Photographer Annelise Kretschmer rattled the 1920s art world | Arts | DW | 16.09.2016
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Arts

Photographer Annelise Kretschmer rattled the 1920s art world

Ahead of Cologne's Photokina fair, the Käthe Kollwitz Museum is showcasing the fascinating photos of Annelise Kretschmer. She was one of many "New Women" trailblazers of the Weimar Republic - until the Nazis came along.

My grandmother, Anna Martha Unger, was 15 years old at the end of the 1920s. It was a brilliant age to revel in the fashion trends rolling in from Berlin and Paris – even in her small hometown of Johanngeorgenstadt, in a mining region in eastern Germany's Ore Mountains. My grandmother craved the "bob" haircut of the day, but her father was vehemently against it. He didn't like women with short hair, women who probably also wanted to pull on trousers rather than skirts. That was exactly the type of women of whom Dortmund-based photographer Annelise Kretschmer took portraits.

The Weimar Republic's 'New Women'

"More and more of them were emerging all the time," said Thomas Linden, curator of the exhibition "Annelise Kretschmer - Discoveries. Photographs from 1922 to 1975" in Cologne's Käthe Kollowitz Museum. These pioneering women, largely from middle-class backgrounds, were no longer willing to squeeze themselves into the corsets of German Empire traditions. They were already choosing their own professions and seeking egalitarian marriages.

This new emancipation was expressing itself in fashion, too. "Newspapers like the 'Westdeutsche Illustrierte Zeitung' were propagating this new female image," said Linden. "The women were wearing their hair short and donning caps on their heads - it was a more androgynous look." The "New Women" (Neue Frauen) were born.

Marie Juchacz,

German social reformer Marie Juchacz

Annelise Kretschmer not only took pictures of them, she was one of them. "I admired her, as a woman and a mother," said Christiane von Königslöw, Kretschmer's youngest daughter, who worked with her mother in her photography studio for two decades. "My mother had to provide for the whole family - for a husband and four children. She was incredibly hard-working."

The activists of the women's movement had already started blazing the trail at the beginning of the century - women like Minna Cauer, who demanded the right for political participation by women. During the First World War, women stepped right up and took over men's jobs while they were off at war. Understandably, they didn't want to relinquish those duties when the men came back - also not the political responsibilities.

Marie Juchacz - German Parliament's first speaker

Women constituted nearly ten percent of the Weimar National Assembly in 1919. Marie Juchacz, of Germany's Social Democrats, was the first woman to speak before a German parliament.

Book cover Irmgard Keun: Das kunstseidene Mädchen (List-Verlag)

A bestseller in 1932

Even her opening words rattled the audience and incited booing. "What this government has done was a matter of course: it gave women something that had long been prohibited to them," she said, referring, of course, to the right to vote born from the Weimar Constitution of 1919.

Yet Germany could only boast its groundbreaking equal rights for women for a short time since the Nazis took power in 1933. Women were once again relegated to the home - as mothers.

Successful women writers

I have no idea whether my grandmother read the 1932 best-selling novel "Das kunstseidene Mädchen" (The Artificial Silk Girl) by Irmgard Keun. My grandfather would have hated it, too. But many women were fascinated by the story of 18-year-old Doris, who left Germany's provincial Rhineland and headed off to torchy 1920s Berlin.

Marlene Dietrich Copyright: imago

Sexy, self-confident Marlene Dietrich

In the semi-autobiographical novel, Keun depicts the difficult, complex lives of young women. The Nazis banned her books and forced her into exile.

Vicki Baum, surely the Weimar Republik's most successful writer, was forced to leave her home country of Austria. Author of the novel "Menschen im Hotel" (People at a Hotel) - also an Oscar-winning film starring Greta Garbo - was undesired. The Nazis vilified her as a "Jewish street writer" and banned her books. She was denaturalized in 1938 - a stroke of luck, as she managed to survive the Holocaust and continue her career in the United States.

Marlene Dietrich: cool, seductive, confident and mysterious

"Marlene had other plans…before the first kid cries, I've got to emancipate myself," German singer Nina Hagen bellowed into the microphone in 1978. Of course, she was talking about Marlene Dietrich, who starting wearing trousers way back in the 1920s. People know her as striking a cool pose with a cigarette in hand and kissing a woman while dressed in men's clothes in the 1930 film "Morocco."

This was a whole new breed of "woman" - a self-determined one. She likewise left Germany - voluntarily. Following the huge success of "Der blaue Engel" (The Blue Angel), filmed both in German and English, Dietrich headed to Hollywood in the early 1930s, giving the cold shoulder to the Nazis, who had been courting her. Along the way, in Paris, she helped refugees who had escaped Nazi Germany. She took on American citizenship in 1939 and accompanied US soldiers to the front during World War II.

Lilli Henoch Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Zentrum deutsche Sportgeschichte Berlin-Brandenburg e.V./PA Martin-Heinz Ehlert.

Lilli Henoch set four world records

The young actress and director Leni Riefenstahl, on the other hand, ambitiously took advantage of the opportunities the Nazis offered her - like creating groundbreaking movies such as the Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will," which glorified the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Gretel Bergmann and Lili Henoch - successful athletes

Sportswomen, such as high-jumper Gretel Bergmann and track and field star Lilli Henoch, trained for those Olympic Games, but were not permitted to participate in them. Henoch was a 10-time award-winning athlete in shot-put and discus, among other disciplines, between 1922 and 1926, and set numerous world records. She was director of the women's section of her Berlin sports club - but she was also Jewish. She turned down offers of coaching jobs in the United States due to her family. She was deported to Riga in 1942, and shot in the forest.

Gretel Bergmann, likewise a Jew, was not allowed to participate in the 1936 Games. Though surpassing her competitors in skill, a man dressed as a woman filled her slot in the high-jump competition. Bergmann untimately left Germany, continuing her career in the US, where she still resides. She turned 102 this year, and told her story in the 2009 film "Berlin 36."

At last: a 'bob'

My own grandmother died in 2008 at the age of 94.

Anna Hirth Copyright: private

The author's grandmother Anna Hirth, about 1930

She lived through five different German political eras, lost her husband and brother in the war, and fled the GDR with her daughter.

Before her death, she often relayed the story of the bob haircut - and how she sat down one day at the dinner table for all to see: her braids had disappeared. She had had her hair cut, without asking permission. Her father did not speak to her for days. But I could hear in her voice that even as an old woman, she was proud of her courage in her youth. It was a trait she possessed her whole life long.

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