Special correspondents: Mondrian and the ‘skull measurer’

by Wietse Coppes

Fig. 1 Annie Bruin, Portrait of Alfred Waldenburg (detail), ca. 1912

In our regular feature ‘Special correspondents’ we take a closer look at individuals with whom Mondrian corresponded. This time we focus on an eccentric figure who was well known in the Dutch art world in the period 1910-1920, but afterwards completely disappeared from view: Alfred Waldenburg.

Remarkable and unknown
From about 1908 until his death in 1942, he was a well-known, indeed ever-present figure in artistic circles in Amsterdam, although nobody seemed to know anything about him. Only that he stopped you in the street if he thought that you had a ‘special’ skull, which he would then subject to careful measurements using his set of specially adapted instruments. And that he could be found asleep at Amsterdam Central station at the strangest moments, or wandering across the heath at Blaricum, where he lived from 1913 on, in an ‘unusually filthy and deeply miserable’ hut. His name was Alfred Waldenburg, a phrenologist from Germany, who was in contact with Mondrian for a period in 1909. A photograph taken by the Waldenburg in which Mondrian appears in an unusual pose, as well as a few mentions in his letters led us to take a closer look at the life of this remarkable but unknown figure.

Alfred Waldenburg had a whimsical appearance. He was usually to be seen in a cape and wearing a floppy felt hat. He had piercing eyes and a dark beard. His clothes were often falling apart, and this once led to him being prevented from getting on a tram because the conductor thought that he was a tramp. His profession was also anything but normal. As a medical student at the end of the nineteenth century he had devoted himself to the then still popular science of phrenology. Central to this discipline is the idea that the brain is composed of 27 different organs, each of which controls a specific developmental area. The size of a developmental area tells the phrenologist something significant about the individual’s particular predispositions and talents. One of the beliefs was that the size of the ‘brain organs’ determined the shape of the skull. Hence the phrenologist’s interest in measuring skulls, and the reason why Waldenburg soon came to be known as ‘the skull measurer’ in the area around Amsterdam.

Fig. 2 Alfred Waldenburg, Portrait of Piet Mondrian (left, 1909) and portrait of an epileptic patient from The Hague (1907)

Mondrian in an unusual pose
The letters Mondrian exchanged directly with Waldenburg have unfortunately been lost. The skull measurer does however turn up in letters to others, for the first time in April 1909, or thereabouts, in a letter from Mondrian to the violinist Aletta de Iongh. It seems that Waldenburg had visited Mondrian in his studio, where he saw a portrait drawing of De Iongh. Soon afterwards there followed a session of skull measuring, at which Waldenburg took portrait photographs of De Iongh as well as Mondrian. It took a few months before the photographs were ready. They show Mondrian in a mysterious pose, which in the past has repeatedly been connected with Mondrian’s spiritual interests. At that time he had joined the Theosophical Society and is thought to have taken up the practice of yoga and meditation. Not only is it unclear whether Mondrian ever practised meditation, but the photograph reflects Waldenburg’s profession rather than Mondrian’s esoteric interests. This is proven by a photograph of an epileptic woman from The Hague by Waldenburg from 1907, that turned up during my research. [fig. 2] In it we see a pose similar to the one assumed by Mondrian: the head in profile, and with the palm of one hand turned towards the camera and the back of the other. This was Waldenburg’s way of getting the shape of the head into the picture as well as the outside and inside of the hands, which also provided important information for his phrenological-anthropobiological research.

Fig. 3 Eelco ten Harmsen van Beek, Alfred Waldenburg giving a lecture at De Kring, 1923

In his later years Waldenburg, who himself was from Jewish descent, kept doing research focused especially on the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam. He was publishing very little in the way of results from his phrenological investigations which was by then regarded as a pseudoscience. He became a well-known figure in artistic circles, and rarely missed a meeting of important Jewish organisations, including the Society for Jewish Science in Holland (Genootschap voor Joodse Wetenschap in Nederland). From time to time he also gave lectures, for example at the artists’ society De Kring; a caricature was published that shows Waldenburg’s dishevelled appearance. [fig. 3] Waldenburg nonetheless remains largely unknown, indeed almost nothing is known about him before he arrived in Holland. The research into Waldenburg has brought to light interesting new information about his origins and early career. He was born into a prominent family of Berlin doctors and scientists, and he received his doctorate in 1902. In 1907 he was one of the speakers at the International Conference for Psychiatry, Neurology, Psychology and Care for the Mentally Ill held in Amsterdam. The conference lasted for several days and attracted specialists from all over the world. The impressive list of speakers included the psychiatrist Vladimir Bechterew and the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. Waldenburg’s choice of phrenology seems to have been really unfortunate. As the twentieth century proceeded, more and more questions were raised about the scientific value of the discipline. The decline of phrenology coincided with that of Waldenburg’s career. Notwithstanding his considerable fame in artistic circles in Holland, he froze to death all alone on the Blaricum heath in 1942, and was quickly forgotten.

In my article ‘De uitzonderlijke levenswandel van “schedelmeter” Alfred Waldenburg’ (The extraordinary life of the ‘skull measurer’ Alfred Waldenburg), which appeared in June 2020 in the new journal Rode Haring (www.rode-haring.nl), you can read more about Waldenburg’s origins, student days, career and friendship with Mondrian.