Jeanne Mammen 1890-1976
By Aliza Wall
“I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to see others.” Such was the desire of German artist Jeanne Mammen, an artist whose tumultuous life demands documentation. Born November 21, 1890 in Berlin, Mammen moved shortly thereafter to Paris. She was very much a product of the French culture, showing a strong affinity for Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and fin de siècle Symbolist art. In 1906, she began her artistic studies at the Académie Julian, one of the few academies that accepted women. In 1908, Mammen left Paris to study in Brussels and from then moved to Rome. After that, she spent some time moving between Paris, Brussels, Rome and Amsterdam. In 1912, Mammen received her first invitation to exhibit with the Indépendents in Brussels, her work of the period marked by the influence of Symbolism, Art Nouveau, and the Decadence Movement. At the onset of the First World War, Mammen’s cosmopolitan lifestyle was disrupted, as her German father was labelled as an enemy of the French. Instead of fleeing to Amsterdam, she and her sister Marie Louise returned to their native Berlin, where Mammen would live until her death.
Mammen’s most successful and acclaimed period began, ironically, with abject poverty. Without the resources of her family, she struggled to get by. However, by the early 1920s, Mammen had forged a commercial career for herself, illustrating film posters and satirical and fashion magazines. During this period, she depicted the hedonism of Interwar Germany in watercolour and pencil, imbuing the austere, cynical style of contemporaries Otto Dix and George Grosz, with the warmer style of Lautrec and a uniquely feminine perspective. Unlike her male contemporaries, Mammen depicted the liberated woman not as a sexual object but as an individual with capacity and agency. The women Mammen portrayed with the greatest favour were independent women who chose to live without men. She depicted a range of women; from the independent, erotic flapper to “butch” ones. These women often interacted with each other instead of men; pursuing exclusively female activities. This exclusive depiction of women and their interactions with others, coupled with her illustrations of Berlin’s lesbian bars, have led scholars to postulate that Mammen herself was a lesbian, a rumour never corroborated by the artist herself.
Mammen’s work of this era is epitomised in her 1928 piece, She Represents, in which she depicts a liberated, androgynous woman enjoying a raucous party in a lesbian bar. She plays on the differences between the central figures; one distinctly butch and the other very feminine. Stylistically, She Represents is far more indebted to the French tradition than the German, especially regarding its gentleness and use of colour. During this period, Mammen was able to satisfy her desire to observe, documenting the reality of her chosen subjects with vitality and nuance.
Mammen’s life and art were again fundamentally changed in 1933 when the Nazi party assumed power in Germany. The reality of Germany for Mammen was no longer beautiful, and she was repulsed by Nazi interest in realism; prompting her to practice an ‘inner emigration’ and experiment in abstract art. In an act of internal rebellion, Mammen adopted the very art dismissed by the Nazi party as degenerate. Her work during this period was heavily influenced by Picasso’s Guernica, which she saw in 1937. Her piece The Strangling Angel, painted between 1939 and 1942, is clearly influenced by Guernica, but uses an Expressionist palette and does not reference a specific event but rather a general feeling of violence. Although the painting is technically satisfactory; it is devoid of the personality and allure of her earlier pieces, existing in complete opposition to them. In the Post-War period, Mammen experimented with sculpture, reacting to the material insecurity of the period in her use of waste materials like wire, cardboard, and string from American care packages. The faces of her sculptures refer to African sculpture. She also experimented with collages that bore the influence of Miró and Pollock alike.
In the final period of her life (1960-1975), Mammen continued to experiment, her style of the period marked by a lack of commitment to a particular style. She withdrew from society again, sequestered in the same Berlin apartment that she bought with her sister decades earlier. During this period, Mammen frequently used mystical symbols and became obsessed with the colour white. Her work attracted the attention of art historians in the early 1970s, shortly before her death in 1975. Although perhaps not terribly well known, Mammen provides a unique perspective on war, gender, and sexuality, responding with a singular adeptness to an incredibly wide range of human experience.
Lütgens, Annelie. “To Be Just A Pair of Eyes: The Other Side of Jeanne Mammen.” ArtMag by Deutsche Bank. Accessed November 17, 2018. https://db-artmag.com/en/78/feature/to-be-just-a-pair-of-eyes-the-other-side-of-jeanne-mammen/.
McNay, Anna. “Jeanne Mammen: The Observer. Retrospective (1910-75).” Studio International. Published December 16, 2017. https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/jeanne-mammen-the-observer-retrospective-1910-75-review-berlin.
Schmitz, Julia. “The Face of the Time.” SCHIRNMAG. Published October 18, 2017.https://www.schirn.de/en/magazine/context/weimar/jeanne_mammen_painter_berlin_weimar_republic_Berlin_Gallery/.
Sykora, Katherine. “Jeanne Mammen.” Women’s Art Journal 9, no. 2 (1988): 28-31. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1358317.