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On the trail of women artists—and old friends—in Germany and Italy

Blog Category:  From the Curator

In this series of blog posts, NMWA Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman recounts a recent trip to Europe:
The focus of a journey could be the exploration of a new territory or a spiritual journey in search of internal peace. It could also be the need to assuage one’s desire for friendship, love, or adventure or, simply, finding an inspiration for creative work. My trip to Germany and Italy in September 2011 was focused on viewing works created by women, on meeting artists, particularly book artists, and on cultivating old friendships. 
PART I . Berlin, September 3–8, 2011
My friend Gabriela Eigensatz greeted me at the airport in Berlin. She drove us to her beautiful apartment in the former East Berlin, now a booming and elegant part of town, where on this warm day I noticed children playing in her building’s cobblestoned courtyard; their toys spread all around a small old fountain. Our friendship began when Gabriela, who used to be the cultural counselor of the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C., and her friend donated a beautiful artist’s book, Claire Nydegger’s Voyelles, inspired by Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, to the NMWA collection of artists’ books.

Image of Claire Nydegger's artist's book Voyelles, 1992
Claire Nydegger, Voyelles, 1992; Woodcuts and wood engravings on paper, offset printing on paper and tracing paper, 6 1/2 x 12 3/4 in.; Gift of Gabriela Eigensatz and Yvana Enzler

Gabriela’s job in Berlin allows her to participate in many fabulous cultural events. My host took me along to a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the spectacular Berlin Philharmonic Hall and to a reception afterward organized by the American Embassy. The following day, Gabriela invited several women artists and curators to meet with me and learn about NMWA. Among them were Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat, the curators in charge of Das Verborgene Museum (The Hidden Museum). The museum’s objectives are similar to NMWA’s—highlighting, researching, documenting, and exhibiting works by women artists. Its leadership is struggling to raise necessary funds, and since they do not have a headquarters or permanent collection, they collaborate with other museums, who host exhibitions that they have conceived.

Lotte Jacobi: Berlin–New York, by Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat
Lotte Jacobi: Berlin–New York, by Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat

Beckers and Moortgat are the authors of an excellent book about Lotte Jacobi, a renowned German photographer who lived in New Yorkduring the Nazi era. The book (part of the collection in NMWA’s Library and ResearchCenter) was first published in conjunction with the exhibition Atelier Lotte Jacobi: Berlin–New York held at Das Verborgene Museum and other German museums in 1997. This October, Beckers is curating in the Berlinische Galerie an exhibition of Hungarian photographer Eva Besnyö, whose work was seen in NMWA exhibition of Hungarian women photographers in 2009. Das Verborgene Museum’s comprehensive two-volume catalogue, published in 1987, is a landmark comparable to Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin’s catalogue Women Artists, 1550-1950.

Detail of Gisela Breitling's commission for St. Matthaus Kirche
Detail of Gisela Breitling’s commission for St. Matthaus Kirche

One of the founders of the Verborgene Museum, artist Gisela Breitling, visited NMWA many years ago and donated one of her paintings to the collection. I was unable to visit with her, but I was told that I could see her wall paintings in the St. Matthaus Kirche, located near the Neue Galerie (Gallery of Modern Art). The following day I climbed the stairs to the church tower to see the sixteen murals representing scenes from St. Matthew’s Gospel, (image above) a powerful contemporary interpretation of the life of Christ and his martyrdom. Breitling depicted love, suffering, sacrifice, and betrayal not just as a biblical story but as the present human condition. Breitling won the all-German competition for the murals in St. Matthaus church, a rare commission for a woman.

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