Skip to content

Einstein, Carl

    Image Credit:

    Full Name: Einstein, Carl

    Other Names:

    • Carl Einstein

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 26 April 1885

    Date Died: 03 or 05 July 1940

    Place Born: Neuwied, Rhineland Palatinate, Germany

    Place Died: Lestelle-Bétharram, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): African (general, continental cultures), Cubist, German (culture, style, period), and Modern (style or period)

    Career(s): art critics and art historians


    Early writer on modern art in Germany; first to discus African art in aestheric terms and one of the first to connect it to Cubism. Einstein’s father was Daniel Einstein (1847-1899), a rabbi, Hebrew teacher and cantor. His mother was Sophie Lichtenstein (Einstein) (b. 1860). In 1888 the family moved to Karlsruhe, where the younger Einstein initially studied Banking. Between 1904-1908 he attended the philosophy lectures of Georg Simmel (1858-1918) at the University of Berlin and art historical lectures of Heinrich Wölfflin. Because Einstein lacked a high school diploma (Abitur) he was unable to attain his doctorate. In 1907 he made his first trip to Paris where he discovered Picasso, Braque, Gris and other artists. He wrote prose, joining the radical circle of Franz Pfemfert (1879-1954) and his magazine Die Aktion. In 1912 Einstein’s novel, Bebuquin oder die Dilettanten des Wunders, appeared, which included the graphic illustrations of the German Expressionist artist Wilhelm Lehmburck. He married Maria Ramm, Pfemfert’s daughter, in 1913 (divorced 1923). His first well-known work was an art-historical piece on primitivism, called Negerplastik (Black Sculpture). Negerplastik circulated widely among avant-garde artists of the time, though it incited controversy within the intellectual community, including the philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), the authors Hermann Hesse (1877-1862) and Hanns Johst (1890-1978) and the art historians Hedwig Fechheimer, Curt Glaser, Wilhelm Hausenstein and Hans Tietzte. In World War I, he was a soldier stationed in Brussels. Immediately after the war he lived in Berlin (1919-1928), working on the weekly magazine of Wieland Herzfelde (1896-1988) and George Grosz, Die Pleite. He became editor and publisher of the satirical paper Der blutige Ernst. He wrote several short essays on artists for Das Kunstblatt under Paul Westheim as well as for Der Querschnitt, Action (Paris) and Die neue Rundschau. His satirical depiction of god in Die schlimme Botschaft resulted in a fine. In 1922 he was commissioned to write the volume on Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts for the Propyläen Art History series. It’s publication in 1926 made it the first survery of modern art (Foster et al). Einstein’s contacts with artists and dealers such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979) and others resulted in a diverse selection of art objects. In 1928, branded as a communist, he moved to Paris and, with Georges Bataille (1897-1962) and others, published the magazine Documents, 1929-1931. Einstein sided with Bataille in view of Surrealism that radically contrasted the official line set forth by André Breton (1896-1966). He wrote a monograph on Braque (1934) though more a theoretical work on the Cubist movement than the artist himself. In the 1930s, Einstein produced his Handbuch der Kunst which focuses primarily on modern art. He married a second time, in 1932, to an Armenian woman, Lydia Guevrekian. By this time he had become disillusioned by most modern artists has having capitulated to the ruling authorities. Though disillusioned with communism as well, he volunteered as a soldier in the Spanish civil war 1936-1937. After the defeat by Franco, Einstein returned to Paris, writing a German expatriate newsletter. With the fall of France in 1940 he was arrested by Vichy government officials and deported to the concentration camp at Lager Gurs. Though released he found himself unable to emigrate again to Spain. Hunted by the Gestapo for his communist beliefs and Jewish heritage, he committed suicide by throwing himself into the Pau river. The Kahnweiler placed a plaque in his gallery “Freedom fighter”. Negerplastik is one of the early links of so-called primitive sculpture and the modern art movement. The book was the first to discuss African sculpture in esthetic terms as opposed to ethnographic artifacts (Foster, et al). It postulated a spatial way of seeing “plastisches Sehen” that addresses the problems of Cubism. It is not a history of African sculpture as it ignored the peoples who made the sculptures. Einstein adhered strongly to the notion that sculpture “spoke” directly to the viewer and therefore required no background information. Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts represented a genuinely original vision of modern art. Together with an handful of other modernist art historians, such as Max Osborn and Paul Ferdinand Schmidt he ushered in modern art as an art-historical subject in Germany. His criticism is akin to that of the Frankfurt School theorists, particularly Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) (Foster et al). Einstein had his blind spots, however. His Marxist beliefs precluded an appreciation of German Expressionism until after World War I, preferring French Cubism largely because of its closer connection to African art. His analytical style, especially in the shorter reviews of artists, often has a hyper-critical edge to it. Because of the political and cultural events of the 1930s, his major literary theory, Fabrikation der Fiktionen, only appeared in 1973.

    Selected Bibliography

    [complete bibliography:] Ihrig, Wilfried. “Bibliographie zu Carl Einstein.” Text und Kritik 95 (1987): 87-101; Bebuquin, oder, Die Dilettanten des Wunders: ein Roman. Berlin-Wilmersdorf: Verlag der Wochenschrift Die Aktion, 1912; Negerplastik. Munich: K. Wolff, 1915; Die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts. Propyläen Kunstgeschichte 16. Berlin: Propyläen-Verlag 1926; Georges Braque. Paris: éditions des Chroniques du jour/New York: E. Weyhe, 1934; Gesammelte Werke. Wiesbaden: Limes Verlag, 1962; Die Fabrikation der Fiktionen. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1973.


    [book review] Fechheimer, Hedwig. “Carl Einstein: Negerplastik.” Kunst und Künstler 13 (1915): 576 – 578; Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, p. 204; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 74-76; Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 1, pp. 129-36; Carl-Einstein-Gesellschaft (website), “Biographie.”; “Album di famiglia – Storia di un incontro: Carl Einstein.” Bollettino Archivio Giuseppe Pinelli. no 15 (April 2000): 45-47; “Carl Einstein (1885-1940)” [inset]. in Foster, Hal, et al. Art Since 1900. 2nd ed. vol. 1 New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011, p. 265.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Einstein, Carl." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: