Ellen Marga Schmidt was a regular visitor to Erna Heinen-Steinhoff’s salon at the Black House in Solingen. In 1982, the author and journalist wrote an essay “One Place - and One reality” about her visit to the salon shortly after the end of the war, which was published in “News from the Friends of Erwin Bowien Society” (issue no. 05 - 1982).
Below are some extracts from the essay:
“... Albeit in a backdrop of material paucity in almost every respect, or even because of it, that short time between the end of the Second World War and the Paris treaties, the first in which the Federal Republic of Germany participated as a political entity, became, at least in hindsight, an era of budding hope and new beginnings... Even before the great step towards currency reform (1948), a newly compiled group of journalists, writers and those who felt it was their calling, met at the moated castle of Hackhausen near Solingen-Ohligs. There were well-known names at the centre of proceedings. Readings, prose, and poems. People listened and scrutinised attentively, rejected hesitantly and approved many proposals. At the end of the meeting, a rotund, just about medium-sized man stood up. This was Erwin Bowien. He proposed the Heinen family home (the Black House) in Solingen-Höscheid as the next meeting place and invited all attendees there with great enthusiasm.
And so it began: from the tram stop on the hill, a gathering of people made their way one by one and in groups along the sloping Neuenkamperstrasse to the second meeting of this writers’ conference.
After alternating views of forests and mountain ridges and a bend in the road, they finally reached the Bergisch-style timber-framed house: with its two-storey front facing the old trees on the street, its white, triple-split window frames, green shutters and in the background the narrow red brick building and two old sailing boats resting and drifting simultaneously. Opposite, on the other side of the street further in the distance, lay the actual district of the town. Images emerge of complex memories of this meeting, fleeting, blurry, no longer tangible – difficult to classify. However, distinct and familiar over the years that follow were the Heinen family and their friend Erwin Bowien.
No important thought nor interesting statement is lost on this nimble artist, who gladly sits on the sidelines, sketching with quick, assured strokes. His occasional mocking interjections seem to stimulate him and indeed break through his counterpart’s reserve, granting him visibility as he emerges. Then, his dark eyes take hold like those of a hunter, and in the quick glance up from the pad to the person before him, between sarcasm and bonhomie, proximity and a distance only broken at the rarest of moments, the picture emerges through the command: “Speak, so that I can see”.
Hanns Heinen, the head of the family and master of the house, journalist, writer of as of then unpublished poetry and prose, slim in stature (although heavier in later years), with light hair a consistently fresh face, ordinary rimless glasses, restrained gesture, a quiet voice, “actually”, as he once said describing himself, “an idyllic man.” His wife, Erna Heinen-Steinhoff, free, facing all before her, the woman in the large oil painting, a wilderness in grey, with a bright face, today as back then.
The two sons, Hans-Theo, the elder, the same style as his father; Gunther, dark and firm, more his mother’s son, leave the gathering after a fleeting yet interesting visit.
Soon afterwards, once finished with her cello practice upstairs, enters Gabriele, the elder daughter. The beautiful, dark young girl with long black braids greets the guests in a quiet, friendly manner and places the large instrument in the corner next to the piano before carefully retreating into the background to observe.
And, as if whirling into the room with the slam of the front door, Bettina enters, who is some years younger than Gabriele, barely twelve. Quickly finding her bearings, she searches for “Mummy” and is lovingly received upon finding her. Her tumultuous entry evokes general smirking around the room. Half flattered and half disapprovingly, she enjoys the formal attention. Her face, which is still stretching out as she grows, moves from hesitant, fumbling liveliness to an equally profound yet dangerous vital gift. She remains quietly tense for a few moments and inspects those present through her grasping dark eyes above her short nose and delicate mouth. Then, as the general discussion resumed, she shakes a loose copper-toned lock of hair away from her forehead and throws her heavy braids onto her back with a seemingly habitual motion before running off as quickly as she came in.
A first hospitable invitation that evening. It was getting late in the small gathering. Discussions deepen, ideas and locations emerge more clearly... Long after midnight, when asked about his background, he (Hanns Heinen) tells us. His family’s origins near the Dutch-German border are almost disregarded when faced with the formative forces of the Bergisch landscape and his schooldays, early literary inclinations and first poems. Formative locations of the study: Münster, the old Bonn, professional beginnings Not spoiled by abundance and often forced to make narrow choices, he was constantly concerned by the economic balance of both spiritual and material existence. He describes his years living at the old mill house in the valley between the Wupper mountains with his wife Erna, two young sons, Erwin Bowien and a flow of ever-welcome guests as happy, fulfilling years! “BO”, as the Norwegian writer Signrid Undset, affectionately called the painter Bowien, whom she had remained close to over the years, carefully sets aside his pad and pencil, leans back in relaxation and contributes his own – mainly amusing memories – to which Erna Heinen-Steinhoff provides commentary.
Meanwhile, Hanns Heinen is immersed in a light doze, as he would later be known to do when listening to music or speeches late at night, due to constant overstrain and the fatigability of his delicate constitution. Nevertheless, he remains present in the current discussion. As Bo once again reaches for his pencil and sketches his seemingly slumbering friend, Erna Heinen-Steinhoff complies with his wishes and reads one of Hanns’ poems before they all retire to bed.
As he often does, Bo has departed on one of his painting trips to Switzerland, to his childhood home, or to Weil am Rhein on this side of the border, where his mother lives. At this late morning hour, the girls are still at school, the boys are elsewhere. Stepping into the dim hallway, whose floors are paved with stonework which radiates coldness, one notices the faint smell of apples, of paint and old wood. Directly to the right of the front door is Bo’s studio. Up the curved wooden staircase, in the large bright room above the overgrown garden is where Hanns Heinen works. To the left of the house’s central front door is the spacious living room, where family, friends and guests meet to dine and discuss. Above the beautiful grained wood credenza, the large oil painting sits in a dominant position over the room: Erna Heinen, late 30s. Coat, hat and gloves in nuanced soft grey tones. A bright face under a dark raincoat. Distant and still in the approach of the smiling movement and fading into the rising evaporating smoke of a loosely held cigarette. The ceiling is not high, visible beams bear the weight all the way up to the divided garden windows, a piano, in one corner and comfortable furniture to sit on. In the depths of the room, behind a heavy, bright curtain, is the room occupied by Erna Heinen-Steinhoff with a few objects: essentials for reading, writing, books. View from the window over old trees and further over the hills.
To enter the home of the daughter of the future headmaster Steinhoff, of Mamms, as she is known to family and close friends or Amiela, as Bo calls her, alluding to the Swiss philosopher and writer Henri Frederic Amiel and his philosophical diaries, stands as the source of comprehension, and in matters of dispute, an often common regulator. To enter the home of Erna Johanna Heinen-Steinhoff, as she likes to sign letters, even to close friends, is at the same time to enter a thematically wide-ranging intellectual space, open on many sides, in which knowledge and contradiction, thesis and antithesis form her appropriate creative expression, the constructed, the lasting: the aphorism. A flowing consciousness of the making of mankind, the simultaneity of origins and downfalls: the early advanced cultures of the Orient and their reflections in epic and law, Hellas and its art, Plato, Greek poetry, remain associated with the sense-giving event... In the evening, Bo comes home. Hurried steps in the hallway, and the front door closes. No sooner could he put his luggage in the studio, he whirls, balls into the room. Wearing an indeterminable brown-colour suit, bicycle clips on his trouser legs, he makes the rounds swift-footedly: a gentle touch here, an attentive scrutinising glance there, a word, a joke. As he takes a seat at the table, he begins to tell his latest stories in between two bites of food, interrupting himself repeatedly with snorts of laughter.
All his stories, so different in experience, are alike in one sense: the focus is the human being and their abundance of possibilities. And it is always the painter who sees, recounts, at times behind a pretence of frivolity that seeks to hide a passionate sympathy and consternation which soon disperses. Just as he satirises human error with great delight, often for general amusement - his large, dark eyes under his bushy eyebrows that reach down to the corner of his temples and the vertical wrinkles above the root of his nose remain unmoving, he can also get excited, fiercely defensive and accusatory in social engagements.
... The friends: Erna, smilingly inquiring about an exaggerated expression, calmly brushing off the exaggeration, Hanns Heinen rejecting with friendly ridicule that which is improper to his nature, Gabriele’s specific questions as she looks at new pictures and drawings with great concentration, and Bettina asking for the books. Yes, of course he brought them! Naturally! And Robin Hood, for sure!
He has also run an errand for the young daughter-in-law who lives with son Hans-Theo and the children in the red brick house. Erna helped bring their youngest son into the world before the doctor’s late arrival, showing no fear and providing a sure hand. He searches for and finally finds the requested item in the unfathomable depths of his baggy jacket pocket... Bo picks up his pencil, turns to Gabriele and begins working.
The house and garden are remote. The life clock has run out, brought out from the sunken, the overshadowed, yet the remains testify for all who were allowed to partake in the formative powers of a cosmos that is constantly forming anew, shaping itself anew beyond its allotted time and “in the flight of apparitions” one place – and one reality.
Ellen Marga Schmidt, Usingen, 1982