CLAUS BERGEN WAS BORN IN STUTTGART ON 18 APRIL 1885 AND WAS BROUGHT UP IN MUNICH. HE WAS NO STRANGER TO ART AND THE ARTISTIC CIRCLE BACK IN THE DAY. INDEED, HE EXPERIENCED NOTHING OTHER THAN THAT DURING HIS YOUTH. HE WALKED DOWN AN UNENCUMBERED PATH OF THE ‘CAREER PAINTER’ AS FIRST SON OF FRITZ BERGEN, A POPULAR PAINTER AND ILLUSTRATOR IN THE GERMAN EMPIRE. GIFTED WITH TREMENDOUS TALENT, HE ENJOYED AN ACADEMIC ART FORMATION IN MUNICH UNDER THE WINGS OF MORITZ WEINHOLD, OTTO STRÜTZEL, HANS VON BARTELS AND CARL VON MARR, LANDSCAPE AND GENRE PAINTERS. THE ONLY UNUSUAL QUIRK OF YOUNG CLAUS WAS HIS PENCHANT FOR MARINE PAINTING WHICH, ADMITTEDLY, COULD NOT COUNT BAVARIA NOR MUNICH AS ITS STRONGHOLDS.
Claus Bergen’s illustrations for Karl Mays Illustrierte Reiseerzählungen (Karl May’s Illustrated Travel Accounts) are less well-known and were published in December 1907. The artist produced 440 illustrations as book cover vignettes, colourful gouaches as frontispieces, black and white gouaches as insets, and pen-and-ink drawings as text illustrations. Among connoisseurs, he’s still considered as the most sensitive representative of the fantasy world of Karl May up to this very day.
Claus Bergen has been considered the painter of the biggest naval artillery massacre in marine history.
Bergen made a name for himself from 1909 with his sentimental paintings of Polperro, a fishing harbour on the Cornish coast. A copious amount of paintings depicting the fishing harbour, its people, and fishing boats are the result of countless stays in a studio in Polperro in the following years until the Great War broke out. Despite their steep prices the paintings of English fishermen, which were awarded gold medals at the exhibitions, sold well. Bergen was in Wilhelmshaven by sheer chance when the imperial fleet returned from the naval massacre of the Battle of the Skagerrak in 1916.
As the first marine painter, he speaks with members of the crew, understands their emotions and sees ‘proud’ and bullet-riddled ships. Since then, Claus Bergen has been considered the painter of the biggest naval artillery massacre in marine history. Difficult times loom for marine painters after World War One. However, Claus Bergen’s artistic skill was so convincing and outstanding that he was offered impressive commissions. He was invited to the maiden voyage of the COLUMBUS steamer ships as well as being asked to produce twelve monumental paintings depicting the history of seafaring for the expansion of the German Museum in Munich. They brought him fame, honour and recognition, and, above anything else, financial independence.
His acquaintance with the commanders-in-chief of the German Navy, the Kriegsmarine, Raeder and Dönitz secure him the attention of the navy until 1945. However, while later chroniclers see the painter as a propaganda pusher, that role doesn’t quite fit Claus Bergen. Even the yearly presence of some paintings adhering to certain dictates of the time from his atelier in Lenggries at the big German art exhibitions cannot discredit his life’s work. In autumn 1943, non-commissioned officer Hans Willy Bernartz, a later cofounder of the German Seafaring Museum in Bremerhaven, asks Claus Bergen to repaint a work which was burnt to ashes during a bomb raid.
Bergen had reservations regarding the ownership of the ‘insignificant picture’ but this first contact is the seed of a friendship between patron and artist that will grow, and continue with peaks and throughs for twenty years.
The surviving correspondence between the two documents Bergen’s chaotic post-war life. The last battle of the battleship Bismarck is one of Bergen’s most well-known pictures. The donation of the Montanindustrie to the Marineschule in Mürwik is one of the mountain paintings he donated; this list of donated works also includes the Atlantic Room Mural given to John F. Kennedy. The picture reached Washington just days before his assassination in Dallas. Bergen hoped the speedboat captain he admired could have had at least seen his picture before dying. It’s still unclear whether Kennedy saw the painting, and the same state of unclarity applies to some events following Bergen’s surprising death on 4 October 1964. The wasted opportunities to make his work accessible to a wider audience and the repatriation of paintings ‘originating’ from the USA are exciting pieces of information about Bergen’s unfinished works which have been published for the first time in the monograph by Jörg-M. Hormann und Eberhard Kliem Claus Bergen – Marinemaler beider Weltkriege (Claus Bergen – Marine Painter of both World Wars).