Else Lasker-Schüler – Expressionism and Literary Exile

Else Lasker-Schüler (1869 - 1945)

Else Lasker-Schüler (1869 – 1945)

On February 11, 1869, German poet Else Lasker-Schüler was born. She is considered an outstanding representative of avant-garde modernism and expressionism in literature. In addition to her work as a writer, she drew.

“Ein alter Tibetteppich”

Deine Seele, die die meine liebet,
Ist verwirkt mit ihr im Teppichtibet.

Strahl in Strahl, verliebte Farben,
Sterne, die sich himmellang umwarben.

Unsere Füße ruhen auf der Kostbarkeit,

Süßer Lamasohn auf Moschuspflanzenthron,
Wie lange küßt dein Mund den meinen wohl
Und Wang die Wange buntgeknüpfte Zeiten schon?”

– Else Lasker Schüler, (1910)

(“An old Tibetan rug”

Your soul, which loveth mine,
Is woven with it into a Tibetan-rug.

Strand by strand, enamoured colours,
Stars that courted each other across the length of heavens.

Our feet rest on the treasure

Sweet lama-son on your musk-plant-throne
How long has your mouth been kissing mine,
And cheek to cheek colorfully woven times?)

Early Years

Elisabeth “Else” Schüler was born in Elberfeld, now a district of Wuppertal, Bergisches Land, in the Ruhr area, Germany, and grew up in the Briller quarter of Elberfeld. She was the youngest of six children of Jeanette Schüler née Kissing (1838-1890). Her mother became a central figure in her poetry. Her father was Aaron Schüler (1825-1897), a private banker. Else was considered a prodigy of the family, as she could already read and write at the age of four. From 1880 she attended the Lyceum West an der Aue. After dropping out of school, she received private lessons at her parents’ home.  In 1894 Else Schüler married the doctor Jonathan Berthold Lasker, an older brother of the long-time world chess champion Emanuel Lasker, and moved to Berlin.

Becoming a Writer

In 1897 her father died. On August 24, 1899, their son Paul (1899-1927) was born. Her first poems were published that year; her first book of poems, Styx, followed in 1901. In 1903, she divorced Berthold Lasker. In the same year, she married the writer Georg Lewin. Lewin is known by the pen name Herwarth Walden, which Else Lasker-Schüler had invented. In 1906 Lasker-Schüler’s first prose work Das Peter Hille-Buch (The Peter Hille Book) was published after Hille’s death; he was one of her closest friends. In 1907 the prose collection Die Nächte der Tino von Bagdad (The Nights of Tino of Baghdad) appeared. In 1909 she published the play Die Wupper, which was not performed until 1919. With the poetry collection Meine Wunder (My Wonders, 1911), Lasker-Schüler became the leading German Expressionist.

Further Publications

After separating from Herwarth Walden in 1910, her second marriage was also divorced in 1912. Walden married the Swedish Nell Roslund in London the same year. With no income of her own, Else Lasker-Schüler now lived off the support of friends, especially Karl Kraus. In the summer of 1912, Else Lasker-Schüler met Gottfried Benn. An intense friendship developed, which was reflected in a large number of love poems that she dedicated to Benn. In his rapturous speech to Else Lasker-Schüler in 1952, he praised her as “the greatest lyricist Germany has ever had” and lauded her language as “a lush, splendid, delicate German […], sprouting in every turn from the core of the creative.” In it she had been able to express her feelings without ever revealing “the mysterious”.

Correspondance with Franz Marc

For the title page of the double issue of the September 1912 edition of Herwarth Walden’s art magazine Der Sturm, Franz Marc [1] created the woodcut Versöhnung, an illustration of Else Lasker-Schüler’s poem of the same name. Marc and Lasker-Schüler, between whom a close friendship developed, had corresponded. Until the summer of 1914, there was a lively correspondence between Prince Jussuf of Thebes (Else Lasker-Schüler) and the Blaue Reiter (Franz Marc). Of the private hand-painted card greetings and letters, 66 by Else Lasker-Schüler and 28 by Franz Marc have survived. While Lasker-Schüler set a juxtaposition of picture and writing, Marc used the front of a correspondence card for a watercolor or ink drawing, titled it, and wrote on the back. With the last card greeting, Marc sent a picture of an Arcadian Bavarian scene in the foothills of the Alps. The watercolor Schloss Ried with a fairy-tale landscape in which a blue rider on a blue horse chases deer with a spear was intended for her sick son Paul. It served as her frontispiece opposite the title page of her novel Der Malik.

Franz Marc: Reconciliation after the poem by Lasker-Schüler

Franz Marc: Reconciliation after the poem by Lasker-Schüler

Emigration from Germany

The early death of her son Paul (1899-1927) from tuberculosis plunged the poet into crisis; she published the obituary My Son. In 1932, together with Richard Billinger, the poet received the Kleist Prize, awarded for the last time before the Nazi seizure of power. On April 19, 1933, after physical attacks and in the face of threats to her life, she emigrated to Zurich, but was banned from working there. The cantonal and municipal aliens police with their control detectives issued only temporary residence permits, thus forcing constant changes of location. From Zurich she made two trips to Palestine, “her Hebrew country,” in 1934 and 1937.

Lasker-Schüler in her beloved oriental costume as "Prince Yussuf" (1912)

Lasker-Schüler in her beloved oriental costume as “Prince Yussuf” (1912)

Palestine Exile

In 1938 she was deprived of her German citizenship, becoming “without papers,” as the Swiss put it. In 1939 she traveled to Palestine for the third time. The beginning of the war prevented her from returning to Switzerland. In addition, the Swiss authorities had refused her a return visa. The poet received a monthly “honorary pension,” half of which was provided by the Jewish Agency and half by the publisher Salman Schocken, and which enabled her to maintain a reasonably secure financial existence. She lost most of her friends in emigration. However, she maintained a small circle of friends with other emigrants, mostly writers and philosophers, including Werner Kraft, Martin Buber, Samuel Hugo Bergman, Salman Schocken, and Ernst Simon. In the last years of her life, she passionately admired the religious philosopher Simon, as can be seen from numerous poems and letters.

Lasker-Schüler felt desperate in Palestine. She had imagined life in Jerusalem differently and was disappointed. Contributing to this, in addition to her own loss of her homeland and her numerous friends in Germany, were the war situation, the murders of Jews in concentration camps that gradually became known, furthermore the riots and uprisings of Jews and Arabs in Palestine under the British Mandate. At the same time, Lasker-Schüler was committed to peaceful understanding between Jews and Arabs and, as a restless, elderly poet, was, according to many contemporaries, well-known in the streets of Jerusalem.

Later Years

Lasker-Schüler, over 70 years old and impoverished, unable to return to Europe but still dressed as “Prince Yussuf,” became an object of derision among settlers and intellectuals in Jerusalem. In turn, she referred to her once beloved ‘Erez-Israel’ (Land of Israel) as ‘Erez-Miesrael’ (Land of Misery). She founded ‘Kraal,’ a literary salon that Martin Buber, the philosopher, opened at the French Cultural Center on January 10, 1942. Some leading Jewish writers and promising poets attended her literary programs, but Lasker-Schüler was not allowed to give readings and lectures after some time because they were given in German.

In her final years, Lasker-Schüler worked on her drama IchundIch (IandI), which remained a fragment. However, her book of poems Mein Blaues Klavier (1943, My Blue Piano) was completed in a limited edition of 330 copies. Her literary farewell was her last attempt to overcome the loneliness of exile. In 1944, she fell seriously ill. After suffering a heart attack on January 16, Else Lasker-Schüler died on January 22, 1945, and she was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Lasker-Schüler’s Literary Work

Else Lasker-Schüler left behind an extensive lyrical oeuvre, three dramas, as prose works shorter sketches and stories, as well as letters, documents and many drawings. As a pioneer of avant-garde modernism, she established herself primarily through her psalmody poetry and her poetic milieu drama The Wupper. During her lifetime, her poems appeared both in various journals, such as her second husband’s Der Sturm, in Karl Kraus’s Fackel, and also in Kampf, as well as in a whole series of volumes of poetry that she had compiled and partly illustrated herself. Love poetry occupies a large space in her work, but alongside it are deeply religious poems, prayers. The transitions are often fluid. Especially the later work is rich in biblical and more generally oriental motifs. Lasker-Schüler is very free with respect to the external rules of poetic form, but at the same time she succeeds in creating works of great inner concentration. She also did not shy away from new linguistic creations.

#18 Else Lasker-Schüler im Deutschen Literaturarchiv Marbach, [9]

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