Ernst Mollenhauer was born in 1892, in Tapiau, East Prussia, where Lovis Corinth comes from, too. Mollenhauer’s Father knew Corinth and asked his opinion about his son’s future who wanted to study painting. In spite that Corinth encouraged younger Mollenhauer to paint, he still had to learn a profession in trade first.
In 1913 Ernst Mollenhauer commenced his studies at the Konigsberg Art Academy (the Kunstakademie Königsberg), where his first teacher was Ludwig Dettmann. During the First World War he was drafted to the army, but in 1918 he could continue his studies at the Academy. While visiting Nida in 1919, he met Max Pechstein and Hedwiga, daughter of the Guest House Owner Hermann Blode. He married Hedwiga in 1920. Prospects for painters were bleak in Germany because of the 1920-1922 economic crisis and Mollenhauer with his wife left for New York. After initial hardships he managed to earn well working for a firm which made decorations.
Since the secession of the Klaipeda region (Memelland) in 1923, which became a part of Lithuania, as well as due to economic crisis, the flow of holiday makers in Nida was cut short. Blode’s hotel was on a verge of bankruptcy. Mollenhauer returned from New York and paid hotel’s debts with dollars that he earned in America. In 1924 he set up for himself a studio next to the Hotel. In 1925 he built a monument for painters and took steps promoting tourism. Only a very few of his works from the period of 1925-1945 have survived the wartime and are known for the public now. He painted in an expressionist style, his forms gradually becoming more and more condensed. The motifs of his paintings were always from Nida.
In 1929 Mollenhauer helped Thomas Mann to rent a lot for building a summer house in Nida, which Thomas Mann stayed at during 1930-1932. At that time the flow of tourists to the Curonian Spit, including Nida, increased considerably. However, because of Nazi persecution in 1933, Thomas Mann had to flee from Germany, and he could not longer use his summer house. Mollenhauer administered Mann’s house until 1939. When the Klaipeda region was returned to the Third Reich, and because of the Nazi persecution of the so-called “degenerate art”, there was threat that Blode’s art collection would be confiscated. Whereas Mollenhauer, because of his artistic style, was banned from painting. Nevertheless, Mollenhauer’s works, as well as other paintings in the Blode’s collection were destroyed in 1945, when East Prussia was taken over by the Red Army.
In 1945 Mollenhauer reunited with his wife and daughter in Western Germany, and started his career as a painter anew. In 1946 he lived in Kaarst, in 1948 - moved to Dusseldorf. Mollenhauer works received recognition and he worked as an independent painter. Mollenhauer travelled throughout France and Italy, however, he found his new “artistic” motherland in Sylt island in Northern Germany, which in a way reminded him of the Curonian Spit that he could no longer return to now.
Mollenhauer was an expressionist, however, his style kept on changing, the forms became even more simple, larger (more prominent), and the colours more intense. The motifs of this paintings came from the Rhineland, Sylt island, which was his new place of residence, nevertheless, Nida and the Curonian Spit still kept on emerging as the main subject. The paintings that he did from memory had even stronger expression and were painted in a very condensed style.
Ernst Mollenhauer died in Dusseldorf in 1963. His creative legacy is kept in East Prussian Regional Museum in Lüneburg.
By Dr. Jörn Barfod