To most Americans, the name of Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976) brings blank stares even among those with a knowledge of art history and an interest in the art of the inter-war period. In Europe, however, and particularly in Germany, this important artist/illustrator has been known since before the time of her first major, solo exhibition at Galerie Gurlitt in 1930 and has undergone extensive reappraisal since Eberhard Roters, founding director of the Berlinische Galerie, organized the first major retrospective of her work in 1997.
A member of the New Objectivity movement in Germany, Jeanne Mammen first established herself as an extraordinary draughtswoman and illustrator. Her early watercolors and pencil drawings of people earned her the nickname “The Observer.” Today her works are much sought after among those who collect both women and the work of the artists of the Weimar Republic.
Born in Berlin to wealthy, merchant class parents, Mammen’s family moved to Paris in 1895, where her father had business interests, and remained there until the onset of World War I in 1914. Classified as “enemy aliens” by the French at the onset of the war, the Mammens ultimately fled back to Berlin where Jeanne, who could only speak French, was beset by loneliness and suspicion. Determined to keep going, Jeanne did odd jobs, learned German and, while still a student, began illustrating works by Flaubert and E.T.A. Hoffmann. In 1916, some of her works were published and praised in a newsprint periodical, Kunstgewerbeblatt (The Arts and Crafts Newspaper) and thus began Jeanne’s career as an artist.
In 1921, Jeanne began illustrating movie posters for the big, German film studio, UFA, and this led to employment as a freelance illustrator and graphic artist. Her works began appearing extensively in fashion magazines, entertainment papers, and periodicals that observed the socio-cultural trends of the day.
Among Jeanne’s most reliable clients in the 1920’s were the satirical publications Simplicissimus, Jugend and Ulk. And, it was in the world of 1920’s German publications that Mammen came into her own. In 1929, Kurt Tucholsky, who had been the editor of Ulk, wrote a famous homage to Mammen which is now often quoted in relation to Jeanne’s illustrative work: “The delicate, frothy watercolors which you publish in magazines and satirical publications, rise above the undisciplined daubing of most of your fellow artists to such an extent that we owe you a little declaration of love. Your figures feel neat; they are attractive yet severe, and they positively leap at us from the page. In the delicatessen which the people who feed you unlock for us every week or every month, you are virtually the only gourmet treat.”
It was during this time, that the notion of the “New Woman” (Neue Frau), the Weimar equivalent of the “flapper girl,” began to take hold in the popular imagination and came to be depicted, albeit differently, by the men and women illustrators of the time. A symbol of modernity, the depiction of the New Woman by female artists of the 1920’s gives us a front row seat into the earliest manifestations of feminism in the 20th Century. It is in this context that we come to our painting, Meditation. (Fig. 1).
In this watercolor and pencil work on paper, which measures roughly 16” x 12”, we confront a jaunty, young woman dressed in high style enjoying a smoke. Like most of the New Women of the era, she is liberated enough to smoke and confident enough to wear a “New Hat,” the radical felt cap of any woman bold enough to smoke and to invite an observer to watch her doing so on the edge of her bed. This New Hat is considered a more progressive variant of the cloche hat, to which the flapper girls, the “It Girls” of the Roaring 20’s in the United States, laid claim. There are many photographs of Mammen wearing just such a hat.
Meditation first appeared in Jugend magazine (Number 49), the satirical Art Nouveau publication of Hermann Sinsheimer, in the fall of 1930. The issue in which the work appears is dedicated to smoking and is thematically named “Smoke and Let Smoke,” an apparent satirical take on “live and let live.” In this issue, every article, drawing and cartoon has smoking as its subject. This work, which appears as a black and white reproduction (Fig. 2), has the name “Meditation” printed below the bottom edge of the work, along with the following quote, evidently a feminist (for the era) declaration by the New Woman on the edge of the bed: “When I have the choice between a good cigarette and a good meal, I still prefer a man.” (“Wenn ich die Wahl habe zwischen einer guten Zigarette und einem guten Essen, ist mir ein Mann noch immer am liebsten.”). (Fig. 3). As she speaks, the smoke of her cigarette curls ceiling-ward in a visual depiction that almost enables the viewer to smell it. (Fig.4).
In describing the method by which works such as Meditation came into existence, Mammen, in a 1975 interview, said that each week she was required to deliver to the publication “a huge package” of works that “had to match the jokes in the captions.” In return, she said, she was “fairly and promptly paid.” So, this work was evidently created to match the caption of a cartoon. If so, it does an excellent job of illustrating the idea in the quote.
Although there is much to be said about the libertine nature of Weimar Germany and the strides (and setbacks) experienced by women during this era, the unfortunate truth is that ugly developments loomed for Mammen and her fellow Weimar artists. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and thereafter consolidated his power. With Josef Goebbels as Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, the cultural arts were hijacked as were the publications that had been so popular in the Weimar era. Jugend, along with all the others fell under Nazi sway and, by 1940, had ceased publication altogether.
As for Mammen, the Nazis declared her work “degenerate,” and she retreated to her studio, becoming an “inner émigré,” i.e. someone who mentally and emotionally left Germany while remaining there physically. While the Nazis went about destroying as much of her work as they could find, Mammen turned inward, painting symbolically and abstractly, adopting a style that mimicked Picasso. Thereafter, she retreated from the public discussion and display of her art while continuing to work in an abstract style that barely admits of figuration.
While the story of Jeanne Mammen is one of many ups and downs—historical, cultural, political, artistic—Meditation stands as one of the important works from the heyday of her career as an illustrator and provides at least some insight into the evolving persona of women in the first decades of the 20th Century.