top of page
  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY NINETY NINE Bremen and Worpswede

Pedalling north this morning from Osnabruck, I finally reached the North Sea. This is a unique part of the world. I remember the first time I went genuinely north in England and realised that I did not instinctively know the provenance of the people around me. I get the same feeling here. This stretch of coast from the top left of Holland across to the Oder River even speaks a different language – Frisian (in three dialects).

The forebears of the people here are descended from a particular tribe – the Frisii – who, among other activities, provided mercenaries for the Roman invasion of Britain. Later, Frisians came to England with the Angles and Saxons to settle: in the East Midlands, people have DNA indistinguishable from that of the Frisians. There are still Frisian-derived place names to be found in England - Frizinghall in Bradford, Frieston in Lincolnshire, Freston in Ipswich - and the dialect of Great Yarmouth has Frisian overtones.

The peninsula of Schleswig-Holstein pokes up in the middle of Frisian coast – to the left of it is the North Sea and to the right the Baltic. The river Weser drains to the left of the peninsula and at what used to be the navigable mouth is the city of Bremen. When the Weser silted up, Bremen created a port nearer the sea – Bremerhaven – and the two combined now comprise the second largest port in Germany and the fourth largest in Europe.

At the moment we are having lunch - Grünkohl und Pinkel (kale and Pinkel Wurst, the local sausage made with oatmeal). Kale is much loved here – people go on Kohlfahrten, hikes through the kale fields followed by supper of Grünkohl, Wurst, and Schnapps – and dancing, perhaps to the music of Bremen's favourite son, Mr Happy Music himself, James Last.

We are engaging with a glass of the local brew - Becks Beer, from the company who commission English artists like Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin to design their labels. Strange that we should have chosen beer because our table is directly above the world's largest wine cellar, a hangover (as it were) from the days when most of Germany's foreign wine was brought in through Bremen.

Bremen Town Hall (c)wikicommons

The cellar lies under the main square where we sit surrounded by UNESCO designated heritage – the portentous town hall and the six hundred year old limestone statue of Roland, one of Charlemagne's generals and the symbol of Bremen. You will know the story of Roland from many musical and poetic interpretations – the eleventh century Chanson de Roland or perhaps Lully's opera Roland. And the statue close by of a donkey, a dog, a cat and a hen will remind you of the Grimm Brothers story of the Musicians of Bremen (a most puzzling title, given that they never actually reach Bremen).

Those of an engineering bent will remember Bremen as the home of the Focke-Wulf fighter in the second world war. Heinrich Focke was born in Bremen in 1890 and became lifelong friends with Georg Wulf at the age of 21 when they were both at university.

FW-61 (c)wikicommons

Wulf died in 1927 testing one of their planes and Focke went on to invent the world's first helicopter in 1936. Amazingly, the FW-61 was the first helicopter to be flown indoors – in the vast auditorium built for the 1936 Olympics, the Deutschlandhalle.

In 1949 in another small act of atonement for the war (like Dusseldorf's purchase of Paul Klee's paintings), private Club zu Bremen invited Martin Heidegger to give his first lecture since his dismissal as a professor in Freiburg. They were rewarded by Heidegger speaking for the first time of his concept of the fourfold (das Geviert) - the “gathering” of earth, sky, mortals and divinities.

Heidegger's concept lives in the marshes and moraines along this coast - the vast Zuider Zee and peat bogs bordering the River Weser. In the nineteenth century, people lived on the marshes around Bremen in the most desperate of conditions. There's a Low Saxon saying that sums up their plight - Den Eersten sien Dood, den Tweeten sien Noot, den Drüdden sien Broot (death for the first, misery for the second, bread for the third). Land here was free but infertile and, in the damp and cold, life expectancy was limited. Such poverty made life here medieval - but the people and their squalid circumstances were irresistibly attractive to artists.

There is a particular area just north of Bremen called the Teufelsmoor, where the peat is eleven feet deep. The village of Worpswede sits in the middle of Teufelsmoor on a sandy hill fifty metres high. In 1884 the daughter of the village shopkeeper invited an artist, Fritz Mackensen, to stay. By 1889 he was living permanently in Worpswede and within a few years, so were his friends - Hans am Ende, Otto Modersohn, Fritz Overbeck and Carl Vinnen. Thomas Mann came – as did Rainer Maria Rilke, who married the sculptor Clara Westhoff here.

Rainer Maria Rilke by Paula Modersohn-Becker (c)wikicommons

The artists established a school at Worpswede. They had access to a cheap and willing supply of interesting-looking peasants for life classes and a stream of young hopefuls passed through (you may recall Emy Roeder coming here in 1919 to study sculpture). These students provided living money and romantic opportunities for their teachers. One of the young women, Paula Becker, married her tutor – Otto Modersohn - and became an artist who, in our time, has achieved an international reputation.

Paula and her newborn baby (c)wikicommons

We know a lot about Paula the person because of the diaries she kept – but we will never know her full artistic potential because she died in 1907 of an embolism shortly after giving birth to her only child. She was aged 31: her formal art instruction had started in the early 1880s in London, at St John's Wood Art School, and continued back in Germany and in Paris.

Critics point out the influences on her – particular artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin, Picasso and the styles and colours of the post-impressionists and Fauvism – but she had her own creativity. She used a limited palate and sometimes scratched into the paint for texture. Her female nudes were the first ever painted from life by a woman: art historians say Artemisia Gentileschi used her own body for Susannah and the Elders - which Paula also did from time to time.

Paula's Gauguinesque self-portrait (c)wikicommons

We are actually staying in Worpswede and I need to pedal over there now. The place has such magic: “How large the eyes become here! They want at all times to possess the whole sky,” wrote Rilke in 1900. The silver birch trees and black, peat-sodden waters of the Teufelsmoor are beautiful in the changing sea light – as is the expressionist architecture of the original artists' houses. And in among them are strange things like this war memorial:

(c)meirion harries

Nosferatu was mostly set in Bremen -

Ein Tag in Bremen -

Paula Modersohn-Becker (an East Tennessee State University lecture) -

A 15 minute tour of 149 of Paula Modersohn Becker's images -

Andy Williams (with a silent Petula Clark) singing James Last's Happy Heart -

The Muppets perform The Musicians of Bremen -

42 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page