Anita Rée, Self-Portrait, ca. 1913, charcoal and watercolor on paper, 17 1/2 x 12 5/8".

Anita Rée, Self-Portrait, ca. 1913, charcoal and watercolor on paper, 17 1/2 x 12 5/8".

Anita Rée

Hamburger Kunsthalle

Anita Rée, Self-Portrait, ca. 1913, charcoal and watercolor on paper, 17 1/2 x 12 5/8".

Anita Rée was a leading artist in Weimar-period Hamburg. No avant-gardist, this devotee of Paul Cézanne, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and the Italian Renaissance was ambivalent about Picasso and dismissive of abstract art. Her portraits, the largest part of her oeuvre, are close in spirit to Neue Sachlichkeit, but more broadly her art was in accord with efforts to reconcile tradition and modernity internationally, from Diego Rivera to Duncan Grant to the Novecento Italiano. Born in 1885 to a Jewish father and a Venezuelan Catholic mother, though raised a Protestant, Rée seems always to have been something of an exotic among the local bourgeoisie, to which she nonetheless belonged. She was drawn particularly to the company of writers and intellectuals, among them the art historians Aby Warburg and Carl Einstein and the poet Richard Dehmel. An inveterate traveler, she visited Paris before the war, and later the Tyrol, southern Italy, and finally the North Frisian island of Sylt, where she took her own life in 1933.

Criticized early on for her eclecticism, she never found a style of her own. In retrospect, her restlessness seems the result not of a lack of commitment, but of an excess of scruple. It can be traced in part through her stylistic divagations, from reminiscences of Picasso’s blue period (Woman in Blue, before 1919) through something resembling Art Deco (Semi-Nude Before a Prickly Pear, 1922–23; Portrait of Hildegard Heise, 1927), from echoes of the quattrocento as mediated, probably, by the early-nineteenth-century Nazarenes (Bertha in a Frame of the Sacred Heart, ca. 1927) through citations of Mughal miniatures in some decorative panels of fantastic animals made around 1932. Rée’s underlying sense of unease comes through in how she depicts herself: Her many self-portraits took pride of place in this exhibition, and most of them—from a glowering, deeply shadowed work of 1904, when she was just beginning her studies with a local Impressionist, through several drawings made near the end of her life—reflect self-skepticism. In one, from before 1915, she cocks her head as if to pose a question to her image, and it’s conspicuous that in one of her last self-portrait drawings, dated 1932–33, she strikes the same quizzical pose. Something’s in question, but is it herself or her art?

If self-doubt is what prevented Rée from ever quite arriving at an assured artistic stance, it did not stop her from achieving some very remarkable works. But it’s telling that she was at her wildest, her most energetic, and least circumspect when she could forget about the demands of painting—in works that she probably not did not consider works at all, but private, even disposable offerings to friends. For instance, a series of a dozen postcards sent in 1929 to a couple honeymooning in France dazzles with what curator Karin Schick rightly calls “fireworks of fantasy, humor, and the joy of life.” Their words and images—drawn and painted in ink and gouache as well as collaged, but in each case including a pair of breasts—promiscuously mix with a heedless dynamism closer to Dada, Futurism, or certain art brut than to anything Rée would have considered exhibiting as art. She was still producing such mail art avant la lettre in 1932, after moving from Hamburg to Sylt, where, for the last year or so of her life, she mainly occupied herself with watercolors. She produced mostly landscapes—sometimes populated by animals—portrayed with a naturalism new to her work, bleak yet somehow infinitely soft in their depiction of the rolling dunes. Apparently, Rée complained of being unable to work during her time on Sylt. Perhaps she didn’t take these landscape drawings seriously. Quite the opposite of her high-spirited postcards and decorated envelopes, they were yet another way to reach behind the back of art.

Barry Schwabsky