Jumps from the radio tower

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Jumps from the radio tower
“At Hubbuch (Sitting woman with green hat)”, 1928. © Privateje / Kunsthalle Mannheim

Kunsthalle Mannheim presents Hanna Nagel’s fascinating work, an unjustly forgotten pioneer in feminist art.

The fact that Hanna Nagel had been forgotten for decades, of course, speaks volumes. In the 1920s and 1930s, the artist thought through the role of the woman, her own role, in her work like very few others. Again and again, she drew women and men into emotional (and sometimes even physical) struggle with each other, depending on each other. Often himself and her husband, the artist Hans Fischer. Again and again colleagues, their teachers, fellow students.

She did this in a way that appears to be quite obsessed. As if it was about finding a way out of a crazy situation that seemed hopeless to her: being a wife, being a mother, being an artist – preferably at the same time. Or jump from the radio tower of desperation.

It is also her own fault that Hanna Nagel’s work, which seemed so intrusive, was forgotten. She kept her early work in the attic until her death in 1975. Her daughter found it. And perhaps the oblivion was also due to the fact that Nagel worked almost exclusively on paper. Although she had the skills to be a painter, as evidenced by a unique self-portrait in oils, where she is confident, beautiful and with powerful working arms.

In recent years, exhibitors have been able to notice Hanna Nagel, who was born in Heidelberg in 1907, where she also died. Individual works by her were shown in group exhibitions, for example in 2017 in the exhibition “Glanz und Misery in the Weimar Republic” at Schirn in Frankfurt.

In Mannheim Kunsthalle, Nagel’s work is now presented so extensively – a total of around 190 works can be seen on paper – that one can to some extent trace their motifs and their development – even if it is only over a period of approx. twenty years of actions.

Nagel originally studied at Baden State School in Karlsruhe, at a time when it was still relatively new for women to study art. Here she learns, among other things, from Karl Hubbuch, one of the most expressive representatives of New Objectivity, with a cool style. Hubbuch – a post in Hanna Nagel’s photo album, which is also on display, refers to this – the drawings of his student are too emotional, not cold and dissecting enough. At least in the beginning, because she quickly took over Hubbuch’s gentle view of his models and emphasized the typical and the contours.

“With Hubbuch, I was obliged to capture the unique, grotesque peculiarity of a phenomenon in an almost caricatural exaggeration,” she later writes. In fact, the magazines she created at the time have similarities with Hubbuchs. She, too, highlights people’s prominent features in gross exaggeration – however, unlike her teacher, Nagel does not live up to any erotic expectations. Male nude models, bursting with strength and muscle, seem quite ridiculous to her (once she gives such a man a daisy in the paw, another time looks like one hanging in a beam a baboon), women on the other hand often make a impression tired and processed, sometimes sad.

At the time, Nagel emphasized individual accessories and details with individual watercolors in a charming and sophisticated way: a green hat, a pink petticoat or even light blue underpants, a red penis. The color guides the eye, attracts attention.

Nagel deals in numerous works created during his studies with gender and role relations in the academy, where the teachers are exclusively men, and some of whom apparently regard the female students as something they have at their disposal. “According to the artist Rudolf Schlichter, the right to sexual use of female models was part of the curriculum,” writes curator Inge Herold in the catalog.

The relationship between Hubbuch and Nagel was emotional. Was love involved? It seems likely. In several drawings, Nagel cynically commented on Hubbuch’s relationship with other female students, especially with his lover Hilde Isai. The sheet “Hundertmal Isai” from 1929 shows the half-naked student guiding the teacher’s hand with the brush: On the canvas: four times the naked Isai. Another sheet shows the teacher with a playmate on his lap and Isai rushing at him with a knife.

Perhaps it is because of such sheets that Hubbuch throws Nagel out of his class. “You are very tactless,” she quotes the teacher, “you scold me on the back and take advantage of me in front … Go!” Your reaction to it? “How did I fall for such a farmer? It hurts a lot.”

A number of works deal with the subject of suicide. An etching shows a group suicide: seven people, including Hubbuch and Nagel himself – holding a gun to their temples; behind hovers Jesus Christ.

In 1929, Nagel moved to the Academy in Berlin, where she studied with Emil Orlik, where suicide was also a topic: a number of people jumped from Berlin’s radio tower, a poster in the picture announced: “Saturday at noon the radio tower is open to suicide candidates. The funeral costs 100 , – and can take place immediately. Prior church approval 20, – extra. Spectator tickets 3.50. – Bounce only every 10 minutes. The audience is asked not to cheer. The Magistrate in Berlin “. But of course one must not forget that the subject was popular in the arts in those years.Gorge Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz and Heinrich Zille also addressed suicide out of desperation.

Failure, brooding and dreaming are the focus of Nagel’s art in the years to come. You see women behind bars or even the artist himself painting doll heads, the title: “My future as it will be”. Again and again she can be seen in her papers with babies – she never seems happy. Only years later, in 1938, Hanna Nagel actually became a mother, but of course we do not know if she lost or had an abortion before that. Paragraph 218 on abortion is also a topic in some of her works.

Nagel is always occupied by the people of his time, often summed up in a few lines. These include café scenes, which are also known from colleagues such as Jeanne Mammen and Christian Schad from that time. Often it is people who are close to her. Among them the artist colleague Hans Fischer, whom she met in 1929 and married a few years later. Again and again she plays through the role relationship between man and woman – her husband and herself. Sometimes he is the dominant oppressor, sometimes the humiliated one. Sometimes she shows him like a king, sometimes like a puppet in her hands. She leads him on a leash, he kisses her feet, she shoots him. He crushes them while wearing a priest’s robe. He operates coins out of her chest, putting them in her purse. No, this marriage does not seem to have been easy, artistically it was fruitful.

In the 1930s, a change of style finally took place: the images became dark, surreal, the motifs – now often taken from mythology – nevertheless remained radical: Leda sat with bare abdomen on the neck of a swan and humiliated it to his tool. Salome with a man’s head dripping with blood. Judith with a man’s head dripping with blood. Death in person appears, ghosts appear, we remember: The times were after that.

Hanna Nagel was later described as a supporter she had offered herself to the National Socialists. What is certain is that at that time she could work freely, but kept her early work hidden.

It is also true that after 1945 Nagel was unable to continue his artistic career. In 1946, she separated from Hans Fischer and supported herself as a single parent, also supporting her mother, using book illustrations, commercial art and drawing lessons.

Mannheim Art Gallery: until July 3rd. www.kuma.art

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