Book Club: June

Visions of the "Neu Frau": Women and the Visual Arts in Weimar Germany

Edited by Marsha Meskimmon and Shearer West

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This volume of essays seeks to recover the pluralism of women’s experience during the Weimar Republic through an examination of their contribution to, as well as their representation in, the visual arts (West: 2).

Visions of the Neu Frau has been sitting on my desk, gathering dust, since December 2020. Its return to the library is also four months overdue. Someday, when I have time, I will sit down and read it cover to cover, but for the purposes of this post and my current research I have had to limit myself to reading Shearer West's introduction, and Shulamith Behr’s Anatomy of the woman as collector and dealer in the Weimar period: Rosa Schapire and Johanna Ey.


I have been fortunate to visit art museums across Germany—one of my favourite afternoons exploring art was at the Hamburger Kunsthalle; more on this venue later—and I’ve also been lucky to visit Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier where the Leopold Museum houses an unforgettable collection of Austrian art. I’m a fan of the early 20th-Century art of these neighbours and in particular Expressionism, so Visions of the Neue Frau is right up my Straße.


The German Neue Frau (New Woman) corresponds to the figure of the New Woman in the USA; a ‘category’ that many early 20th-Century women art dealers would apparently and arguably belong to; their behaviours and choices being anti-traditional and often situated in the public (rather than private) sphere. Beatrice Judd Ryan (c.1880–1966) who I write about on this website, fits this description—though not always. It is perhaps needless (?) to point out that the New Woman in Germany and the New Woman in the US are very different kinds of women. A comparative study would be interesting to read (or write); particularly one that might also take into account those German women who made the US their home: Galka Scheyer (1889–1945; emigrated 1924-5) or Hilla von Rebay (1890–1967; emigrated 1927).


It is tempting to assume that New Women in the modern period were modern and progressive in all corners of their lives, but as Shearer West's introduction makes clear (and as my own research verifies) this was not always the case: 'Reactionary positions were just as common as revolutionary ones' ( West: 5). On this theme, Behr picks up where West leaves off. Writing of Rosa Schapire (1874–1954) and Johanna Ey (1864–1947), Behr notes, 'One could interpret their almost exclusive patronage of male artists as veiled complicity in the existing structures of power relations' (Behr: 97).


Before offering some thoughts on Behr's chapter, and finding comparisons with American counterparts; I'll provide a brief profile of Schapire and Ey.


Figure 1: Dr Rosa Schapire,

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1919, Tate Collection.


Born in Galicia (Poland and Ukraine today), to Jewish parents, Schapire moved to Hamburg in 1893, and was one of the first women to earn a degree in art history in Germany; achieving her undergraduate in 1902 and PhD in 1904. Evidently a talented linguist, she translated Balzac and Zola into German, and became closely associated with the German Expressionist group Die Brücke (The Bridge), Schapire was painted by a number of the group's artists, including Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (see Figure 1, below) and Walter Gramatté (Figure 5 ). Schapire left Germany for England in 1939 where she continued to publish on art and architecture.


Schapire was a patron and publisher of artists, rather than a dealer as we understand the term today; though she did organise exhibitions. Actions and decisions she made saw artworks enter the collections of various Kunsthallen (e.g. Hamburg, Bremen, Mannheim). Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), when he visited Hamburg in 1936, was impressed with her. Beckett isn't central to the history of Women art dealers (though he does re-appear in my profile of Johanna Ey) but because I'm a fan of his; I'm including these synopses from Mark Nixon, which reveal something about Schapire as much as they do Beckett:


14 November 1936

[Beckett] Views Rosa Schapire's extensive Schmidt-Rottluff collection at her home. [...]


15 November 1936

[Beckett] Works on the German translation of his poem ‘Cascando’ with Rosa Schapire. They discuss her prohibition to publish and work as art historian, sanctions against ‘degenerate’ modern art, and the work of the philosopher Johan Huizinga. Asked to comment on a portrait of Schapire by Schmidt-Rottluff, Beckett described it as art as prayer, which in turn provokes prayer in perceiver.


19 November 1936

Beckett is impressed by the drawings of Schmidt-Rottluff and Ludwig Kirchner in the Kupferstichkabinett. By chance meets Schapire, who manages to get Beckett access to the cellar in order to see ‘degenerate’ pictures removed from Kunsthalle. Here he views Expressionist paintings by Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner, Nolde, Pechstein and Kokoschka's Windsbraut. He is particularly impressed by Nolde's Christus und die Kinder. He does not have time to see paintings by Liebermann locked away in another room. In conversation with the custodian he praises Ingres and Wouwermann but disparages Philip Otto Runge. Back in the reading room of the Kupferstichkabinett reads about ‘Brücke’ movement in Max Deri's Neue Malerei and inspects Franz Marc's Briefe, Aufzeichnungen und Aphorismen. From Marc's book he transcribes passages dealing with alienation of subject (artist) from object (art work) and with Marc's intent to paint the predicate of living (Nixon: 251–253).


In his diaries Beckett described Schapire as a 'pleasant old lady' (in 1936 she was 62, he was 30), and noted their 'intense conversation on art' (Quadflieg, 2006). Their conversation, according to Beckett biographer James Knowlson, was critical to Beckett's philosophy on art. Rachel Ganong, quoting Knowlson writes:


Beckett's emphasis on silence perhaps results from Beckett's own aesthetic theories and practices. Beckett's belief that silence engenders meaning beyond the nothingness of postmodernism perhaps germinated from his belief in the idea that true art is a prayer. Knowlson describes when Beckett solidified this idea, saying:

It was while discussing [Schapire's painting] that Beckett found himself drawn into restating his own criterion of true art, in which he not only repeated his view that the authentic poem or picture was a prayer but developed the image further than he had ever done up to that point: "The art (picture) that is a prayer sets up prayer, releases prayer in onlooker, i.e. Priest: Lord have mercy upon us. People: Christ have mercy upon us." This is an attitude that few readers will associate with Beckett, yet it was essential to his view of art at the time, whether this was the art of the writer, painter, or musician. (Knowlson: 222) (Ganong: 19).

For anybody who enjoys Beckett's work, Schapire, who is all but forgotten, seems to me a startling genesis for his deeper engagement with art as a form of spiritual expression, and it goes some way to suggesting the impact the historian and patron had on her more immediate circle in Hamburg. It also tickles me that Beckett studied the Hamburg Kunsthalle collection in detail while he was in the city. I knew that he was intelligent on and about art, but I was not aware to what extent. I wrote an unpublished essay on the Kunsthalle collection a number of years ago, and now I feel inspired to dig it out and to see where our interests overlap. I was very taken with Emil Nolde's (1867–1956) triptych Legend: St. Mary of Egypt when I visited in 2012, Beckett was more taken with Nolde's Christ and the Children, writing:


I want to spend a long time before it, & play it over & over like the record of a quartet. —Samuel Beckett, 19th November 1936 (Quadflieg, 2006)

Figure 2: Legend: St. Mary of Egypt: In the Port of Alexandria (left), The Conversion (centre),

Death in the Desert (right), Emil Nolde, 1912, Hamburg Kunsthalle


Figure 3: Christ and the Children,1910, MoMA.


Christ and the Children was displayed at the Venice Biennale in 1928, and included in the infamous Nazi propaganda exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) in Munich (1937) which toured to Berlin, Leipzig, Düsseldorf, and Salzburg—You can read its provenance history on MoMA. That Beckett saw this painting in the cellar, and understood the Nazi purge of so-called degenerate art, perhaps influenced his response to the work.


I don't know how I managed such a detour on Beckett, but there you go.


Figure 4: Portrait of the Art Dealer Johanna Ey,

Otto Dix, 1924, Private Collection.


Johanna Ey is regarded as one of Weimar Germany’s most important art dealers, and remains better known than Schapire. Something of a celebrity in Düsseldorf where she ran