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The Origins of Oktoberfest

Chicago is a town with deep Germanic roots, which should be especially obvious every September. Perhaps you've frequented the Brauhaus in Lincoln Square sometime over the last forty years, or wandered into the Berghoff's early outdoor Oktoberfest party last week underneath the refurbished Alexander Calder sculpture at the corner of Adams and Dearborn, or purchased a pretzel sandwich at Hannah's Bretzel. Yet the true harvest festival of rigorously-brewed, and copiously-quaffed Bavarian bier, gargantuan bretzels, endless bratwurst, ancient oompa-bands, and gloriously kitschy folk outfits from Dirndls to Lederhosen runs from September 22 to October 9 in Munich, Germany.  In honor of this august tradition, the Art Institute coffers have revealed two prints that celebrate these same simple, Germanic pleasures. Both predate Oktoberfest, but still herald cultural and culinary icons that would become central to the festival.

The first print, a tiny, anonymous Last Supper metalcut with hand coloring from a booklet chronicling the Passion of Christ probably dates to the early 1460s. It was unquestionably made in Bavaria, however, because of the idiosyncratic nature of what Christ and his Apostles are eating. While most depictions of this scene, (including those currently on view in Blood, Gold and Fire)depict the bread as a generic roll, or a crust taken from it as a communion wafer, here it is unquestionably a Bavarian bretzel, the heartiest pretzel known to man! The suggestion that this robust German staple was present at the symbolic first communion elevates it far above normal baked goods.

The second print, a charming 1779 etching by the prolific Daniel Chodowiecki, Pilgrimage to the Französisch Bucholz Spa near Berlin, is said to be a family portrait, if also a caricature. While fully intending to visit a popular relaxation spot near their home, they never actually did. Instead, the artist devised this amusing and somewhat sacrilegious image of how the party would have looked as they finally set out on the much-anticipated journey. As the title teases, the expedition would have become a full-blown pilgrimage, with all its religious associations subverted. Indeed, the foremost woman carrying a staff over her shoulder is shepherding along five sausage casings, and an enormous pretzel at the very tip, again, lifting this German specialty up to the heavens. The eyes of the rest of the party are inescapably drawn to it as they march forward. In contrast, the hidden bagpipes at the right behind the jugs of wine and Bundt pan suggest hanky-panky will ensue at their destination. In the center, the most obvious topsy-turvy note of all is the defecating donkey, a humble beast of burden that Christ himself rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Horses would be more closely linked to Oktoberfest, but all beasts of burden could easily transport beer barrels.

While pretzels, sausages, and beer were important to all German cities, not just Berlin and other Bavarian centers like Nuremberg and Munich, Oktoberfest proper originated in Munich some years later than Chodowiecki's print. On October 17, 1810, it began as a civilized celebration the wedding of the crown prince Ludwig (later Ludwig I) to the princess Theresa von Sachsen-Hildurghausen. The meadow (Wies'n) that was used for a thirty-horse race is still the location today, and is called the Theresienwiesen in honor of the bride. A dinner banquet was spread on the field after the race, which offered a first taste of the crush that awaits the unsuspecting Oktoberfest visitor today who lacks a seat reservation in one of the fairground's many tents. According to a soldier who published the first account of the original event in 1811, one Andreas Michel von Dall’Armi, “In a few blinks of the eye, the entire raceway, which had been nearly empty up to that point, was overflowing with people.” Although he does not specify the total number of pretzels and beer consumed, Dall'Armi needed a separate addendum to list the many toasts given in honor of the king, queen, crown prince and his bride.

Image Credits: The Last Supper and Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles, 1460–65. Artist unknown, Bavarian, 15th century. Clarence Buckingham Collection. Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki. Pilgrimage to the Französisch Bucholz Spa near Berlin, 1779. Gift of Alfred E. Hamill.