Max Peiffer Watenphul
A New Venice
January 31, 1952
I have asked myself so very often why Venice, one of the most exceptional and greatest creations of the human spirit, no longer interests painters today, and why they do not portray it. The last great interpretations of Venice were assuredly those of the Impressionists Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. Since then, no one has really dared to approach the problem of Venice. Among living painters, only the Italian Filippo De Pisis has offered a highly idiosyncratic, squiggly depiction of Venice. When I myself went at the problem of painting Venice, it became clear to me why no painter alive today dares to paint Venice. It is monstrously difficult to find new painterly facets of Venice. Everything is photographed and illustrated on postcards with such unbelievable frequency that one really dreads seeing again and again the usual vedute of San Giorgio, of the Piazza, or the Rialto. I exerted myself for a whole, long year, and each evening, repeatedly destroyed what I had painted in any given day because I just could not seem to succeed in seeing anew, and providing a personal tint to my depiction of all these so unbelievably frequently illustrated things.
Venice is a city that has two entirely contrary and different faces. Jean Cocteau said to me at my exhibition: “Theater is always being played out in Venice. This is a city in which the street is the stage and the windows, the boxes full of spectators! Once, while dining at the Ristorante Fenice, I was served flaming Crèpes Suzette, and all the spectators in the windows began to applaud and call out, ‘Bravo!’ just like a great scene in the theater.”
And it is not only the Venetians who are ceaselessly performing Goldoni in the narrow alleyways and on the little campielli. Each summer, the most beautiful salon in Europe is unfurled in front of the magnificent, exotic Byzantine fašade of San Marco and on the Piazza. It is the glittering and luxurious society theater of a grand, international world. Indeed, this theater can now only be performed in Venice. Then, in September, this gay and fast-paced life vanishes like a phantom, with one fell swoop. The great nobles close their palazzi on the Canal Grande and go to their castles on the Brenta, or to Cortina. The Piazza stands desolate and lonely. It is somewhat lively only at midday, when the Venetians take their “liston,” their midday promenade along the sunny side.
The autumn rains begin, and an icy Bora wind whips sheets of rain against the marble façades with a sound like throwing a handful of pebbles in a pot. Around Christmas, it begins to snow. The city becomes ever darker, foggier, and unspeakably melancholy. Now and then, a bundled-up man will scurry across the inundated Piazza. And then Venice becomes the darkest and blackest of cities, as Friedrich Nietzsche has called her. A composition in black and white without color of any kind. And the once fast-paced, glamorous, summery Venice, the gathering place for a luxurious, cosmopolitan society is transformed into a sad, little, Italian town in which everybody knows everybody, with only very limited gossip to be found in the narrow alleyways and on the little campielli. It is difficult to imagine greater contrasts than those between Venice in the summer and Venice in the winter. I have sought to capture in my paintings something of this atmosphere and something of what is in the Venetian background, the Venice beneath the oppressive Sirocco sky, and the white haze over the lagoon, with the few colors of the rust-red and lemon-yellow sails—for me, the actual, real Venice. The strict structuring of a black-and-white palace façade, the oriental exotic splendor of San Marco and the gliding coffin-like gondolas.
To the many interpretations of Venice—since Canaletto and William Turner—I believe that I have added a new Venice, not previously portrayed. At least, that is what the Venetians tell me, and they must know best.
In Max Peiffer Watenphul. Werkverzeichnis, vol. I. Grace Watenphul Pasqualucci and Alessandra Pasqualucci, eds. (Cologne, 1989).