1896–1918: Youth and Education
Josef Fenneker was born in Bocholt (Westphalia, northwestern Germany) on December 6, 1895. Fenneker’s considerable drawing talents were recognized in his grade school graduation certificate from the local Diepenbrockschule, when he was just fourteen. His uncle, Anton Marx, was an architect and church painter. Fenneker attended the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) in Münster in 1912. He then switched to the Kunstgewerbeschule in Düsseldorf from April – August 1913, followed by studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich as of 1913. Fenneker had to interrupt his education in 1915 when he was drafted into military service. He was dismissed in June 1917 after being wounded in World War I. Three months later, Fenneker moved to Berlin, where he became a master student of Emil Orlik at the Staatliche Lehranstalt des Kunstgewerbemuseums. He received financial support through a scholarship from the former general administration of the Royal Museums of Berlin. Fenneker’s works from these years are not known.
1918–1924: Commercial Artist, Designer and Decorator
The first documented works in Josef Fenneker’s artistic oeuvre were produced as commissions for the Universum Film AG (Ufa) for its Berlin movie theaters (Union-Theater, Mozartsaal, Kammerlichtspiele). Fenneker’s first film posters hung on the city’s Litfaß advertising columns in July 1918 (for Der Prozess Hauers, Vater und Sohn, Sein eigenes Begräbnis). Two months later the Ufa engaged him under contract as a “propaganda draughtsman for its cinemas” (Lichtbild-Bühne, vol. 11, no. 34, Aug. 24, 1918, p. 72). More than forty film posters were created in the following six months – works in which Fenneker not only sparked the interest of the public and the industry trade press, but also that of new clientele. Siegbert Goldschmidt, the director of Berlin’s Marmorhaus at the time, also took notice of Fenneker and brought him to his institution in January 1919. The following six years are considered Fenneker’s most productive and most innovative phase of work as a commercial artist, designer and decorator. He designed more than 140 film posters for the Marmorhaus alone during this period. In addition, he was responsible for the renovation and redesign of five movie theaters, all of which were under the management of Siegbert Goldschmidt: the Theater am Moritzplatz (1919), the Kant-Lichtspiele located at Kantstraße 54 (1920), die Decla-Lichtspiele on Antonplatz in Berlin-Weißensee (1920), the Decla-Lichtspiele at Unter den Linden 21 (1920), as well as the Filmeck on the corner of Skalitzer and Zeughofstraße (1921). As a member of the executive board of the Luna Park in the Berlin-Halensee district, Goldschmidt also engaged Fenneker from 1920–22 to oversee the entire artistic direction of what at that time was the largest amusement park in Europe.
In 1921 Fenneker organized his first solo exhibition at Reuß & Pollack (book and art dealers in Berlin), located at Kurfürstendamm 220. He was also represented in the poster art exhibition Film-Reklame in Berlin, which was shown in January–February 1924 at the Club der Filmindustrie on Friedrichstrasse.
Following Goldschmidt’s economic ruin, the liquidation of the Marmorhaus Theater GmbH and the vacating of its premises in November 1924, Fenneker lost his most important patron and source of income. His tenure as the busiest poster illustrator in Berlin in the years after World War I ended very abruptly.
Due to the precarious situation of finding work that Fenneker suddenly faced, he was only able to complete eight film posters for four films in 1925. Poster commissions from other movie theater operators were also no longer forthcoming from this time on; instead, Fenneker took on occasional work for distribution and production companies. Compared to nearly 250 works that were created between 1918 and 1924, he produced just 90 posters in the period from 1925 to 1932.
As a reaction to this plight, Fenneker gradually turned to theater. In 1927 he gained his first experience as a decorator on the film set of Dirnentragödie (D 1927, directed by Bruno Rahn, with Asta Nielsen in the leading role).
A year later he created the stage set for the revue Schön und schick, which was staged by Hermann Haller at Berlin’s Admiralspalast.
In addition, he gave drawing lessons in his studio and residence in Drewitz near Potsdam, where he had lived with his wife Charlotte Peckolt since the mid-1920s. They married in1921. At that time Fenneker made numerous fashion and press drawings for the magazines Jugend and Simplicissimus, but also a great many freelance artworks (graphics, oil paintings and watercolors).
The buildings that Josef Fenneker designed for the film Zwischen Nacht und Morgen (D 1931, directed by Gerhard Lamprecht) ultimately smoothed his path to the theater. In 1932 he was engaged by the Prussian State Theater on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt, where he delivered his first work as a set designer for a production of Shakespeare’s Othello. It was at this theater that he met Heinrich George, who would become important for him during the National Socialist period.
1933–1945: Set Designer and Propaganda Artist
Neither an affiliation of Josef Fenneker to the NSDAP nor personal statements revealing his political convictions are documented. Nevertheless, during the Nazi era artists could only receive commissions or be represented in exhibitions if they were members of the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste ([Reich Chamber of Fine Arts], a division of the Reichskulturkammer [Reich Chamber of Culture]). Since membership was not possible without a declared affirmation of National Socialist ideas, it must be assumed that Fenneker fell in line with the demands of the regime so that he would at least be able to continue to practice his profession.
More than 50 film posters designed by Josef Fenneker have survived from 1933–35; considerably more than the years prior. This development was obviously connected with his marketing as a “propaganda artist” of the Nazi regime. The designation referred primarily to artists who fulfilled the specifications propagated by the National Socialists – in contrast, for example, to non-“German Reich” artists (see the article “Propaganda: Fennecker” [sic], Film-Kurier, vol. 16., no. 166, Berlin July 18, 1934). Fenneker’s somewhat polemic contributions printed in the Völkischer Beobachter in 1934–35 on his activities as a film poster artist and his aesthetic ideas should be read in the same context.
Articles appearing in Gebrauchsgraphik and in the Illustrierter Filmkurier praised him as “Germany’s most talented film poster artist” (“Joseph Fenneker,” Gebrauchsgraphik, vol. 12, no. 4, 1935, p. 2). Nonetheless, Fenneker’s work on National Socialist propaganda films, such as Hans Westmar. Einer von vielen. Ein deutsches Schicksal aus dem Jahre 1929 (D 1933, directed by Franz Wenzler) and Der Schimmelreiter (D 1933, directed by Hans Deppe, Curt Oertel), remained exceptions.
Fenneker received numerous opportunities to work as a set designer under the Nazi regime: Following engagements at the Preußisches Theater der Jugend (1933) and the Volksbühne (1934) in Berlin, he switched to the Duisburg opera in 1935. In the three years that he spent there, he devoted himself less and less to poster art. In 1938 Fenneker returned to the “Schiller-Theater of the Reich Capital of Berlin,” where he had been called by Heinrich George, its artistic director at the time. Like him, Fenneker was among the teaching staff at the “Deutsche Filmakademie Babelsberg,” which went into operation in 1938, was closed at the beginning of 1940 on account of the war, and permanently disbanded in 1944. The war-related shutdown of all German theaters in August 1944 ultimately forced Fenneker to take a creative hiatus.
1946–1956: Postwar Years
After the war Josef Fenneker rarely left his mark as a poster artist. Eight posters can be documented to that period, only two of which are film posters (AffaIre Blum, 1948, and Hoffmanns Erzählungen, 1951). In spite of his successes during the Nazi period, he soon managed to regain his foothold as a set designer. In 1946 he was responsible for the design of three productions at the Städtische Oper in Berlin. Commissions failed to appear in 1947, but were followed by regular engagements at the Städtische Oper and at the Komische Oper Berlin in 1948. Fenneker took over the direction of scenery and set design at the Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt am Main in 1953. Guest assignments led him to Stockholm, Helsinki and Milan in the years that followed. Fenneker created more than 70 stage sets between 1946 and 1956. Taken together with his work in the years before and during World War II, he was responsible for the stage sets of 163 theater productions. His oeuvre as a poster artist comprises more than 400 works, including some 365 film posters.
Josef Fenneker died of a heart attack in Frankfurt am Main on January 9, 1956. Although his obituaries revered him as “the most original, most fervent and most inventive of visual artists – a spirit on a par with the Spanish Baroque and a successor of Francisco Goya” (Die Zeit, January 19, 1956), his exceptional contributions to poster art were not even mentioned.