ANITA RÉE : RETROSPECTIVE
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
Rée’s father was German-Jewish, but her mother, who came from
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
Karin Schick says that “Rée did not keep a diary and none of her
sketchbooks or letters from her
She had also discovered and admired the work of Paula
Modersohn-Becker, who was located at the Worpswede artists’ colony
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
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
Also in the 1920s, Rée spent three years in
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
She was also being attacked in a pro-Nazi newspaper in
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
The catalogue has been published in connection with the exhibition, Anita Rée: Retrospective, at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, 6th October, 2017 to 4th February, 2018.