothers constantly quarreled. The war had left its mark on them. And outside, everything was broken. Ruins instead of houses, and where there were streets, there were only narrow paths between piles of stones. Their house on Kohlfurter Straße was still standing. A younger sister had died, and the older one urged him to draw. There was nothing to eat or heat the house with; everything had to be stolen, and their father never came back and would never come back. The mother and sister raised five boys together.
Piles of rubble and ruins were their playgrounds and trading places. The children played with shards, pieces of iron, household scraps, and perhaps weapons that could be found everywhere, with cigarettes useful for trading, and with alcohol that facilitated forgetting.
When Herbert turned 13, he wanted to be an artist in the circus. Instead, he became an apprentice in a carpentry workshop. His sister told him not to waste his talent. In the end, he passed the entrance exam to the art school without a high school diploma. He was very proud of that.
The compulsion to paint
It is said that you can’t fool war children, especially not those who had preserved their images of horror and could not forget. They, like Weitemeier, had to produce; they couldn’t do otherwise.
Pure art was not his focus. He was a realist; abstract art meant nothing to him. He wanted to draw and paint and had a thousand plans for it. The time he spent at university, until they expelled him, was time taken away from painting or making money, at least that’s how he saw it.
He went to the Paris Art School for half a year. To be able to live in France, he painted colorful flower and beach impressions that he sold to tourists. In Germany, he did odd jobs unrelated to painting. This allowed him to live and paint for a while.
When he painted too much, he fell into financial distress. Then he had to pawn his razor and his space heater and sit by candlelight in the evening, just so he could buy more paint and canvas. Most of the time, he painted on large plywood panels that he framed with darkly painted strips. He almost always chose giant formats that required a ladder.
The landlady of the “Kleine Weltlaterne,” his regular pub on Kohlfurter Straße, persuaded him to exhibit paintings by him and other artists. This led to a whole movement. There was attention. The “Kreuzberger Boheme” was a loose association of painters and authors, printers and graphic artists, bohemians, and other eccentrics, all of whom wanted to “say something.”
From 1960, he had solo and group exhibitions until the 1990s. In his paintings, he depicted what he had experienced and what he saw. He never painted his war experiences, but they indirectly shine through. Like in his urban desert ruins: “Areas called cities,” as his friend Roland Neumann put it. In 1979, Peter Sauernheimer, on the occasion of an exhibition by Jimmy in Charlottenburg, attempted to find poetic words for what the paintings meant to him: “Take a look at the procession of fragile houses, resembling sunken rocks in the sea, and yet, people live in them / Go into the courtyards, where the small grass fights in vain against jaundice.”
For a while, Jimmy lived in South France with a woman and a son. In 1995, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a rare nerve disease. Over the course of it, he suffered paralysis that originated from his hands. A tragedy. He continued to paint until 1996 when the brush slipped from his hand. In 1997, his son Sebastian organized a final major exhibition for him in Vallauris on the Cote D’Azur. He passed away in 1998.
Weitemeier’s art speaks for itself. It tells stories, not just one, but several. It doesn’t bore; you can get lost in it. You always discover new things. You can move within his paintings. This work is largely forgotten today, and that needs to change.