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Erwin Broner, Ibiza 1934
Text: Héctor García-Diego & María Villanueva
Some years ago, in 1934, Erwin Broner arrived in Ibiza fleeing from Nazism. There, like many other Jewish artists and intellectuals, he encountered a perfect refuge.
A few years later, in that somewhat wild Ibiza, Erwin Broner became an illustrious painter and architect on the island. His vocation for painting led to the founding of the Grupo Ibiza 59, a grouping among the limited number of foreigners, in particular, those who shared an interest in art such as the German, Heinz Trökes, the Swede, Bertil Sjoeberg, the Russian, Katja Meirowsky, and the Spanish potter, Antonio Ruiz, among others. Broner came to be considered the model, example and de facto doyen of the organisation. And if Broner was an exemplary figure for the foreign community, he was no less of one when it came to architecture, building quality houses on the island of Ibiza. Here too he can probably be considered a pioneer in architecture on the island at that time, laying the foundations of the notable architectural production that, little by little, was to crop up across the island over the coming years. The clients to whom he provided his services were, in reality, those friends to a large extent, almost always foreigners too, with whom he shared culture, lifestyle and a love of the island. However, the Erwin Broner of the 1960s bore little resemblance to the figure captured in the photo. At the moment when the picture was taken, it is hard to believe that its protagonist had too many reasons to smile. This is the first time that he leaves his homeland without a return ticket. Without a doubt, it is a moment of uncertainty regarding the past and, more still, regarding the future.
The rise of fascism to power and his status as a Jew and recent affiliate to the Communist Party had unleashed this forced exile. In Germany, Erwin had been able to enjoy a more than comfortable infancy owing to the prosperous position his family held. Co-owners of a large bank, the Heilbroner couple spared no expense when it came to educating the eldest of the three brothers. He was fortunate enough to have personal tutors and took classes in the widest range of subjects from literature to art, music and sports. They also took him to the Mediterranean on several occasions, going on journeys to classical Greece and Italy. The bosom of a family that was more than warm, pleasurable and free of concerns.
With the end of the First World War, Broner decides to study Fine Arts, undergoing training in Munich, Stuttgart and Dresden. While at the school of Hans Hoffman, he met his first wife, Aenne Wittmer. Since they were both lovers of painting, they spent the honeymoon in Italy, capturing various spots on the legendary peninsula on the canvas. They were happy, carefree years. Years to enjoy and love life. To paint, to play the vioiln and to travel.
After this period that was undoubtedly characterised by stability, enjoyment and his passion for painting, Erwin decides, in 1928, to study architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart. Up until the year 1931, he studied at the German school. Furthermore, in those years, he was to acquire a range of knowledge of carpentry, thanks to which he would be able to stay afloat in subsequent periods of great hardship. Recently graduated, he is given various jobs and, in the company of his friend, Richard v. Waldkich, he founds his own architecture studio. Erwin’s life appeared to be firmly on its path. His wife had given birth to his daughter, Nanna, the professional future that he surmised ahead was promising, and he possessed a large house in Hanweiller. Thanks to all this, you could deduce that the personal shock that Erwin received in the year 1933 must have been an extremely violent one. Following a series of gruesome episodes, he manages to come out of the events that succeeded Hitler’s rise unscathed. In the company of his friend, Manfred Heninger, he manages to obtain a residence permit for both families in Switzerland, valid for a period of six months. For this reason, they only have a limited time to search for somewhere to establish themselves.
Broner and Heninger decide to make a trip to Majorca to find out about the island and assess the possibility of settling there along with their respective families. Nonetheless, their plans were to be thwarted once the tiny steamer that connected Barcelona with Majorca made a brief stop in Ibiza. The result of this utterly accidental incident led to Erwin’s discovery of the island. A lucky, chance event that was to bring a glimmer of hope to a quite possibly downcast Erwin. Perhaps it was a Platonic-style falling in love that he was to carry with him over the course of his life, time after time, to that tiny corner of the Mediterranean, as Tur Costa recalls:
“Erwin Broner was deeply in love with Ibiza. He used to tell me that one of the strongest impressions that he had in his life was when he arrived on the island by boat for the first time and, once he was in the port, he discovered our city in the early hours of the day”.
If he had to choose the most transcendental instant in his life, this would most certainly be a leading candidate. Practically the same situation that was undergone two years earlier by Walter Benjamin, who did not hesitate to disembark during a long voyage on board a German cargo ship from Hamburg to land, prior to passing through Barcelona, at the almost unknown Balearic island. Benjamin, who had taken the decision to travel to Ibiza for the purpose of getting over an acute existential crisis, writes these notes during the voyage in his inseparable diary.
Reflections that could well be applied to the experience that Erwin himself went through:
“I was standing up, and I thought about the famous saying by Horace «One may flee from his country, but that does not mean he will manage to flee from himself» and how very debatable it is. Well, is travelling not a way of overcoming, a way of purifying deep-seated passions that are rooted in one’s habitual surroundings, and with it an opportunity to develop new ones, which is surely a kind of transformation?”
Precisely, transformation, that is what we could call what began to take shape in the mind of the exile Erwin immediately after his arrival in Ibiza. Disembarking in the port of Ibiza was to usher in a genuine transition in his life. When he sets foot on the island, he is crossing the line that separates two entirely distinct phases of his own story. And, like this, he will go on to form part of the select colony of foreigners who already inhabited Ibiza in those years. A dispersed settlement made up of outsiders who, little by little, saw their numbers rise to the extent that it received more and more nomads who were fleeing the National Socialist regime. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the greatest mayor share came from Germany, although not exclusively. What can definitely be stated as a constant certainty was that it was mainly made up of emigrants coming from the most diverse areas of culture.
The episode concerning the philosopher, Walter Benjamin, is one of the best known. However, all sorts of characters arrived in Ibiza in those years. All one has to do is mention here some more names such as the philologist, Walther Spelbrink, the ethnographer and architect, Alfredo Baeschlin, the Belgian painter Mèdard Verbugh, the writer, Albert Camus, the painter, Will Faber, the archaeologist, Schölten, the photographers, Raoul Haussman and Man Ray or the North American writer, Elliot Paul. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that that group of outsiders formed a true collective. Even though there is evidence that some of them knew about the others, owing to the fact that they were few in number, it cannot be said that they managed to form genuine communities. Once more, Benjamin is a privileged witness when he stated that, “Not long ago, when one arrived in Ibiza, the first thing that they would hear was, “With you, there are already so many other foreigners that we have here on the island”. In fact, those illustrious wanderers preferred personal retreat, if anything accompanied by their family or some friend, choosing as their preferred option the areasin the interior of the island.
That was not the case with Broner, who, right from the first moment, decided to live in the city. Something that meant going against the natural flow of the current, which was just how the phenomenon of assimilating the foreigners was taking place around the Pitiusan island. This fact reveals Broner’s clear social vocation and, above all, his determination not to be isolated. One can thus deduce that we are not dealing with a character that, virtually knocked out by current events, was attempting to run away from a world, his own, that was falling apart. Rather that, possibly, Broner’s case would be that of a person who was willingly affected by everything that was going on around him, by the journey too, and that, therefore, just as Benjamin said, in transformation.
A definite metamorphosis in his story brought about by the dramatic context that he had had to face up to but which, on the other hand, contributed to his own liberation. Thus, when the German authorities at that time confiscated all their assets in Germany, Erwin cast off his material past. Moreover, there was almost no solution in terms of continuity when the separation from his first wife occurred, freeing him from his emotional past. In these conditions, Broner saw himself, perhaps for the first time in his short life, truly free. And, faced with this situation, he goes with the flow, letting the island’s charms beguile him. His curiosity awakened, he took an interest in some of the most pressing subjects in contemporary Ibiza and, as the architect he was, in its architecture.
An architecture, by the way, that did not only seduce those who shared his line of work but was, rather, one of the island’s most fascinating treasures. Vicente Valero, who has made an in-depth study of the phenomenon of educated immigration that took place in Ibiza in the 1930s, does not hesitate to state that, “Nothing made such an impact on the traveller who arrived for the first time on the island of Ibiza as its rural architecture”. Indeed, it seems that everyone who disembarked on the island was fascinated by this secular architecture that had learned to perfect itself by means of a knowledge of handcrafts passed down from fathers to sons. An architecture that was “cooked slowly”, that had been capable—like none other—of integrating itself in its immediate natural surroundings. To such an extent that, now, the appearance of these modest constructions “complete” the landscape, transforming it into a genuinely Ibizan picture. They form one more part of Ibiza. “This architecture, lacking style or architect”, as he liked saying to Josep Lluis Sert, “came about entirely from artisanal know-how of an inherited kind whose origins are still the subject of disagreement today, one that was also admired by the traveller owing to its location: open spaces with terraces, stone walls, narrow paths, almond, carob and olive trees. The house was one more element in the landscape, and all together it offered, in the traveller’s eyes, a singular, mysterious and ancient beauty”.
Erwin, fascinated by the discovery of this primal architecture that was so well adjusted to the modern concepts, decides—as if it could be any other way— to carry out an in-depth study of the subject. It is then that he “soaks up” this architecture that amazes him; the very same one that shines because it has been polished by the passage of time. In this way, and accompanied by Richard v. Waldkich, he was to go all over the island by bicycle taking photos of the traditional houses that he came across, taking notes and measurements of those constructions. It was a priceless learning exercise that would probably seal the union between Erwin and the island definitively. His friend the painter, Erwin Bechtold, remembers that episode as Broner’s first steps around Ibiza: “First, he wanted to clarify his ideas in order to be able to follow the charming traces of those rural constructions. And how could Erwin Broner, the architect, do it better than by measuring from the outset widths and heights, depths and openings full of common sense as doors and windows? That is to say, getting to know inside out the proportions and the conditions that made them possible. A reserve of original architecture that could be understood as the authentic incarnation of its genius loci. An unusual and suggestive architecture thanks to its archaic modernity and, for that reason, surprising. Surprising too owing to the extent that it had attained a lack of awareness in the informed architectural world of that time, and surprising because of the mastery that it shows. In Broner’s own words: “These Ibicencan farmers’ dwellings constitute a surprise for the modern architect who is obliged to solve complicated problems of technical, social and functional order, and who is enthused by the simplicity and ease that these countryside constructions present”.
However, at this point, it should be pointed out that Broner was not the first one to approach this architecture from an educated perspective. Sometime before, many curious eminent figures had travelled around the island intent on studying such a phenomenon. The philologist, Walther Spelbrink, wanted to approach Ibizan dwellings through a lexicographical study. Or the example of the archaeologist, Adolph Schulten, who, after visiting Ibiza in the 1920s, returned at the beginning of the 1930s to study the island’s Phoenician ancestry. In this list, the number of photographers who, camera in hand, took pictures of Pitiusan architecture, and customs stands out, among them the Guadalajaran, José Ortiz Echagüe, the Catalans, Adolf Mas and Leopoldo Plasencia, the German, Gustav von Estorff or the Croat, Mario von Bucovich.
Nonetheless, what was new about Broner’s study is that it was carried out by an architect. An architect who, what is more, had been trained in Germany in the very latest modernity. And that is what lent this study the significance and impact that it holds: its pioneering status. Josep Lluis Sert himself acknowledges it like this:
“In 1933, a German architect got in touch with our group GATCPAC in Barcelona. He was writing to us from the island of Ibiza, almost unknown then, and he sent us a series of photographs and plans that turned out to be a revelation for our group. It was the architecture that we were all looking for, the architecture of the TRUTH. Some colleagues from our group as well as the dear friend, Joan Prats, had already visited Ibiza shortly before. But Erwin Broner had gone before us and, in addition, he had gone all over the island by bicycle, documenting his exploration, something that none of us had done”.
In some way, that foreign guy who had just arrived in Ibiza swiftly became thanks to the power of his knowledge complicit in the reality of the place. That outsider had found his way into the island’s interior and had investigated its secrets. For all that, Broner now knows his new physical, cultural and social surrounding, and he is ready to take the reins of his new life .
The physical geography, fascinating without a doubt, came to fit perfectly into the traditional, romantic Central European ideal (so typical of the era) of retiring to an isolated place in the South where one could devote one’s time to painting. Endless summers, warm waters and dazzling light were, without a doubt, powerful attractions. Also, the human geography that, just as it has been shown, was perhaps even more suggestive. All of that along with economic conditions that were hard to find anywhere else in the world and, why ever not, an architectural setting that benefitted from knowledge that was able to awaken the curiosity of the German architect. It may be that we can now comprehend the smile that Broner presented to the camera in 1934. In spite of being exiled. In spite of abandoning his past and being deprived of his assets. In spite of losing his wife, or of facing the contingencies of a future marked by uncertainty, Broner now enjoys full freedom, perhaps greater than that which he would never have been able to achieve in his native Germany.Read more Close