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September 16, 2010

Escaping the Nazis and Hollywood, too

By Jim Duncan

Some are born artists, some achieve great art, and others have art thrust upon them. Like a romantic character from historical fiction, Jeanne Mammen walked all types of the artistic life. In fact, her career was so tangled in the 20th century’s greatest dramas that it’s hard to believe her biography escaped Hollywood’s clutches.

Born in Berlin in 1890, Mammen moved to Paris at age 5 with her wealthy family, absorbing French culture, particularly Flaubert. She studied at legendary art schools — Académie Julian in Paris, Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and Scuola Libera Academica in Rome. Toulouse Latrec and the visionary Franco-Belgian symbolists were mentors. After a promising debut exhibition in 1913, World War I devastated her family. Jeanne caught the last train out of Paris before German nationals were sent to internment camps, waiting till the last minute for a character player by Ingrid Bergman.

The Great War moved her from privilege to destitution. After swearing she would never go hungry again, Mammen eked out a living on the mean streets of Berlin, forging close ties to the streetwalkers and thieves that also fascinated Bertold Brecht. By 1919 she had saved enough money to rent a studio on the Kurfürstendamm, the Broadway of Europe in the cabaret era. She designed posters for the German film industry in its glory days and her watercolors appeared on the covers of every notable fashion and society magazine in Germany. Her more serious work was validated with a successful exhibition in 1930. Then she illustrated Pierre Louys’s “Les Chansons de Bilitis,” depicting variations on the theme of lesbian love. Along came Hitler.

The Nazis didn’t know what they didn’t like, but they knew they didn’t like Mammen’s art. So they branded it “Jewish.” Refusing to work for magazines or films that that been sanctioned by the Nazis, she made her living for 12 years as a street cart vendor. Mammen resourcefully kept making art, building sculptures out of wire left behind by the Soviet army and with care package materials sent from California. Stylistically, she turned to Cubism to suggest the dislocation of the better angels of human nature. After the war, she joined the legendary existentialist cabaret, “Die Badewanne” (The Bathtub) as a designer, but painted and lived reclusively till 1976.

Unlike her more famous male contemporaries (Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz), Mammen viewed the social injustices of her era without dramatic malice, exaggerated satire or condescension. A new exhibition of 13 of her watercolors focusing on independent women plays at the Des Moines Art Center through Dec. 10. It also contributes to the museum’s growing reputation for significant 20th century German art.

Drake’s Anderson Gallery opened its season with “A Fork in the Road: The Time and Place for Local Foods” by Hilary D. Williams. Like several previous exhibitions at Drake, the show preaches politically correctness without acknowledging opposing points of view. The message this time is that scale of America’s industrial food system begets dire consequences. Estimated statistics and slick designs remind viewers that most of them consume food that makes an obscene carbon footprint by traveling long distances to Iowa.

Williams talks the talk better than she walks the walk. An exhibition brochure was printed on just one side of slick, heavy (80#) paper. It was 21 inches tall and 18 pages long. At the exhibition reception, refreshments were served in disposable, non-compostible plastic.

ArtFest West, a fall complement to ArtFest Midwest, moves to The Village of Ponderosa Oct. 9-10. In addition to providing a venue for 100 artists (40 percent from Iowa, 96 percent from Midwest), the show promises affordable art and free music. CV

Caption: Jeanne Mammen (German, 1890 –1976). Untitled, 1930. Watercolor and pencil on paper. 18 7/8 x 14 5/8 inches. Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections; Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jack Reynolds, Edgewood, MD, 1974.104


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