When Christopher Isherwood wrote, in his 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,’ he could as well have been describing the German painter Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976).
As with Isherwood, Mammen’s artistic intent was to chronicle the febrile world of Weimar Germany with vivid clarity. From 1919 to 1933, she documented the profound social changes brought about by the First World War in her watercolours of Berlin life.
Offered online in The Golden Twenties: Berlin through the Eyes of Modern Artists (22 October-12 November) is a collection of evocative works on paper created during a culturally vibrant but politically volatile period of history.
Among household names such as Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and George Grosz is Mammen, who until recently was largely unknown outside Germany. ‘Thanks to feminist historical revisionism, she is beginning to get the attention she deserves,’ says Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art specialist Anna Povejsilova.
Gertrud Johanna Louise Mammen was born in Berlin in 1890, into a wealthy and progressive family. Her father ran a business in Paris, which is where Mammen was raised, later studying at the Académie Julian and the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Early in her career she encountered the paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and was influenced by his satirical depictions of Parisian bohemia.
Mammen’s early watercolours depicted Paris’s celebrated café society, glittering in feathered hats and velvet capes. ‘You can see some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s graphic brilliance in those works,’ says Povejsilova.
One such example is Zwei Damen mit Hüten im Café, above, which reflects the vibrancy of the pre-war era. ‘The colours are beautiful and fresh,’ says the specialist. ‘The blue is almost fluorescent. The women are so animated — there is a real narrative there.’
The exaggerated fashioning of the women’s hats in Zwei Damen mit Kopfputz, below, similarly celebrates the glamour of the time.
When the First World War broke out, however, Mammen’s burgeoning artistic career fell apart. The family’s property was confiscated and, fearing internment, they fled to the Netherlands. ‘Her father lost everything,’ says Povejsilova.
Penniless, Mammen moved to Berlin, where she began working as a commercial artist, providing fashion illustrations for women’s magazines and posters for the newly established UFA film studios. Some of her movie posters, now held by the Stadtmuseum Berlin, capture the stygian atmosphere of German Expressionist cinema.
‘Her women are strong and active participants in Berlin life. Mammen has great sympathy with outsiders. She’s empathetic, not voyeuristic’ — specialist Anna Povejsilova
By the late 1920s, Mammen was gaining recognition for her watercolours, which reflected the cold hedonism of the Weimar Republic. Her café scenes of Berlin evoked the fragile status quo.
Poverty, along with the proliferation of brothels, brought women out of domesticity onto the streets. Transgressive behaviour was commonplace, and Mammen was drawn to those who, like her, struggled on the fringes of society.
In this respect, she is often associated with the artists of the New Objectivity movement, notably Otto Dix and George Grosz — though, as Povejsilova points out, Mammen’s paintings present the female perspective. ‘Her women are strong and active participants in Berlin life,’ she says. ‘Mammen has great sympathy with outsiders. She’s empathetic, not voyeuristic.’
Dressed in a mannish raincoat and beret, Mammen would sit unobserved at corner tables in cafés, drawing human behaviour as it revealed itself before her. ‘I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, able to see others,’ she once said.
In Bierseidelbetrachtung II, above, two men at the bar leer as an overworked waitress in tight heels disdains their predatory gaze, while women gripped tightly by drunken men gaze coldly out of her 1929 picture Kaschemme, below.
‘Berlin seemed brutal and hierarchical compared to Paris,’ says Povejsilova. ‘In many ways, she never got over the shock of moving there.’ Indeed, in later life Mammen admitted, ‘I never really made my peace with Berlin.’
In contrast to the vibrancy of her early Paris watercolours, the colours of her Berlin paintings are subdued. The drastic change in her economic status and her isolation — she once said that ‘all people are foreign to me’ — are reflected in the sepia-toned images.
In the early 1930s Mammen’s art became more politicised, depicting unemployed workers and street vendors. Her painting Advokaten, below, reflects the era’s anxiety. She also worked on a series of illustrations for Les Chansons de Bilitis, the Sapphic love poems of Pierre Louÿs, which were not seen until after the end of the Nazi regime.
In 1933 her close friend Hans Ulhmann was arrested for distributing anti-fascist flyers. Mammen retreated to her two-roomed flat on the Kurfürstendamm and remained there throughout the Nazi dictatorship, surviving on the patronage of her friends — notably the biophysicist Max Delbrück (1906-1981), who had emigrated to the United States in 1937.
With art materials in short supply, Mammen turned to sculpture, using clay and everyday objects to create semi-abstract imagery. Fourteen of these sculptures, along with her paintings, sketches and watercolours, became the focus of a large exhibition in 1979.
Mammen died an important artist in Germany in 1976, but it was not until 40 years after her death in 2018 that she was recognised internationally, when her artworks were included in the Tate Modern exhibition Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33, and the art critic Jonathan Jones cited her as a big discovery.
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‘She was an eyewitness to an important moment in history,’ says Povejsilova, ‘someone who offers us a valuable insight into what the women of that time were thinking and doing. So to have eight of her watercolours in the sale is a very rare and exciting thing.
‘She was an artist who spent her life observing others. Now she's finally coming under the spotlight herself.’