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  • Chronicler of the MetropolisJeanne Mammen's Berlin Watercolors
  • Kristine Somerville

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

—Christopher Isherwood

German artist Jeanne Mammen never made her personal life public. During the '60s and '70s, her work began to be sought after by museums and galleries for its depiction of the metropolitan spirit of the Weimar Republic. Interviewers wanted to know more about her, but she was reluctant to answer questions. Her artistic approach was to be an unseen eye that chronicled the complexities of Berlin life, particularly for women. Her artistic credo extended to her personal life. To her few friends she described herself as a "hermit crab," preferring to be undisturbed.

Traveling through the world largely unnoticed allowed Mammen to see others more clearly. She was born in Berlin in 1890, the youngest child of liberal, middle-class parents who provided their children with an immersive fine arts education. When she was ten, her family moved to an upscale part of Paris where she freely explored the streets alone. Her habits as a flâneur began early. During her walks, she filled her notebooks with scenes of the boulevards crowded with people, capturing movement, gesture, characteristic features, and the rich variety of Belle Époque clothing styles.

She attended three prestigious art schools that attracted students from all over Europe: the Académie Julian, where women were taught at nearly the same level as men, the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in [End Page 143] Brussels with a fourteen-hour-day curriculum, and the Scuola Libera del Nudo dell'Academia di Belle Arti in Rome. Her education ended in 1915 after the outbreak of World War I, when her family was declared enemies of the state by the French government and stripped of their assets and home. They returned to Berlin as refugees.

Mammen found the city personally alienating, yet from an artist's point of view, Weimar Berlin was a city unlike any other. For fourteen years, it was marked by explosive artistic and intellectual productivity. Germany became a center of Freudian psychoanalysis. Albert Einstein lived and taught in Berlin, artists Otto Dix and George Grosz published their political caricatures, Fritz Lang made his futuristic, dystopian film, Metropolis, and at the Bauhaus, a new austere architectural style was taking shape. The art movement Dadaism thrived, and concerts included atonal, discordant music.

Print media in Berlin flourished, with newspapers and magazines publishing more illustrations than photographs. Needing to support herself, Mammen found commissions as a graphic artist, designing movie posters, illustrating clothes for exclusive fashion journals, and drawing sketches for pieces of social satire. Practiced on the streets of Paris and Berlin, her distinctive, recognizable style—a simplified, elegant line with a wash of color added later—made her popular among high-circulation magazines and journals. She published in Uhu, an art and culture magazine, Ulk, a popular satirical journal, and Die Dame and Styl, elite fashion magazines.

Many of her illustrations depict Berlin's version of the "Golden Twenties," which was more politically and economically complicated than that of the United States. Defeat in World War I and the Treaty of Versailles resulted in inflation, mass unemployment, food shortages, and social chaos. Postwar trauma opened the door to rampant vice and political uncertainty, as well as to extremists, including Nazis and communists who battled in the street for political control of the city. Yet at the same time, there were rapid changes and reforms. With the right to vote and opportunities to study at academies and universities, women moved beyond the conventional roles of wife and mother. It became socially acceptable for them to attend cabarets, cafés, bars, and nightclubs, which were filled with globe-trotters, amusement seekers, and dance-crazed revelers.

As they did in the United States, Germany's modern youth broke with the staid and bankrupt values of their parents. Since money was nearly worthless, young people spent their cash on pleasure. Berlin's [End Page 144]

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Jeanne Mammen, untitled (Selbstbildnis [self-portrait]), ca. 1926, watercolor, Jeanne-Mammen-Stiftung. © Foto: Mathias Schormann © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG...


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