Marianne Breslauer, Photographs
27 February – 30 May 2010
“What interested me was reality, more precisely, the unimportant reality, the reality most people overlooked.”
Marianne Breslauer left behind only a small photographic oeuvre, but one that is all the richer and that still has an undiminished freshness. It was created in the short period between 1927 and 1938 – that is, at a time when photography was moving from the status of a painterly salon art to that of a radical new photography, a new artistic medium with inherent qualities of its very own. Marianne Breslauer found herself in the middle of this upheaval and so was also torn between an artistic avant-garde’s delight in experimentation and the (supposed) stability of her upper-class parental home.
Marianne Breslauer was born on 20 November 1909 into a wealthy, art-interested family. She was the daughter of Dorothea Breslauer, née Lessing, and Alfred Breslauer and spent her childhood, adolescence and study years on Rheinbabenallee, Berlin, in a villa which was built by her father, a famous architect. Breslauer’s interest in photography was awakened in 1925 by an exhibition of works by the Berlin portrait photographer Frieda Riess at the Galerie Flechtheim. At the time, the young artistic medium of photography was, like film, very much ‘in the air’. Unlike many self-taught artists, such as Gisèle Freund or Ilse Bing, Marianne Breslauer began her career as a photographer with professional training behind her. In 1927 she enrolled with the Abteilung für Bildnisphotographie (department of portrait photography) at the Photographische Lehranstalt of the Lette-Verein, the so-called Lette-Haus, and completed a two-year apprenticeship that ended with a certificate examination with the Berlin Handwerkskammer (Chamber of Crafts) on the theme of the portrait.
Breslauer then moved to Paris, where Helen Hessel, fashion correspondent with the Frankfurter Zeitung and a friend of the family, arranged for her to meet Man Ray. Breslauer was hoping to be able to work with him, but instead, the famous Surrealist encouraged the young photographer to go her own way, without his help. She took his advice and, using her camera, explored the fascinating French capital. What mainly interested her was the life of the tramps on the banks of the river Seine, but she was also captivated by the exclusive atmosphere at the races in Longchamps and by the hustle and bustle of the fair on the Route d’Orleans. Like many young contemporary photographers, Breslauer admired the works of André Kertész and Brassaï, and in aesthetic terms her own photographs come close to those of her models. But she was also taken by the artistic trends of the New Vision movement, which was attracting a lot of attention in the circle around the Deutsche Werkbund and the Bauhaus.
Her photographs soon found their way into the print media. Even before her return from Paris, two of her Paris photographs were published in Für die Frau, a supplement of the Frankfurter Zeitung. With this, Breslauer’s photo-journalist activities really got underway in 1930. Her first position as a photographer was in the photo-studio of the publisher Ullstein, where she worked under Elsbeth Heddenhausen, who also trained at the Lette-Haus. While with Ullstein, Breslauer perfected her handling of technique, but she soon realised that the swift eye for a sensation and the audacity required of a photo-reporter were not really her style. Her personal gaze was focused more on people and details on the periphery of urban life. She never used her camera as an instrument of invasion or superiority, preferring instead to inconspicuously observe events around her. Many of her photographs were reproduced in the newly-emerging illustrated newspaper supplements and magazines published by Ullstein, like Die Dame, Funk-Stunde and Der Querschnitt, but also in other German-language and occasionally even international publications. In 1932, Breslauer left the Ullstein studio and started working as an independent photographer. Until 1937 she remained active in the fields of fashion, portraiture, advertising, travel, urban life and staged illustrations for the print media.
One of her main themes was portraiture – as it had already been in her apprenticeship work, the Portraits series of 1928/29, for which she arranged some of her artist-friends, first and foremost Paul Citroen, in the most varied of constellations. She repeatedly portrayed friends in Berlin, as well as colleagues and acquaintances from the international art world. These photographs blurred the borders between classical portrait, fashion shot for advertising, and filmic mise-en-scène. The image of the self-confident “new woman” of the 1920s, closely associated with Berlin photographers like Yva, was also shaped by Marianne Breslauer. Her photographs of Ruth von Morgen, Maud Thyssen and Jeanne Remarque present some of those “new women” – of which she herself was also one.
Beginning in the early 1930s, Marianne Breslauer travelled through many European countries and in the Near East, alone or with friends, colleagues or her later husband, the art dealer Walter Feilchenfeldt. In 1931, she felt drawn to Palestine and was enthralled by the world of the Orient. As in Paris, there too she observed the local people in the streets and alleys of Jerusalem, or portrayed her beautiful friend Djemila, for whose wedding she had gone there specially. In spring 1933, with a commission from the “Akademia” agency, she travelled to Spain with the writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Breslauer’s photographs of that trip are not socio-critical works. She concentrated instead on pictorially narrating the cultural peculiarities of the country, its architecture, its inhabitants and their characteristics. However she was unable to publish the fruits of that Spanish journey in Germany. The National Socialists had brought the German Press into line, and as a non-Arian, Marianne Breslauer was no longer able to publish under her own name. Thanks to the good offices of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, some of the photographs finally appeared, together with the writer’s own texts, in the Zürcher Illustrierte, at the time under Arnold Kübler.
Even after 1933, Breslauer repeatedly returned to Berlin. In 1936 however, political developments forced her to leave her native city and move to Amsterdam. That same year she married Walter Feilchenfeldt and in 1939, after the occupation of the Netherlands by the National Socialists, the couple emigrated to Switzerland, where they lived first in St. Gallen, then in Ascona and finally in Zurich. There, until her death in 2001, Breslauer dedicated herself totally to her family and to art dealing. She had ended her career as a photographer even before the Second World War – a deliberate decision, as she herself later explained. She had exhausted the medium of photography: “Had I continued to work in that field, I would have turned to film. I was finished with photography.”
This first extensive retrospective exhibition devoted to Marianne Breslauer contains many so far unknown original photographs, as well as new prints from original negatives in her estate, which latter has been in the care of the Fotostiftung Schweiz since 2003. The exhibition is supplemented by loans of the Schweizerische Literaturarchiv in Bern, the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin as well as private collections. Together with her personal albums and file copies of her publications, which are being presented to the public for the first time ever, this exhibition locates Breslauer’s artistic position in the field of tension between the radical realism of New Vision, cinematographically staged illustration, and subjective reportage.
Martin Gasser and Kathrin Beer
Translated by Pauline Cumbers
The exhibition is being supported by the Federal Office for Culture, Bern, and the F. Aeschbach AG, Zurich