Dresden 1945: Wilhelm Rudolph’s Compulsive Inventory

Fig. 1. Wilhelm Rudolph, Ruinenstadt / Blick von der Südhöhe (1945–46), woodcut, 49.7 x 64.8 cm. Städtische Galerie Dresden. Photo: Franz Zadniček.

The artistic life of Wilhelm Rudolph (1889–1982) was lived almost entirely in the city of Dresden. He left his hometown of Chemnitz in 1908 to study at the Königlich Sächsische Kunstakademie (Royal Saxon Academy of Art), and though his studies were interrupted by World War I he returned to Dresden to finish his degree. Thereafter, apart from occasional short trips, Rudolph remained in the city until his death in 1982. Both a painter and printmaker, he began making woodcuts around 1920 and over the following six decades created some 750 works in the medium, which undoubtedly constitute his most significant artistic achievement.1 He spoke of printmaking as

the balance to my painting. Print gave me greater opportunities for a range of topics than the painted picture did . . . The lapidary brevity that is the essential nature of the woodcut requires a clear, forceful presentation of the subject. I hoped to address people of all different classes, and found that my impressions of animals, landscapes, people, etc.—made in reluctant wood—were able to do so. I used every type of wood for my purpose: pine, basswood, alder, oak, spruce, and poplar or plywood of various kinds when I had nothing else. From all these woods, life awoke.2

Rudolph’s earliest prints showed the influences of Jugendstil and Expressionism, but by the mid-1920s his persistent study of nature had fostered a more objective approach and his woodcuts took on their characteristic cutting style of short superimposed lines and hatchings; he seems to have used the gouges and chisels almost as freely as if they were drawing utensils. Through multiple diagonal overlaps he created fine, almost painterly effects, which enabled him to describe surface differences and spatial depths with great precision. He would work the entire surface—few areas are either fully black or fully white—with shallow incisions, avoiding the kind of deep cuts that might make the block difficult to print.

Fig. 2. Wilhelm Rudolph, Mathildenstraße (1945–46), woodcut, 40 x 50 cm. Städtische Galerie Dresden. Photo: Franz Zadniček.

Following regional representational traditions that dated back to the 19th century, Rudolph painted, drew and cut in wood that which he saw around him: human figures, animals in the zoo, Saxon landscapes and urban views of Dresden.

His choice of artistic means was determined by a radical struggle for autonomy. Rudolph almost never printed editions. In the lower left margin of his woodcuts, in place of an edition number, one usually finds the statement Handdruck (hand printed) or, more rarely, Selbstdruck (self-printed). Rudolph did not usually employ a press, instead hand rubbing his large-format prints with a bone folder, and producing just a few copies of each. He frequently reworked the blocks after the first printing, so many of his prints exist in multiple states. In his graphic work, which he separated completely from his painting, he devoted himself to the strict discipline of the black and white woodcut.

Despite the economic difficulties in Germany in the 1920s, Rudolph enjoyed increasing success as an artist. Museums in Chemnitz, Dresden and Berlin acquired his works; he was part of the leadership of the International Art Exhibition in Dresden in 1926 and in November 1932 he was appointed lecturer at the Dresden Art Academy. Three years later he was awarded the title of professor, but was fired in early 1939 after ongoing disputes with the school’s Nazi administration. Rudolph’s political biography is complicated and contradictory: during the Weimar Republic he briefly joined the Communist Party (KPD, 1923–25) and the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP or Nazi Party, 1931–32), resigning from the latter when it proved to be less Socialist than he hoped. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Rudolph attempted to rejoin the NSDAP, probably to protect his job, but was rebuffed. His position was tenuous: his work was included in the first “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Dresden in 1933, and in 1938 some of his works held by Dresden museums were confiscated as “degenerate.” He remained in Dresden throughout the war, working as a freelance artist.

Fig. 3. Wilhelm Rudolph, Zöllnerstraße (1945–46), woodcut, 48.7 x 65 cm. Städtische Galerie Dresden. Photo: Franz Zadniček.

The transformative event of Rudolph’s life occurred on 13 and 14 February 1945, when Allied forces dropped bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden, destroying 15 square kilometers of the city center. Some 12,000 buildings were in ruins and more than 25,000 people were killed. Rudolph’s work and living space, located just across on the northern bank of the Elbe, burned to the ground. Except for a few large paintings that were being stored elsewhere and a handful of smaller printing blocks that Rudolph was able to save from the burning building, his work was completely destroyed. He later estimated the loss at about 70 paintings and 200 woodblocks worked on both sides.3

At the time of the bombing Rudolph was nearly 56 years old. Because of his age he had been spared military service in World War II, but he knew the horrors of war from his time on the front lines during World War I. In February 1945 the fires burned for days, but once they were extinguished Rudolph went out and began drawing. He recorded the apocalyptic backdrop of the ruined city as well as the human tragedies of those last months of the war. The first of these drawings pictured the ruined Körner-Haus building that had been his home.4 Rudolph and his wife found accommodations with friends and relatives as well as in various emergency shelters, but every day he went out into the destroyed city center to draw. He later recalled:

Fig. 4. Wilhelm Rudolph, Zöllnerstraße (later state) (1945–56), woodcut, 48.7 x 65 cm. Städtische Galerie Dresden. Photo: Franz Zadniček.

There was no time for mourning. In 1945 no one mourned; it was survival. I drew, I drew obsessively. It was all still there, that’s the unimaginable thing. Dresden still stood. The fire had left the sandstone of the buildings standing like skeletons. Only later did it all collapse or was blasted away…5

This work in the ruins was an adventurous undertaking. Initially the city was patrolled by the Wehrmacht to prevent looting; Rudolph was issued a permit for the purpose of documenting destroyed cultural buildings. As the end of the war approached it became a virtually lawless zone where dazed, bombed-out residents roamed, searching for their remaining possessions, and refugees passed through gathering firewood. While Rudolph sat concentrating on his drawing board, his wife would stand lookout for potential dangers. On 7 May 1945—the day before the Red Army took control of the city—he reported:

The Russian artillery was already firing on the city; it was dangerous in the rubble. There were also defensive positions in the ruins, which one did not see; Dresden ought to be defended. They could pick you off like a hare. So I crept around; it could be a matter of life and death.6

By the end of the war he had, in this obsessive-compulsive state, drawn ​some 50 rubble landscapes with reed pen and ink. After the Red Army occupied the city, Rudolph procured a provisional permit that allowed him to continue drawing the ruins, again with the explanation of their documentary purpose. Street by street he assiduously recorded the devastation; he meant to put down this unique and total destruction of a city as a document for today and for the future.7 By the start of 1946 his bundle of pen drawings had grown to more than 200 sheets.8

In the summer of 1945 Rudolph was able to obtain a room in the Academy of Arts, which had only partly been destroyed. His rent consisted of providing drawing lessons to the students who were restoring the building. It was there he first had the chance to make woodcuts of the ruins.

Fig. 5. Wilhelm Rudolph, Mittagsangriff am 14. Februar [Midday Attack on 14 February], sheet 32 from the portfolio Aus (c. 1946–48), woodcut, 37.5 x 50.2 cm. Städtische Galerie Dresden. Photo: Franz Zadniček.

Among the earliest of these postwar prints is a complete view of the destroyed city taken from the southern slope of the Elbe Valley (Fig. 1) as well as a series of street views based on ​drawings he made on-site. Compared to the drawings the woodcuts appear more dramatic, with stronger contrasts.9 Though Rudolph almost never dated his work, in 1945 he began using a new form of signature, which allows us to distinguish between his pre- and post-1945 work.10 The prints Mathildenstraße and Zöllnerstraße would have been made no later than 1946 (Figs. 2 and 3), after drawings completed before the end of the war. The black facades in these prints look as if the soot of the fires is still in the air. Debris and an overturned car lie in the streets. Everything is ghostly, as if suddenly abandoned. A later state of Zöllnerstraße gives an even more other-worldly impression than the initial version.11 (Fig. 4) The further cutting away of formerly black areas changes the mood, and the emptiness of the destroyed road is starker.

In the shadows of Rudolph’s famous drawings and woodcuts picturing the destruction of Dresden is a series of prints with the succinct title Aus.12 In it, Rudolph gives a poignant overview of life in 1945 in a wasteland of rubble. Beginning chronologically with Mittagsangriff am 14 Februar (Midday attack on 14 February) (Fig. 5), it covers the spectrum of chaos and human tragedy. The mountains of corpses collected in the Old Market Square and burned with flamethrowers, the columns of refugees fleeing the East, the bombed-out and war-wounded soldiers moving on crutches, animals being driven to the slaughter by the Red Army, a murder scene in the solitude of the rubble—all are included. (Fig. 6) In some only the title and the general context make the oppressive content clear. Motifs such as Das Ende (Fig. 7) contribute to the dark mood without making explicit the war-related causes of the situation. Twelve prints feature groups of ragged and wounded soldiers under the theme rubble of the Wehrmacht, eight are devoted to the misery of refugees, and ten others show again the vacant, destroyed streets of Dresden. In this series Rudolph participates to a larger extent in what is happening than in his other ruin images. Here he foregrounds people, marked by resignation, disorientation and hopelessness. It was undoubtedly crucial that this woodcut series was not undertaken in the service of official commemoration: Rudolph did not show the liberation—he described the defeat in all its facets.

Fig. 6. Wilhelm Rudolph, Mord [Murder], sheet 18 from the portfolio Aus (c. 1946–48), woodcut, 37.5 x 50.2 cm. Städtische Galerie Dresden. Photo: Franz Zadniček.

In the years that followed, Rudolph could not free himself from this documentary task. In prints, paintings and watercolors he continued to record meticulously the gradual changes in the rubble landscape. They show how first the main roads were cleared and how the rubble was piled along the roadsides (Fig. 8). Since strong winds repeatedly caused damaged facades to collapse, in the following years the remaining burned-out shells were intentionally razed. Piles of rubble overgrown with vegetation give the impression of a vast open landscape where isolated, less damaged or historically important buildings stick up like farmhouses in hilly terrain.  The destruction was historical; people had grown accustomed to everyday life in the wasteland of rubble.

For Rudolph, observing this transformation of the former urban environment recalled the Nazi propaganda reports about the never-executed Morgenthau Plan for postwar Germany, which sought to prevent any future German military threat by de-industrializing the nation and returning it to an agrarian state.13 In Dresden’s overgrown mounds of rubble, Rudolph saw just such a development. This is reflected in the macabre title Dresden as Landscape, which he gave to a series of about 200 watercolors made before 1949. These are supplemented by paintings14 and woodcuts, such as Am Fürstenplatz (Fig. 9).

Rudolph’s black and white drawings and woodcuts are composed with austere, classical craftsmanship, but nonetheless convey the shock of shattered houses and destroyed streets where few signs of life remain. As Rudolph cut the woodcuts directly from his drawings, the prints are inevitably reversed left-right. Clearly, he did not consider the recognition of the specific location to be critical, even in topographically verifiable subjects.

Fig. 7. Wilhelm Rudolph, Das Ende [The End], sheet 3 from the portfolio Aus (c. 1946–48), woodcut, 37.5 x 50.2 cm, Städtische Galerie Dresden. Photo: Franz Zadniček.

A film segment shot for East German television around 1980 shows the nonagenarian in the ruins of Dresden Castle—still unrestored forty years after the end of the war. “The utterly fantastic is the reality,” he says. “Beside that, every human invention remains feeble.”15 It’s a point of view resulting directly from the experience of February 1945, when the environment Rudolph had known and trusted for decades was radically changed overnight. One can only speculate about his obsession with the ruins of Dresden, but it is tempting to suggest that his artistic eye perceived not only the trauma but—beyond all moral considerations—the fantastic strangeness of the situation. Ernst Jünger had testified to similarly incredible transformations in World War I.16

If one considers the distinctive aspects of Rudolph’s art as a whole—his inclination toward succinct, not particularly narrative subjects, his opposition (typical of the time) to Expressionism and his serious and thorough approach (“craft is the basis of art, one must avoid everything flashy and exalted”)17 —the fundamentals of his unique body of work become clear. Comparison with other portrayals of war-torn German cities such as those by Werner Heldt or Willy Wolff allow us to recognize the particular solemnity of Rudolph’s drawings and woodcuts.18

In 1948 Rudolph exhibited the Aus series with 52 woodcuts, followed in 1949 by Dresden 1945—After the Catastrophe, a series of 35 woodcuts of the rubble, and in 1955, the tenth anniversary of the end of the war, by a further collection of woodcuts and lithographs.19 At beginning of the 1970s, when he was in his eighties, Rudolph reworked most of his printing blocks once more and exhibited the latest version of Dresden 1945 together with 55 woodcuts from 1945–1947.20 In 1976 this was followed by an additional 17 woodcuts for a second portfolio under the same title.21

Fig. 8. Wilhelm Rudolph, Ammonstraße (1946–47), woodcut, 43.6 x 61.8 cm. Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz. Photo Archive Prussian Cultural Heritage (bpk), László Tóth.

Rudolph’s relationship to Communist authority in the GDR was as ambiguous as his earlier relationship to Nazi authority. Reappointed to his professorship at the Academy in 1947, he again lost the position when his earlier Nazi Party membership was discovered and the school itself was restructured. During the Cold War, Rudolph’s ruin pictures were shown in exhibitions and reprinted in newspapers in the GDR on an almost annual basis, not just to commemorate the destruction of the city but also to incite anger against the capitalist West (the bombing had been conducted by British and American forces).22 After his intense involvement portraying the destroyed city, however, Rudolph chose to have no part in the GDR’s intensively propagandized urban reconstruction projects. From the 1950s onward, he returned to the animals, landscapes, portraits and nudes of his early work. He eventually became a successful portraitist of East German notables, including Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973, chancellor and head of the Communist Party in East Germany from 1949–1971), and in his late years was celebrated with exhibitions and awards, but his pictures of the Dresden ruins continued to dominate the perception of Rudolph’s career. In his last decades he sometimes complained of having been labeled “a rubble painter.”

Today, a half-century after the event, Rudolph’s prints continue to shape the public memory of the destruction of Dresden and, more broadly, of the devastation of World War II.  Examined individually they present concrete documents of specific streets that still exist; considered as a group, however, the seemingly endless succession of similar views approaches an abstraction. Rudolph clearly understood that much of the work’s impact was rooted in the pervasive repetition—the leveling effects of destruction, reducing difference and denying distinction. He refused to show these vast drawing and print series in anything but their entirety.

Fig. 9. Wilhelm Rudolph, Am Fürstenplatz (c. 1950), woodcut, 35.8 x 50.8 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett. Photo Archive Prussian Cultural Heritage (bpk), Volker-H. Schneider.

The message of these works is specific but not local: the ruins could be anywhere. They awaken not only the memory of destroyed Dresden but act as a memorial for bombed and shelled cities throughout Europe and beyond. Yes, they constitute a monument in the European history of art. But they also stand as archetypes of loss, unbound by time or geography.

  1. Rudolph›s graphic oeuvre includes fewer than ten lithographs and etchings along with about 750 woodcuts. 342 of these woodcuts are known to have been created after 1945, and the corresponding printing blocks are part of the artist’s estate. []
  2. William Rudolph, Holzschnitte aus zwei Jahrzehnten (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1958; Feldafing: Buchheim Verlag, 1959), unpaginated. []
  3. See Rudolph’s handwritten CV attached to his letter of 14 November 1956 to the Secretariat of Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Saxon State Library, State and University Library Dresden (SLUB), Estate of W. Rudolph, Mscr. Dresd. App. 2416, 102, Sheet 2. []
  4. Heinfried Henniger, ed., Wilhelm Rudolph: Das Zerstörte Dresden (Leipzig: Verlag Philipp Reclams Universal Bibliothek,1988), 102. []
  5. Quoted in Horst Drescher, Malerbilder (Berlin, Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1989), 18. []
  6. Henniger, 1988, see note 4, 103f. []
  7. Johanna Rudolph in a letter to a friend, Estate of W. Rudolph, see n. 3, App. 2416, 952. The term translated here as “obsessive-compulsive state,” Zwangszustand, goes back to Rudolph’s own description. See Henniger, 1988, note 4, 5. []
  8. Rudolph gathered together 150 of these drawings under the title “Destroyed Dresden” (Das zerstörte Dresden); these were acquired by the Kupferstich-Kabinett Dresden in 1959. []
  9. These early prints were purchased in 1946 by the Dresden City Museum. []
  10. Until 1945 he inscribed “Rudolph” on his prints in Sütterlin, the old German handwriting system. From 1945 onward he signed using modern standard cursive letters. []
  11. Städtische Galerie Dresden, acquired from the artist’s estate in 1985. Rudolph probably revised the block once again before the 1972 publication of the portfolio Dresden 1945. []
  12. The German word aus is roughly translatable by its English cognate “out,” but carries the secondary meaning of dead or extinguished. The series dates from around 1947 and was purchased by the Municipal Art Collection Dresden in 1947. []
  13. Named for the American Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, the plan was first proposed in August 1944 and was leaked shortly afterward. The Nazi Propaganda Ministry used the information to strengthen the will of the German people to fight. See Steven Casey, “The Campaign to Sell a Harsh Peace for Germany to the American Public 1944–1948,” in: History, 90 (297), 2005, 62–92. []
  14. Johannes Schmidt, “Zum malerischen Werk von Wilhelm Rudolph,” in Wilhelm Rudolph. Das Phantastischste ist die Wirklichkeit (Dresden, Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag/Städtische Galerie Dresden, 2014), 19. []
  15. Wilhelm Rudolph: Das zerstörte Dresden, East German television, 1985, directed by Siegmar Schubert, camera Ernst Hirsch, Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv Potsdam. []
  16. Ernst Jünger, “In Stahlgewittern” (first published 1920), in Auswahl aus dem Werk in fünf Bänden, vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1994), 143. Jünger describes the destruction of the village of Fresnoy by heavy artillery in April 1917. []
  17. Horst Drescher, Malerbilder. Werkstattbesuche und Erinnerungen (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau-Verlag, 1989), 44. []
  18. In the works of Heldt and Wolff the surreal situation is foregrounded. See also: Martin Schmidt, Wilhelm Rudolph: In Licht und Dunkelheit des Lebens und der Natur. Leben und Werk (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 2003), 103f. []
  19. Dresden 1945, 15 woodcuts and 5 lithographs. []
  20. Hand-printed, Verlag der Kunst Dresden, three boxed sets. The three sets are now in the Kupferstich-Kabinett  Dresden, the Kupferstichkabinett Berlin and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. See Henniger, 1988, 117n4. []
  21. Christoph Bauer, “Das zerstörte Dresden. Zur deutsch-deutschen kunsthistorischen Rezeption der ‘Trümmerblätter’ Wilhelm Rudolphs von 1945/49–1990,” in Wilhelm Rudolph. Zeichnungen und Holzschnitte (Albstadt: Städtische Galerie Albstadt, 1992), 21. []
  22. See Schmidt, Wilhelm Rudolph, n. 17, 106ff. []