"Thou shalt not kill" - the German painter and social reformer Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach

21 February 1851, the German painter and social reformer Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach was born in Hadamar in Northern Hesse.

"Lieber sterben, als meine Ideale verleugnen!" ("Let me die rather than deny my ideals!", Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach)

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach: “Du sollst nicht töten” (Thou shalt not kill, 1903)

Bavarian society is not especially known for its progressiveness and preaching free love, free religion, naturism and vegetarianism and preaching in Munich’s squares wearing either a habit or sandals or nothing at all does usually not help very much to endear one’s new-fangled ideas to the general public or the local authorities. But thus was the fate of Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, such as getting banned from Munich’s venerable art museum, the Alte Pinakothek, going through one of the first nudist lawsuits in Germany and being rejected as a madman, if it weren’t for his paintings. Somehow, Diefenbach’s paintings touched a nerve with the public, first in Munich, then in Vienna, the latter drawing 80.000 people to see the “Kohlrabi-Apostel’s” (lit. turnip cabbage apostle) works, usually an amalgam of realism, symbolism, Blake-like revelations and pure Kitsch. Cheated by the Austrian Artists’ Society, he left the Alps, where he roamed about for weeks, painting elfin dance, nixies and mountain spirits, for Egypt, trying to establish a sphinx-shaped orphanage, returned to Vienna in 1897 and founded his first artists’ colony, Himmelhof, where he tried to establish his ideals with a group of twenty disciples.

Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach: "Der Rettung Entgegen" (Towards Salvation, 1913)

The prophet has no honour in his own country, as usual, and Himmelhof went bankrupt, financially and morally, since Diefenbach was a bit of a biblical patriarch, having two wives while demanding strict celibacy from his followers and absolute obedience along with the usual patriarchal patronising. The prophet fled to Capri where he founded another colony, grew reclusive and grumpy, shunned by the world and revered by his disciples, painting still lives, land- and soulscapes, one after the other and died of bowel obstruction at the age of 62 in 1913. Diefenbach’s quantitative enormous work was soon forgotten after his death, his legacy as communard and nature prophet was taken up by various movements, by his student Gusto Gräser for instance, later called the “Ghandi of the West”, who founded the famous colony of Monte Verità near Ascona that harboured illustrious guests from Hugo Ball and Hans Arp to Hermann Hesse, or his famulus Fidus, née Hugo Höppener, later dallied with Nazism and their blood and soil nonsense and other variants of Lebensreform ("life reform").

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