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John Elsas: “My Pictures Become Wilder and Wilder”

Drawings, Collages, Aphorisms

John Elsas (1851–1935) embarked upon his unique artistic work at the age of 74 and, at his death, left around 25,000 sheets: sketched, pasted, and complete with rhyming verse.

On the pages rich in worldly wisdom, Elsas reflects on the social and political structures of his time in a light-hearted and often ironical way: philosophical themes, aphorisms, the world of art, Jewish identity, Frankfurt, and the stock exchange. Although they lived in different centuries, much would suggest that Heinrich Hoffmann, the neurologist from Frankfurt and creator of “Struwwelpeter” and John Elsas are kindred spirits.

Past exhibition

Map with all buildings that belong to the Jewish Museum Berlin. The Old Building is marked in green


Old Building, level 1
Lindenstraße 9–14, 10969 Berlin

John Elsas descended from a respected Jewish family from Frankfurt and his profession was banker and stockbroker. At the beginning of the 1920s he began to compose rhymes and paint pictures, initially just for his grandchildren. By 1925 his pictures, most of them complete with a verse under the image, had assumed their unmistakable style. Housebound as a result of a severe illness, Elsas’ art became the focus of his undivided attention. Even during his lifetime, John Elsas earned great respect with his pictures in gallery and art critic circles: Benno Reifenberg and Max Osborn's reviews were full of praise. His work was first exhibited in Herwarth Walden’s “Sturm” (Storm) Gallery in Berlin in 1929.

After his death, John Elsas’ daughter Irma sorted out the extensive artistic legacy, which remained untouched in a hiding place throughout the Second World War. Irma Elsas herself did not survive Nazi rule. On 18 August 1942 she was deported to Theresienstadt where she died on 1 May 1944. The two sturdy wooden boxes containing Elsas’ art landed in the hands of his grandson, Herbert Raff, in Zurich in 1954, who donated them to the Foundation for Swiss naive art and art brut in St. Gallen.

The Jewish Museum presented approximately 200 of John Elsas’ drawings, collages, and aphorisms. The exhibition was organized by the Jewish Museum Berlin in cooperation with the Struwwelpeter Museum Frankfurt am Main and the Museum im Lagerhaus, St. Gallen, Switzerland.

The poster shows a group of colorful figures following a flag bearer. Below (in handwriting): I say in the Hanswurstenwelt a flag pleases well.

Poster for the exhibition

Das Plakat zeigt eine Gruppe bunter Figuren, die einem Fahnenträger folgt. Darunter (in Handschrift): Ich sag’ in der Hanswurstenwelt eine Fahne gut gefällt.

Exhibition John Elsas: “My Pictures Become Wilder and Wilder”

Exhibition Webpage
Current page: John Elsas: “My Pictures Become Wilder and Wilder” – 23 May to 17 Aug 2003
See also
John Elsas – more objects in our online collections, in German

Exhibition Information at a Glance

  • When 23 May bis 17 Aug 2003
  • Where Old Building, level 1
    Lindenstraße 9–14, 10969 Berlin
    See location on map

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