Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Age of Innocence - Part 1

QUESTION: My mother collected Hummel figurines for a long time. Now I have her collection. Frankly, I don’t know anything about these little figures of children, other than what little I’ve read or heard. Can you give me some background about my Hummels? I’d like to continue collecting them, but have no idea where to start.

ANSWER: You’re in the same boat as a lot of other people who inherit collections from their parents. Some sell them off because they have no interest in them, but others, like yourself, want to continue collecting. However, since you weren’t involved in the original collection, it’s hard to pick up where someone else left off. One thing you must remember: Your mother’s Hummel collection is now your collection. And the first thing you need to do is learn as much as you can about your Hummels, so you can make educated decisions when growing or culling your collection.

Hummel figures have long been one of the world’s top collectibles, though interest in them has waned a bit in recent years. The artist who created these endearing figurines, Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, was inspired by her love and understanding of children.

Born Berta Hummel on May 21, 1909, in the Bavarian village of Massing to Adolf and Viktoria Hummel, who owned a general store. She had two brothers and three sisters. When her father was young, he wanted to become an artist but gave that up to run the family business. To make up for it, he made sure that art and music were part of his family’s life. Berta’s mother gave her the nickname, “das Hummele,” which means the “little busy bee,” because Berta was always buzzing from one creative pursuit to another.

One of her teachers at the Massing Grammar School, Sister Theresa, encouraged Berta to pursue her art and helped her gain admission to the Institute of English Sisters, a boarding school in the town of Simbach, about 20 miles from her home. While there, Berta spent hours sketching the surrounding mountain countryside. It was then that her parents noticed the intensity of Berta’s commitment to her art work. 

From there Berta went to the Academy of Applied Arts in Munich in 1927. During this time, Germany was in political and economic upheaval. Although Berta’s attendance at the school placed great financial hardship on her family, she studied in one of the best art programs offered in Europe at the time. From the Academy, it was only a short walk to the Alte Pinakothek, one of the most famous art museums in Bavaria, where Berta discovered the old masters.

While Berta was living in the Holy Family Dormitory, she became close friends with two Franciscan sisters from a convent at Siessen,. near the town of Saulgau in the Swabian Alps. They told Berta about the art classes taught at the convent, and she began considering joining it.

Berta entered the Siessen Convent on April 22, 1931, where as a Franciscan postulate she taught art to young children. Berta Hummel received her habit of the sisters of Third Order of Saint Francis on August 20, 1934, and was given the name Sister Maria Innocentia. As a nun, the feelings of innocence would always be part of her artistic life.

Soon a small religious publishing house, ver Sacrum, became interested in her work that included religious illustrations with children. It was also at this time that people throughout Germany and the rest of Europe began noticing her work, due to ver Sacrum’s distribution of her art cards depicting children in religious scenes. She even collaborated on a children's book entitled, The Hummel Book, with Margareta Seeman, who wrote the verse.

Since Sister Maria had taken a vow of poverty, she had no interest in profiting from her art. Instead, the publishing house set up a trust fund to receive royalties, which could then be used by the convent to pay for religious activities. Ver Sacrum also agreed to give Sister Maria final approval on all items they produced, before production began.

The first M.I. Hummel figurines appeared on the market in March 1935. Her art appealed to the masses because people could see a little bit of themselves in her work.

But in 1937, the Nazis said  that Sister Maria’s art wasn’t consistent with their goals. But they let her continue to work on it, nonetheless. She continued to create art in her studio on the second floor of the Siessen Convent. However, in 1938 her health began to fail.

In October of 1940 the Nazis expropriated the convent and sent most of the nuns to their own homes and families. However, Sister Maria stayed behind with 40 other sisters. Food, living conditions and especially the heating of the convent buildings was less then adequate. And medical and art supplies  were nearly impossible to find.

During the fall of 1944, Sister Maria Irmocentia Hummel developed pleurisy, but she continued to live and work at the convent until the war ended. When her health would allow it, she would continue with her art. She provided inspiration to the other sisters who stayed on at the convent through those difficult times: The tubercular lung infection that took so much of her strength eventually got worse, and she became weaker. She died on November 6, 1946, at the age of 37.

Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel left a rich heritage of over 500 sketches and paintings. And her work lives on today in countless collections throughout the world.

NEXT WEEK: The other side of the story—the creation of the figurines, themselves.

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