Dodo Rediscovered (Dodo Bürgner– 1907-1998) Berlin to London

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DODO REDISCOVERED (DODO BÜRGNER– 1907-1998) BERLIN TO LONDON RACHEL DICKSON

DATE 2013. SOURCE Paper presented to IMLR, Senate House, University of London. For further information see collection, exhibitions and research on Benuri.org.


Dodo Rediscovered - Berlin to London 1907-1998 Rachel Dickson Introduction In summer 2012 I curated an exhibition at Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art, entitled: The Inspiration of Decadence: Dodo Rediscovered - Berlin to London 1907-1998, which contextualised émigré artist, Dodo Bürgner (1907-1998) and her work, both within Weimar Berlin, where she was educated and, subsequently, in London, the city in which she took refuge in 1936 from the Nazi regime and where she spent the last 50-plus years of her long life. This exhibition was, in turn, based upon and expanded from a solo show: Dodo Ein Leben in Bild, held at the Sammlung Modebild, part of the Kunstbibliothek, Berlin, earlier in the year. These two 2012 exhibitions were the first opportunities to see a comprehensive retrospective of Dodo’s work and marked the rehabilitation of a remarkable artist and designer, whose life story finds resonance with that of so many wartime émigré women whose work and narrative, in the wake of the total fracture of her life, had been largely forgotten. The restoration of Dodo’s artistic reputation is, in itself, a fascinating story of serendipitous events. In 2009 a German collector of Expressionist art and English silver was surfing the website of a regional UK auction house for silverware, when her eye was caught by several illustrated lots in a Decorative Arts sale - powerful expressionist works on paper, by an evidently German artist of the 1920s whose striking one word signature, ‘Dodo’, she did not recognise, despite her extensive knowledge of art of the period, and whom she immediately likened to Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976), a successful contemporary, German woman artist and illustrator. Further research revealed little about Dodo Bürgner other than that, remarkably, a series of her costume drawings made whilst she was a student at the Reimann Schule in Berlin had been gifted, at the time of their creation in the mid-1920s, to the Sammlung Modebild, where they had remained unseen for almost 90 years. Dodo’s family were eventually traced abroad, and they also knew nothing about either the cache of Dodo’s works at UK auction or the German museum group, thus providing the perfect starting point for an investigation into the life and work of Dodo Bürgner. Now, in mid-2013, her reputation has been reclaimed by academia, with museum shows in Germany and Britain; the publication of a major monograph by the renowned publishers, Hajte Canze, in English and German, and recent MA and BA dissertations at British universities; in the commercial sphere, a secondary market has been established by dealers and auction houses, and her family have set up a comprehensive website to support research and related enquiries. Dodo – Beginnings In the decade after the end of the First World War, Germany was a progressive nation at the forefront of developments in art, literature, philosophy, science and technology, and its capital city – Berlin - with its flourishing bohemian society, the focus of much of this activity. Dörte Wolff was born in 1907 into a cultured, middle class Jewish family in Berlin’s Schöneberg district and, declaring this name to be ‘[…] an unsuitable choice for a very dark 1


Jewish little girl’, she re-styled herself simply as ‘Dodo’, the plain and single moniker with which she would henceforward sign all her artworks. From 1923-26 Dodo received her art training at the prestigious and progressive private Reimann Schule, located in an important Bauhaus building near her home. Established in 1902 and named for its Jewish founder, Alfred Reimann, during the first two decades of the new century it rapidly expanded to incorporate departments of decorative and theatrical arts. By the time Dodo enrolled in 1923, in a year group of over a thousand students, the school was noted for its liberal atmosphere, broad curriculum and wide range of applied arts courses, including fashion, textile, costume, poster and theatre design; a flourishing student newspaper and a varied exhibition programme. Socially, the highight of the year was the celebrated annual fancy-dress ball, held during carnival season, for which students designed lavish costumes. Tutors at this time included Rolf Nickzy head of fashion illustration; Georg Tappert, the New objectivity painter, who taught drawing from the nude and composition, and Erna Schmidt Carroll who taught fashion and costume design. Dodo’s earliest known works date from her Reiman Schule years, including a poster design for a film showing at Berlin‘s celebrated Marmor Haus (Marble House). The cinema, designed by architect Hugo Pal in 1913, had a distinctive white marble facade and seated over 600, which Dodo used in her design. One of Dodo’s 1926 works, made for the annual ball, have been held by the Kunstbibliothek archives since their creation, and are typical of Reimann student work, combining a range of historical references with modernist interpretations in an innovative and imaginative style. Dodo’s inspiration embraced folklore, the circus, the hunt, the wild west, the historical dandy and the exotic, as well as the latest à la mode boyish fashion designs for women, similar to the style of Fritz Lang’s modernist science-fiction film Metropolis which was released the following year in 1927. A number of designs for advertisements, which were favoured student projects, further show Dodo’s strong sense of colour, form and composition; the poster for a pen company is particularly striking, with its evocation of a hard metallic sheen, almost akin to that of an armament, contrasting in its masculine strength and simplicity with more feminine images. These graphically strong works contrast with a watercolour fashion head study of the same period; elegant and understated, executed in a subtle and muted palette, it is indicative of the type of commercial success Dodo would acquire after graduation. The pale, profiled woman also makes a striking counterpoint to one of Dodo’s self-portrait from 1934, in which she depicts herself as an androgynous figure in a crimson beret, much like the image she projected in a posed photograph from the same period. The school’s tutors were often creative professionals working in a freelance capacity, with established careers in the commercial world – hence the institution prepared its students well for future employment. On graduating in 1926, Dodo found immediate success as a freelance fashion illustrator for the Berlin silk weaving house Michels and Cie. Berlin’s fashion illustration business flourished in a city known for both its clothing manufacturers and its 2


newspaper publishers. Dodo’s first commissions were to produce a range of Vogue Patterns – either coloured multi-figured illustrations, which incorporated interior settings and were based on swatches of Michels material, or simpler monochrome designs featuring one or two posed mannequins. These featured regularly in the company’s monthly publication, Seidenweberei Michels und die Mode ‘for the elegant woman’ and for which Dodo earned ‘a lot of money’, her drawings of stylish, slender mannequins encapsulating the feminine ideal of the period. The late 1920s marked a shift in Dodo’s career and she began to contribute prolifically to ULK, the satirical supplement to the weekly Berliner Tagblatt published by the GermanJewish owned publishing house, Mosse Verlag. With a circulation of over 250,000, Dodo’s work in ULK was seen across the full spectrum of Berlin society. She produced over 60 illustrations for ULK between 1927-29, encompassing single- and double-page spreads and a number of covers, on occasion appearing in the same spread as Jeanne Mammen, her renowned contemporary. These works often involved complex and atmospheric multi-figure compositions, drawn in the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) style of the day, and were characterised by intense colour within a range of distinctive palettes, which often varied between images, so as to best suit the subject matter. Dodo herself always claimed that ‘My first memories are colours’. With cosmopolitan settings in theatres, bars, restaurants, the famous Berlin zoo (where the Reimann classes had often gone to sketch), or against the backdrop of the new modernist architecture of the city streets, Dodo narrated the sophisticated life of the modern urbanite, as well as her take on the increasing estrangement between the sexes. In caustic works, Dodo exposed the superficiality of the bohemian lifestyle of the period, with which she was becoming familiar. Many of her ULK illustrations feature couples who, although ostensibly ‘together’, steadfastly avoid each other’s gaze, and whose outsize hands grasp one another with savage intensity. At the same time, Dodo’s own personal life underwent a radical shift, exposing her first-hand to the nuances and complexities of relationships: in 1928 she met lawyer Hans Burgner, twenty years her senior. They were married the following year and her honeymoon in St. Moritz, Switzerland, is alluded to in a number of ULK images with alpine settings. But despite posing glamourously in furs in the snow, Dodo preferred a warmer climate. Other more exotic locations provide a contrasting range of backdrops, such as a cruise liner and the pyramids. However, putting these more fanciful images aside, Dodo came closest in her work to the visual savagery of George Grosz. The following year, in 1930, the birth of her daughter Anja, further transformed Dodo from free-spirited sophisticate into a woman conflicted by the constraints of a traditional marriage and early motherhood. At the same time. the burgeoning interest in ‘black’ culture was stimulated by the appearance in Paris and Berlin of black American dancer, Josephine Baker (1906-75), and her scandalous cabaret, the Revue Neger/Negre, which Dodo herself saw on the stage of the Nelson Theatre on the Kurfürstendamm. The black figure began to take an increasingly important role in Dodo’s own oeuvre, first glimpsed on the periphery as a caricatured bellboy, eventually taking centre stage in portraits of Josephine Baker herself (1928-29), and in numerous images 3


of dark-skinned odalisques, often with babies, reminiscent of Gauguin’s Tahitian girls. Dodo clearly found allure in the ‘exotic’, and there is a suggestion that she may have actually met Josephine. The preoccupation with the exotic also led her to create a dark-skinned alter ego of sorts, who appears as the central figure in a number of works, produced during and after the period of Dodo’s Jungian psychoanalysis in Zurich in 1933. With the rise of Hitler to the Chancellorship in 1933 and the passing of the anti-Semitic legislation of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935, life became increasingly difficult for Germany’s Jews across every strata of society, and Dodo was no exception. Commercial work would have been harder to obtain and ULK could no longer afford to produce four colour printing in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. In turmoil over her own personal circumstances (Dodo had fallen in love and begun an affair with the strikingly handsome, renowned Jungian psychologist, Gerhard Adler, 1904-1988), her private artwork became increasingly selfobsessed, reflecting little of the wider condition of German Jewry. Rare examples do acknowledge those circumstances. In the autumn of 1933, Dodo underwent Jungian analysis in Zurich with C.J. Jung and his lover and assistant, Toni Wolff, which led to an outpouring of extraordinary hallucinatory images over a number of years, reflecting Dodo’s inner turmoil and her guilt and anxiety over her affair with Adler, her abortion and separation from her children. Images were populated with surreal winged figures, skulls, menacing armoured women, a modernist madonna, a spider-like creature with goggle-eyes throttling its naked victim, and a coffin bearing a dead foetus. In many of these disturbing subconscious images her beloved Adler’s strikingly handsome features appeared without distortion, while her own exaggerated self-portrait haunted works. Her sketchbook from the same year chillingly references the drug Veronal (the first commercially available barbiturate which was used as a sleeping aid until the mid1950s) and its pages reveal even more terrifying visions, where nuns hold young women captive. In contrast to the savage topicality of the ULK works and the nightmare visions resulting from psychoanalysis or drugs, and despite the increasingly threatening Nazi regime, during 1934-35 Dodo also contributed modest black and white drawings across a range of topics to a number of Jewish magazines in Berlin. These were published for the Jewish community at large, highlighting cultural and communal affairs and matters of mainstream daily interest. These works were often light-hearted and showcased Dodo’s skill as a draughtsman. She also illustrated bible stories, using an elegant, curving art nouveau line. Immigration These pleasant images belie the most difficult conditions, and by spring 1936 both private and wider circumstances made Dodo’s life in Berlin impossible to continue, and she joined the flood of émigrés fleeing Germany. In April 1936, Dodo immigrated to London with Adler, on a visa as a freelance professional, leaving Hans to follow later with the children, having initially accepted this unconventional ménage a trois relationship. The following year, he obligingly helped Dodo file for divorce in Germany and she promptly married Adler, 4


despite her insistence that she could not simply ‘hop from one marriage into the next; it’s not like changing a shirt for a cleaner one’. A photograph from 1938 shows Dodo reclining and pensive; clearly the new life in suburban London was a world away from the bohemian early days in Berlin and abroad, uncomplicated by marriage and divorce. She wryly described her circumstances in London as ‘a very continental muddle’, adding ‘I have no intention of living in this town, which is more conservative than Berlin is, even Victorian, compared to the continent, as one of Dr Adler’s girlfriends [...] as a refugee and foreigner it would be impossible for me not to conform, at least outwardly, to convention’. Nevertheless, the marriage was short-lived, and they too divorced in summer 1938. Like many women émigrés, Dodo faced numerous day-to-day problems in London: a new language, a different culture, financial hardship, difficulty in finding suitable employment, the need to provide for her children. Renting in Holders Hill Gardens, Hendon, in the heart of the informal Jewish ghetto, with her father’s elder sister, Dodo recalled having to squeeze the contents of two nurseries and her bedroom into the tiny Hendon house. The apparent randomness of the internment process in spring 1940 left Dodo, Hans and Gerhard at liberty but Hans’ sister, Else, interned. A series of temporary jobs followed, in which Dodo, as with so many of her peers, found employment first as a domestic (Dodo recalled that she was a very mediocre cleaner and had to be shown how to scrub the dirty rim of a bath by her orthodox Jewish employer), and subsequently as a piece-worker painting costume jewellery (at which she was very quick) and, latterly, dyeing haute couture buttons, buckles and belts for Paris House, a Belgravia fashion business which employed around 30 workers, of whom half were continental refugees. Dodo commented on how much better educated she and her European peers were compared with their British counterparts. At intervals, she took on commercial commissions for clients such as John Lewis, for whom she illustrated the latest fashions. For Ackermann’s chocolates, established locally in Hampstead by fellow émigré, Werner Ackermann, whom Dodo had known in Berlin, she designed labels and packaging materials decorated with the distinctive Ackermann’s ‘boy’ logo (c. 1940). Dodo recalled being offered extra black-market chocolate rations by Herr Ackermann and taking pleasure in seeing continental foodstuffs, such as herrings in a barrel and sauerkraut, at a local Jewish grocer. Dodo also produced illustrations for English magazines, on occasion re-working earlier Berlin images to suit her new audience, whilst demonstrating her consummate skill as a draughtsman. Dodo also illustrated several children’s books under the name Dodo Adler. Dodo also wrote and illustrated her own children’s stories, most likely for her children to enjoy. Alongside her commercial paid artwork, Dodo also continued to make her own private art. Dodo’s creativity also found an outlet in the greetings and Christmas cards she designed for Raphael Tuck and Sons, produced until 1940 when the firm was destroyed in the Blitz; her 5


designs often recalled her earlier travels and interest in costume. These small-scale and modest artworks formed the bulk of Dodo’s commercial output in later years. A more stable home environment emerged following remarriage to Hans in summer 1944, formalising their now current living circumstances - they had been spending more together as a family and Hans was often staying overnight. Dodo also began attending life classes locally in Arkwright Road in Hampstead (she had no studio space at home); another émigré classmate was Frank Auerbach. And Dodo’s other sitters, now English archetypes, contrast vividly with the bohemian figures in her pre-war Berlin studies. Despite her artistic inclination, Dodo tended not to socialise with other émigré artists, rather with a coterie of continental psychoanalysts, including Philip Metmann, and Ernst and Anna Freud. But as her daughter Anja noted, compared to life in Berlin, it was a smaller circle, a smaller life. Moving forward almost eighty years, Dodo Bürgner is now firmly established both as a significant Berlin artist and as part of a group of German and Austrian émigré women artists and designers, who are undergoing a current re-evaluation or rediscovery, such as Elisabeth Tomalin (1912-2012, grandmother of noted designer Thomas Heatherwick), who designed for Marks and Spencer; Margarete Berger-Hamemerschlag (1902-1958) whose work is represented in the Senate House archives; Susan Einzig (1922-2009), who illustrated the original version of the children’s book, Tom’s Midnight Garden; children’s author and illustrator, Bettina Bauer, and Katerina Wilczynski (1894-1978), artist and fellow contributor to ULK. Small-scale and modest artworks often characterised their output during their years in Britain. At the end of her life, Dodo continued her creativity through tapestry and cross stich, producing a late design which incorporated the name DODO clearly embroidered below a stylised tortoise. Since the 1970s Dodo had collected over a thousand model tortoises of all shapes, sizes and materials, and perhaps the creature with its hardened shell, concealing a sensitive interior, suggests a fitting and final characterisation for Dodo herself.

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