An the beginning she didn’t have much: just a birth and a death date – and a handful of fascinating Expressionist-style drawings that were purchased for the museum in the early 1990s. Who was this Rosy Lilienfeld they came from? What role did it play in Frankfurt’s cultural life in the “Roaring Twenties”? How was she perceived? And why forget?
Almost 15 years ago, Eva Sabrina Atlan, curator of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt and today deputy director of the house, started looking. She found traces in the Hessian state archive. Reports written by doctors about the mentally unstable Lilienfeld, a photograph of her studio in the Städel Art Institute, a list of items Lilienfeld had to make before she left Germany.
The Austrian publisher Richard Löwitt published a book by the artist with illustrations for Martin Buber’s “Baal Shem” story, which was inspired by Eastern Jewish mysticism: Lilienberg translated the story into high-contrast but harmonious drawings. Her night pictures, which she made in ink, were completely different, more expressive and disturbing: scenes full of skeletons, nightmarish, confrontations with one’s own inner demons. And then there were the cityscapes: house facades, trams, east and west ports, the synagogue on Börneplatz.
Their careers ended with the Nazi era
The curator was determined to dedicate an exhibition to this Rosy Lilienfeld. Atlan worked on it for more than a decade, and she found out more and more about the artist’s life, which ended bitterly in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Nevertheless, the result is a different show: Not only Lilienfeld is presented in it, but four Jewish artists who caused a sensation in Frankfurt in the 1920s, who had their own studios, felt at home in salons and intellectual circles and in well-known galleries, sometimes also abroad. Their careers came to an abrupt end during the Nazi era.
Two of them, Ruth Cahn and Erna Pinner, survived the Holocaust in exile. The other two, Rosy Lilienfeld and Amalie Seckbach, died in Nazi concentration camps. The works of all women fell into oblivion. The exhibition with the programmatic title “Back into the Light” is intended to change that.
The impressive works of the artists are divided into four cabinets, each symbolizing one of the women’s studios. You can see expressive portraits of women in bold colors by Ruth Cahn. Her line is lively, she works with clear lines. In Paris, Cahn had joined the “Fauves” and a solo exhibition had been set up for her at the well-known Galerie Dalmau in Barcelona. Her city paintings can also be seen a little away from the cabinet. She staged the Palmengarten or the Frankfurt Eintracht training grounds in Riederwald precisely, but with panache.
Amalie Seckbach discovered art late, after the death of her husband, the architect Max Seckbach. She collected Asian drawing art, her collection was considered spectacular. Eventually she began to exhibit some sculptures at presentations of her collection, which caused a stir. The Belgian artist James Ensor invited them to a joint exhibition, and soon Seckbach was also painting. In the show you can see some of the head miniatures that she formed out of plaster. And also the haunting, sad portraits that she drew later, in the Theresienstadt ghetto, until shortly before her death.
Travels to the Middle East, Africa and South America
Erna Pinner was not only a draftswoman but also a publisher. And, above all, travelers. With her partner Kasimir Edschmid she was drawn to the Middle East, Africa and South America. She drew and photographed along the way, and the books “A Lady in Greece” and “I Travel Around the World” were created from her experiences. The elegant, urbane Pinner corresponded thoroughly to the role model of the “new woman”. And she sketched animals, with just a few strokes, almost comic-like, also in the Frankfurt Zoo.
In October 1935, Pinner managed to escape to London, where her cousin lived and organized transports to rescue Jewish children from Germany. In British exile she also managed to make a new start: Pinner became a draftswoman for zoological publications. A whole series of books she has drawn and written has been published. She did not return to Germany and Frankfurt.
A contemporary artist can also be seen in the exhibition: Elianna Renner, who lives in Bremen, deals with the biographies of Ruth Cahn and Amalia Seckbach in a surprising way in a three-part video installation. She lets the Frankfurt rabbi Elisa Klapheck say a kind of prayer for the dead for the lost Seckbach collection and the artist has her say in a fictitious zoom talk. In a performance with the dancer Gertrud Schleising, she traces the artistic beginnings of Ruth Cahn. Renner’s videos are humorous, think outside the box and make you think.
And the works of four artists brutally persecuted by a murderous regime, long forgotten, are finally being rediscovered. That is the remarkable achievement of this show. Years of research have paid off.
Back into the Light, until April 17, 2023, Jewish Museum, Frankfurt, Berta-Pappenheim-Platz 1, Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., during events until 7 p.m.