Heinrich Zille auf einer Postkarte von 1918
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Heinrich Zille

Heinrich Zille, also known in Berlin as “Pinselheinrich”, remains one of the city’s most well-known and most popular artists. And yet, he was not born into a career in art: it was only following his dismissal as a lithographer from the Photographische Gesellschaft which provided him with the impetus to devote himself entirely to his craft.

. From then on, the depiction of scenes from the proletarian underclass – the reason for his dismissal – took centre stage in his creative work and became his main source of income.

Zille’s career path

Rudolf Heinrich Zille was born in Radeburg near Dresden on 10th January 1858. The family came to Berlin in 1867. As the son of an artisan and a miner’s daughter, his childhood was characterised by economic hardship. Therefore, as a young boy, Zille earned extra money doing odd jobs. At the same time, he came into contact with all levels of society and gained experience of life in a big city. It was also these impressions which were to become so important for his later creative works. 

Zille was particularly fond of drawing, even from a young age. Into the late 1880’s, he drew what he saw: his surroundings in the Berlin district of Rummelsburg. The social themes which were to become so typical for him later on are not yet evident in these early works. He used the money he earned to pay for drawing lessons. His art teacher recommended that he take up the profession of a lithographer and, duly following the professor’s advice, Zille began his apprenticeship in 1872. In parallel, he also attended evening classes at the “Königliche Kunstschule”. His teacher there, Theodor Hosemann, gave him a piece of advice for life which would have a marked influence on his later work: “It is better to get outside onto the street and observe for yourself rather than imitating.”
Eisbahn vor Zilles Wohnhaus in Charlottenburg, Sophie-Charlotten-Straße, dritter von links Hans und ganz vorne Walter Zille, 1898/99
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Foto: Heinrich Zille (Neuprint von 1978)

Young Zille took this advice to heart. He went onto the street: the streets of a city which between 1890 and 1910 had grown far too rapidly, a city full of social differences and cultural conflicts. This is where Zille found his subjects: the proletariat of Berlin with their high aspirations of the growing metropolis, yet who were so often disappointed, and whose everyday lives were defined by low wages, prevalent starvation and serious housing shortages. 

Zille and his “Berlin Milljöh” [Berlin social environment] – real life

The tenement and back-street people of Berlin, the people in the bars and brothels were the focus of Zille’s work. He drew real life in this social milieu: domestic disputes, alcoholism, prostitution, child labour and poverty-related diseases. Through contacts in Berlin’s artistic circles, as of 1901 Zille displayed some of his works in the exhibitions of the Berlin Secession. Even here he already showed a reality “which to date has not been seen in Berlin art in this clarity and steeliness”, as Matthias Flügge writes in the book H. Zille – Berliner Leben.
Berliner Typen – Zuhälter und Straßenmädchen, Handzeichnung von 1911
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

From 1905, Heinrich Zille worked for Lustige Blätter. Drawings from the milieu with amusing words and images were in demand. As commissions increased – publishers of books and newspapers became his main clients – he perfected his technique for pen drawings. Zille also learnt to be blunt in his expression and hone his style of “unobserved drawing”. His prints appeared in a wide range of magazines, including Simplicissimus and Jugend. Editorial offices were not merely looking for artworks depicting themes of housing shortages, criminality and alcohol. Readers ought to recognise themselves in the pictures too.

It was not until 1908, at the age of 50, when Zille released his first book “Kinder der Strasse”, published by Lustige Blätter. This was followed in 1913 by “Mein Milljöh. Neue Bilder aus dem Berliner Leben” – and the term Milljöh has been associated with Heinrich Zille ever since. During his lifetime he was honoured for the work he produced and in 1924, following his appointment as professor, at the suggestion of Max Liebermann, Zille was admitted into the Prussian Academy of Arts.
Vorzeichnung zu „Kinder der Strasse”, Handzeichnung von 1905
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Photographer of the modern age

The fact that Zille had also taken photographs was something that remained in the background into the late 1960s’. Zille had already become acquainted with the medium of photography during his training to become a lithographer and went on to use photographs as references for his drawings. Also, while working for the Photographische Gesellschaft, he acquired knowledge of photography, even if no record exists about the extent to which it was part of his daily work. At any rate, he took photographs as a private civilian without any financial interests. And: he took photographs solely in the years when he was not earning money as an illustrator and graphic artist. His earliest works date back to 1882.

While his first subjects were akin to those of professional photographers, in the years to come, snapshots would take up more and more space in Zille’s photographic works. As well as people, they often show city views, for example from Charlottenburg, Westend – his own area in his later years – or Krögel-Viertel on the banks of the Spree between Fischerinsel and Waisenbrücke. He is directly in the thick of things, lying in wait for people almost. As photographer, he himself assumes a position completely in the background. In the images he creates, he records the microcosm of a rapidly evolving Berlin. From 1902, Heinrich Zille’s photography becomes increasingly scarce. The last datable photographs – private images of his family – were taken in around 1905/1906.

On 9th August 1929, Heinrich Zille died in Berlin following several family misfortunes. He has left an important legacy of drawings, prints and photographs in which he lives on to this day as an entertaining chronicler and pioneering artist of this era.

Heinrich Zille in the collection of the Stadtmuseum Berlin

As early as 1928, the Märkisches Museum – which is a part of Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin since 1995 – acquired 130 drawings by Heinrich Zille. Sadly, only one of these prints survived the Second World War, entitled “Christmas market on Arkonaplatz”. Despite these irreplaceable losses, by 1978, the museum, which reopened in 1946, held an extensive Zille collection with around 180 graphic works, photographic prints and documents. From 1966, the Berlin-Museum – the West Berlin counterpart to the Märkisches Museum situated in East Berlin – acquired its first Zille works.

Today, the portfolios of the Märkisches Museum and the Berlin-Museum are under the aegis of Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. The Zille portfolio covers several collections, including the photographic collection, documents collection and graphic art collection, which, with around 2,500 hand drawings and prints, contains the most works. The photographic collection contains more than 300 new prints from the original negatives of Heinrich Zille, which it was possible to acquire with the aid of lotto funding in 1978. The documents collection in particular contains documents in his honour and relating to his sphere of work, postcards, and newspaper excerpts in addition to original manuscripts (autographs) by Heinrich Zille.
„Weihnachtsmarkt am Arkonaplatz“, Handzeichnung von 1918
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
„Zilles Werdegang“, Ausstellung im Märkischen Museum, 1928
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Hausarchiv
To mark the 70th birthday of Heinrich Zille in 1928, therefore during his lifetime, the Märkisches Museum put on the exhibition entitled “Zille’s career path”. The special exhibition of Zille’s works was a complete success. In this first major retrospective, works were showcased, which had been created “along the way”, as pieces from his time as an apprentice and journeyman. Since then, the buildings of the Stadtmuseum Berlin have shown more than 15 exhibitions centred around Heinrich Zille. On the occasion of his 150th anniversary in 2008 the artist was honoured with a dual exhibition under the heading “Heinrich Zille. Children of the Street” in the Museum Ephraim-Palais and the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts). Most recently, under the title “Heinrich Zille: A Reunion” 38 of his drawings, prints and photographs were on display in the Foto-Grafisches Kabinett of the Märkisches Museum.