A new book delves into the utopian, eccentric, and humorous works of Paul Scheerbart

Rainbow Scheerbart

A new book delves into the utopian, eccentric, and humorous works of Paul Scheerbart

For readers unfamiliar with German novelist, poet, theorist, artist, and inventor Paul Scheerbart (1863–1915), the 2014 book Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader will be a revelation. For those involved in the field of architecture and its history (this author included), Scheerbart’s often fantastical, frequently utopian, and bitingly humorous oeuvre is well known. Particularly relevant are his interpretations of ancient notions about the mystical, transformative potential of colored glass, and his translation of these ideas into a visionary and utopian language profoundly significant for the development of 20th century modern architecture. The book offers English translations—some published for the first time—of a selection of Scheerbart’s writings, ranging from science fiction to military strategy to novels with a feminist sensibility to a proposal for a perpetual motion machine. Also included is Scheerbart’s probably best-known text, the 1914 architectural treatise, Glasarchitektur.

Edited by artist Josiah McElheny, who is renowned for his use of glass, and gallerist and publisher Christine Burgin, the book assumes a curiously hybrid form. Purporting to be a “reader,” it is actually an “artist’s book,” an interdisciplinary mélange combining Scheerbart’s writing, scholarly interpretations of it, illustrations of McElheny’s own glass sculpture, and his interpretive poem of collaged titles from Scheerbart’s stories.

The book’s true raison d’être lies in its introduction title: “Scheerbart, The Unknowable” [emphasis mine]. McElheny is a modern-day symbolist, akin to such avant-garde pioneers as Paul Gauguin or Wassily Kandinsky (the artist as magus, translator of esoteric doctrine). He “rediscovers” Scheerbart, unlocking hidden knowledge and revealing him to the presumably uninitiated in an ecstatic call to action. The book’s acknowledgments page ends with the boosterish phrase, “We are all Scheerbartians now.”

This passionate enthusiasm, ludic quality, and childlike naiveté—reminiscent, it is true, of Scheerbart’s own literary practice—can border on preciousness, and its rather relentlessly upbeat celebration of Scheerbart’s zaniness can become grating. The book’s title, with its multiple exclamation points and its vibrant cover, communicate the tone of the text synesthetically. Even the jewel-like lapis blue color for the end papers conjures up Scheerbart’s use of crystal symbolism.

The interdisciplinary nature of this book warrants some discussion, as artist and gallerist feel at liberty to curate architectural and literary history. The inference that Scheerbart is being rediscovered after a century of dormancy is a fantasy as fictitious as the cosmic travelers in Scheerbart’s novels. The book’s own back cover proclaims: “Rarely are the obscure so richly resurrected as Scheerbart is in this…volume…”

In fact, Rosemarie Haag Bletter’s scholarship has long constructed Scheerbart’s legacy in the United States. Beginning with her 1973 doctoral dissertation and a series of published essays, Bletter studied Scheerbart’s work and wide-ranging influence, particularly on early 20th century German expressionist architects like Bruno Taut and the visionary architecture group Die Gläserne Kette (the Crystal Chain). She also studied his influence on more “mainstream” modernists like Mies van der Rohe. (Full disclosure: Bletter served as doctoral dissertation advisor to this author). The brief length of her essay to the current volume is thus a disappointment, and the acknowledgement at the end of the book insufficient. Indeed, Christopher Turner’s essay in this book includes no less than seven references to Bletter’s scholarship. To be fair, the other scholar’s contributions—by art historians Noam Elcott, Hollyamber Kennedy, and Hubertus von Amelunxen, along with writer and cultural critic Gary Indiana and filmmaker Guy Maddin—do add to the discourse.

One of the most compelling parts of the book is Scheerbart’s 1910 essay Das Perpetuum Mobile: Die Geschichte einer Erfindung (Perpetual Motion: The Story of an Invention), illustrated with a series of McElheny’s glass artworks. Laws of physics notwithstanding, the attraction of a perpetual motion machine seems clear if we consider it as a metaphor for the creative process and the unremitting need for fresh inspiration. 

The endless tweaking of the machine’s wheels in Scheerbart’s narrative is akin to the active cogitating of the artist’s mind, conflated with the generative life force itself; after a period of dormancy, “…the wheels began to stir once more.” McElheny’s appropriation of Scheerbart’s drawing appears silhouetted against the night sky, ready to explode new ideas into the cosmos while teetering precariously on a tightrope. Here, Scheerbart’s dada-esque quality is reminiscent of Duchamp’s masturbatory Bicycle Wheel. Artists’ healthy egos are, of course, no surprise; they want to be described as “big” and in the acknowledgements, Scheerbart is described as being “so big.”

The true subject of Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader is the artist’s quest for inspiration by making the past his own. Ultimately, though, if we are “all Scheerbartians,” what do we make of Scheerbart’s untimely death in 1915 at age 52, doubtlessly due to his chronic alcoholism but also, according to friends’ accounts, as a result of his self-imposed hunger strike in response to the Great War? Is it possible to find profundity in Scheerbart’s sense of the absurd and inspiration in his righteous indignation and utopian sensibility? Certainly. Final recommendation for the reader? Enjoy the book with a nice sandwich and a healthy grain of salt.

A version of this review appeared previously in the Journal of Architecture (Volume 20, Issue 5, 2015)