Edited by Karen Schick

Prestel Publishing. 245 pages. £45. ISBN 978-3-7913-5711-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The striking self-portrait on the cover of this large catalogue for an exhibition of Anita Rée’s work at the Hamburger Kunsthalle is surely enough to arouse interest in an artist who is probably little-known in Britain. Born in 1885, she died in 1933. The latter date is particularly significant for reasons that will soon become obvious, if they aren’t already.

Rée’s father was German-Jewish, but her mother, who came from Venezuela, is assumed to have been Catholic, though possibly with some Jewish blood in her background.  However, Rée and her sister were baptised and brought up as Protestants. She showed some aptitude for drawing and was encouraged by her father. Between 1904 and 1909 she studied with Arthur Siebelist, a Hamburg artist influenced by Impressionism. Among her fellow-students were Franz Nölken, and Friedrich Ahlers-Westerman. Rée later shared a studio with Nölken, but the association seems to have foundered because she wanted a deeper personal relationship than he was prepared to offer.

Early works by Rée show her to be a competent artist working within well-established formats. A 1904 painting of a farmer with a cow doesn’t suggest any great originality, but as she was only nineteen or so, and probably still guided in some ways by Siebelist, she may not have been confident enough to express herself with any noticeable originality. A self-portrait from the same year, while again fairly conventional in composition, does attract attention because of the firmness of the colouring, and the determined expression on Rée’s face. It’s as if she’s striking a pose that says she’s going to follow her own aims and interests, come what may.

What is obvious in these early canvases and sketches is that she was, in Carl Georg Heise’s words (as quoted by Sophia Colditz), “a brilliant draughtswoman”. She may later have deviated from direct representations of human faces and figures, but she could clearly function within a framework of portraiture that related to a familiar tradition whenever she chose to. This was, of course, useful when fulfilling commissions from patrons who expected a straightforward representation of the subject.

Rée was in Paris around 1912/13, though it’s difficult to pin down with any accuracy just how long she spent in the French capital, which was, at that time, the main centre for experiments and innovations in art. She was familiar with Cezanne’s work, which she admired, and had been in touch with Renoir by mail. But there are inconsistencies in references to the Paris sojourn, with one of her associates claiming that she was there for six months and studied with Fernand Léger, whereas another source referred to Rée being largely “self-taught” and making “study trips” to Paris. Rée herself doesn’t appear to have given any detailed accounts to others of what she did and who she met in Paris.

Karin Schick says that “Rée did not keep a diary and none of her sketchbooks or letters from her Paris days have survived”.  But she did tell Richard Hertz in a 1916 letter that the art historian Carl Einstein, who travelled with her to the city, had helped to shape her tastes and interests: “Back then he wanted to give me, first and foremost, a good foundation – Chardin, Corot, etc. -  before allowing me to approach such things as Matisse’s pictures”. It is fairly certain, too, that Rée, a conservative in some ways, probably didn’t find her way into bohemian circles and cafés in Paris where she might have encountered many avant-garde painters and sculptors. 

She had also discovered and admired the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker, who was located at the Worpswede artists’ colony in Germany. Rée had not visited Worpswede, nor had she met Modersohn-Becker before she died in 1907, but she was influenced by her paintings, and felt that Modersohn-Becker had absorbed lessons from Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, but had not copied these artists and had succesfully created her own “monumental forms and vibrant colours”. Rée was not as impressed by other painters of the period, doubting Emil Nolde’s output and saying that Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings were “when all is said and done, the work of an interior designer”. She also dismissed the Futurists’ “literary-like posturing, the psychologising of the Futurists”. These reactions, if nothing else, demonstrated that Rée was alert to what was happening generally in the art world. She was always keen to visit galleries and view private collections.

She never was moved by purely abstract art, and she was suspicious of Pablo Picasso’s general line of development as he moved away from his early paintings in Paris. But she must have been influenced, if only to a minor degree, by his Cubist work. There is a Study of a Head, said to have been painted sometime after 1913, which has a definite Cubist touch to it. It’s worth noting at this point a somewhat barbed comment on her work by Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann, who remarked that Rée had always painted “like someone or other”, a reference to the fact that she did seem to pick up ideas from a variety of sources. Sophia Colditz, in an interview in the catalogue, challenges this view, and states that Rée was simply doing what many artists do, distilling her viewing experiences and forging her own distinctive style. 

In 1919, Rée joined the Hamburg Secession, a group dedicated to promoting the arts in the city, and with a wide and varied programme of exhibitions, talks, poetry readings, and other activities. Because of her family background, Rée nearly always had access to some of the leading figures in Hamburg’s artistic and intellectual society. She frequented the famous library established by Aby Warburg, and attended events at the home of the poet, Richard Dehmel, and his wife, the feminist Ida Dehmel.  She was active with the Secession and her paintings were shown at most of their annual exhibitions. The 1920s were a fruitful period for her, and as well as her work being seen in Hamburg it was also included in exhibitions in other German cities, such as Dresden, Berlin, Dusseldorf, Nuremberg, and outside Germany, in Helsinki and Stockholm.

Also in the 1920s, Rée spent three years in Italy, living in the small town of Positano, south of Naples. It had become something of a haven for artists and writers, attracting such people as Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Picasso, Fortunato Depero, and many others. Rée later spoke of her time there as among the happiest periods of her life, and she certainly seems have been inspired to work while in Positano. One of her best-known (and best?) paintings, White Nut Trees, was created in the town, and achieves a blend of the modern with aspects of the work of the Old Masters whose paintings she had studied as closely as those of any contemporary artists. But, in Anna Heinz’s words, “what was important to her was not to copy or imitate them, but to make the involvement with them creatively fruitful for her own painting”.

With regard to White Nut Trees, Heinz says that it is “concerned not with a topographical accurate veduta but with a construct in which all kinds of contemporary styles of painting are combined in the context of her reception of Early Renaissance art”. And she suggests that the artist’s “formal concern for the arrangement of of the squares, rectangles and triangles is worth noting”. The painting, and a similar one entitled, Bridge in Positano, have a “spooky, stage-set-like effect” that is almost surreal. Rée, at that stage in her career, would not have encountered any paintings likely to have been described as surreal, so there is no link to the surrealists of the 1920s and 1930s. And I suspect she might not have been in favour of them even if she did have an opportunity to encounter their work.

There are some interesting comments about Rée and her links to the theme of melancholia in art. She would have been aware of an Albrecht Dürer painting (1514) with the title, Melancholia I, and   Gabriele Himmelmann notes that Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Sax, expanding on Aristotle’s theory about the link between melancholy and creativity, had claimed that “Melancholia, which in no way represents a mere evil, but rather means the disposition that, under favourable conditions, enables the human mind to accomplish its greatest achievements. Those men who were of the greatest importance as artists, philosophers, and politicians were all meloncholiacs”.

Himmelmann remarks that “In Anita Rée’s work, melancholic contemplation is ever-present, especially in her best-known painting, a self-portrait from 1930”. (This is the self-portrait I referred to earlier as on the cover of the catalogue). Himmelmann then adds that Rée appears to have “staged herself within a sophisticated theoretical frame of reference as a genius and melancholic artist in the Aristotelian sense”. 

It is true that Rée could be temperamental at times, perhaps even perverse in her reactions to offers to help her. Gustav Pauli, writing to a Berlin gallery-owner who had enquired about including something by Rée in an exhibition, said: “There is only one problem with Anita Rée and that lies in her temperament. She is difficult beyond measure and paralysed by countless inhibitions”.  And she had little luck in her relationships with men, if her earlier difficulties with Franz Nölken, and a later liaison with a businessman man in Hamburg, are anything to go by. Were there other relationships in between that never came to anything? The lack of accurate biographical information about her makes it difficult to know.  By 1930 or so she was also suffering from health problems, and she is said to have complained about feeling lonely and neglected, and being financially impoverished.

She was also being attacked in a pro-Nazi newspaper in Hamburg because of her alleged Jewish ancestry. In 1933 the twelfth exhibition by the Hamburg Secession was closed by the police acting under orders from the Reich Ministry of Propaganda. A little later, Gustav Pauli and Carl Georg Heise, both supporters of Rée’s work, were dismissed from their posts as museum directors in Hamburg and Lubeck. The writing was clearly on the wall, and she talked of moving to Switzerland or Spain. But in December, 1933, perhaps in a fit of depression brought on by a combination of her personal problems and the developing political situation, she committed suicide.

Rée’s reputation faded after her death. Sophia Colditz speculates that this may have been because of the feeling that to identify too closely with her, and her work, might be viewed with suspicion by the authorities: “People perhaps feared that her Jewish ancestry could lead to their own undoing”. Some of the murals she had painted were covered over, and individual examples of her work were hidden. A groundskeeper at the Hamburg Kunsthalle stored some of her paintings in his apartment so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by the Nazis.

Anita Rée: Retrospective is a splendid catalogue, and a great amount of effort has clearly gone into tracking down examples of her work, and details of her life. This was not always easy as many documents and other materials were discarded by her older sister following Rée’s death.

I would particularly draw attention to one of the essays, “An Art-Technological View of Anita Rée,” which looks closely at her “choice of working materials and techniques”. But all the essays are worth reading, and when combined with the extensive illustrations, provide the first English-language survey of Rées work. Formal portraits, landscapes, some experimental paintings. She had a varied approach to the creation of works of art, and from that point of view it’s easy to understand why some critics and fellow-artists thought that she had failed to establish a distinctive style of her own. Her sojourn in Italy does seem to have acted as a catalyst towards more-individual painting, and her work was given greater attention when she returned to Hamburg in 1925.

The catalogue has been published in connection with the exhibition, Anita Rée: Retrospective, at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 6th October, 2017 to 4th February, 2018.