where the writers are
Surviving Dresden: a provenance
Mannheim's painting

The painting is sunlit, cheerful, representing one of those fine smog-free Southern California days that must have been fairly common early last century. The scene is likely Pasadena (though Santa Barbara is also a possibility), with the San Gabriel Mountains looming in the distance. Several Mediterranean like mansions, dwarfed by  the mountains, are the painting's focal point.

It was painted by Jean Mannheim (1863-1945). Carsten Rave and his daughter Helena delivered the painting a few weeks ago. The painting had just made the trip from Germany back to California and it is good it made it safely because, as Carsten, a charming man, said – and Helena laughed in agreement as he said it – ``I would forget my head it it were not fixed on.'' He did not forget the Mannheim, perhaps thanks to Helena.

Mannheim has interested me as an artist and a man since the day someone showed me a large Mannheim painting of Leo Tolstoy. It was beautifully painted and showed the great writer in the white peasant tunic he favored, workers, fields and a forest behind him.

I thought it was wonderful but imagined it was a copy of a scene the artist had seen in a photograph, because Mannheim was a German, not Russian, and much younger than Tolstoy.

But looking into Mannheim's past indicated that just possibly the painting was done from life. Mannheim was drafted into the German army, but deserted and fled to Paris where he studied art. It seemed to me that any young man who did this kind of thing might have had an adventurous spirit and/or needed to make tracks and could have taken a side trip into Russia where he might very well have met Tolstoy, who would have been pushing sixty about that time. If so, what must this meeting have been like, between the wise old Russian writer of ``War and Peace'' and the young German painter who had fled the possibility of war? Did Mannheim search Tolstoy out, looking for solace or reaffirmation for his act of desertion? Did Tolstoy comfort or rebuke him, then pose for the painting? I find the imagined meeting intriguing.

In any case the man who showed me the painting left and I have no idea where the painting is today.

Mannheim arrived in Southern California around 1910 and became a leading artistic figure among the region's many talented impressionists. In Pasadena he met the artist Detlef Sammann (1857-1938) who was also of German origin. At some time, Mannheim gave Sammann the Pasadena painting in question. Sammann likely gave Mannheim one of his paintings in return. Artists do this often.

Sammann was Carsten Rave's great uncle and was, according to Rave (pronounced Rah-veh), ``born in Northern Germany and never went to school. As an autodidact he became a painter and moved to the United States in 1882.''

Sammann eventualy moved north from Pasadena and spent the World War I years on the Monterey Peninsula. His greatest paintings are of the twisted cypress trees of the region. They have a powerful abstract quality that an Edward Weston might have admired.

Then, homesick, Sammann returned to Germany in 1921, taking with him many of his California works and two Mannheim paintings, the Pasadena landscape and a self-portrait.

Sammann built a large house in Dresden.  He died in 1938, thus being spared the bombing of Dresden by the Allies in February of 1945. More than a half-million ``incenderaries'' fell on the city in a three-day period. Sammann's house, many of his paintings and the Mannheim oil of Pasadena survived the horror. But Samman's only daughter, Kathe, died in the war.

Following the war, Rave writes, ``the Mannheim pictures were for 45 years under the roof of the Samman house where, meanwhile, three families lived. Under the Communist East Germany regime the house was state property.

``After the fall of the Iron Curtain, my parents took the whole Sammann collection – his paintings and the Mannheims, including the landscape – to Hamburg. So for twenty years the Mannheim picture was allowed to decorate a wall after 45 years of suffering!''

A friend and art lover, Susan Miller, conjectures of the painting surviving in the house of three families, ``Maybe there was a collective awareness that this was a wonderful, uplifting work of art that would inspire them in their bleakest moments.''

So it is a survivor of World War II, the horrific Dresden bombing and the Cold War – and three families who perhaps appreciated the gift a good painting during hard times. It is now back in California, where it was created nearly a century ago and given by one German expatriate to another. One hopes Mannheim's painting of Tolstoy is doing as well.