Jeanne Mammen & the Women of Berlin’s Cabaret

German painter Jeanne Mammen was born in Berlin in 1890, however she spent her early years living in Paris. Here, Mammen’s formative years were immersed in a love of French literature and the arts of the age. The artist’s privileged upbringing enabled her to study painting and drawing at various top academies in Paris, Brussels and Rome. With the outbreak of World War I, Mammen’s family had their assets confiscated as they were categorised as a foreign enemy, leading to impoverished conditions for the artist. Mammen, however, also benefited from the experience, as she was able to associate with a variety of people from various backgrounds, an eclectic world once hidden from the limited niceties of her middle class social circle. This, in turn, would have a major influence on her later artwork.

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After moving back to Berlin, in 1921 Mammen began a professional career in art, first as a poster designer for films and later as a magazine illustrator. However, it was the colourful and daring nightlife of the Weimar Republic that caught Mammen’s artistic attention. Between the period of the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, the artist began to create many sketches and watercolour artworks capturing the raucous nightclubs, cafes and cabarets of the city. Here Mammen could quietly observe, sketch and present the vibrancy of a world inhabited by Jewish intellectuals, fellow artists, bohemians, performers and a flourishing lesbian scene, amidst the chaotic pleasures and passions of  the metropolis after dark.

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Mammen’s work is especially noted for her focus on women. The artist did not simply portray shallow, passive props, but presented her women as subjects. Mammen’s females are alive, strong, confronting and confident in their sex and sexuality. Her portrayal of lesbians is ground-breaking from a female perspective, while ignoring both the taboos of the age and cliched sexualised presentation for the male gaze. Mammen’s watercolours often reflected a humorous narrative quality while portraying women simply enjoying the company of other women.

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The artist was involved in many art shows, including an exhibition of female artists in Berlin. However, it was Mammen’s  disregard for apparent ‘appropriate’ female submissiveness in her expression and her subjects which caused the Nazis to later ban her lesbian work and brand her work degenerate and ‘Jewish’. Despite this, Mammen refused to comply and join in with the Nazi regime’s artistic propaganda machine and for much of World War II the artist did no more artworks, even selling books from a cart to survive.

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Having survived the war, in her later years the painter moved into more abstract expressions of art. However, it was her observations of a particular period of German history which are perhaps most remarkable. Her courage to resist the onslaught of the Nazis and to observe and capture a much marginalised yet positive portrayal of life is certainly worth celebrating. The artist’s portrayal of women especially should be honored as a joyful and valuable expression of confident womanhood and sexuality.

In her final years the artist looked back on her work…

“I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others….”.

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Jeanne Mammen, in turn, continued her observations and painting until her death in 1976.

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