Carl Einstein (1885-1940)

Einstein was born in Neuwild in the Rhineland and studied history, art history and philosophy at the University of Berlin, even though he was simultaneously working as a bank trainee. He very soon became an art critic. During the First World War, he fought in Alsace before being transferred to Brussels where he mingled with Belgian and German intellectuals from the city. Not that he ever forgot about the social question: indeed he joined the ‘Spartakists’ in the workers’ and soldiers’ councils set up in 1917. Thus when he returned to Berlin he was wanted by the police for subversive activity. He attended Rosa Luxemburg’s funeral and was briefly detained in Munich. In 1928 he settled in Paris and in 1929 he joined with Georges Bataille to launch the review Document in which he published a few articles on artists who were at the time still unknowns – Picasso, Braque, Léger and André Masson for example. At the same time he developed an interest in African art and wrote several articles on the topic. At the beginning of the 1930s he distanced himself from the artistic avant-garde of the day, looking upon these as having ‘sold out to the ruling ideologies, bereft of creative power and slaves to profit’. In 1936 when the Spanish revolution broke out Carl Einstein enlisted with the Durruti Column and served with its ‘Erich Mühsam’ centuria which was made up of German-speaking anarchist volunteers. Einstein was well aware of what the stakes were in the war in Spain as far as the fight against fascism was concerned. He wrote in fact: ‘If ever we manage to see Hitler brought down, it will be thanks to Spain’. When Durruti was killed Einstein delivered a thrilling tribute to the libertarian leader to the huge crowd which showed up to attend his funeral. On his return to France after the defeat of the Spanish Republic, he was interned in the camp at Gurs. Released after the collapse of France in 1940, unable to return to Spain and fearing the arrival of the Nazis, he decided to take his own life in order to escape the Gestapo. He threw himself into the Pau river. Daniel Henri Kahnweile, a friend of his since the 1920s and 1930s and at the time owner of a Paris art gallery where Cubist paintings and African sculptures were exhibited erected a plaque on the gallery walls in his memory. It bore the legend: ‘Freedom fighter’.

From: Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli No 15, Milan, April 2000. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.