Jeanne Mammen’s work is a chronicle of Berlin’s most glorious days. Her watercolours are an invite to a journey through its streets, its people and most of all, its glamorous nightlife.
Between the end of the First World War and the rise to power of the Nazi Party, Germany experienced a cultural boom like never before. In the 1920s Berlin became a meeting point for intellectuals, artists and innovators of all fields, in turn becoming a city both chaotic, and passionate.
German artists were gathering and creating new groups, experimenting with new materials, and exchanging their old subjects and techniques for new ones. The war had left them without hope in the system (or even in humanity); and sparked a new desire within to become politically active. They disapproved of militarism and authoritarianism, taking a hostile attitude towards bourgeois society and excessive consumerism. They saw the increase of luxury as hypocrisy and moral decadence and despised how society looked down on the poor.
Café Reimann, um 1931, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York. Bequest of Fred Ebb.,
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017 / ARS New York, 2017, Repro: © The Morgan Library, New York
When Jeanne Mammen arrived in Berlin in 1916 with her family, (after having studied in Paris), she was poor and desperate to get a job. Being forced to struggle to make a living allowed her to experience first hand what it felt like to be left out of mainstream society. This social awareness would be present in her future work.
After a few years she managed to get her first studio in a fashionable neighborhood in the West of Berlin. She had been selling her illustrations and posters to fashion magazines and had earned a reputation. It was then, that she began to portray the chic urban life around Kurfürstendamm and the gay and lesbian life around Nollendorfplatz. When she finally got the opportunity to show work in her first exhibition in 1930, her career as an artist was fully recognized and embraced by the public.
Mammen’s main subject was women. They were from all social classes, playing all sorts of roles; from glamorous show girls to tired waitresses. The frivolity of the 20s and the social contrasts were represented in the faces, clothes and postures of Mammen’s women. They are determined, independent and free, almost heroines of their time.
Paintings like Two Women Dancing depict her fascination for the female body in movement. She was a sharp observer and could capture body language perfectly, the tension of the hands, the firmness of the arms and the many different dancing poses were represented with delicate strokes and soft colors.
Mammen is considered among the artists that represented a movement called New Objectivity which aimed to depict the factual and the real. Otto Dix and George Grosz referred to the movement as a search for the truth without ornaments. In most of the work created in this period something bitter and cynical can be recognized, in Mammen’s work, however, there is a sense of reality more simple and subtle. The most valuable attribute to her work is its honesty.
Zwei Frauen, tanzend, um 1928, Privatsammlung Berlin,
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, Repro: © Volker-H. Schneider, Berlin
The retrospective exhibition Jeanne Mammen. The Observer hosted by the the Berlinische Galerie shows an impressive collection of 120 pieces including watercolors, drawings and oil paintings from the late 1920s as well as her period experimenting with cubism during the Nazi times. In her last period Mammen’s work became more abstract and using many more geometrical figures, leaving her figurative drawing in the past.
One of the most impressive pieces is a self-portrait from 1926 where we can finally see Mammen herself. This painting was made in her sketchbook during a holiday. She is standing in her hotel room directly facing us. A rare find considering her introverted personality and her preference to always be the observer, rather than the one being observed.
As she herself once said, “I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others. Unfortunately one was seen…”
Images courtesy of Berlinische Galerie.