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Three Berlin Artists of the Weimar Era: Hannah Höch, Käthe Kollwitz, Jeanne Mam

September 13, 1994 to November 05, 1994

The Weimar era—which began with the German revolution of 1918 and ended with Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933—fostered a remarkable degree of creative ferment. Although the achievements of such artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz are becoming increasingly well known in the United States, the work of their female counterparts has received comparatively little attention. Hannah Höch, Käthe Kollwitz and Jeanne Mammen, arguably the most significant women artists of the period, each represent a different facet of the Weimar aesthetic. Kollwitz, the oldest and undoubtedly most famous of the three, was professionally well established long before World War I, but her unique brand of social commentary propelled her to even greater success in the politically progressive Weimar years. Höch, the only female member of the Berlin Dada group, literally took a knife to German society, cutting up mass-produced images and reassembling them in an implicitly subversive manner. Mammen, an illustrator for such popular periodicals as Die Dame, Simplicissimus, Uhe and Ulk, concocted a subtle amalgam of realism and caricature that allies her most closely with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of the mid 1920s.

The position of the female artist in Weimar Germany mirrored the ambiguity that afflicted the period as a whole. The first general elections in early 1919 ushered in an ostensibly socialist government, but the new regime was soon compromised by alliances with industrial capitalists, the military and, worst of all, the paramilitary Freikorps, which was used to squelch left-wing activity. Similarly, women gained significant new rights under the Weimar constitution—notably the right to vote and hold public office—and entered the work force in previously unimagined umbers, but wives remained legally subservient to their husbands and women’s wages were far inferior to those of men. Increased exposure to work and public life naturally improved the ability of women to function autonomously as artists and to earn a living from the practice of their chosen craft. For the first time, the major German art academies opened their doors to women, giving them access to equal training and long forbidden (yet ironically now aesthetically much less relevant) life classes. Not surprisingly, the number of active female artists in Germany mushroomed during the Weimar years, and women participated in virtually all the key exhibitions and movements of the time. Nevertheless, their contributions were seldom taken as seriously as those of their male colleagues.

Thus despite their exceptional accomplishments, Kollwitz, Höch and Mammen remained on some level confirmed outsiders. By pursuing a secondary medium—printmaking—with primary passion, Kollwitz managed to sidestep male competition and appeal directly to the public with her work. Stylistically, too, she remained a deliberate anomaly, shunning the Expressionist label but nonetheless melding aspects of that genre with an older tradition of social realism derived in part from Max Klinger. Höch gained admittance to the first Dada Fair over the protests of Grosz and John Heartfield, and even her lover, the artist Raoul Hausmann, was inclined to minimize the importance of her work. Subsequent critics have frequently dismissed her for failing to pack the political punch of the male Dadaists. Mammen, who spent her childhood in Paris and only returned to Berlin after the outbreak of World War I, never felt comfortable in Germany, and indeed the essence of her art derives from this sense of distance and alienation. In an oft-quoted statement, she expressed her desire to be “nothing but a pair of eyes, wandering the world unobserved, just observing others.” If Mammen’s self-effacement seems extreme, it is nonetheless true that the circumstances shaping women’s careers in the 1920s tended to render them at least partially invisible to the roving gaze of history.

Kollwitz, Höch and Mammen occasionally wavered in their support of feminist causes, but the experience of being a woman remained close to the center of their art. While it is only natural that women should approach their subjects from a female point of view, this bias has been less noticeable in the previous Expressionist generation of Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin, who like their male colleagues in the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, has tended to concentrate on aesthetic issues. The relative “feminizing” of the work of Kollwitz, Höch and Mammen derives from the confluence of female liberation in the wake of the Weimar revolution, and the pronounced trend toward rooted themes that characterized the art of the ensuing decade.

Kollwitz, of course, had always been dedicated to socio-political subject matter, and to some extent her work always placed special emphasis on the role of women—as both martyrs and heroines. Nevertheless, her first two print cycles The Weaver’s Revolt (1893-98) and the Peasants’ War (1903-08), contained male as well as female protagonists. The balance was to shift decisively in the wake of the artist’s experiences during the First World War. Unlike Grosz, Dix and other male critics of the war, Kollwitz never directly reviled the perpetrators of the slaughter, but by their absence in her work she made it clear that they were masculine. Her War series (checklist nos. 30-36) focuses on the war’s impact on innocent bystanders, primarily mothers and children. Men more rarely appear in Kollwitz’s postwar work, and when they do, they are seldom heroic; the slain Communist leader Karl Liebknecht (checklist no. 25) is not lionized, but rather presented as an impotent corpse. Though Kollwitz has been faulted for portraying women so consistently as victims, her message is broader than this. She saw in the feminine side of human nature—characterized by nurturance and pacifism—nothing less than a saving antidote to male destructiveness.

Kollwitz’s Weimar images were an organic outgrowth of her prior concerns, but Höch and Mammen were much more directly engaged by the concept of the “New Woman,” who became something of a media icon during the 1920s. Women’s expanded role in leisure society and the work place was widely celebrated by the press both as an end in itself and as the basis of vastly lucrative new market. Today we are so accustomed to the media’s manipulation of women—to the creation of glamorous pop stars, impossible ideals of beauty and the promotion of nearly unobtainable “have-it-all” lifestyles—that it is difficult for us to view Weimar photojournalism with the relatively unjaded eyes of its original audience. Yet even if the Weimar regime failed to live up to the ideal of full female equality, and even if the media glorified women only to inspire more enthusiastic consumerism, the realities and imagery of the Weimar era were extraordinarily liberating when compared to anything within recent memory. Neither Höch nor Mammen was in a position to categorically denounce the system that has in effect (albeit within limits) set them free. Their mission lay rather in exposing the contradictions that belied the Weimar reforms.

It is no coincidence that both Höch and Mammen were intimately involved with the mass media, primary purveyors of “New Woman” iconography. Höch spent ten years, until 1926, in the employ of the Ullstein publishing empire, a conglomerate that issued a wide range of periodicals, from general interest illustrated journals such as the BIZ (Berliner illustrierte Zeitung) to specialized women’s publications like Die Dame. Though Höch worked in the firm’s pattern department, designing tablecloths and stuffed animals, she was steeped in Ullstein’s photography, much of which she recycled in her montages. Mammen got her first break as an illustrator from Die Dame in 1922 and earned quite a substantial living in this manner until 1933, when the Nazis shut down the liberal press.

Höch and Hausmann are often credited with jointly inventing the technique of photo-montage, which they claimed was inspired by the photographic composites of soldiers (with individual faces mounted on stock printed bodies) that had been popular during World War I. The idea of creating art by piecing together mechanically produced pictures fit well with the Dadaists’ goal of eliminating the “bourgeois” touch of the individual artist. While Höch continued to draw and paint (sometimes in secret) throughout the Weimar era, it is her photo-montages that have elicited the most sustained interest. The principal subject of these works is the media’s representation of women, which Höch clearly viewed with pronounced ambivalence. Through the very act of cutting these pictures up, she shattered their continuity and highlighted their inherent artificiality. By juxtaposing the beautiful with the ugly, the male with the female, Höch called into question the authority of all normative aesthetic and gender values. Perhaps her most startling series of juxtapositions occurred in the group of works (some eighteen or twenty pieces done roughly between 1924 and 1934) that she titled collectively “From an Ethnographic Museum” (checklist no. 21). In these and other similar montages done during the same period (see also checklist nos. 14 and 22), she freely mingled Caucasian, Negro and Oriental body parts, as well as Western and tribal artifacts, boldly challenging racial and cultural stereotyping on the very eve of Hitler’s racist dictatorship.

If Höch sat on the sidelines, dissecting published photographs of women with her scissors, Mammen in her work as an illustrator both actively contributed to and commented upon the media’s fabrication of the “New Woman.” The artist’s flattering portrayal of glamorous society women certainly conformed to her publishers’ editorial stance, and one sequence of studies demonstrated how she deliberately transformed on-the-spot sketches of a working-class pub (checklist nos. 54 and 55) into a more elegant locale so that the scene would be better suited to publication (checklist no. 56). Yet it is evident that Mammen really believed in the glamour of her subjects. Their sleek good looks and carefully honed sexuality were to her not the products of male manipulation but, on the contrary, sources of genuine power of men. In Mammen’s vision, warmth or rapport between men and women was impossible. Her men are at best baffled dolts, at worst boorish louts, while her beautiful women survey their surroundings with the barrowed eyes of bored but contented cats. Some have seen in Mammen’s alienated couples a critique of the superficiality of bourgeois society, but her working-class couples are no more compatible. True intimacy in Mammen’s work surfaces only when women get together to shop, prowl the social scene, gossip or commiserate.

Mammen’s belief that women could be empowered rather than subsumed by the cult of glamour, like Kollwitz’s association of so-called feminine attributes with human salvation and Höch’s portrayal of gender as an arbitrary construct, reflects the specifics of Weimar-era culture as well as raising larger issues about the nature and guises of femininity. Although all three artists were so less critical of their environment than their male colleagues, their complaints were generally voiced in a much lower pitch. In part, this may have been due to the fact that as women, they too were too economically and professionally insecure to risk arrest and censure the way men such as Grosz and Heartfield did. However, this did not necessarily make them less effective as social commentators. On the contrary, their insights were often more subtle, their portrayals more multifaceted, than those of the men. They took the time to analyze, rather than merely to denounce. They were both more compassionate toward their subjects and more honest about their own complicity in society’s superstructure. Their story is thus as integral to an understanding of Weimar history as the louder one told by the men, and it is to be hoped that in the future, both perspectives will be grated equal credence.

We would like to thank Timothy Baum; the Galerie Berinson, Berlin; the Berlinische Galerie; Merrill C. Berman; the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne; the Des Moines Art Center; the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth; Barry Friedman, Ltd., New York; the Federal Republic of Germany; Alfred and Ingrid Lens Harrison; the Jeanne-Mammen-Gesellschaft, Berlin; H. Marc Moyens; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul; the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart; the Toledo Museum of Art; and our various anonymous lenders for making this exhibition possible.