“Weiße Bäume in Positano”: Description and Reception
The long road to Hamburg’s Kunsthalle
Painter Anita Rée came from a family of assimilated Jewish merchants in Hamburg. She was baptized and confirmed and attended a girls’ school for higher education höhere Töchterschule. She began training as an artist in 1905, when she started to study outdoor painting with Hamburg painter Arthur Siebelist. In 1906 she paid a visit to Max Liebermann in Berlin to introduce herself. When he recognized her talent and encouraged her to paint, she continued to study with Siebelist until 1910. She later shared a studio at Berliner Tor with fellow painters Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann and Franz Nölken. Both had been to Paris and gave enthusiastic accounts of the latest art movements, thus arousing her interest to visit Paris in order to experience modernist painting for herself and continue her artistic education. She managed to do so, and in 1912 / 13, she was studying drawing in Paris (probably) with Fernand Léger. After returning to Hamburg, she worked in Ahlers-Hestermann’s studio and began painting works influenced by Cézanne and Picasso as well as more experimental, cubist-expressive works. In 1916, she spent time at an artists’ retreat in Blankenhain (Thuringia) established by art historians Carl Georg Heise and Hans Mardersteig. After the first World War, a Secession group formed in Hamburg in 1919, and Rée was among its founding members. The Hamburg Secession developed into an elitist artist group which presented its most recent works in annual exhibitions. After having spent a year painting in the Austrian town of Grins in Tirol in 1921, she moved to Positano in Italy, where she stayed and worked on her own until 1925. The charming and secluded fishing village on the Gulf of Salerno had been a well-kept secret among writers and painters. As her works from this period show, she also visited various artistic and cultural sites in Italy, including Rome, Ravenna, Southern Italy and Sicily, sometimes in the company of other artists or friends.
After her return to Hamburg in 1926, she exhibited her works at the Commeter gallery Kunsthandlung Commeter and very suddenly became a prominent Hamburg artist. It was the high point of her artistic career. Several portrait commissions attest to her popularity among Hamburg society. 1926 she and poet Ida Dehmel founded Gedok (League of German and Austrian Artists’ Associations of all Genres) Gemeinschaft deutscher und oesterreichischer Künstlerinnenvereine aller Kunstgattungen. Fritz Schumacher, head of the city’s building authority, commissioned her to paint two murals for new school buildings (Schule Uferstraße 1929, Schule Caspar-Voght-Straße 1931), and the Protestant Church commissioned her to paint a five-panel retable for the church of St. Ansgar in Langenhorn. In 1931, she returned to Positano, this time accompanied by her friend and patron Valerie Alport. At this time, nationalist and racist circles were already agitating against her because of her Jewish origins, criticizing her murals as well as her commission for the church in Langenhorn although she was a Protestant. The National Socialists argued that a Jew could not paint a Christian retable. The consistory eventually gave in, and the congregation never got to see the finished work. It was given to the Nikolaikirche at Hopfenmarkt, where it burned during a fire in the attic in 1943. In 1932, Anita Rée hurriedly left her home town and moved to the island of Sylt. Isolated, plagued by fear, and psychologically exhausted, she committed suicide in Kampen on December 12, 1933.
Among the 190 works in her oeuvre, Anita Rée considered “Weiße Bäume in Positano” [“White Trees in Positano”] (1925) the most important from her time in Italy. It is a highlight among the views of Positano she painted. In a narrow curve, a road leading over a bridge runs up a slope and between several buildings. It is framed by walls. In the foreground, another wall leading to the right edge of the picture creates further depth. On the slope, there are a number of staggered buildings, simple cubic houses topped by shallow domes and with window and door openings and small gaps to let light in. In the background, there are several houses and gardens. The only building depicted in more detail is the house above the bend in the road. The cubic buildings appear bare and oriental, and they are slightly askew, which evokes an impression of age and vacancy further reinforced by the closed shutters. Grey-white nut trees rise above the buildings, their bare, wintry branches weaving into a tight web at the upper edge of the painting. Palm trees and cholla cacti grow in the gardens depicted in the foreground. Nature seems to oppose man-made structures, for not only do the trees rise above the houses, they also dominate the picture visually by “bracketing” the architecture. Small staircases either leading out onto walls or nowhere, open windows and doors, a ladder leaned against a wall, and an altar with a Madonna figurine at the bend in the road all speak of inhabitants, but the image itself is devoid of people. Both in her application of paint and in the direction of light, Anita Rée developed her own personal version of the “New Objectivity” style. Not a single brush stroke is visible in her smooth application of paint. White, grey, light browns and beige tones dominate. Few accents such as a blue shadow of a tree, a blue-green or reddish brown door, a yellow cornice or green palm leaves in the background subtly brighten the composition and create a quiet tension. Spotlight-like light from the right sharpens the shapes and contours of walls, buildings, and trees into an unprecedented formal rigidity, similar to a camera focus. The scene seems numbed by wintry cold, almost frozen, and magical in its exaggerated realism. A comparison with a watercolor sketch shows Rée included additional elements in the painting and condensed them into a more compact composition. The painter’s gestures remain invisible. In her 2013 monograph on Rée, Annegret Ehrhard wrote: “The work and its beholder face each other in isolation from one another. [...] This other form of provocation, this unconditional sobriety, one must be able to tolerate.” Annegret Ehrhard, Anita Rée – Der Zeit voraus. Eine Hamburger Künstlerin der 20er Jahre, Berlin 2013, p. 54.
Her Positano painting met with mixed reactions in Hamburg. Experts such as the director of the Kunsthalle, Gustav Pauli, and his wife Magdalena were both taken with it in 1926, and art historian Aby Warburg considered it the best painting in the exhibition “Hamburger Kunst.” The jury presided over by Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann rejected the painting, however, criticizing its “affected, Old Master-like rigidity.” Anita Rée was not present to defend her work. She felt offended, hardly showed her works in Secession exhibitions anymore, and she even fell out with Ahlers-Hestermann. Their old friendship had sustained irreparable damage due to a conservative attitude.
The subsequent fate of this controversial painting was tortuous yet typical for the National Socialist period. In her will, the artist had bequeathed it to physician and well-known anesthetist Dr. Ernst von der Porten and his wife Frieda, her friend whom she called “Fridjof.” In 1935, they wrote to Carl Georg Heise: “We have now hung our oil painting and enjoy it very much.” In 1938, the Jewish couple fled to Brussels. Following the German occupation, both were arrested by Belgian police and Ernst was later expelled from Belgium and deported to the camp at St. Cyprien in France. His wife followed him voluntarily since he was in the hospital for suspected typhus after a failed suicide attempt. Seeing no future for themselves, the couple committed suicide in the hospital in Perpignan on December 13, 1940. The painting remained lost. Dr. Gerda Ottenstein (1912–1988), the only one of the couple’s three daughters to survive, was unable to provide the author with any information on its whereabouts in the 1980s, and she had not listed it in her application for compensation either. Decades later, in 2011, the painting resurfaced at the auction house Villa Grisebach in Berlin. An elderly lady whose late husband had owned the painting had sold it to a Belgian art dealer in Antwerp at a low price. Research by Dutch historian Lucas Bruijn showed that Frieda von der Porten had put several things in storage before fleeing to Belgium, and the painting was most likely among them. Grisebach recalled the painting from auction due to its uncertain provenance. A year later, June 23, 2012, the owners put it up for auction at Beurrett and Bailly in Basle, where it was sold for 129,126 EUR—three times its estimated value. Sometime later, it was acquired by Hamburg’s Kunsthalle at an even higher price. After 90 years, it finally came to its rightful place in 2013 and is now considered one of the highlights in the museum’s collection of “New Objectivity” artworks. At the same time, it is a reminder of the sad fate of both its miserable painter and her heirs.
Three years after Anita Rée’s death, a controversy about the issue of Judaism and art unfolded. In 1936, art historian Carl Georg Heise, who had been friends with Anita Rée, intended to publish a commemorative book featuring contributions by her friends. During the preliminary work, a situation arose which shines a characteristic light on the time period, but also on Anita Rée’s personal politics. She had been raised as a Christian and belonged to Hamburg’s class of highly assimilated Jews called “Pöseldorfer Juden,” named for the bourgeois neighborhood they lived in. As her friends Maria Wolff-Elkan and Carl Georg Heise mentioned in 1935 and 1936 respectively, she had antisemitic leanings and “expressly did not wish to be counted among the Jewish community.” In 1936, Dr. Franz Landsberger, director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, had asked Valerie Alport for some works from Rée’s estate and received them. When he not only reproduced the paintings in Berlin’s Jewish community newsletter Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt Berlin, but also presented them as evidence of the artistic vigor and potency of Judaism, he caused outrage among both her Jewish and non-Jewish friends. At a time so precarious and dangerous for those of Jewish origin, it was felt that she had been appropriated by Judaism and thus labeled a Jewish artist even though she did not consider herself Jewish and had exclusively chosen New Testament subjects for her religious paintings. The focus of her artistic work had been to become part of and develop modernism in art.
Therefore the commemorative book could not be published in the 1930s and was not realized until 1968. In 1986 a monograph on her life and work was published, and interest in her paintings has increased steadily ever since. Today Anita Rée is considered one of Hamburg’s most important early 20th century female painters. An exhibition at Hamburg’s Kunsthalle (2017) and a revised, completed catalog of her works are being prepared at present.
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Maike Bruhns, Dr., studied German language and literature studies and history of arts from 1960-1964 and wrote her dissertation on Anita Rée. She curated various exhibitions, e.g. Kunst in der Krise, Hamburg 2001 (7 presentations in Germany), Nachtmahre und Ruinenengel. Hamburger Kunst 1920 bis 1949. Her focus of research: e.g. art during the Third Reich and art after 1945.
Maike Bruhns, Jewish Art? Anita Rée and “New Objectivity” (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, December 06, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-106.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].