Adolf Dietrich (1877–1957), one of the most reknowned Swiss artists of the 20th Century, focused his work on his own surroundings, rendering rural landscapes, portraits, animals, and still lives, with an extreme amount of precision and detail, strong use of color, and a striking sense of materiality. Dietrich’s largest audience during his lifetime was in Germany, and he was included in exhibitions of New Romanticism and New Objectivity there as well as in France and Switzerland. Yet, with the rise of National Socialism, Dietrich’s market, and thus his fame, became more localized to Switzerland. In his ongoing interest in the contructions of art history, and in homage to the techniques he admires, Richard Phillips curated the elder painted into a recent show at the Swiss Institute, called “Painting and Misappropriation.” Here are the facts on Dietrich, with invaluable help from Phillips:
1. Born the youngest of seven children to poor farmers in rural Switzerland, Dietrich was raised, worked, and lived his whole life in the same house in the small town of Berlingen on the lower end of Lake Constance. Though he showed talent at an early age and a teacher suggested that he become a lithographer, the family needed him to work as a farm hand and in a local textile mill. Because of financial constraints, Dietrich had to be creative with his supplies: for supports, he used cardboard instead of linen, and he drew on both the front and back sides of his drawing paper. It wasn’t until Dietrich was 29 that he could afford oil paint.
2. Adolf Dietrich never married, and though young women are often the subjects of his portraits, it was said that he had very little luck romantically. His letters even reveal that he had joined a dating service, but with no results. Documentation states that many of his landscapes are places where he would have liked to have taken dates.
3. After his paintings were first shown in Konstanz, Germany in 1913, Dietrich came to be associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, and his work was hailed by artists like Georg Schrimpf and Otto Dix as the most authentic embodiment of the movement’s stylistic goals. Following upon and setting themselves in contrast to Expressionists, artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement sought to represent life objectively, often emphasizing the unidealized nature of their common, even ignoble subjects. Dietrich was termed the “German Rousseau” because of his naïve style and almost magical realism—an association that the artist took an active hand in producing and promoting – and was able to stop working and live off the income provided by his art. Under National Socialism, his work was initally well recieved; his landscapes of the German coast were accepted as part of the German New Romantic movement and praised as representations of new German reality. However, after it was discovered that some of the butterflies, flora, and fauna that Dietrich had included were taken from reference books and were not native to European ecological systems, his work was termed degenerate. This, on top of the expulsion of his dealer, Herbert Tannerbaum, narrowed Dietrich’s market to primarily Switzerland.
4. Among the artist’s recurring subjects are wild animals and nature; yet, contrary to the photographs Tannenbaum publicized of Dietrich painting en plein air, the artist favored working in his home, painting on a small table in his living room. His house was said to be filled with animals from kittens, guinea pigs, and mice, to birds and porcupines, and subsequently a strong and distinctly unhygienic stench. To create the impression that these animals were in the wild, the artist used a montage technique, working from photographs for his backgrounds and painting his domestic animals into the scenes. Dietrich also designed crude traps and used his amature taxidermy skills on animals brought to him by local hunters to render subjects he did not keep at home.
5. The “Master Painter of Berlingen,” as Dietrich called himself, was adept at manipulating his situation to maximize his profits and popularity. When Dietrich painted a sought after piece, he would then create a cardboard template so that he could reproduce the work on demand. Similarly, the artist was known to borrow back his own paintings from buyers in order to make copies to then be sold. His work became so popular that strangers would come to his home-cum-studio and reserve works by writing their names on unfinished pieces; some would even get away with stealing works in plain view because of the constant mess that was the artist’s home.