Benno Elkan was born in 1877 in Dortmund. For a short time he worked as a merchant in Amsterdam and then enrolled in 1897 at the private art school of painter Walter Thor in Munich. In 1898 he joined the class of Johann Herterichs at the Munich Art Academy. After an interruption caused by his military service, he continued his studies of painting in 1901 under Friedrich Fehr in Karlsruhe.
While he focused on painting in his studies, Elkan worked as a sculptor early on, one of his first public works being the tomb sculpture Wandelnde / Wandering(1904). In Dortmund he met pianist Hedwig Einstein, the sister of art historian and theorist of modernism Carl Einstein (1885 — 1940). Elkan married Hedwig Einstein in 1907. Already in 1905 Elkan had gone to Paris, like many artists of his time. There he rented a studio and in the same year participated in an exhibition of the »Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.« He also met Auguste Rodin and eventually painter Jules Pascin. Soon he became friends with Pascin, whom he portrayed in 1909. Elkan did not join any of the artist groups that shaped the art scene of Paris at the time. Even if he created works like the tomb figure Flötenspieler / Flute Player(1906) that were close to the Jugendstil his tomb reliefs, mostly done for the Dortmund »Ostfriedhof« (cemetery), were still tied to antique models and followed the iconographic canon (Persephone, 1908; Todesgang / Walk Towards Death, 1910; Kniender Mann mit erloschener Fackel / Kneeling Man with Torch Extinct, 1910). In 1906 Elkan was able to show his sculptures for the first time in Dortmund. Most probably this was due to the support of his patron Karl Heinz Osthaus.
With his creation of medals, done as commissioned work, Elkan again focused on a more traditional sculptural genre. The many portrait reliefs provide a multi-faceted picture of the artistic and literary as well as political climate of Europe in the early 20th century. Elkan did official memorial medals for Hans Thoma (1909), Frank Wedekind (1914), Gerhard Hauptmann (1909), Alforns Paquet (1931) as well as for numerous representatives of the state and the industry in the Rhine and Ruhr region.
Elkan’s stay in Rome, from 1908 to 1911, and his journey through Italy strongly impacted on the sculptures and reliefs done during that time. His works now suggested influences of Italian art from the Renaissance, but also the involvement with antique architecture (Bergpredigt / Sermon on the Mount, 1909). At his new residence in the rural German Alsbach/Bergstraße, Elkan then worked on a memorial medal for Gustav Mahler, on portrait busts of Frank Wedekind and Alfred Flechtheim. He also created his first, large stone monument, to be installed at the Jewish cemetery in Mönchengladbach (Stein der Klage / Stone of Lamentation, 1912). In 1908, 1910, and 1912, Elkan participated in exhibitions in the Kunsthalle Bremen, and in 1915 in Wiesbaden.
In 1919 Elkan moved to Frankfurt and engaged in cultural politics. He became the chairman of the Künstlerrat (»Artist Council«), became a collector, published art theoretical contributions and artist books (»Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration« / »German Art and Decoration«; »Spanien. Von einem Künstler gesehen« / »Spain. Seen by and Artist,« 1926). In 1927 he also wrote the libretto for Ernst Toch’s opera »The Princess and the Pea.« Commissioned by the city, he initially worked on a monumental stele for a Mahnmal für die Opfer des I. Weltkrieges / Memorial for the Victims of World War I. However, the work was never completed. The earlier memorial sculpture that was installed as a substitute (Heldenklage / Hero»s Lament, 1913/14) became the subject of criticism, especially voiced by the National Socialists, because of the sculpture«s general reference to the war victims. Yet Elkan insisted on his concept of a mourning female figure, dedicated to »all victims.« He accepted a commission from the town of Völklingen with the same theme and completed the monument in 1925. By that time it had been re-dedicated to the dead of the German-French war in 1870/71. In 1929 he created further variations of this monument near Bauzen and on the Liberal Jewish Cemetery of Willesden Green in London. With these works Elkan acquired in the 1920s the status of an expert in the realm of public monuments, including war monuments in Germany. His works were now also shown in the context of large exhibitions on modernism, among them the Düsseldorf exhibition »Deutsche Kunst« / »German Art« (1928). Elkan was presented together with Joself Albers, Willy Baumeister, Lyonel Feininger, and numerous artists belonging to the broader circle of the »Junges Rheinland« and the »Rheinische Sezession«.
With the political take-over of the National Socialists, the works of Jewish sculptor Benno Elkan were removed from public space. His family came under intense pressure and it became impossible for Elkan to continue his artistic work. The family therefore followed Wolf Elkan, the son, who had fled to England and eventually to the U.S. Taking a number of works and models with them, they left for exile in London around 1934. Soon Elkan received new portrait commissions (John D. Rockefeller, 1934; Walter Stucki, 1935; Prince Edward of Kent, 1937; Lord Beverage, 1943). Yet he also created an animal group, the Orang-Utan Family (1938; today at the Edinburgh Zoo) and the memorial relief for the author of the »Jungle Book,« Rudyard Kipling (1938). Elkan could show some of these works in 1936 at a solo exhibition in London.
Work commissioned by the church followed. Elkan now created sculptural candelabra, sometimes with Christian motives. Among them were two large Bible candelabra for Westminster Abbey, but also a Menora. Engaging in these works inspired Elkan to create a large Menora for a harbor entrance in Palestine, as a symbol of Jewry. Later this also led to first relief designs for a »history of the Jewish people from biblical to modern times with the founding of the State of Israel« (Künzl, Die Menora in Jerusalem, no place or year of publ.). The artist now increasingly turned to representations of Jewish history. In 1950 he presented the first four, almost fully sculptural reliefs of the Menora that partially drew on a collection of woodcuts from the 19th century. Elkan completed the intensely debated sculpture project of the Menora – it had emerged simultaneously with the founding of the state of Israel and had been modified several times – with a presentation at the London Tate Gallery in 1956. During the same year, a sculpture was given as a gift from the »oldest to the youngest parliament,« from England to Israel. After being installed temporarily, it was placed opposite the main entrance of the newly built Knesset in 1966. The sculpture was perhaps the work that most visibly drew on the figural conception of Rodin.
After the war Elkan did not reappear in a context of exhibitions before the 1950s. Recently the cities of Aalen, Frankfurt, and Dortmund dedicated exhibitions to Elkan’s work.
Benno Elkan died in 1960 in London.
Becker, A. (Red.): Das Denkmal Allen Opfern des Bildhauers Benno Elkan in Völklingen, Sonderausgabe zu Benno Elkans Mahnmal zum Gedenken an die Opfer des Ersten Weltkrieges, (Stadtarchiv Völklingen, Völklinger Schätze), Völklingen 2008
Menzel-Severing, H.: Benno Elkan – Ein Bildhauer zwischen Tradition und Moderne. In: Archiv für Frankfurts Geschichte und Kunst 69 (2003), 79 — 97
Hofmann, F.; Schmieder, P.: Benno Elkan. Ein jüdischer Künstler aus Dortmund. Essen 1997
Menzel-Severing, H.: Der Bildhauer Benno Elkan, Diss. phil. Dortmund 1980
Elkan, B.: Spanien. Von einem Künstler gesehen, München 1926
Elkan, B.: Die Große Reise der Tante Clementine (Kinderbuch), 1921
Elkan, B.: Polnische Nachtstücke, München 1918