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A Place Like No Other: Sophie von Hellermann summons spirits of the past in paint at Schloss Freienwalde

In a summer palace near Berlin, the former home of Germany’s only Jewish foreign minister, the London-based artist has devised mesmerising murals as a creative conversation with its onetime inhabitants. Inigo takes a trip

Zoe Deleuil
A Place Like No Other: Sophie von Hellermann summons spirits of the past in paint at Schloss Freienwalde

Stately homes can offer a vivid and intimate view into history. Yet, their rooms untouched by daily routines and their inhabitants long gone, they can also have a forlorn and unloved quality. Such was the case with Schloss Freienwalde, a small palace in Bad Freienwalde, a pretty spa town north of Berlin, close to the Polish border.

Completed in 1799 by architect David Gilly, it was a summer retreat for the Prussian queen Frederica Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt. After her death in 1805, the schloss was left largely untouched until Walther Rathenau, a German-Jewish industrialist and later politician, bought it in 1909. He was the son of one of Berlin’s most successful businessmen, Emil Rathenau, the man who not only manufactured Germany’s first light bulbs but also founded the electrical giant AEG.

An artist and writer as well as a charismatic public figure, Walther was someone who felt himself outside the establishment – and therefore sympathetic to the spirit of the building’s former royal resident, who had been unhappily married to King Frederick William II. Walther sought to revive the home to its original flamboyance and to enjoy it as a retreat from city life as Frederica Louisa had, inviting his friends, writing and painting the accomplished artworks that hang on its walls today.

In February 1922, Rathenau became foreign minister, the first and so far only Jewish person to hold this position. Four months later, he was murdered outside his city home in Berlin’s affluent Grunewald district, by ultra-nationalist anti-Semitic extremists. His death caused outrage, with more than 250,000 Berliners gathering in the Lustgarten to condemn his killers.

Rathenau’s sister and her four daughters donated the house to the town as a memorial to his life. Badly plundered but still standing after World War II, it survived the rise and fall of East Germany. Those decades of benign neglect meant that many of its features – an elegant curved staircase, parquetry floors and tall double doors  – remain as they were when Rathenau lived there.

Earlier this year, Ruth Ur of arts consultancy UrKultur approached London-based artist Sophie von Hellermann to see if she would be interested in a site-specific project to commemorate the centenary of Rathenau’s death. Working with Oxford University’s Jewish Country Houses project, they came with an idea to generate new interest in the house and its last owner, drawing them back into European history.

Knowing that Sophie was an artist fascinated by history, storytelling and mythology and that she painted on a grand scale, Ruth invited her to look at the house and consider its potential for an installation, to “imagine what the life once lived here looked like and also to express something of the fate of Walter Rathenau.” Having followed Hellermann’s career for many years, Ur felt certain she was the person for the job. “Sophie is able to express the emotional dimensions of history in a way few artists can,” she says. “You can feel here that nature and history have rushed into the room and taken over.”

Today Hellermann’s murals – loose, free-flowing and suggestive of lively encounters and ambiguous stories – puncture the stillness of the near-empty rooms. Some hint at elements of Berlin life and its people, while one room is filled with decapitated pink roses that are almost nightmarish in their intensity – perhaps a nod to the queen’s fondness for garish floral wallpapers, which she hung on the walls and ceilings. Radical yet respectful, the overall effect is mesmerising, bringing back some of the spirits of former occupants while creating something entirely new.

For Hellermann, the experience was intensely rewarding. “The house itself is such a fine example of neoclassical architecture,” she says. “The rooms were so generous and airy, but also gloomy because they had been left untouched for so long. When I saw them I knew that I would be going in there in a big way and really taking over the space. We brought in a scaffolding tower and I was working almost non-stop for two weeks. I loved arriving in the morning and opening all the shutters and then closing them again at the end of the day.”

Alongside with the murals, Hellermann produced canvases for an exhibition at Wentrup, a gallery in Berlin, some depicting Rathenau’s contemporaries and his friends, including Albert Einstein. This companion exhibition, ‘Von Kommenden Dingen (Of Things to Come)’, is named after Rathenau’s book of the same title. Written during World War I, it set out his vision for the future of Europe, notably his fears for the environment that have since proved prescient.

By delving into his work and his life, and spending time alone in his home, drawing on its atmosphere, Hellermann experienced a “wonderful exchange” with this fascinating man. “Rathenau was an artist, so I felt that there was a kind of conversation taking place with him, and that I was bringing back some of the colour, some of what had been present in the house, and making it visible again.”

Further reading

Schloss Freienwalde, Rathenaustraße 1, 16259, Bad Freienwalde, Germany is open Thursdays-Sundays, 11am-5pm

Sophie von Hellermann on Instagram

All images: Remembering Walther Rathenau, site-specific installation at Schloss Freienwalde 2022, courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin. Photo: Matthias Kolb

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