Elisàr von Küpffer

The Paintings and Writings of Elisàr von Küpffer

Born in February of 1872 in Tallin, an industrial port city in Estonia, Elisàr August Emanuel von Küpffer was a Baltic-German artist, poet, historian and anthropologist who used the pseudonym Elisarion for most of his writings. The only son of an aristocratic family, he was in delicate health from an early age, having suffered from scarlet fever, meningitis, arthritis and measles. Von Küpffer was a good student throughout his formative years and wrote his first play, “Don Irsino”, at the age of nine. 

In 1891 at the age of nineteen, Elisàr von Küpffer entered Saint Petersburg’s German Annenschule, a school  in the Levashovo municipal area founded for its German citizens. During this time, he met historian and philosopher Eduard von Mayer, who would become his best friend, and his first partner Agnes von Hoyningen Huene. In 1894, von Küpffer relocated to Germany where he published, in the following year, his first poetry collection “Leben und Liebe (Life and Love)”. In the autumn of 1895, he entered the Berlin Art Academy and moved in with Eduard von Mayer; Von Küpffer  later left his partner Agnes in 1896. 

Von Küpffer wrote two dramas in 1896, “Irrlichter (Wisps)” and “Der Herr der Welt (Master of the World)”, as well as three one-act plays. He published his anthology “Ehrlos {Infamous)” in the following year. After Eduard von Mayer’s graduation at the University of Halle in 1897, the two men travelled throughout Italy, Southern France and Switzerland before returning to Berlin. In the early part of 1900, Adolf Brand, whose publishing firm produced the German homosexual periodical “Der Eigene (The Unique)”, published von Küpffer’s influential anthology of homoerotic literature “Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltiliteratur (Love of Favorites and Between Friends in World Literature). This anthology was created in part as a protest against the two-year imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895.

In 1901, Elisàr von Küpffer published his first book of poems, “Auferstehung, Irdische Gedichte (Resurrection, Earthly Poems”. His book on one of the first High Renaissance painters Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known by the nickname Il Sodoma, was published in 1908.  Together in 1911, Von Küpffer and Eduard von Mayer founded the Munich publishing house Klaristische Verlag Akropolis, through which von Küpffer published three major works: “Hymns of the Holy Castle”, “A New Flight and a Holy Castle”, and a play entitled “Aino und Tio”. French novelist and poet Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen, who lived in self-exile in Capri with his lover Nino Cesarini, also reviewed and published von Küpffer’s work in his gay magazine “Akademos”, named after an Attic hero in Greek mythology.

In 1913, von Küpffer had the first exhibition of his artwork at the Brogi Gallery in Florence. With growing animosity towards Germans at the outbreak of World War I, he and von Mayer left Italy and moved to Ticino, one of the Swiss Cantons, where von Küpffer established himself as a muralist and painter. Both were granted citizenship in 1922 and settled in a villa with a large art collection in the Swiss municipality of Minusio. Also a photographer, von Küpffer shot many photographic studies of young men to use in the creation of his paintings, although, most of his works featured youthful self-portraits. 

In 1911, Elisàr von Küpffer and Eduard von Mayer established the Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion, a small community in Weimar, Germany, based on a Neo-religious idea of Clarism, or clarity. In 1926, they established the second community at Minusio. During the 1930s, there was a large number of visitors; however, by the outbreak of World War II, the visitations had ceased. As von Küpffer’s health declined, he became increasingly reclusive until his death in late October of 1942, at the age of seventy. Elisàr von Küpffer’s ashes are interred in the Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion in Minusio, alongside the ashes of Eduard von Mayer, who died in 1960.

After von Küpffer’s death, Eduard von Mayer, who was the main proponent of the Clarism communities, devoted his time to documenting and securing their communal achievements, which included letters, sketches, drawings, plans, and paintings. However, he also did a purging of the  homosexual aspect of his relationship with von Küpffer: the intimate correspondence between them, traces of their association with the “Der Eigene” magazine, any contributions to the work of German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, and proofs of his authorship to the 1923 “Das Mysterium der Geschiechter (The Mystery of the Sexes)” which expounded the Claristic theory of the sexes. 

In his will, Eduard von Mayer left the Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion and all its contents to the Canton of Ticino and the property to the municipality of Minusio on condition that the gardens should be made accessible to the public. It was not until 1968 that the community decided to accept this gift. The material that is necessary for a better understanding of its pictorial and philosophical oeuvre was to be kept in a cupboard on the ground floor. The paintings, the urns with Elisàr von Kupffer and Eduard von Mayer’s ashes, and family heirlooms were to remain in the building. Furthermore, the gardens were to be maintained. 

Today the men’s legacy is distributed across different places in the community. Most of the surviving paintings, fragments of the former library, and the literary remains can be found in a room of the former sacred building. The inventory in its entirety has yet to be undertaken. The monumental cyclorama “Die Klarwelt der Seligen (The Clear World of the Blissful)” was saved from destruction and later installed at Monte Verità where it can be visited under provisional circumstances. The Centro Culturale Elisarion, whose program is dedicated to cultural projects in the community of Minusio, opened in 1981.

Notes: The website of the Sanctuarium Artis Elisarion, which includes a life history of Elisàr von Küpffer, a collection of his artwork, and a history of the community project,  is located at: http://www.elisarion.ch/en/welcome.html

For those interested, I recently found an article written by gay American author and mathematician Hubert Kennedy,“Reviews of Seven Gay Classics”, which discusses seven historical publications on homosexuality among which is “The Riddle of ‘Man-Manly’ Love” written by German gay emancipation advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. This collection of  reviews can be found at: https://hubertkennedy.angelfire.com/Classic.pdf

Second Insert Image: Elisàr von Küpffer, “Self Portrait”, Date Unknown, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Third Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, The Entrance to the Cyclorama at the Sanctuarium Arts Elisarion

Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Elisàr von Kupffer”, 1929-1930, Centro Culturale e Museo Elisarion, Minusio

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