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 her gallery until the Nazi’s shut it in 1934, much has been made of the name she was better known as while alive: Mutter Ey (Mother Ey). When she reached middle age, Ey opened a bakery near the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts, before eventually opening a gallery which showed both conservative and, after WWI, avant-garde art, particularly the group Junge Rheinland (Young Rhineland). Like Schapire, Ey is immortalised in many works by the artists she represented (see Figure 4) and in Behr’s chapter Ey's community and persona come across with more life than Schapire’s.
One thing I find striking, knowing that Ey represented the artist Max Ernst, is that Peggy Guggenheim (who married Ernst in 1941, and also sold and exhibited his work) makes no mention of the dealer in her untrammelled autobiography Out of This Century. I observe omissions of this kind throughout my research on women gallery dealers, who very infrequently make mention of each other, even when they were contemporaries and often 'shared' artists and networks. For anybody who has read Guggenheim's biography, you'll know that she writes gushingly of her affairs with men, one of whom, in 1937, was Samuel Beckett. ——Oh. We are back with Beckett! Guggenheim liked Beckett because he was, in her words, a great museum companion, and I wonder if his accounts of Schapire and Hamburg made any impression on the somewhat flighty collector-dealer (she was yet to move to New York, marry Max Ernst, and open her Art of This Century Gallery; though her London gallery Guggenheim Jeune was about to open). It's hard to pass up the opportunity to include some of Guggenheim's words on Beckett. I'm sure Johanna Ey will forgive me for another detour:
He did not make his intentions clear but in an awkward way asked me to lie down on the sofa next to him. We soon found ourselves in bed, where we remained until the next evening at dinner time. [...] When Beckett left, he said very simply and fatalistically, as though we were never going to meet again, "Thank you. It was nice while it lasted." [...] Beckett was a writer and brought me his works to read. I thought his poems were bad. They were so childish. (Guggenheim: 162–164)
Now. That's the end of Beckett.
Rather than an in-depth comparative account of Schapire and Ey's careers, Shulamith Behr discusses her protagonists and arguments at a moderate pace before reaching her terminus, all the while incorporating a number of observations on the relationships of the women to their male peers, their representation in German artworks, their response to National Socialism and various German womens’ groups (both the progressive and the conservative), as well as mention of exhibition display, circulation, and extra-curricular activities.
I have pulled out a few themes here, mostly to compare them against similar efforts by American women gallerists. I hope they give a sense of some transnational themes in this segment of art history.
Schapire edited and contributed to two Expressionist journals Rote Erde (1919) and Kundung (1921) while Ey sponsored the production of the publication Das Ey from her premises (1919) (Behr: 96-97).
Based on my research into galleries selling modern art, it is clear that publishing played an important role in disseminating ideas and discussions on modernism, as well as for illustrating artworks. Agnes E. Meyer (1887–1970) edited (and I believe, funded) the literary art magazine 291; an offshoot of Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery; and I have written previously about how Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942) funded the operations of The Arts, a culture journal headed by Forbes Watson that featured work by William Carlos Williams, Leo Stein, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, and staff-photographer, Charles Sheeler.
Behr writes that Schapire and Ey provide a 'rare opportunity to examine an inversion of gender roles’ via the ‘financial control [they] wielded in establishing the careers of certain artists, such as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), Gert Wollheim (1894-1974) and Otto Dix (1891-1969); immediately following this with ‘One could interpret their almost exclusive patronage of male artists as veiled complicity in the existing structures of power relations (Behr: 97)'. Later, Behr notes:
Ey preferred the company of men considering them to be her comrades. Beyond her daughters, she had little / time for women in general – models, wives, girl-friends or women artists (Behr: 101-102).
These are complex statements to unpack. Many of the mavens of modernism worked with women artists and women collectors, but it does seem to be broadly the case that individuals such as Judd Ryan, Vanderbilt Whitney, Juliana Force (1876–1948), Marie Sterner, and Galka Scheyer, Peggy Guggenheim, and to an extent, Betty Parsons (1900–1982), and even later again, Virginia Dwan (b. 1931), predominantly promoted male artists. They did not do this because they did not like women—they all showed work by women—but there is ample evidence to imply their progressive and feminist leanings only ever went so far. Be that as it may, it is possible, as Behr suggests, that a person can be two things at the one time: complicit in patriarchal structures, but at the same time paving the road for the next generation by the work they did do.
The final three themes—Portraits/Fact and Fiction/(In)Visibility— are all interconnected. Though many of these dealers and patrons had their portraits painted by their communities of artists; these portraits did not guarantee that the women would be remembered as anything other than a subject in a painting. At the same time, portraits tell a definite story about the person, and the artist's "take" on that person. Behr writes:
The Portrait of Dr Rosa Schapire, painted by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff in 1919 [see Figure 1], shows the body at ease with the artist, the viewer and environment.’ … He portrays her as the patron and promoter of modern art in a way / that stresses the normalcy and ease with which the woman wears the mantle most often worn by male collectors and critics (Behr: 97–98).
Behr's statement would seem equally true of two portraits Walter Gramatté completed of the patron in 1920:
Figure 5: Portrait of Rosa Schapire by Walter Gramatté, 1920.
Figure 6: Portrait (watercolour) of Rosa Schapire by Walter Gramatté, 1920.
Again, at another time we can compare and contrast portraits of male dealers and women dealers in more detail; and it is enough here to compare these portraits of Schapire with the above 1924 painting of Ey by Otto Dix; or this 1925 group portrait by Arthur Kauffmann, with Ey in the centre.
Figure 7: Mutter Ey and Das Junge Rheinland by Arthur Kauffman, 1925.
Indeed, Ey, to my knowledge, has the fairly rare honour of being immortalised in a number of public sculptures; a medium traditionally reserved for political and military leaders and monarchs or saints.
Figure 8: (left) Mutter Ey by Hannelore Köhler, 2020 (Parkanlage des Palais Spee, Düsseldorf-Carlstadt)
Figure 9: (center) Mutter Ey by Gerda Kratz, 2015 (Malkasten Park, Düsseldorf)
Figure 10: (right) Mutter Ey by Bert Gerresheim, 2017 (Mutter-Ey Platz, Düsseldorf)
Public statues depicting women art dealers are certainly rare; though the stolid buddha-like depiction of patron Gertrude Stein outside NYC's Public Library comes to mind (Stein wasn't a dealer; but she was definitely an exhibitionist of a kind; pardon the pun). So, it might seem very positive to have these three examples of Ey to hand; but are they honouring Ey the woman, or Ey the myth?
Fact and Fiction
‘The legend,' Behr writes, quoting Anna Klapheck's 1984 German-language biography of Ey, 'speaks of “Mutter Ey” and legends are stronger than history. Johanna Ey was certainly a motherly person, taking all to heart that sought her help … however, she was, fundamentally a rebel, a fighter on the barricades, a despiser of comfort’ (Klapheck: 8).
And so, while the portraits and public statuary are important and valuable commemorations and celebrations of infrequently-mentioned heroes (or heroines); do the wrong portraits and statues inadvertently obscure history and context; or should we not be concerned about this at all, and take each as the work of art that it is; art of course having nothing to do with reality in the first place? Also, isn't it better that these women are visible in some form in history, museum collections, and public parks, than invisible?
Ey’s contribution to public life was recognized in 1927 on the occasion of her 65th birthday when she was congratulated by both the mayor of the city (Dr Lehr) and director of the Academy (Walter Kaesbach) (Klapheck 1984, 42). Having achieved institutional acceptance, the media popularized her image as the all-embracing, nurturing ‘Mutter’, a rather misleading interpretation of her career, since it is evident that her strategies were consistent with the transgressive actions of her metaphoric sons (Behr: 103).
Based on the public statues shown above, it is clear that Johanna Ey is not an invisible in her home city. However, many of her contemporaries in the US—Marie Sterner, Beatrice Judd Ryan, Juliana Force—have not been afforded the same honours. Although these women were celebrated (like Ey) with major broadsheet profiles and national awards, they were too-often forgotten within their own lifetimes; witness to their story and efforts being erased by new generations of dealers—men and women. Even though Betty Parsons reportedly hung an extract of a quote from Juliana Force in her office, she did not often pay homage to her contemporary. Too often in art history books, I read a woman dealer talk about how they had no one to look up to; and how they alone were forging a path in the market and landscape. But the facts don't always support this self-mythologizing, and it is fairly easy to prove that these women knew of each other and sometimes collaborated together. I hope to explore the reasons behind this in another post sometime, but for now, I would like to finish with a quote from Samuel Beckett (oh, and you thought you were safe):
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. —Samuel Beckett
More next month...
Behr, Shulamith. 'Anatomy of the woman as collector and dealer in the Weimar period: Rosa Schapire and Johanna Ey' in Visions of the "Neu Frau": Women and the Visual Arts in Weimar Germany, edited by Marsha Meskimmon and Shearer West (Aldershot: Scolar Press) 1995: 96–107.
Shulamith Behr’s Anatomy of the woman as collector and dealer in the Weimar period: Rosa Schapire and Johanna Ey.
Ganong, Rachel. '"On and On" until "All Out": Seeking Silence within the Postmodern Paradigm of Samuel Beckett', English Seminar Capstone Research Papers, 2005: 9. Link.
Guggenheim, Peggy. Out of This Century: Confessions of An Art Addict (London: Andre Deutsch), 1946.
Klapheck, Anna. Mutter Ey: Eine Düsseldorfer Kunstlerlegende (Droste: Düsseldorf), 1984.
Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury), 1997.
Nixon, Mark. 'Chronology of Beckett's Journey to Germany 1936–1937 (based on his German Diaries)', Journal of Beckett Studies 19.2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 2010: 245–272.
Quadflieg, Roswitha, Beckett in Hamburg - 1936, Virtual version of the exhibition from 10th Nov 2006 – 14th Jan 2007 in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky, on occasion of the 100th birthday of Samuel Beckett, 2006 and the festival "Beckett in Town" Herbst/Winter 2006/07. Link.