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Adolph Menzel, The Iron-Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclops) [Eisenwalzwerk (Moderne Cyklopen)] (1875)

The need for self-representation among Germany’s self-made entrepreneurs resulted in many commissions for depictions of factories, factory work, and factory owners’ villas. For example, Albert Borsig commissioned a cycle of large canvases, The History of a Locomotive [Geschichte einer Lokomotive] from Paul Meyerheim to adorn his country house. This painting by Adolph Menzel (1815-1905) – his most famous – did not result from any such commission, however. It was originally purchased in stages (as work on the painting progressed) by the banker Adolph von Liebermann, who ran into financial difficulties soon after the finished work was delivered to him in early 1875. By October of the same year, Liebermann was forced to sell it to the director of the National Gallery, Max Jordan (receiving 30,000 Thaler for a work that had cost him 11,000).

A number of features found in traditional compositions and in Menzel’s other large canvases can be seen here: note, for example, the painting’s triptych-like structure. With the painting divided roughly into thirds, Menzel was able to depict various stages in the men’s work day. The middle “panel” shows numerous men toiling with glowing, molten metal; to the left, various other workmen wash up at the end of their shift; to the right, some others eat bread that has been brought to them by a young girl. Menzel’s characteristic ordering of space is achieved by the strong diagonal that runs from the girl in the lower-right corner, through the fire and huge flywheel, and backward into the deepest recesses of the factory. Various elements reinforce this trajectory, including the play of light, as well as the curve of the worker’s arm (in the approximate center of the canvas), which echoes and underscores the shape of the flywheel.

Although this painting conveys a true-to-life impression of smoke, sweat, heat, and backbreaking labor, it was first conceived in Menzel’s mind: first, as a way to progress beyond the genre of historical realism that had produced, for example, so many depictions of Frederick the Great and the coronation of King Wilhelm I (1861), and, second, to satisfy Menzel’s own curiosity about how to best depict the new Germany, where the rise of manufacturing had introduced both huge factory works and complex industrial organization, as well as an ever-growing demand for the grinding human labor required to keep these machines and systems running. To research his subject, Menzel traveled to the state-owned Königshütte Rail Works in his native province of Silesia in the late summer of 1872. He visited a foundry noted both for its sophisticated machinery and, just as important, for its emerging social tensions (note the figure of the factory inspector, who is profiled against the glow of a furnace in the painting’s middle ground [left]). Menzel read the engineering literature of the day, sketched unfamiliar tools, and studied the motions of workers who moved in harmony with giant machines. He also visited the Borsig Metalworks in the Berlin suburb of Moabit.

What, then, do we observe here? In 1879, Menzel explained to Max Jordan that he had depicted the production of a length of rail through its many stages: from a white-hot “puddle ball” (left), through a series of rollers (center), and then on to the three figures at the right who wait to receive it, whereupon they will begin to shape it into a rail. The scale of the actual Königshütte enterprise depicted in Menzel’s painting was nothing short of remarkable. Three thousand workers were employed in seven principal furnaces, 71 puddling furnaces, and 33 smelting furnaces. Together with 4 Bessemer converters, these units produced 55,000 tons of raw iron, 43,000 tons of iron bars and rails, 750 tons of raw zinc, and 10,000 tones of steel for the railways in a typical year.

Max Jordan was delighted to add such a magnificent picture to his collection so soon after the opening of the National Gallery. One wonders, however, whether Menzel would have been as pleased with Jordan’s addition of “Modern Cyclops” [“Moderne Cyklopen”] to the painting’s title. In the brief interval between the painting’s beginning and completion, industrial conflict and social tensions in Upper Silesia had escalated considerably. The unrest was caused by the speculation of the “Founding Era,” the financial crash of 1873, and efforts by the local Catholic clergy to recruit Catholic workers in their struggle against Bismarck’s Kulturkampf [cultural struggle]. The military was called in to quash this unrest, contributing to Silesia’s reputation as a less favorable environment for workers than the Ruhr district. Therefore, a certain skepticism must remain as to whether Menzel would have claimed that he had depicted either the heroism or the pathos of modern life.

The ambiguities of present social realities, rather than baroque representations of mythology, fed his respect and admiration for the men pictured here. Jordan had had to downplay this aspect of Menzel’s motivation in convincing the Ministry of Culture to meet Liebermann’s price. But despite Jordan’s best efforts, Menzel’s own later recollections of his time in Königshütte suggest that he had, indeed, intended to comment on the social question: “I ran the constant risk of being laminated myself, so to speak. For weeks, from morning to night, I stood among those enormous handwheels, conveyor belts and the cast iron and I sketched. This modern technology [ . . . ] is very rich in terms of subjects. And I’m not just talking about a bit of smoke [ . . . ].” (This quote and the preceding statistics are from Claude Keisch and Marie Ursula Riemann-Reyher, eds., Adolph Menzel 1815-1905: Between Romanticism and Impressionism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, p. 384.)

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Adolph Menzel, <i>The Iron-Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclops)</i> [<i>Eisenwalzwerk (Moderne Cyklopen)</i>] (1875)

© Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Original: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie. Photo: Klaus Göken.