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Rediscovering Marianne Breslauer

The history of photography has its share of neglected creators who, however, re-emerge with some frequency, as if pulled to the surface by the inner strength of their own talent. This is true of the German photographer Marianne Breslauer (1909–2001), who was active between the wars, a period as brief as it was intense.

Her images, including a splendid self-portrait in nude, stood out in the exhibition “Who is Afraid of Women Photographers?” at the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie in Paris in 2015. She was one of the inspirations for the heroine-photographer in William Boyd’s novel Sweet Caress, also published in 2015. Now she is being set center stage, until January 29, at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona. The exhibition has been organized with the help of Fotostiftung Schweiz which houses the photographer’s collections. In 2010, the Foundation had organized a beautiful retrospective of Marianne Breslauer’s work on site, in Winterthour.

The photographer hasn’t been forgotten, but her talent still awaits wider international recognition. And yet she did all to deserve it, from the daring modernity of her practice, the artists she frequented and photographed, her group portrait of emancipated “tomboys” under the Weimar Republic, down to her unrestrained, adventurous personality before she was forced into exile by the Nazis and abandoned photography.

Born in a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin, Marianne Breslauer was surrounded by art from early childhood. Her father, Alfred Breslauer, was a renowned architect and member of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Julius Lessing, her maternal grandfather, was a famous art historian and the first director of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin. In 1925, an exhibition of the portrait photographer Frieda Riess awakened her interest in the medium. Two years later, she enrolled in the Lette-Haus, a Berlin arts academy, to train as a portrait photographer.

Her degree in hand, in 1929 Marianne Breslauer headed for Paris, where she made contact with Man Ray. The artist let the young woman use his studio, but encouraged her to follow her own path, without his help. She scoured the city, taking interest in vagrants, acrobats, Parisian parks, the banks of the Seine, as well as in horse races at Longchamp.

Initially, Marianne Breslauer was under the influence of Kertész and Brassaï. But she quickly assimilated the principles of the New Vision, a movement which liberated photography from its subordination to fine arts and made it an autonomous, objective, and positively modern means of expression, with its high- and low-angle shots, slants and tangents, and its exaltation of structure, form, and light. To see more, to see better—this was the new photography’s watchword. Marianne Breslauer’s own approach was discreet, but intense, and technically perfect.

Upon her return to Berlin in 1930, the photographer began contributing to the illustrated press, both in Germany and abroad. She traveled a lot and also branched out into fashion and advertising. She did a portrait after portrait of the rebellious and androgynous “new woman,” her hair cropped short. She photographed her girl-friends, in particular the Swiss writer and adventurer Annemarie Schwarzenbach, with whom she traveled to Spain. The persistence of the model of the 1920s’ and 1930s’ tomboy owes much to the empathic, precise, and sensuous gaze of Marianne Breslauer.

The photographer also portrayed a generation of creators and artists, from Erich Maria Remarque to Paul Citroen, to Oskar Kokoschka and the photographers George Hoyningen-Huene and Umbo. In Paris, Marianne Breslauer photographed Picasso and Braque during an auction at the Galerie Georges Petit, but she also did portraits of Ambroise Vollard, Tristan Bernard, and Albert Barnes. While art was her element, she never thought of herself as an artist. She claimed to be interested only in reality, preferably inconsequential reality.

Faced with anti-Jewish censorship in the German press, Marianne Breslauer left Berlin in 1936 and settled in Amsterdam. She married the art dealer Walter Feilchenfeldt. In 1939, the couple emigrated to Switzerland, making their home in Zürich. Marianne Breslauer was done with photography. Until her death in 2001, she would devote herself to her Zürich art gallery and to her family. Her activity as a photographer spanned merely a decade. It was enough time, however, to build a strong, personal body of work. And with style!

Luc Debraine

Luc Debraine is a culture and society journalist for the Swiss magazine L’Hebdo.

Marianne Breslauer. Photographs 1927–1938
From October 27, 2016 through January 29, 2017
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
Palau Nacional, Parc de Montjuïc, s/n
08038 Barcelona

Marianne Breslauer’s photographs may be viewed online on the site of the Fotostiftung Schweiz website.

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