PRINT March 1963

Otto Nebel As Artist and Writer


WHEN I READ THE NAME Otto Nebel on the window of the Raboff Gallery* I heard the echo of a voice of long ago. The voice was loud and articulate. I never forgot the sound. I had heard it in a dark street in Berlin in the 1920’s. First it was a solo recital, then there were two voices; they belonged to a middle-sized man and a tall man, Otto Nebel and Kurt Schwitters. They were followed by a dozen friends, mainly artists. We all came from a party after a party, or from a cafe house after the opening of an exhibition, or was it a recital after a recital in the Sturm Gallery? I do not remember, but I still hear the noise in the dark street, both painter-poets without inhibition shouting, screaming, howling. There were puns and jokes with bitter meaning under the surface. Nobel recited fragments from his epic Zugins Feld—March-to-War—a true story of his own terrifying experience. He recited war-injured, mutilated sentences; sentences which were hit by gunfire and broken into words, single words of protest, bleeding into sounds.

Nebel had become a poet and a painter during four years of military war duty plus 14 months in an English prisoner-of-war camp. His successful career as an architect and architectural engineer had been bluntly interrupted. However, the stream of his imagination and his urge to create could not be stopped. Restricted in movement by military duties he was under continuous pressure. Therefore the steam of his protest had to find an outlet in words and pictorial forms. Immediately after his return from war Nebel joined Herwarth Walden’s avant-garde group “Der Sturm.” Since that time he collaborated on the journal Der Sturm, exhibited in the Sturm Gallery and performed at the Sturm recitals. Kurt Schwitters joined the group at about the same time.

That night, in the Berlin side-street, Nebel’s fiery, meaningful words and Schwitters’ deliberately nonsensical words and sounds exploded like fireworks. We were lucky that no policeman interfered. Both Schwitters and Nebel were used to loud and emphatic talk at the performances in the Sturm Gallery. These recitals were not soft spoken. Schwitters, Nebel and the other performers had to keep up with Rudolph Bluemner, the great master of the spoken word, who had abandoned the stage in order to join Herwarth Walden as writer, critic and performer at the Sturm.

The Sturm-wind in the Potsdamerstrasse actually became a hurricane, ravaging syntax and grammar, atomizing sentences. Subjects and predicates with their appended clauses exploded in the air, the most radical over Zurich in 1916, when Hugo Ball recited poems of mere syllables without meaning, assembled from the debris of words for their mere sound value. Destructive tendencies, as it appeared to the public? Or, as Gertrude Stein later explained her own disconnected language: “. . . Breaking the paragraph down and everything down to commence again with not connecting with the daily anything and yet really to choose something.”

Otto Nebel chose the expressive power of the word; rhythm and meaning combined in staccato sentences, in fragments of dialogue, evoking situations but not describing. Words that hit and words that laid open the decay under well-masked appearances. The “Zugins-Feld” epic appeared in many continuations in the Sturm of 1920–1921.

At the time of the recitals in the Sturm Gallery the walls trembled under explosions of anger and protest. The Sturm artists believed in their ego; they were moralists within their own laws of morality. They condemned the bloody mass-murder of war, but with their pens, their brushes and their voices they killed armies of writers, artists, critics of other artistic and philosophical creeds. They attacked hypocrisy and compromise; they preferred to disturb and to frighten their audience more than to please it. That this happened in the halls of an art gallery was not accidental. The search for a new art of the word was to a great extent carried by painter-poets and painter-musicians. Arnold Schoenberg at that time was a painter of the Sturm movement.


Otto Nebel is hardly known in the United States. He was not at all known on the West Coast before the exhibition of a small selection of his paintings in the Raboff Gallery. Ernest Raboff had discovered them in the Simone Heller Gallery in Paris, and was fascinated by the beauty and harmony in the thematic wealth of abstract composition and by the elaborate execution. In fact they evoked a harmonic music of the spheres rather than the fortissimo of Nebel’s voice of protest in Berlin in the ’20’s.

Nebel is a classic of the abstract movement in painting. Immediately after his return from the war he joined Kandinsky, Klee and Schwitters in their concept of art. They remained lifelong friends.

One cannot deny that many of Nebel’s paintings have a family likeness to Klee and Kandinsky, but in the way Gris’ and Braque’s cubist paintings have a family likeness to those of Picasso of the same period. This is caused by the same spiritual concept, certainly not by dependence or imitation. Nebel, like Klee and Schwitters, limits himself to small formats in contrast to the giant formats of the present-day American school. On his small surface, varying in airy colors as the sky at sunset or dawn, orbit clearly defined shapes or bodies, circles, rods, squares and star-like balls and quick-moving serpentine lines. All sorts of constellations seem to move in controlled order. Other paintings give the feeling of stability by the equilibrium of geometrical forms. There is nothing accidental, no painterly blur. Nebel is neither a spontaneous action painter, nor a primitive. He knows his craft, based upon a sound knowledge of color theories. One painting has areas of grey which receive a noble quality from the optical division of color. Small regular dots of complementary colors, placed side by side, according to Seurat’s principle, mix in the spectator’s eye to the fine grey of clouds. The precise brushstroke, the jewel-like finish of each dot, line and form caused some critics to classify Nebel as a mere craftsman, a jeweler or enamel artist stepping out into painting. But for Nebel, as for Kandinsky and Klee, art is the visible expression of spiritual concepts. Each work of art, says Nebel, is an image of the artist’s mental development and transformation. The most elaborate craftsmanship is just good enough to give shape to inspired and enlightened vision. Means and mediums should be used in harmony with the creative process. They are precious and almost sacred as they have to make a revelation visible. The artist must combine visual ability with intelligence of interpretation. Nebel expresses his idealistic philosophy of art in dithyrambic sentences, which defy direct literary translation, in a book with 24 reproductions of his paintings, drawings and prints: Worte zu Bildern (Words to Images.) (Six of these pictures are among approximately 100 works in the possession of the Guggenheim Museum in New York; S. H. Guggenheim was a sponsor of Nebel through many hard years.) Out of the expressionist free form of his postwar epic he progressed to rigorous studies of language to intensify his medium. The result was the introduction of the musical form of the Fugue into poetry.


Nebel was not the only one who used musical forms in his literary work. James Joyce, also early in the 20th century, experimented with musical forms in his Ulysses, e.g., in the episode of the Sirens, where he made a rather free use of the fugue. His intellectual variations of words depend on most complex associations. His boundless growth of linguistic flowers has its roots in the swamp of our civilization. Nebel searched for, and found, an archetype of expression in a so-far-undiscovered world of forms.

Nebel’s Fugues are unique through a self-imposed discipline. In order to intensify the power of the word he concentrated on words composed of 9 letters of the alphabet only for his first Fugue, “UNFEIG” (Brave) and of 12 letters for the second Fugue, “DAS RAD DER TITANEN” (The Wheel of the Titans). He explains this attempt to counteract the lack of expression in the outworn language of our time. “Fred Intellect,” our highly overeducated contemporary, has become so debased by the routine of quick reading that he is no longer aware of the fact that his lower case and capital alphabets represent two marvelous orders of abstract elements. His eyes in reading, his ears in hearing have become so used to them that looking fast over his page he overlooks the primal meaning of the letter as an archetype with the power of expressing the essential in poetry and art. The twenty-six letters of the alphabet have provided the language with too many words and too little meaning. Why not limit their number and go back to the beginning of literary expression? There were less letters; their form was simple. The runic characters were simple rods.

To associate Nebel’s return to runic characters with romantic, Wagnerian, or worse, Hitlerian, Teuton-ism would be a misunderstanding of his purpose, the search for simplicity. He uses the name “Teuton” for the most despicable species of a society in decay, in his “Fugue of 50 Lunatics.” With his limited number of 9 letters, U, E, I, N, F, G, Z, T, R, Nebel composed 16 fugues of altogether 1500 lines. He seemed to be obsessed in his pursuit of exploring the treasurehouse of his language, and to enrich it, depositing in it more words and terms of his own invention. Nebel reports that he started to list words starting with E down to Z, himself amazed and amused at how many words he would be able to find. He called his catalog of words the mixing board or palette for his Fugue. There is more and deeper affinity to pictorial values in his literary work. Nebel designed the book UNFEIG in an oblong format. The poems stand like trees, upright. As a painter he transposes the letters into small colored squares on the last folding leaf of his book. Nebel at the completion of his 70th year looks back upon an oeuvre of 7000 leaves of drawings and series of drawings, 2000 painted and graphic leaves, 200 paintings, many unpublished books and writings, several printed books. (Forthcoming is DIE GOLDNE SPUR, The Golden Track, Arcade Press.)

At the present time, another book is forthcoming, small of format, but of great significance. It is the Fugue of 12 runic characters, “Das Rad der Titanen,” “The Wheel of the Titans.” Twelve letters of the alphabet have the power to roll a gigantic wheel of meaning over a new world in gestation.

“The myth of creation in the 20th century,” in the words of Lothar Schreyer, “not a repetition of old myths, but Ur Bilder, prime images, shaped by the impact of the 20th century.”

Kate Steinitz



*Otto Nebel was born in December, 1892 in Berlin, Germany. In 1933 he emigrated to Switzerland, where he has been living and working since, becoming a Swiss citizen in 1952. Three major exhibitions in Switzerland and Germany have been organized to celebrate his 70th birthday: at Klipstein and Kornfeld in Bern from January 6, at the Gallery “Im Erker” in St. Gallen, Switzerland from January 12 and in Braunschweig, Germany, from mid-February. The celebrations include recitals of Nebel’s literary work. A recent show of his work was held at the Raboff Gallery, in Los Angeles.