Werner Berg was born on 11 April 1904 in Elberfeld, which today is part of the German city of Wuppertal. He was the youngest of four children.
Werner Berg's grandfather Theodor Berg was a merchant and plumber who had founded a business in the city's center. His second son Josef, Werner Berg's father, would have liked to become a secondary school teacher in order to pursue his humanistic interests, but after his older brother's suicide, he was forced to break off his schooling at the Gymnasium and reluctantly begin a practical apprenticeship in the family business he would inherit.
The destiny of his uncle, who had wanted to become a painter but had not been able to realize this aspiration within his restrictive bourgeois surroundings and had been driven to suicide, made a strong impression on the young Werner Berg. The rejection of the «bourgeoisie«, of the «conventions, this ravenous human epidemic» and of all capitalist values, which steered Werner Berg's later life, may well have originated in these formative early impressions.
His mother Clara, née an der Heiden, was the daughter of a tannery owner. Her grandfather Moritz had been left behind as a foundling «an der Heiden» (literally «on the heath») by fleeing French aristocrats in 1808.
Courageously, the mother had at the age of twenty-one already journeyed to the Leipzig trade fair in order to establish contacts to toy manufacturers. Thus in the 1890s she was successful in transforming the family plumbing business into what soon became a flourishing toy store. Before the first World War, the store's profits enabled the family to build a comfortable four-story house with spacious facilities for the business. Thus Berg's artistically inclined father was able to retire into a secure private existence that was devoted to his many interests and honorary offices. In his open-minded youngest son he awakened a love of the arts. Throughout his entire life Werner Berg was accompanied by the verse of Claudius, Brentano, Mörike, C. F. Meyer, J. P. Hebel and many others, who he later enjoyed reciting aloud to his family and quoted as he painted.
As he was growing up, the young Berg perceived his mother as the guiding force of his parental household. The stability of this existence was profoundly shaken by the first World War. The younger of his two brothers, Alfred, fell in one of the Battles of the Marne. Among the war's casualties were also his sister's fiancé and the family shop's first journeyman, who had been taken in by the family as one of its own. Berg's older brother Walter was taken prisoner in France and listed as missing in action for years. Deeply afflicted by these hard blows of destiny, Berg's father died in 1917.
The family was literally faced with ruin. Under these circumstances Werner Berg was forced to give up his desire to become a painter, instead obeying his mother's wish that he begin a merchant's apprenticeship in an industrial company after his secondary school graduation. His new employer valued Berg's competence and soon entrusted him with maintaining business contacts on account of his skills in foreign languages. It was even plannend that he would take over the management of the company's branch offices in South America.
Thanks to Clara Berg's business acumen, the family survived the difficult period following the war. In 1923 Werner Berg was able to begin his business studies in Cologne. Attracted by advertising posters luring «German students to the threatened Ostmark», he went to Vienna one year later. He registered for the political science program directed by Othmar Spann, whose theories later were co-opted by both the Austrian fascist state and by the National Socialists for their ideologies. Werner Berg was impressed by his teacher - «he had the effect of the Pied Piper's Flute» - and was soon able to win his special trust.
In December 1924, Berg met a fellow university student named Amalie «Mauki» Kuster, who would later become his wife. She came from a Viennese «dairy farmer» family that lived in Hütteldorf on the city's west edge. Soon Berg was happy to help out at his future in-laws’ farm. Together with Mauki and her sister Maria «Mirl», he traveled and went on long hikes.
After having received his doctorate cum laude in 1927 - the theme of his dissertation was «The Kinetic Problem in Society, State and Economy» - he was set to begin his university career as an assistant in Vienna. In the meantime, however, his mother's toy store was again flourishing and secured the family's material existence. This allowed Werner Berg to abandon his university career and realize the yearning to become a painter that he had carried since childhood.
Mauki, who received her doctorate in the same year as her partner, supported his ideas without reservation. Together, the young couple decided that they would later settle in the country as farmers.
In the autumn of 1927, Werner Berg entered the Vienna Academy as a pupil of Karl Sterrer. There he befriended Rudolf Szyszkowitz, Leopold Birstinger und Ferdinand Stransky, who all were close to the Bund Neuland (New Land Alliance - a Catholic renewal movement). Berg, who yearned for a free artistic existence, suffered under his teacher's stubborn strictness and thus transferred to the Munich Academy in 1928, where he became a pupil of Karl Caspar.
Werner Berg's years as an art student were marked by many journeys abroad. In 1925 and 1926 he was in Asia Minor for an extended period of time, where he also pursued the business interests of several companies from his hometown of Elberfeld. In the summer of 1927 he traveled to the North Sea with Mauki and to Norway, where he met Edvard Munch. During the following winter he completed a skiing course in St. Christoph am Arlberg. Throughout the summer and into the autumn of 1928, Berg was out wandering through the mountainous Lungau and Tauern regions with his companions Leopold Birstinger and Rudolf Szyszkowitz - «on the tramp» as they half jokingly referred to their emulation of the vagabonds of bygone days.
In October 1928, the artist's first daughter, Ursula, was born in Salzburg. The young couple was completely left to its own resources, and numerous works from this period and the two following years deal with themes of taking flight, being on the road and searching for quarter. Berg planned to settle on a farm in the Lungau.
At the Academy in Munich Berg primarily created compositional studies. Karl Caspar's preferred method of painting stressed a heavy, gestural brushstroke like that found in the late work of Lovis Corinth, who was admired and revered by the young artists.
In the summer months of 1929, Werner Berg traveled to Carinthia for the first time in order to visit a school friend, the poet Curt Sachsse. Educated, well-read and artistically inclined, Sachsse was an early «dropout» who sought to live a life in the country, for which purpose he had completed an agricultural training program in Köcking near Eberndorf. Berg stayed with his partner and daughter in Steinerberg near Lake Klopeiner. The landscape and people of Southern Carinthia fascinated him.
In April 1930, Werner and Mauki Berg were married. The young family stayed in Carinthia through the summer and into autumn. Berg was looking to buy a farm and did so. Soon thereafter he heard that the Rutarhof, a farm on the southwestern corner of a plateau above the Drava River Bends near the Anna Bridge, was for sale. Berg visited the farm and was overpowered by the beauty and isolation of its location. Due to irregularities on the part of the seller of the farm in the valley, Berg was able to back out of the contract and buy the Rutarhof instead.
With twenty-two hectares of land, the Rutarhof was a small farm on barren conglomerate and gravel terraces high above the valley that had been smoothed by Ice Age glaciers. The wood shingled house had no electricity or running water at the time, and it remained so into the 1960s. Its conditions of agricultural production hardly differed from those of past centuries, and yet Werner Berg, his wife and his poet friend Curt Sachsse were together looking for a life of immediate experience with a meaning in and of itself. This search for and encounter with meaning on the Rutarhof enabled him and his family to endure the many deprivations and exertions that such a life entailed. He wanted to live the life of a farmer despite all of the limitations it put on his painting. Having learned during his university years and during the months spent out on the tramp to be satisfied with modest resources, he was happy to be able to live a life outside of bourgeois conventions. The farm's production also enabled him to remain unconstrained by the demands of the art business.
His mother and mother-in-law, who had initially reacted to the young couple's decision with despair and shown little understanding, were soon active in supporting the project.
In March 1931, Werner Berg moved to the Rutarhof with his family and his friend Curt Sachsse. Above an old sheep stable he built a studio with large windows facing north. His second daughter Klara was born.
In settling on the Rutarhof, Werner Berg broke radically with everything that he had learned at the academy. Under the influence of Emil Nolde, with whom he began a correspondence, he pursued a style of painting that emphasized flatness, intense colors and a consciously primitive approach. The points of departure for his paintings were small sketches in which the essential ideas of the image had already been formulated. Filled with wonder at the primal nature of life in his Slovene-speaking surroundings, he recorded it in his sketches and in the oil paintings, watercolors and woodcuts that followed them. Programmatic considerations led him to make the woodcut his sole technique for creating prints. From the selection of the wood, first growing and then cut, up to the actual hand manipulation of the press, he wanted to control every aspect of the work. A depiction of the farm was the first woodcut he considered a valid work of art. With an oil painting, which also showed a view of the farm, he participated in the exhibition at the Munich Glass Palace. This painting perished in a fire that destroyed the structure and many artistic masterworks.
The City Museum in Elberfeld and the Folkwang Museum in Essen presented Werner Berg’s first solo exhibitions.
In January 1932, Werner Berg traveled to Berlin at Emil Nolde’s invitation. His reports home were enthusiastic: Emil and Ada Nolde were very hospitable and also introduced him to the painter Werner Scholz. Through Nolde, Berg also met the director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Heinrich Becker, who became one of his first supporters and soon showed him together with Werner Scholz and other young artists in a well-received exhibition.
Ursel and Werner Scholz visited the Rutarhof in June of 1933. For Werner Berg such visits were not random happenings: they were intended to impart a complete concept of life on a farm that could only be reached by a toilsome trip on a horse-drawn wagon, and in combination with the artworks he produced there, they were intended to communicate all of his decision’s implications.
In 1933 Berg again traveled to Berlin to visit Emil Nolde, who valued the young artist and at the same time took care not to influence him too much.
For an exhibition of religious art on the occasion of the Catholic Congress in Vienna, Werner Berg submitted a fivepiece alter painting. It had originally been intended for a nunnery in Bavaria, but the nuns had rejected it as being too modern. The jury in Vienna also rejected the work with its strong colors and heavy flatness. Although Catholicism, figures praying in the church, church interiors and priests retained a key role in Berg's further work, he never again dealt with a biblical theme and also stopped accepting commissions – with the exception of his work as a war painter in Scandinavia.
In January 1934, the renowned Berlin gallery Von der Heyde – formerly Hartmann: its Jewish owner had been forced to give it up in 1933 after the National Socialist takeover – presented a solo exhibition of Werner Berg's work that went on to be shown at a number of German venues. The exhibition enjoyed considerable acceptance in the press, but also met with hearty rejection on account of its «colors slapped on with a most brutal and unambiguous stroke.»
In a state of extreme nervous tension, Werner Berg broke off the contact to his «fatherly friend» Emil Nolde. What exactly caused him to do this remains unclear to this day; his later reference to Emil and particularly Ada Nolde's nearness to the National Socialists is not conclusive. Berg, in fact, also had National Socialists supporters: Wilhelm Rüdiger, director of the Kunsthalle Chemnitz, and the journalist Erwin Bauer, who wrote for the Nazi controlled «Völkischer Beobachter». The artist's reception in 1934 ranged from a full-page article by Erwin Bauer in the «Völkische Beobachter» praising his work to statements of total rejection in other National Socialist periodicals. In his letters from this period, Berg expressed neither approval or rejection of National Socialism, instead being fundamentally alienated by the vicissitudes of urban social life. Emil Nolde faced a life-threatening illness and a short time later was forced to undergo a major stomach operation. Werner Berg missed the deeper critical discussion of his work that Emil Nolde had offered. Always insecure and yet inwardly convinced of the path he was pursuing, Berg expected nearly unconditional approval and later continued have such expectations of contacts relating to his work. «Defiant and uncompromising,» was how Curt Sachsse characterized him in an exhibition catalog. His friendship with Ursel and Werner Scholz also broke up.
In June, Berg's son Veit was born at the Rutarhof. Ann Kuster, the «Vienna grandma», with her heavy, staid appearance a favored model of the early years, suffered a stroke at the farm and died shortly thereafter in Vienna.
In autumn of 1934, Werner Berg began a correspondence with Herbert Boeckl, an artist ten years his senior who valued the younger artist's work and immediately wanted it to be shown at the exhibition for the Austrian State Prize. From the very beginning, Berg saw the difficulties that his work would face in finding understanding in the Viennese art scene. His almost monochromatic painting «The Dead Child» was praised as being the most modern work of the entire State Prize Exhibition, but went unmentioned in the Viennese press.
In the course of National Socialist reprisals against the Austrian state, which was under the rule of a fascist government but had remained independent of the Third Reich, Werner Berg was denied any possibility of transferring money from his savings in Elberfeld. The farm's meager production, the difficult situation for marketing agricultural products, and urgently needed repairs to the house and farming equipment combined to put the family under severe economic strain. The original idea of financing the Rutarhof project by selling paintings became unworkable due to the increasingly limited possibility of selling Expressionist art in Germany. The closure of a solo exhibition of Berg's work at the Kölner Kunstverein as «unbefitting of the people's well-being» was the first sign of the artist's later condemnation as a «degenerate artist». Nevertheless, Werner Berg received the sought-after Nuremberg Albrecht Dürer Prize the same year, in 1935. Herbert Boeckl congratulated him and attempted to facilitate Berg's participation in the Brussels World Expo.
Herbert Boeckl spent the summer of 1935 in the immediate vicinity of the Rutarhof in the village Unterkrain. There Boeckl's daughter Eleonore was born. Berg's daughter Hildegard was born at the Rutarhof while the two painters were on an outing in Upper Carinthia. At the beginning of autumn, before Boeckl went to Vienna to become a professor at the Academy, the two artists parted ways. Again it remains unclear what led to the breakup of the friendship that both had intensely nurtured.
Soon Werner Berg found himself fully isolated: the remaining possibilities for showing his art at major venues were decimated in 1936. In 1935, Otto Benesch had bought several woodcuts for the Albertina in Vienna. When Director Buchner of the Munich Neue Staatsgalerie viewed a large selection of Berg's work for purchase in 1936, a stormy scene was initiated in which Hoffmann, an officer of the propaganda ministry who was known as Hitler's notorious «painting storm trooper », declared with outrage that Werner Berg's paintings must be «expunged» from German art. Berg was immediately shut out of the Reich Art Council, which in effect was a ban from the profession and a prohibition to paint or exhibit in Germany. The continuing refusal of bank transfers from Elberfeld was increasingly becoming an existential threat for Berg and his family. Eventually, after being advised to do so on numerous occasions, he joined the National Socialist Party's organization for foreigners. This enabled him to rejoin the Reich Art Council and protected him from continued hostility.
Curt Sachsse left the Rutarhof in 1936. The poet, who Werner Berg idolized, had fallen hopelessly in love with Mauki, and thus the only thing he could do was go away. Cast adrift, he spent several months in Germany before shooting himself on the death day of Heinrich von Kleist.
Dark shadows had crept over the Rutarhof project, which initially had begun with so much enthusiasm. Mauki was at times unable to hold up under the burdens of farm life and raising four children. She, who had also completed a university degree, was yoked like a maidservant to the hardships of the farmer's existence. Beyond being fully exhausted, she was in almost constant pain due to bad case of sciatica. Thus she left the Rutarhof for a longer period of time in order to manage estate affairs in Vienna and recover her strength on the cure at Bad Aibling.
Artistically, Werner Berg was also feeling unsettled. The lack of fruitful intellectual exchange was weighing down on him. He had already abandoned his programmatic emphasis on primitivism in 1935 at the time of Herbert Boeckl's visit, and starting in 1936 he was searching for a means of depiction that was closer to nature. The themes of his canvases, which now were less often composed in sketches and were mostly painted directly from nature, generally revolved around his family, the farm and the immediate surroundings. A soberly objective representation of rural life took the place of the artist's original fascination with an almost exotic archaism.
In 1937 Berg traveled to Paris for the World Expo, where he was disgusted by the German pavilion and the paintings of the Nazi painter Ziegler that were shown there.
In 1939 the travelling exhibition «Degenerate Art» was shown in Vienna, which like the rest of Austria had been annexed by the Third Reich in 1938. Werner Berg was represented by the painting «Barn at Night».
The German author Walter Bauer, who had met Werner Berg in 1937 and who would remain the artist's lifelong friend, visited the Rutarhof in 1939.
In September 1939, Werner Berg visited Geneva with his wife to see an exhibition of masterworks from the Prado, which had been taken out of Madrid due to the dangers of the Spanish Civil War. His friend Leopold Birstinger had been able to obtain reasonably priced lodgings for the couple, and a highranking National Socialist in-law had enabled them to undertake a journey abroad immediately before the start of the war. After the war's start, Berg voluntarily completed training in Klagenfurt to become a Red Cross medic so as to avoid placement in the armed forces if he were drafted.
In March 1940 Berg was called up for an army medical corps training program in St. Johann in Tyrol, but after its completion he returned to the Rutarhof. There his daughter Annette was born on 3 May 1940. Walter Bauer became her godfather.
In November 1940 Werner Berg participated in an exhibition at the Klagenfurter Kunstverein. His objective and precise depictions of the Carinthian landscape were received with particularly positive recognition in press accounts from Klagenfurt, where the «Degenerate» exhibition in Vienna was either unknown or unheeded. After so many years he finally was even able to sell a painting again.
In March 1941 Berg was drafted into the Wehrmacht as a medic, but after General Dietl had intervened he was dispatched to Norway as a battlefield painter at the end of April. The artist's landscapes had attracted the general's attention at the Kunstverein exhibition in Klagenfurt. Now he would also be depicting the landscape of the «far north» in his paintings.
«Since you have been given the chance, take it without worrying. Being a battlefield painter is not a nice idea, but it is up to you alone to make something out of it,» wrote his author friend Walter Bauer, who rejected both National Socialism and the war.
A short time later the order to appear for duty was retracted, with Berg being freed from service so that he could keep up the farm. It was not until June 1942 that he was stationed as a medic and battlefield painter on the front in the Finnish primeval forest.
«One witnesses events that are simply not to be overseen and that turn one's stomach and will conjure up an evil destiny for our people,» he wrote a few days after his arrival in Kiestinki on Top Lake to Nina Semmelrock, a teacher from Klagenfurt who was a trusted friend of the family.
In 1941 the young art journalist Trude Polley pleaded Werner Berg's case to influential National Socialist culture politicians in Carinthia. His participation in a large presentation of Carinthian artists in Salzburg was also planned, but in the end Berg's concentration on depictions of Carinthia's Slovene-speaking minority elicited the disapproval of Helmut Bradazcek, director of the Kärntner Landesgalerie, who was responsible for the exhibition's conception. Again, Werner Berg was not ready to make any concessions regarding his choice of subject. «They tell me that you are too revolutionary. You can be pleased: artistic effort that is not constantly experimenting must sooner or later get stuck in the habitual, not to say the ordinary,» wrote the author Josef Weinheber, who had been a friend of Berg's since 1936.
In 1943 as well, when Erwin Bauer and Wilhelm Rüdiger wanted to show Werner Berg's paintings in an exhibition of young German artists in Weimar's Goethe Museum, his participation was prevented by the objections of a «morality» commission that had been especially consulted in Berlin. «They say that this sort of painting would not only disrupt the exhibition, but that it would also give rise to major protests,» wrote Erwin Bauer. In February 1943, Werner Berg nonetheless opened an exhibition of his «Paintings from the Arctic Ocean Front and North Carrelia» at the Klagenfurter Kunstverein. The Albertina bought a drawing and a watercolor, and the Klagenfurter Landesgalerie bought an oil painting.
While Berg was home on leave, Josef Weinheber visited the Rutarhof and portrayed his friend in an intoxicated hour. Weinheber especially valued Werner Berg for the precise remarks he made about his poetry and dedicated his last work, «Here is the Word», to the artist.
A bombardment of Elberfeld destroyed Werner Berg's parents’ house. His sister Clara died in the attack. By coincidence his mother was at the Rutarhof, and from this time on she remained in Carinthia. Through this period Mauki was left alone to manage the farm, which repeatedly was the target of partisan raids. Miraculously, the studio with the artworks remained intact; the partisans would likely have used rolled up paper or canvas for torches.
At the beginning of 1944 the Galerie Welz in Vienna showed Werner Berg's landscapes from Norway and Finland. Commentaries in the press stressed the absence of military subjects and the artist's objective concentration on a cold.