The bronze bust, fixed in place on a marble pedestal, was cast by the Bildgiesserei Frank Herweg foundry in Berlin Kreuzberg, working on the basis of a marble bust made in 1849 by the Leipzig sculptor Ernst Rietschel and now kept in the Mendelssohn Archive of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. The finished ensemble was donated to the Tiergarten district by the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft. In return, the district pledged to leave the bust permanently in place and to ensure that the monument’s surroundings would be properly maintained in manner befitting the honoree.
It was the composer’s widow Cécile who had commissioned Rietschel to sculpt her husband’s likeness shortly after his death. He did so using a death mask, and contemporaries were impressed by the bust’s verisimilitude. Rietschel himself was more critical of his work. Yet many modern viewers feel that this graceful and beautiful sculpture aptly captures the individual spirit and intellect of this composer to whom we owe so many musical masterworks.
In 2003, the Senate of Berlin decided to support the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft’s efforts to commemorate the prominent Berlin family and awarded a contract to the Gipsformerei Berlin replica workshop to create an additional, plaster cast of the bust. This has been on display ever since in the Säulensaal of the Berlin city hall, the Rotes Rathaus, amid Berlin’s other famous sons.
As the years passed, however, the bust’s location near the U-bahn station has proved to be more problematic than anticipated. The responsible district authorities were unable to guarantee the proper maintenance and cleaning of the bust and its pedestal, or to protect the monument from defacement with graffiti. There were increasing complaints from passers-by about the undignified state of the ensemble. In 2012, the square in front of the station was cleared of weeds by employees of the nearby office of the Tagesspiegel newspaper, working hand-in-hand with members of the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft. This effort, which was part of the volunteer cleanup initiative “A day of cleaning up my own city,” was able to remove the worst signs of neglect around the bust. Nonetheless, it remained apparent that the current site was less than ideal – an assessment with the district authorities also shared.
And so the Mendelssohn-Gesellschaft has been looking for suitable alternative locations that could allow a solution to be found over the medium term. In the meantime, the district has loaned the bust out to the Mendelssohn Gesellschaft to make it part of the permanent exhibit on the Mendelssohn family recently installed in the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof II cemetery near Hallesches Tor. It has been on display here, in the central display case of the exhibition chapel since early November 2013. For further details, please see the section on the new permanent exhibition.