Ella Bergmann-Michel, Untitled, 1925, collage, watercolor, pen, and graphite on vellum, 24 1⁄2 × 16 7⁄8".

Ella Bergmann-Michel, Untitled, 1925, collage, watercolor, pen, and graphite on vellum, 24 1⁄2 × 16 7⁄8".

Ella Bergmann-Michel

German artist Ella Bergmann-Michel (1896–1971) experimented with collage and assemblage in the tumultuous era of the Weimar Republic, configuring her own compelling visual vocabulary. The results were evidenced in the show “De l’eau à la lumière, de Dada au Constructivisme” (From Water to Light, from Dada to Constructivism), which featured nearly thirty works made between 1920 and 1926. She and her husband, Robert Michel, met in 1917 while studying at the Grand-Ducal Saxon School for Fine Arts, Weimar, one of only two German art schools to accept women, and stayed on when it merged with the Grand Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts to form the Bauhaus in 1919. The couple swiftly renounced its didactic approach and dropped out—perhaps excluding themselves from the renown they might have derived from an association with the school. They ultimately retreated from city life, settling in the countryside outside Frankfurt in a former smelting mill, where artists such as Ilse Bing, El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, and Kurt Schwitters would drop by.

Bergmann-Michel’s early aesthetic drew from Dada, Futurism, Constructivism, and abstraction. Art historian Thierry Dufrêne described her oeuvre as a kind of “cosmogenesis, in which precarious equilibriums are born,” adding that her drawings evoke “an element of Bosch- or Escher-like fantasy” and “the art brut of Adolf Wölfli.” Indeed, her work exudes an intense and oblique quality despite featuring legible geometric shapes. Bergmann-Michel studied music before becoming a visual artist, and one detects a lyrical dexterity with composition and arrangement underpinning the dynamism of these forms. Untitled (Composition with Fish, Birds and Pitchers), 1921, portrays an especially intricate, topsy-turvy apparatus: transparent vessels circuitously tipping over liquids into other vessels, some with fish cascading out—the feverish ensemble looking as if plucked from a mad scientist’s laboratory.

Such playful works flanked starker collages in which Bergmann-Michel integrated spectral color scales cut out of physics books. In these, the scientific understanding of light mingles with its aesthetic power. Several untitled works from 1925—variously articulated as collage or in watercolor, pen, or graphite pencil on wove paper—nestle the rainbow spectrum within black rectangular forms resembling latter-day music-visualizer software. Her fascination with the optical foreshadowed her later forays into photography and film (begun in 1927 and 1931, respectively), notably influenced by Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde technical experimentation.

Much of Bergmann-Michel’s work was confiscated or destroyed during World War II, and she largely stopped creating, beginning again only in the mid-1950s. Although she has been excluded from the art-historical canon, Bergmann-Michel slips easily back into it. The vitality of her work shows her to be a precursor to later kinetic artists, such as Jean Tinguely. Her oeuvre depicts scrupulously mechanistic systems that appear sturdy and logical—but are in fact optical illusions, elaborate circuits that serve no real purpose. These invoke the chilling period of history she lived through: one in which the appearance of rationality and order was a mirage, masking a sinister yet senseless tempest.