World War I was the deadliest combat ever that took place practically on all meridians across the globe, with Europe suffering the most. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires shattered into pieces, and certain environments found themselves liberated. However, belonging to the defeated was Germany, a country that was obliged by the Treaty of Versailles to not only withdraw and disarm but to pay the war damage to the neighboring countries. Shortly after it started reimbursing the debts, Germany transformed from the monarchy led by the Kaiser Wilhelm II into a Weimar republic led by the social democrats.
The formative years of the new state were marked by political turmoil and the contestation of the left and right, hyperinflation, hunger and general lack of compass. However, thanks to the American loans it gradually became a more economically stabile environment where culture blossomed. The avant-garde tendencies took over: the Expressionist cinema of Fritz Lang, F.W. Morneau, and Josef von Sternberg, the writings of Stefan Zweig, the engaged theater by Bertold Brecht, the poetic of New Objectivity and rationality of Bauhaus. The whole society moved from agrarian to urban, meaning that the cities became hubs where the latest debates regarding different aspects of human activity became tested in a practice spanning from architecture and public planning, to medicine and social liberties.
In an atmosphere in which the modernity was taken seriously, the patriarchal paradigm typical for the time before WW I shifted - the Republic gave women the right to vote, and they became actively engaged in all the aspects of the society empowered by the image of a New Women (Neu Frau), an emancipated female propagating gender equality and all the liberties women required.
That is why the art world saw the emergence of a significant number of remarkably talented women artists in Weimar Germany who didn’t just use the existing painterly patterns to express different and often more socio-politically charged subjects, but rather they used different media to explore their own identity by producing bold and pioneering works.
To revisit the Golden years of culture and arts in Germany before the Nazis came to power in 1933, we decided to feature the practices of five outstanding female artists who left a significant mark on the further development of art.
Featured image: Hannah Höch, 1974. Image by Dietmar Bührer via Wikimedia Commons.
Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978) was a prominent and for some time the only woman of the German Dada. Although her style evolved throughout the years, especially during the post-war period, she is celebrated for her pioneering photomontages mostly made in the 1920s.
In 1915 Höch met Raoul Hausmann, a member of the Berlin Dada movement, so she decided to join the movement in 1917. For ten years she worked designer for women's magazines, so her practice became much influenced by sewing patterns and needlework designs. Höch was well connected with other prolific proponents of the European avant-garde at the time, and although she was more or less singled out by her male peers, she produced an impeccable body of work by focusing mostly on the gender issues and politics at the time empowered by the emancipation and of women during the Weimar Republic.
Like that of other Dadaists, Höch's work was censored and proclaimed as degenerate art by the Nazis. Despite the fact her work remained unrecognized during the Third Reich, as well as after the war, the artist continued working on photomontages and her domains were eventually recognized and rediscovered by the art historians during the 1970s.
Featured image: Hannah Höch - Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands), 1919-1920. Photomontage and collage with watercolor, 44 7/8 x 35 7/16 in. (114 x 90 cm). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. Image via Flickr.
German-Swedish painter, Lotte Laserstein (1898 – 1993) was an acclaimed proponent of figurative painting in the context of the aforementioned New Objectivity during the 1920s and 1930s. Already in the final years at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin which she attended as one of the first female students, Laserstein had her own studio and free access to models, and the paintings she produced between 1927 and 1933 before graduating are considered to be her best works.
Laserstein was focused on the representation of the female life, and the exploration of self in the context of the mentioned concept of the New Woman. In 1937 the artist had to leave Germany due to her Jewish origin, so she emigrated to Sweden where she continued working by focusing on portraits and landscapes until her death.
Featured image: Lotte Laserstein - Evening Over Potsdam, 1930. Image via Flickr.
Jeanne Mammen (1890 – 1976) was a painter and illustrator best known for her dazzling images of queer Berlin nightlife. This notable figure associated with the New Objectivity arrived in Berlin before the war ended, and felt deeply inspired by the city while trying to survive. In the 1920s she started working as a commercial illustrator for fashion magazines and satirical journals while creating remarkable watercolor depictions of lesbian bars, cabarets, and other fashionable Berlin venues at the time.
Mammen’s work was treated the same as Höch’s and Laserstein’s and was banned after 1933 since it was considered degenerated for its explicit content. The artist refused to succumb to the new rules and work for magazines that became tools for Nazi propaganda, so she experimented with Expressionism and Cubism, After the war, Mammen shifted to abstraction by focusing on assemblages made of found materials.
In the wake of the Second Wave of feminism and LGBT movement in the 1970s, Mammen’s production from the Weimar era was revisited and explored thoroughly by the scholars.
Featued image: Cover of Jeanne Mammen The Observer- Retrospective, 1910–1975, image via Amazon.
Gerta Overbeck-Schenk was a devoted practitioner of New Objectivity. At the School for Artisans and Crafts in 1919, she met artists such as Grethe Jürgens, Erich Wegner, and Ernst Thoms with whom she shared left-wing ideas, and a similar approach to art.
Overbaeck focused on the portrayal and the industrial environment of the Ruhr area, and she collaborated with a couple of short-lived publications such as Der Wachsbogen (The Wax Sheet).
Although she did not use painting to express a proletarian view or a social agenda, she thought that "art had to have meaning and purpose in order that it not lose contact with life and remain understandable and accessible even to the simple person."
Featured image: Gerta Overbeck, Mother and Child at the Hairdresser's, 1924. Image via Pinterest.
The last notable Weimar female figure on our list is Grete Jürgens, who approached art in a similar fashion as her friend and fellow student Gerta Overbeck. Since she struggled financially, for a couple of years the artist worked as a commercial designer for advertisements and also illustrating magazines and books.
Jürgens committed very much to the aforementioned publication Der Wachsbogen (The Wax Sheet) where she acted as editor and distributor; it was used by her circle as a tool for articulation their ideas concerning the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). In one of the articles she wrote for Der Wachsbogen, Jürgens emphasized her approach to art by describing that she depicts different layers of reality without aiming to present interesting types or express particular social conscience. Jürgens most often painted portraits until the 1950s when she suddenly turned to abstraction.
Featured image: Margarete Grete Jurgens - Porträt Irmgard Wundram, 1933. Image via Artnet.