JEANNE MAMMEN

(1890 - Berlin – 1976)

 
 

Woman Winking

Signed with monogram lower left JM

Pencil on paper

50.5 x 33.5 cm (19 7/8 x 13 ¼ inches)

Provenance:

Private collection, Germany.

Born in Berlin to a bourgeoisie family, Gertrud Johanna Mammen lived most of her youth and adolescence in Paris, where in 1895 her father moved their family of six for a business opportunity. Mammen was interested in art from a young age, and at sixteen years old she enrolled in the Académie Julian, one of the few art schools that admitted female students. By the age of eighteen, Jeanne, as she was now called, was eager to expand her artistic horizons and departed Paris to study in Brussels at the Académie des Beaux Arts under Jean Delville (1867-1953) and Ferdinand Khnopff (1858-1921). She thrived in Brussels, developing a unique voice in the male-dominated school of decadent Symbolism, exhibiting with the Indépendants in Brussels in 1912 and the Paris Indépendants in 1913. Unlike her male counterparts, Mammen often investigated popular Symbolist subjects with an empathetic feminist lens, tapping into the strength and resilience of the femme fatale in stories such as Salome. Mammen’s departure from the themes of Belgian Symbolism coincided with her family’s expulsion from Paris at the break of World War I. Confronted as German enemies of the French government, the Mammens were stripped of their belongings and thereafter fled to Amsterdam. Jeanne and her sister Maria Louise, however, chose to return to their birthplace of Berlin, the city now infamous for its explosion of progressive literature, politics and art. For the first time in her life Mammen was confronted by hardships such as poor housing and poverty.

Mammen acclimated to her new life in Berlin by the early 1920s, finding consistent work as an illustrator for several fashion magazines and satirical journals such as Die Dame, Simplicissimus and Lustige Blätter. Although she was a versatile artist, Mammen became especially well-known for her illustrations focusing on the complex identity of the “new woman,” a trope created by the media to sell beauty products and advertise leisure activities such as attending cabaret performances and going to the movies. Although this type of modern woman was often characterized as holding an office or retail job in order to enjoy Berlin’s leisurely offerings on the weekend, Mammen’s drawings and watercolors tapped into the grim reality that only the wealthiest patrons could truly enjoy life in the city. The average “independent” Berlin woman, on the other hand, would lose herself to the intense urban nightlife because she was working as a prostitute, trying to escape the monotony of an underpaid day job or forget a lover lost to the war. Mammen’s drawings were beloved for their sophisticated tension between social criticism and understanding, and unlike her male contemporaries, such as George Grosz and Christian Schad, she tapped into society’s reality not only through an objective lens, but also an empathetic one.

Mammen struggled with the loneliness of living as an outsider in Berlin, however that which caused her pain ultimately became her greatest tool as an artist. She dressed plainly in order to be overlooked, and therefore she could observe her surroundings undetected, see without being seen. She became well-known for her intimate depictions of secret spaces, notably women’s clubs, dance revues, brothels, and other queer spaces. She was able to investigate the emotions of her fellow women, who were victims of the existential crisis that resulted from of the war. The quickly changing female identity resulted in a double-edged sword of independence and restriction, celebration and woe, progress and setback.

Winking Woman epitomizes Jeanne Mammen’s exploration of the complex women in Weimar Berlin’s subversive underbelly. This exchange between the bold subject and the female artist, as opposed to a male artist, is nuanced because there is no risk of a physical or financial power struggle. This is not simply a relationship between a client and a prostitute, rather there is a recognition of a shared identity. The wink is not suggestive of a fiscal exchange, and though it may be a flirtation, more likely it indicates commiseration. The wink becomes an acknowledgement of their shared burden but is also a celebration of being a woman. This drawing provides a unique perspective of the interwar period in Berlin that cannot be found in the work of Mammen’s male counterparts in the New Objectivity. It reveals a space and a mindset that was separate from men, where women existed as allies to one another during a time when their survival depended on it.