A brutally honest view of society – Wilhelm Busch

Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908): self-portrait, 1895; Copyright: Wilhelm-Busch-Museum Hannover The story of the rascals Max and Moritz is one of the most famous works in German children's literature. It has been translated into around three hundred languages, parodied by other authors, dramatised and set to music. Today it is hard to believe that in 1865 the author, Wilhelm Busch, had great difficulty publishing his seven-part children's story.

Back then, the 33 year-old had only just drawn the first four comic strips, and sales were very poor. When presented with Max and Moritz, Busch's publisher Ludwig Richter did not want to print it. So Busch had to find another publisher. Kaspar Braun, the publisher of 'Die Fliegenden Blätter' magazine, paid him one thousand florins in cash – to the joy of Busch, who had not earned any money for a long time. The publisher's instincts were right: ten years later, the comic strips by Wilhelm Busch were known around the world.

A brutally honest view of society

The popularity of Max and Moritz prompted the newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst to commission the artist Rudolph Dirk with an adaptation in an attempt to increase circulation of the New York Journal. The Katzenjammer Kids appeared in 1897 in the newspaper's Sunday supplement. In a manner of speaking, they are Busch's heirs – and mark a milestone in the history of comics. Wilhelm Busch's stories were not pleasant to read. They were cruel and often frightening. Cats have their tails set alight, and people are crushed, shot into the air or hung by their nose ring. Busch had a brutally honest view of society and people's mental depravities.

Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908): from ‘Max und Moritz’, 1865; Copyright: Wilhelm-Busch-Museum Hannover

The stories become fascinating due to the close interplay of words and pictures: the comic strip is precise and quick, but the characters reveal even more at second glance. And then there is Busch's great talent for rhythm, language and onomatopoeic elements. The simple relationships that Busch draws in his comic strips come from his own experience: on 15 April 1832, Busch was born in the village of Wiedensahl in the former Kingdom of Hanover as the first of seven children. When Busch was nine, his father, a grocer, sent him to live with an uncle, the protestant priest Georg Kleine. The journey to Ebergötzen near Göttingen took three days by coach.

More an artist than mechanical engineer

When he visited home for the first time, having been away for three years, his own mother hardly recognised him. The boy had done well at his uncle's: he received private lessons, read poetry and learned to draw. He enjoyed wandering about the neighbourhood with his friend Erich Bachmann, the miller's son.  At the wishes of his father, Busch began a course in mechanical engineering at the polytechnic school in Hanover when he was fifteen. But was he really wanted was to become an artist and so in 1851 he moved to the school of art in Düsseldorf. A year later, he went to the Royal Academy in Antwerp to study the old masters such as Rubens, Brouwer and Teniers.

The academic lessons did not satisfy Busch at all; the young man also doubted his artistic abilities. After suffering from severe typhoid fever, Busch returned penniless to his hometown in 1853. Just like the Brothers Grimm, he began to collect German sagas and fairytales from the area. But he could not let go of art. Busch convinced his father to give him money once more to study at the school of art in Munich. In the Bavarian capital he met Caspar Braun, the publisher of the satirical weekly newspaper Die Fliegenden Blätter (containing poems and stories) and the Münchener Bilderbogen (illustrating historic costume in pictures).

Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908): ‘Weidende Kühe unter Bäumen’ (Cows put out to pasture under trees), 1887; Copyright: Wilhelm-Busch-Museum Hannover

Success at last

Busch became his colleague and published his first stories, including Die kleinen Honigdiebe (The Little Honeythieves) and Der kleine Maler mit der großen Mappe (The Little Painter With The Large Portfolio). Finally, Busch was a success: now he was creating entire comic strips. After  Max and Moritz came Der Heilige Antonius von Padua (Saint Anthony of Padua) in 1870, Die fromme Helene (Helen the Hypocrite) in 1872 and Pater Filuzius in 1872, anticlerical works with caustic humour and references to living people. Some pieces, such as the story of Monsieur Jacques à Paris during the occupation in 1870, which took place during the Franco-Prussian War, were so spiteful and evil that many prefer to ignore them today. Busch's anti-semitic leanings in some of his works, for example Plisch und Plum, should not be forgotten either.

At forty years of age, Busch became famous in Germany for his comic strips. However, he never found a wife. During his life, the artist also painted landscapes and portraits and wrote poetry as well as prose. In 1874, Busch published the poetry book Kritik des Herzens (The Heart's Critique). This was followed by the novel Eduards Traum (Edward's Dream) in 1891 and Der Schmetterling (The Butterfly) in 1895. The older Busch became, the more he withdrew from public life.

In his hometown of Wiedensahl he found the peace that he was looking for. However, he suffered from loss of appetite and insomnia, possibly because he was a chain smoker for many years. He spent the final years of his life with relatives in Mechtshausen in the Harz Mountains, writing poems and observing nature. Wilhelm Busch died on 9 January 1908. Today, the Wilhelm Busch Museum in Hanover and memorials in Wiedensahl and Mechtshausen remember the 'godfather of German comics'.
Rieke C. Harmsen
is an art historian and editor of the Evangelischer Pressedienst (epd) news agency in Munich.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
October 2009
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