Carl Heidenreich and the Circle of Hannah Arendt: An Interview with Gerhard and Regina Casper

Regina and Gerhard Casper with  Untitled  (1931) by Carl Heidenreich.

Regina and Gerhard Casper with Untitled (1931) by Carl Heidenreich.

Gerhard Casper is President Emeritus of Stanford University. Before joining Stanford University, Professor Casper was a longtime faculty member at the University of Chicago, where he served as the provost of the university, the dean of the law school, and a professor of law. He began his career as a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Casper has written and taught primarily in the fields of constitutional law, constitutional history, comparative law, and jurisprudence. Regina Casper, M.D., was a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago conducting research in affective disorders and eating disorders before assuming the appointment as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science in the School of Medicine at Stanford University. She is now an emerita professor, but remains active. Born in 1937, Gerhard Casper grew up in Hamburg, Germany. Mr. Casper studied law at the universities of Freiburg and Hamburg. In the fall of 1964, Mr. Casper emigrated to the United States.

This conversation is part of a series of interviews with families and individuals who collected and preserved the legacy of Carl Heidenreich for the past half-century. On July 12, Alla Efimova interviewed Gerhard and Regina about their dedication to the painter. Below, the interview has been excerpted for clarity and brevity.

Alla Efimova: Let’s start by talking about your early lives. How did you come to New York and enter the German refugee community?

Gerhard Casper: Chronologically, it begins with me. I was a graduate student at Yale Law School in 1961 and ’62. One of my high school teachers had sent me a postcard from her vacation in Norway and said, when I got to New York, I absolutely had to look up Charlotte Beradt, who was a friend of hers and who was a refugee from Germany. She had been a journalist in Berlin and, in 1938, with her second husband, via Britain fled to New York.

I got to know her. This teacher of mine had said she was absolutely reliable—highly neurotic but absolutely reliable. I certainly found her to be reliable. She lived on West End Avenue.

And that’s where I saw my first Heidenreich abstract watercolor. I was a student at Yale, but every so often I went to New York to visit with her.

Charlotte Beradt had just done something interesting. While she was still in Germany, in the Thirties, in the Nazi period, she began to collect all of the dreams of her friends that had manifest political content and wrote them up and smuggled them out of the country.

After ’45, she collected them together again and, at the time I got to know her, she had just done a broadcast for the West German radio station in Cologne and then published a book called Das dritte Reich des Traums where she published some of these dreams. They were very startling and very interesting and so we talked a lot about that.

Charlotte Beradt was a close friend of Hannah Arendt’s, and through Charlotte, I met Hannah and we became friends. And of course, Hannah was the main connection to Heidenreich. Hannah and I later taught at the University of Chicago together.

I went back to Freiburg, where Regina and I met at a student party. Regina was doing her doctorate, I was doing my doctorate, and there was my connection to Lotte Beradt that we kept up, of course.

Hannah Arendt—who had been a student of Karl Jaspers’, who was at that point in Basel—saw to it that I got to know him. We met in Basel. She had published at that time, of course, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was first published in the New Yorker and then as a book.

When the articles had appeared in the New Yorker, I had written her a critical letter about it, and I expressed what I did not agree with and so on. And she had shown it to Jaspers, and Jaspers then wanted to see me

I had meanwhile received an appointment as an assistant professor at Berkeley. Regina, independently of me, had pursued an interest in an internship in the U.S.

Regina Casper: I arrived in the Fall of September of ’64 by boat in New York City to do a rotating internship at St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic, New Jersey, co-sponsored by the Ventnor Foundation, a Quaker foundation. Charlotte Beradt welcomed me on the pier in New York City, as our ship moved into the harbor. Before I set foot on land, my camera was stolen. I had wanted to take a picture of Charlotte and placed the camera in my bag. All around were a lot of people. When I wanted to take the photo, the camera was gone. This is how my life in America started.

I worked in New Jersey at St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic, which meant you could easily take the bus to the Bus Authority Terminal in New York City and then I would take the metro and visit Charlotte on 785 West End Avenue, a parterre apartment. 

Gerhard, by September 1964 had gone to California in Berkeley. During the fall and the winter, I got a chance to meet everyone in the circle in New York City.

GC: Known as Das Dorf, by the way. They referred to themselves as Das Dorf.

RC: Right, it was called ‘the Village.’ The Village consisted of Charlotte Beradt, Hannah Arendt, Heinrich Blücher (her husband), the Klenborts who I believe also own pictures by Heidenreich, and Lotte Köhler.

In the course of that year, Lotte Köhler inherited a large amount of money and bought a number of Heidenreichs.

Everyone assembled regularly, mostly at Charlotte’s apartment.

Whenever I had time off from work, I left for New York City. Because it was easy to reach by bus and metro, I spent many weekends with Charlotte. I met Heidenreich in 1964. He impressed me as a quiet man. I did not know how ill he was. This was before his return to Germany where he died in 1965.

GC: From what you said, I think you met him at Hannah Arendt’s.

RC: I guess it could have been at Hannah’s. I know it was in an apartment, so it might have been Hannah’s apartment. At the time, we had seen his paintings only at Charlotte Beradt’s and Hannah’s apartment. We did not own any Heidenreichs—in fact, we did not own anything.

In the fall Charlotte and a group of friends went to see a collection of his paintings in Upstate New York at Therese Dessau’s house—the daughter of Paul Dessau. There I bought the oil painting, "The View from the Window," which adorns the entrance hall.  

GC: We stayed over two years in California and then went to Chicago.

Regina and I—this has really been quite wonderful—we have always been more or less in agreement about what art we find interesting and what we wanted to buy. If I gave you a tour of the house, we have a fairly eclectic collection, but with a tendency towards the Expressionists and the Abstract Expressionists. We bought mostly at auctions, in Chicago and then in Berlin, at Grisebach. We are not wealthy, so we never bought anything very expensive. We bought what we could afford and what we liked. Very simple.

Heidenreich, to me … first of all, there is the more realistic Expressionist part of Heidenreich, of which we own examples. But then, there are the abstract paintings, and the work is so extraordinarily good. His draftsmanship was incredible, his sense of color, his sense of using the space.

RC: There is an interesting phenomenon: when people come into our house and they are not familiar with these paintings, they immediately take to them. They say, “Oh, what is this? Where is this from?” They take an active interest. They like and admire Heidenreich’s paintings. I hope we will give Heidenreich a chance to be seen.

AE: That's what we're trying to do. On the one hand, we’re all devoted to Heidenreich because we feel that the work itself stands on its own. And the more time goes by, the more we can appreciate it.

But there's also something about the work. They are artifacts of the circle of a certain mid-century history, and an ethic, and a politics, which is also now so important to preserve. And it's the circle that you're describing, that you were a part of.

Do you see caring for this work as part of preserving the legacy of the anti-Nazi resistance?

RC: His activities started already in the Twenties—anti-Nazi activities. He was against the Nazis already in Munich.

And then, he had joined the Communist party. His major activities were both anti-Nazi activities and Pro-Communist activities and I think that is important to say. The Nazis did not, I think, persecute him only as a Communist, but as opposing the Nazis.

GC: His German period and what it consisted of is one thing. This city landscape we have is possibly one of those, and then definitely this portrait which we just acquired.

We relate mostly to the more contemporary Heidenreich, the Heidenreich post-war, who worked in New York and whose work Das Dorf appreciated.

Now you asked the question, is it important? Is the interest in Heidenreich important as part of the memory of the circle in New York City at the time? When I think of those circles, all kinds of things come to mind. You have the writers, you have the academics—and it is an incredibly diverse group. Painters did not figure in that group. As far as I know, Heidenreich was the only one.

RC: It's interesting, because if you think of musicians or painters, what is interesting about Heidenreich is that this entire group there—the Village—actually loved Heidenreich and collected him. Heidenreich was the unifying factor.

I think they collected to him as a painter representing a reality which they knew and appreciated. He was appreciated for his high artistry and really loved because he was such a powerful painter.

AE: I actually am not aware, now that I think of it, of other German painters who were refugees.

GC: Of course, the way the German figurative art was present among the émigrés in New York, for instance, was to the extent to which they had been able to bring some of their art out of Germany. We own a [Max] Pechstein in watercolor from Lotte Beradt that we inherited after her death, that hung in her New York apartment. That was part of what she brought with her.

And then, Heidenreich.

AE: He may be, actually, quite unique, in that way. What would you envision, if you were to envision a legacy for Heidenreich?

GC: Now comes an interesting question. Do we think of Heidenreich as an American artist?

Yes, we think of him as such. He has done a lot of work here and, like other American artists, he had an existence before. That is connected obviously to his later work. But that will not stand in the way.

And he was a citizen.

Museums, such as the Art Institute in Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have long sections on American art, chronologically organized in some way. That's where we need Heidenreich. First, we have to get him to hang in the Art Institute as part of the American collection.