The Fritz Möser collection: outstanding 20th century linoprints

Bookplate in CCC.61.137

Finishing touches are being put to the processing of the Fritz Möser donation, a long-term project that we have returned to when our department’s capacity has allowed. This is a collection of the graphic work of artist Fritz Möser (1932-2013) and was donated by Hans-Jörg Modlmayr and his wife Hildegard Modlmayr-Heimath who both taught in the German Department of Cambridge University between 1969 and 1973. The collection comprises more than 40 sets of large-scale linoprints, all in limited editions, more than 200 private press books, more than 30 issues of the literary magazine Wegwarten and 15 examples of annual calendars. This blog post will showcase a selection of Möser’s striking and beautiful artwork.

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Covers of the annual calendars in our collection (CCA.61.8-22)

“Daphnis im Baum” from the 1970 Daphnis und Chloe cycle in CCC.61.128

Möser was born in Czechoslovakia, the son of a master printer, and in 1947 he settled with his family in Memmingen, Bavaria, where he lived until his death. He trained as a printer and typesetter in his father’s workshop, won design prizes in his early 20s and then in 1958 created his first linocut. He went on to create cycles of large linoprints and to illustrate books with original graphics, often inspired by the Bible, Greek mythology or 20th century poetry.  Artistic freedom was always important to him and none of his graphic cycles were commissioned works. With a background in printing Möser was attracted to the written word and in his graphic artwork he aimed to create a unity between the word and the visual image. 

In the 1960s Hans-Jörg Modlmayr was inspired by Möser’s images to write accompanying poems and the two then collaborated for a long time on several collections of verse. One example is Modlmayr’s 1973 König Lear auf Patmos (CCA.61.61). In a Times Literary Supplement review the illustrations were described as “superb” and regarded as powerful:

The considerable power of his work resides in his ability to comprehend the interplay of myth and nature in Modlmayr’s poems and to translate them into an imposing visual accompaniment to the written text.

Here are three examples from this book (click on each image to see it enlarged along with the full captions which give excerpts from the parallel English translations of the German poems being illustrated):

Wegwarten: eine literarische Zeitschrift für Einzelne was started in 1961 (and is still produced today) by Walter Lobenstein as a response to a three-issue magazine of the same name published by Rilke in 1896. Möser was involved from the beginning, contributing graphics for the covers and inside. (One of the other artists with works included from 2004 onwards was the famous baritone singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau!) Our collection contains 37 issues dating from 1986 to 2011. Here are a few of my favourite covers:

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One of Möser’s early cycles was the 1962 set of ten linoprints on the allegorical theme of the Dance of Death, familiar since the Middle Ages: Totentanz  (CCF.61.2). Later this was the inspiration for a chamber cantata, the Emsdettener Totentanz with texts by Modlmayr and music by William Thomas McKinley, an American jazz pianist and composer. The first performance was held in Emsdetten in 1992 and this was followed by several more performances including organ improvisations by Joachim Riepen. In 1996 Lobenstein wrote in his Wegwarten about a performance held in Quedlinburg cathedral the previous year – large versions of the prints were exhibited on the south side of the church while the Berlin-based conductor Brynmor Jones led three singers, two speakers, a saxophone quartet, a string quartet and large number of percussion. Lobenstein also wrote about a programme on German television which showed schoolchildren experiencing and responding to this artwork. Our collection includes several related works from which these images are taken (click on each image to see it enlarged):

A further musical collaboration with McKinley based on Möser’s 1968 cycle on the Book of Revelation led to the 1994 first performance, again in Emsdetten, of Der Baum des Lebens (CCC.61.146), a work for three vocal soloists and string quartet, featuring text from the Book of Revelation as well as poetry by Rilke, Celan, Bobrowski and Modlmayr.

Jörg Modlmayr (1905-1963), father of Hans-Jörg, was also a poet and the collection contains several of his works with illustrations by Fritz Möser. Here are three of the covers and three full-page illustrations which accompanied poems:

A few more of my favourites in the collection are in the slide show below (English translations are my own). I think these demonstrate the range of his work from simple to intricate and also show how he used colour in different ways in addition to his distinctive use of black and white.

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From 1965 onwards Möser’s work featured in many exhibitions. The very first UK exhibition took place in Cambridge, mounted by the Modlmayrs in Caius Art Cellar; this was followed by an exhibition in Kettle’s Yard. Partly inspired by the Cambridge reception of Möser’s work, the Goethe-Institut sponsored a two-year touring exhibition in Canada and the United States of graphics illustrating the poetry of Bobrowski. Meanwhile Möser’s work continued to be shown across West Germany and in at least 16 different locations in England by 1976. By the time of his death there had been around 300 exhibitions of his work.

The donation has been treated as a special collection, to be consulted in Rare Books; catalogued material can be found at the classmark stem CCA-CCF.61. 

Katharine Dicks

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