BY Pablo Larios in Profiles | 30 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 8

A Life’s Work

A visit to Jeanne Mammen’s studio and home in Berlin which has been turned into a museum

BY Pablo Larios in Profiles | 30 JAN 13

Schachspieler, 1929-30, oil on canvas (courtesy: © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2013, and Berlinische Galerie; photograph: Kai-Annett Becker)

I walk up to the fifth floor of a rear building on busy Kurfürstendamm one Saturday morning and enter the home and studio of German artist Jeanne Mammen. The art works, objects, books and bric-a-brac in this modest apartment stand as they did when she died in 1976, preserved in the manner of petrified wood. A primitivist vase resting atop a cabinet in the main room is inlaid with nautilus seashells which coil inward, like the winding narratives that seem to spiral around the other objects in the room.

In a 1975 interview with Hans Kinkel in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Mammen described this modest two-room space, a former photographer’s studio that she first moved into with her sister in 1921, as ‘with nothing but gas lighting, two chairs, two easels.’ Everything seems to be in twos; past and present, outside and inside. Mammen, born in Berlin to a wealthy merchant father, was raised in a well-to-do part of Paris. At the onset of World War I her family was forced to move back to Berlin, effectively penniless after their belongings were confiscated by the French state. To make money, Mammen took to the streets, sketching figures in the Weimar-era cafés – prostitutes, expressively rendered, and crude, grotesque men. She also did illustrations for fashion magazines, trade publications and film posters. In 1931/2, she illustrated Pierre Louys’ Les Chansons de Bilitis (1894), which celebrated lesbian love. Since 1976, the Jeanne-Mammen-Gesellschaft e.V., founded by Mammen’s close friends, has maintained the artist’s apartment as a preserved atelier-cum-museum, while serving as the legal executor of Mammen’s estate. The interior space of the studio – which today’s Jeanne-Mammen-Förderverein does not allow to be photographed – bears witness to more than 50 years of accumulation, from postcards to kettles to balls of string, collected from the streets outside.

Sie repräsentiert!, published in the magazine Simplicissmus 1928, issue 47 (courtesy: © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2013, and Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek)

After the 1920s, Mammen’s whole life was – the story goes – a slow, deliberate turning inward, though the Nazis’ seize to power led her all the more into an inner exile. In the main room, five representations of the Scala Contarini del Bovolo – the Venetian spiral staircase that looks like a snail’s shell – are tacked to the wall: four postcards of different hues and sizes, and an expressionistic rendering in paint. Going upwards, as it seems to approach a centre, the spiral is a site of both protection and concentration. A barrage of intricate, associative works network these rooms: a chandelier made of Christmas ornaments; a wooden, painted lobster; cut-outs of dancing figures; shells and rocks; oriental teapots; a piece of white wood shaped like a gazelle; glass eyeballs; a photograph of the New York skyline superimposed with a cut-out of a primitive mask; pieces of embroidery (also tacked to the wall). The pervasiveness of items from nature, like shells and rocks, gives the impression that these cosmopolitan environs have moulted natural ephemera. Today, in the smaller room, a bed sits beside an immense, brightly coloured wardrobe that Mammen herself painted; in the corner of the room – now used as an office for the foundation – there’s a brightly painted sculpture of a devil, made of cardboard.

A painter’s real medium is light; but for the historian, illumination is less constant, merely the telos of chance discovery, the coming to light, as we say, of some document or image. Lining the back room of the apart­‑ment is a series of primitive, abstract sculp­tures of human heads made from plaster. They seem to be singing. In his biographic documentation of Mammen’s life, Ein Lebensbericht (A life’s report, 1991), Georg Reinhardt writes that, during the war years, Mammen turned to the more tactile medium of sculpture, which allowed her to keep working with her hands despite frequent power cuts. Towards the end of the war, the Soviet army had set up a bivouac in the courtyard of her building; Mammen went out and gathered metal wire and incorporated it into a helical sculpture.

Mammen was intrigued by modern science. She was good friends with Max Delbrück, who in 1969 won the Nobel Prize for his work on molecular genetics (and was one of the founders of molecular biology). When Delbrück left his hometown Berlin for America in 1937, he took several of the artist’s paintings from her studio and exhibited them in his workspace at Caltech in Pasadena, California. Throughout the postwar years, Delbrück sent Mammen care-packages from Pasadena, and also work materials, such as paint. As working materials were scarce in Berlin, Mammen refigured string from the parcels in the form of two string paintings kept here: abstracted, sinuous faces in profile, one red, one unpainted. Delbrück remained, with critic and art historian Eberhard Roters (of the Berlinische Galerie), one of Mammen’s principal supporters: the Max-Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin contains a room named in her honour, housing sculptures and oil and tempera paintings, and the Berlinische Galerie houses a collection of Jeanne Mammen’s works.

Jeanne Mammen photographed by Elsa Thomas in her studio, ca. 1946-7 (courtesy: Siftung Bauhaus Dessau)

When I spotted the painter’s own published translation of Rimbaud for Insel Verlag (Illuminationen, 1967), a paradox came to me with regard to such a space. Is it some trick of the alphabet that the word atelier can, in the original French, be scrambled to produce the word realité? After all, when entering any studio – the site of artistic production, where all is resource – hardly does one unveil the conditions of aesthetic assembly. Instead, the moment we witness the machinery of pure aesthetic production, we’re led through a circular door to a symbolic register where utility and representation conflate. If one knows the vertiginous psychological effects of the documentary archive (‘archive fever’), then there’s an analogous febrility incited by the spatial, tactile uncertainties of the artist’s studio.

Mammen’s last painting, The Promise of Winter (1975), is a large white, abstract canvas that bears evidence of the tactile accumulation of paint (it weighs more than 15 kilogrammes). Due to this layering, its texture resembles the corrugated wallpaper common in Berlin apartments. Two diagonal lines come down and form an ‘X’, like a sign for barred entry. In the centre of the work, there is a small black circle and, painted within it, two holes. On first sight, this image, which resembles a skull, seems like an emblem, or premonition, of its painter’s death. Mammen knew she was dying at the time. History offers its own remainders. But is this image merely an abstracted cranium? It also looks remarkably like one of the few adder stones that sit silently a mere metre away on a nearby bookcase: one of the rocks that water has bored holes, not eyes, within. Indeed, one of Mammen’s ventures beyond her Berlin confines was a beach trip, late in life, to Morocco with Delbrück and his wife Manny. One can hardly account, in a painting or a life, for the mutability of a symbol. What one can state is that, when Mammen brought back these stones in 1969, they were hardly weighty omens (of death or otherwise), but chance knick-knacks, anodyne souvenirs, inscrutable icons to add to the others.

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.