Art history – Viennese “head hunters” on the Spree: Benedikt Fred Dolbin

Benedikt Fred Dolbin (1883-1971), the "Witcher of the crayon", drawn by Carl-Leopold Hollitzer.  - © akg-images / picturedesk.com
Benedikt Fred Dolbin (1883-1971), the “witcher of the drawing pen”, drawn by Carl-Leopold Hollitzer. – © akg-images / picturedesk.com

“This Viennese was the only Central European to be on a par with his great Western colleagues and much more than a portraitist or caricaturist. His ?? animal ability to hit ?? (Karl Kraus) aims at the whole human-artistic personality – on a Dolbin head you not only recognize the face, but also the character, the personality, the specific artistic nature of the person portrayed, you think you hear him talk, see the theater play to read what he writes. “

The critic Hans Weigel enthusiastically commented in 1959 on the publication of the volume “Benedikt Fred Dolbin – Austrian Profiles”, for which the editor Oskar Maurus Fontana had selected sixty portraits of protagonists who shaped the cultural life of Vienna in the first third of the 20th century. The creator of the drawings, Benedikt Fred Dolbin, who worked as a cabaret artist, singer, draftsman and coffee houseBohemians once belonged to this brilliant Viennese cultural scene, lived there for over two decades in New York, where he died 50 years ago on March 31, 1971.

Although there were occasional attempts at remembrance through exhibitions and publications, Dolbin is as largely forgotten today in his native Vienna as in Berlin, where he made a significant contribution to the newspaper landscape of the Weimar Republic with his portraits.

Man of many talents

In the autumn of 1924, at the age of forty-one, Dolbin packed a folder with several hundred of his portrait drawings of well-known contemporaries in order to offer them to various editorial offices in the pulsating newspaper city of Berlin. He wanted to go to the Spree “on a trial basis”, but after a week he – as he later recalled – “strangely enough, nineteen each” of the magazines “Literarian Welt”, “Tage-Buch” and “Cross section” had sold them then brought in an impressive sum of 1,710 marks. After this success, he soon settled entirely in Berlin and became the metropolis’ most successful press illustrator. Until the Nazis drove him out.

Benedikt Fred Dolbin was a man of many talents and interests. Born on August 1, 1883 in Vienna as the son of a Jewish businessman, he studied at the Technical University, made a career as a designer and was involved in the construction of the Tauern Railway. He also took composition lessons from Arnold Schönberg, sang and appeared in the legendary Viennese cabaret “Nachtlicht” with Peter Altenberg and Egon Friedell. His particular passion, however, was drawing, more precisely the sketch of the human face.

The coffee houses – especially the Café Museum, in which he frequented the regular tables of writers and artists – gave him the opportunity to capture Vienna’s cultural greats unnoticed on paper. When an editor there bought a sketch of Joachim Ringelnatz’s “character head” from the amateur draftsman and published it in the newspaper “Der Tag”, a chain reaction set in motion: Within a very short time, Dolbin’s portraits appeared in a dozen newspapers and magazines in Vienna.

Arthur Schnitzler in a drawing by Dolbin, 1925. - © akg-images / picturedesk.com
Arthur Schnitzler in a drawing by Dolbin, 1925. – © akg-images / picturedesk.com

The success gave Dolbin, who had previously seen himself as a “quarterly draftsman” who was periodically overwhelmed by the “drawing frenzy”, the opportunity to turn his drawing into a profession. Despite the great success, Vienna soon became too small for him, his successful debut in the German capital did the rest.

He had chosen the right time to move, because in the mid-1920s, after years of hardship and inflation, Berlin developed into the metropolis that is associated with the “Golden Twenties” today. The city’s press acted like a huge magnet that greedily attracted talent and experts. Mosse, Ullstein and Scherl, the three large newspaper groups in Berlin, were in fruitful competition.

Whereas during the inflation the newspapers had largely dispensed with illustrations due to a lack of money, now the pictorial elements have made their way into the papers. Since the technical possibilities of the photographic Reproduction was still very limited, the 45 morning, 2 noon, 14 evening newspapers and numerous magazines offered press illustrators a wide field of activity and this art form developed into a typical product of the 1920s.

Behind the face

Emil Orlik had already brought portrait sketches and caricatures to a new bloom during the war, followed by artists such as Rudolf Grossmann, Emil Stumpp, Max Oppenheimer and Benedikt Fred Dolbin. What made him stand out from the crowd of press illustrators was his extraordinary, highly individual style, which also fascinated Alfred Polgar: “Dolbin’s caricatures show: what’s behind them. He doesn’t allow himself to be fooled into a face. He doesn’t care about the visual appearance A pose that poses a face, he scratches off the overpainting that wish, will and experience have put on it. It appears: the original in its splendor. “

FH Staerk observed his colleague Dolbin, who drew 500 portraits on hectic days, at work: “There at the table sits a man with a cyranonase and an interestingly furrowed face who is constantly drawing. It is Dolbin, the wizard of the pencil, almost every minute a drawing of undisputable accuracy, he paints as quickly as others take photos, nothing escapes him … There is almost something uncanny about the way Dolbin riddles the faces with a pencil stroke, every line a veil, every line a document of human history . If you are in doubt about someone, have Dolbin draw him and you will know what he is like. “

The Mosse newspaper house in September 1923, at that time the tallest building in Berlin.  - © Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00182 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons
The Mosse newspaper house in September 1923, at that time the tallest building in Berlin. – © Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00182 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons

Dolbin, who was driven by seemingly irrepressible productivity in Berlin, was soon on everyone’s lips. To his wife Ninon, who lived in Vienna and who was to marry Hermann Hesse after separating from him, he wrote: “This Berlin is an extraordinary field of work for someone who is on the move. And that’s me.” His drawings appeared, for example, in Alfred Flechtheim’s “Cross Section”, in Willy Haas ?? Magazine “Literäre Welt” and in the “Berliner Tageblatt”, which has become legendary under the leadership of the great editor-in-chief Theodor Wolff, in which Dolbin created the rubric “In Berlin met a”, in which he wrote and pictures prominent guests of the capital portrayed.

The “headhunter”, as he was soon called, found his “victims” in the coffee houses, for example in the “Romanisches Café”, the meeting point of the Bohemian – and especially in the wine room of the former actor Viktor Schwannecke. “A mixture of waiting room, homeless shelter and boudoir” is what Hermann Kesten called the place where politics, theater, film, art, literature and sport, talented and untalented people came together.

“I only had to go to a certain restaurant between one and two o’clock in the morning and there I had my sketches for the newspapers of the next day,” reported Dolbin about the “Schwannecke”. The meeting with the Berlin “old master” of drawing, Heinrich Zille – whose protection Dolbin enjoyed from then on – also happened in Schwannecke. When Zille saw his portrait, which Dolbin had made in seconds, he exclaimed: “Heinrich, you are!”

Dolbin had “become fashionable” within a short time. He was overwhelmed with commissions: series of portraits for magazines, the illustration of party conferences, cultural and sporting events, book illustrations – for example for Axel Eggebrecht’s “Katzenbuch” or Eugen Szatmari’s “Buch von Berlin” -, exhibitions in Vienna, Berlin and other places. The result was the Dolbin legend of the restless draftsman, by whom to be drawn was seen as a sign of prominence.

Dolbin’s unbelievable fanaticism for work came even close to being matched by none of his colleagues. As Hans Tasiemka reported in the “Berliner Börsen-Courier”, it had a precisely organized archive of 45,000 drawings. His position during these years is underscored by an answer by Kurt Tucholsky, who answered the question “How should your necrology look?” in the “Literary World” replied: “I don’t know what my obituary should look like. I just know what it will look like. It will consist of one syllable. Papa and Mama are sitting at the dinner table and chatting away their marriage by reading the newspaper. There Suddenly he lifts his head, frightened by a picture of Dolbin, and says: “Just think, Theobald Tiger has died!” And then she will speak my obituary. She says: “Oh -! ??”

In emigration

The economic crisis that hit Germany in the early 1930s and drove the rise of the Nazis hit Dolbin hard and plunged him into a grueling struggle for existence. At first, the editorial staff saved up on the illustrations, and his drawings hardly found buyers. The rather apolitical Dolbin hardly noticed the rise of National Socialism, even in the dismissal and expulsion of his “non-Aryan” colleagues from the editorial offices, which began after the Hitler party came to power, he saw no cause for concern, even of Jewish origin. He thought that by making a few compromises one could continue to work under the new masters. But he, too, was expelled from the Reich Association of the German Press in January 1934 and banned from working.

Dolbin and his third wife, Ellen, decided to emigrate to the USA in the fall of 1935. Financially secured to some extent by the property owned by his mother-in-law, who lives in New York, he learned that his drawing style was not in demand here, and the production of Comic strips and Cartoons was not his business. Only in “Aufbau”, the newspaper for German-speaking emigrants, did he regularly accommodate his drawings and articles. Only in post-war America did his professional situation improve.

Dolbin died in New York in 1971. After the war he did not return to his hometown Vienna or Berlin, the place of his great successes.

Janelle B. Smith

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