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The Artist Jeanne Mammen (1890 - 1976)

"Selbstbildnis" [Self portrait], at 1932, WVZ: Z 365

"Selbstbildnis" [Self portrait], at 1932, WVZ: Z 365.

Jeanne Mammen is one of the most impressive, unusual and versatile German female artists of the twentieth century. She is frequently mentioned in connection with Käthe Kollwitz and Hanna Höch, two artists who also showed a strong engagement in social emancipation, and whose most successful years also date to the Weimar era. When comparing Jeanne Mammen to other socially critical male artists of the time, like Otto Dix and George Grosz, a certain resemblance in the selected motifs can be noticed, but there is quite a difference in their vision and style of portrayal. In contrast to Dix and Grosz, Jeanne Mammen's pictorial statement regarding injustice and the ensuing deplorable social conditions is neither marked by harsh denouncement, nor does it convey pity, and her portrayal of the Bourgeois is without biting malice and condescension. She is the only artist of her time, who, by using her intuitive power and her penetrating eyes, succeeded in delivering precise and cunning portrayals capturing the characteristic physiognomic features, typical of people of all walks of life in the 1930s. She herself once said: "I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others. Unfortunately one was seen ...".

The central motif, subject of her human and artistic concern and empathy, were women of all classes in the metropolis. She depicted them in their socially conflicting roles, also drawing attention to their ambivalence. The spirit of these portrayals originates from her own deep innermost experiences, which she expressed in the finest nuances, something that becomes accessible only when, after having experienced the greatest possible distance, one reaches the greatest possible closeness (E. Roters).

Jeanne Mammen, 1975

Jeanne Mammen, 1975.

Jeanne Mammen was born as the last of four children in Berlin in 1890. She grew up in Paris, where her parents had moved, when she was five years old. French subsequently became her second mother tongue, and it was easy for her to absorb the rich tradition of French literature and the fine arts. Already at the age of thirteen she was an avid reader, devouring contemporary French literature, and she was particularly fascinated by such visionary texts as Flaubert's "Tentation de Saint Antoine" [The Temptation of St. Anthony], which became one of her favourite readings.

After a carefree childhood and adolescence in Paris, she began her formal education in the fine arts, together with her older sister Marie Louise, in 1906 at the world famous private Académie Julian in Paris. Both sisters continued to study painting and drawing in 1908 at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and in 1911 at the Scuola Libera Academica, Villa Medici, in Rome. Jeanne Mammen's early art work, which was exhibited in the "Salons des Indépendents" in Paris and Brussels during 1912/1913, as well as her sketchbooks dating from that period with motifs from Paris, Brussels, La Panne, Ostende and Berlin, already give evidence of both, her remarkable skill in draftsmanship and the characterization of people, as well as her feeling for composition and colouration. She was justified in claiming famous artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen and the visionary Franco-Belgian and English Symbolists as her mentors.

In 1914, the outbreak of World War I forced Jeanne Mammen to interrupt her studies. Her family managed to catch the last train from France to Holland, to escape internment. Her father, Gustav Oskar Mammen, who had been a wealthy merchant, all of a sudden had become a foreign enemy, and his property was confiscated by the French government. Consequently the young artist found herself without any financial resources, when the exodus ended in Berlin half a year later. The years during and after the war were marked by deprivation and her struggle to survive, trying to find work, and having to accept any kind of a job, in order to earn a living. The social and political upheavals, while forcing her into a social and economic situation, she had not experienced before, also brought her close to different types of people, making her very responsive and sensitive to their existential problems. These first-hand experiences literally went under her skin, and found an intense expression in her art work. (E. Roters).

After having lived in Berlin with her parents, in 1919 Jeanne Mammen and her sister Marie Louise moved into a former photographic studio at Kurfürstendamm 29. Marie Louise, who also painted (she signed her paintings "M. L. Mammen", her illustrations "M. L. Folcardy") lived with her for some time until she left for Persia. In the 1920s the Kurfürstendamm was the main broadway of Berlin, and the studio was located in a large apartment building, the front facing the busy street, the back, however, overlooking the courtyard with trees and birds singing. Jeanne Mammen called this green oasis in the heart of the city her garden, and it was to become her residence (Wohnatelier) for 57 years, until her death in 1976.

After years of hardship, Jeanne Mammen finally was able to find work which was related to the profession, she originally had intended to persue. In 1921 she began to design film posters for the major German film company, Universum Film AG (UFA), and she also received commissions to illustrate the front covers of society and fashion magazines. The years from 1924 to 1934 can be dated as her realistic period, and almost all satirical journals and popular periodicals of that time displayed her watercolours and drawings, with scenes portraying the atmosphere typical of life in this metropolis, both by day and by night. As of 1927 she had succeeded in supporting herself on the income from her art work.

In 1929, Kurt Tucholsky, co-editor of the liberal intellectual review "Die Weltbühne" [The World Stage], expressed his admiration for her, and published his tribute Answer to Jeanne Mammen: "The subtle, flower-like watercolours which you publish in magazines and satirical reviews by far transcend the undisciplined scrawling of most of your colleagues, and we now owe you a little declaration of love. Your figures are clear cut with a clean feel, they are gracious yet austere, and they literally jump at you out of the paper. In the delicatessen shop, which is unlocked to us weekly or monthly by your employers, you are about the only delicacy."

A major exhibition arranged for her by Fritz Gurlitt in his art gallery in 1930 was crowned by success. In 1931/1932 Jeanne Mammen followed Fritz Gurlitt's suggestion to illustrate Pierre Louys's "Les Chansons de Bilitis" [The Songs of Bilitis] (1894), variations on the theme of lesbian love, and she created a series of eight lithographs in two colours.

In 1933, however, after the National Socialists had seized power, Jeanne Mammen's portrayals, those of women in particular, were to be praised for the last time. The occasion was her participation in the spring exhibition of the "Verein der Künstlerinnen zu Berlin" [Association of Female Artists in Berlin]. Then the first slanderous attacks appeared in the Nazi press, denouncing her manner of portrayal and/or the depicted motifs and subjects as being Jewish, and the above mentioned lithographs for "Les Chansons de Bilitis" [The Songs of Bilitis] were banned from publication.

Jeanne Mammen rejected the cultural politics of the Third Reich, and during the time from 1933 to 1945, she no longer participated in exhibitions. Out of conviction she discontinued her work for those journals and magazines, such as "Simplicissimus", which had adopted the officially sanctioned cultural policies, and therefore had not been closed by the Nazi regime. Having expressed her protest in this way, meant the loss of a source of income. She preferred to try to earn some money by pulling a hand cart through the streets of her neighbourhood, trying to sell second-hand books, journals and graphic works. She also attended private drawing courses in her vicinity, a way for her to keep practicing her artistic skills in a social setting, without having to submit to the official cultural program. Later she would refer to this activity somewhat ironically as "my finger exercises". An impressive 2.000 drawings originated during that time. Whereas in her paintings of the same period she had abandoned the realistic style, she remained faithful to it in these drawings.

"Bildnis einer Frau mit Hut" [Portrait of a Woman With Hat], WVZ: Z 678

"Bildnis einer Frau mit Hut" [Portrait of a Woman With Hat], WVZ: Z 678.

She managed to make ends meet, taking on all sorts of odd jobs and living modestly on her savings. She could not, however, have survived very well on this meager source of income without the help of her close friend, Max Delbrück, the research scientist, who continued to buy her paintings after his emigration to California in 1937.

During the years of World War II, Jeanne Mammen continued her work of art in her self-elected seclusion. She began to paint in a Cubist-expressionistic style, strongly influenced by Picasso, whom she admired greatly. By breaking the subject matter up, this rather aggressive style of painting, was more suitable to express her inner resistance towards the ideology and terror of the Fascist regime, and her criticism of the existing social conditions. This also allowed her to demonstrate at least covert solidarity with other artists.

Jeanne Mammen's art work dating from the last years of the war and thereafter, in more than one way gives evidence of the horror and the inflicted human suffering, as well as the living conditions during the aftermath of the war. The buildings in her vicinity lay in ruins, the apartment building at Kurfürstendamm 29 had also been hit by a bomb, and a large number of paintings, drawings and lithographs were destroyed, damaged or stolen, whereas the studio itself escaped major damage. Neither the shortage of art supplies nor the frequent interruptions of power supply stopped Jeanne Mammen from working. She integrated such contrasting materials as wire left behind in the debris of the Soviet Army in the courtyard of her apartment building, as well as the white twine from the care packages sent to her by Max Delbrück from the US, into her relief figures and sculptural works. During this time Jeanne Mammen also began to model sculptures in clay and plaster in a Cubist-expressionistic style, and in 1947 she wrote to Max Delbrück: "I am modeling by candle light, because of recurring interruptions of power supply."

In 1945, immediately after the end of World War II, she participated in a collective art exhibition. In 1947 paintings and drawings, which she had created during her reclusive time, were presented to the public in an individual exhibition at Gerd Rosen's gallery (the first gallery to exhibit modern art after the war in Germany), organized by her artist friend, Hans Uhlmann.

In 1949/1950 she joined the legendary existentialist post-war artists' cabaret, "Die Badewanne" [The Bathtub]. She participated in the scenario, designed and built the scenery and backdrops, and created the dècor and costumes. Other than that she still led a rather reclusive existence in a small circle of artist friends, among them the painters Hans Thiemann, Hans Laabs, and the poets Johannes Hübner and Lothar Klünner. She was mainly dedicated to the one true passion in her life - painting. This enduring and devoted commitment allowed her to create a most impressive and many-faceted work of art, including her sculptures, her graphic work, her paintings in lyrical as well as in absurd-abstract style, coloured paper collages with tinfoil, and the "numinous" paintings. This late body of work certainly can bear comparison with her more famous and much admired earlier work, dating from the Weimar era.

Jeanne Mammen had established a habit of not always signing her paintings, and she never dated them. In her opinion this information was irrelevant for the understanding and appreciation of a work of art, which first and foremost had to be experienced with all senses. Therefore it is quite remarkable, that she did sign and date her very last painting "Verheißung eines Winters" [Promise of Winter], October 6th, 1975. In a rare interview with Hans Kinkel at the occasion of her 85th birthday she said: "Now I have an unhealthy preference for white, after I feel better again, I will paint all pictures in white. In a hundred-thousand years they will all have turned golden". Then the paintbrush was taken from her hand forever by a severe illness.

Jeanne Mammen in her studio, 1975

Jeanne Mammen in her studio, 1975.
On the wall her last painting "Verheißung eines Winters" [Promise of Winter].

Jeanne Mammen's last creative period ties in with her first one. Born at the beginning of the Symbolist movement, her early literary interests were sparked by the dreamlike, visionary subject matter, an essential ingredient of Symbolistic art, and as she navigated through her long eventful life, she never lost touch with the realms of feeling and imagination. This is quite evident in the different style periods contained in her rich body of work.

For art lovers and connoisseurs, as well as historians, much remains to be discovered and explored in Jeanne Mammen's heritage. This is particularly true of the less well known paintings of the later years, holding a fascinating and powerful attraction, some of them containing an enigmatic, hermetic symbolism.

Jeanne Mammen's life might be compared to a process of continuous oscillation in resonance to the intricate patterns of life, woven by externally generated and internally perceived stimuli. The artist's osmotic responses kept moving between the one end of the continuum represented by her social engagement and participation in public cultural life, and the other end characterized by her flight into seclusion and retreat, allowing her to explore contrasting visionary dream worlds, sometimes also entering premonitory realms.


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