This issue contains:
>> A Conversation with Elvira Bach
>> The Dresden woman painter Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler

In our archives:
>> A conversation between Darius James and Kara Walker
>> Reunion in New York
>> Man in the Middle - "In Fantastic Company"
>> The Ironic Masquerades of Kara Walker


Profession: Woman Artist

”… a unique talent that almost doesn’t seem feminine anymore.” –
The Dresden woman painter Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler (1899–1940)

The emergence of Modernism also implied a farewell. More and more women grew tired of settling for the role of the muse and life partner of famous men and made their way into artists’ groups, work alliances, and academies. How difficult this advance actually was is illustrated by the biographies of three artists whose works, which were prohibited in the Third Reich as ”Degenerate Art” and subsequently destroyed, are represented by the collection of the Deutsche Bank: Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Gabriele Münter, and Hannah Höch. In the series ”Profession: Woman Artist,” Maria Morais and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf describe the shifting relationship between gender roles in the shadow of dictatorship and war. The biography of Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, whose portrait forms the beginning of our three-part series, testifies to how high the price of female rebellion was in a particularly tragic manner.

Curators and gallery dealers name her in the same breath as Kokoschka, Dix, or Schiele: Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler. On the other hand, Kurt Lohse unmistakably demonstrated what he thought of his wife’s talent when he gave her paintings to his pupils as canvases to practice on.

fig. 1
Oskar Kokoschka: Akt, 1913 /
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

fig. 2
Otto Dix: Düsseldorf, 1923 /
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002

A watercolor of Lohse-Wächtler’s, entitled Self-Portrait (in Fantastic Company), was painted in 1931, one year before she was committed to the Arnsdorf Sanatorium in Saxony; it can now be seen in the exhibition Man in the Middle in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. With over a hundred works from the collection of the Deutsche Bank, the exhibition encompasses the artistic human image of the 20th century (read about this under exhibition report). Today, Lohse-Wächtler has been rediscovered as a painter of the ”lost generation” and her work is experiencing an international Renaissance; the reasons for this are not only to be found in the biographical intensity of her self-portrait. Despite her desperate appeals to friends and family, her stay at Arnsdorf was to last for the rest of her life: following a compulsory sterilization, Lohse-Wächtler was murdered in 1940 at the height of the National Socialist euthanasia program ”T4,” without having ever had the chance to regain her freedom.

fig. 3
Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, ca. 1930


fig. 4
(in fantastischer Gesellschaft), 1931
Sammlung Deutsche Bank

Surrounded by surreal, grotesque faces and nightmarish figures that emerge from the paintbrush in her hand like clouds of billowing smoke, a personality marked by exhaustion and humiliation gazes out at us from her self-portrait. More than nearly every other artist of her time, her work combines mental and emotional suffering and social ostracism with creative force. Thus, the gaze in her self-portrait is simultaneously characterized by a cool distance, indicating something like a proud contempt for the society that labeled her crazy, an outsider. In 1932, upon being committed, she wrote to her parents: ”… I don’t want to completely deteriorate mentally. Do you really want to send me into sickness and decay?”

Following years of living in an exhausting struggle for survival and a time spent homeless on the streets of Hamburg, Lohse-Wächtler sought shelter in her parents’ home in Dresden in order to regain her strength. She was returning to the very place she’d already turned her back on in 1916 as a pampered bourgeois daughter and set off to create a sensation in the circle surrounding Oskar Kokoschka, Mary Wigman, and the Dresden Secession Group 1919. Wächtler’s unusual appearance and artistic flair, her short hair, short skirt, and the Russian blouse gathered together at the waist with a leather belt all held an incredible attraction for her contemporaries. The decidedly masculine behavior of the pipe-smoking ”Laus,” as Wächtler called herself in allusion to her birthday, December 4, 1899 (two days away from St. Nicolaus day) not only attracted Otto Dix, but his friend Kurt Lohse, as well, whom she married in 1921 despite her friends’ misgivings. The painter was connected to Lohse, whose career wavered between voice and the visual arts throughout his entire life, by a both passionate and torturous relationship.

fig. 5
Elfriede Lohse Wächtler and Kurt Lohse,
ca. 1921

fig. 6
Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, ca. 1930

Hiding behind the tomboy appearance she put on for the outside world was a ”sensitive character” who, according to a contemporary, endured her husband’s ”unreliability and lethargy … with the indulgence and patience of a sincere lover.” The cases of Lohse’s disrespect that have been passed down to us, his disregard of her creative work, which increasingly came to blows, seem in retrospect like a struggle for artistic equality. How little Lohse could settle for living together with a partner who was his professional equal was something Elfriede Wächtler would find out years later, after following her husband to Hamburg in 1925. ”She doesn’t give me anything, I have to have something soft and warm,” Lohse confided to his friend Johannes Baader. The marriage, which remained childless after several abortions and miscarriages, broke up at the end of the twenties. While Lohse turned his attention to the daughter of a concertmaster and had several children by her, Elfriede Wächtler gradually collapsed under the ever-worsening living conditions and the mounting mental and emotional pressure. In 1929, she was admitted for the first time into a psychiatric hospital with a nervous breakdown.

fig. 7
"Selbstporträt mit Zigarette", 1929, pastel/pencil

fig. 8
Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler: "Neben dem Bahngelände", no year, watercolour

”… a unique talent that almost doesn’t seem feminine anymore” was what the critic Robert Warneke thought he detected in Wächtler’s works in a 1932 review in the ”Hamburger Echo.” This chauvinist undertone could almost amuse today’s newspaper reader, yet in view of the artist’s situation at the time, it comes across as cynical: Wächtler was unable to live from her work, although her expressive landscape paintings and intense portraits (a selection of works at Fischer Kunsthandel) were shown in a number of exhibitions in Hamburg and met with high acclaim among critics. Penniless, she was often forced to spend the night in waiting rooms. Herself an outsider now, her artistic interest in people on society’s fringes led her to seek shelter in the city’s nightlife. In a fascinating and disturbing way, works such as Gypsy (1929) or The Attack (1931) address her experiences with psychiatric custody and the rough life in Hamburg’s red-light district. With her departure from every bourgeois convention, her social situation began to seem increasingly hopeless. ”I had the feeling that she was defending herself against something, the pressure of something yet to come, which she sensed as a threat to her creative possibilities. Added to this was the time itself. The situation around 1930, which was becoming more and more critical, inspired less trust among human society’s stepchildren, its artists, than anyone else,” an acquaintance of the time wrote. Indeed, the threatening atmosphere in Wächtler’s ”Self-Portrait” of 1932 seems nearly prophetic.

fig. 9
"Selbstbildnis", 1930/31,

fig. 10
"Zigeunerin", 1929

The ”fantastic company” she found herself in was no longer the exalted environment of Dresden’s bohemia, but rather the compulsory ”society” of her fellow psychiatric inmates. Even though her one-time friends and her relatives had long held the opinion that a sanatorium was the correct place for the allegedly ill woman, this decision made Wächtler the victim of precisely those repressive conventions that the Dadaists she was friends with, such as Raoul Hausmann or Richard Hülsenbeck, had also rebelled against. (Read the Dadaistic Manifesto both have signed). With the victory of the National Socialists, it became clear how relative the freedom won in the liberal climate of the Weimar Republic actually was. During her yearlong stay in Arnsdorf, her expressionist work, like that of the rest of German Modernism, was confiscated by the Nazis as ”Degenerate Art,” defamed, and destroyed.

fig. 11
"Der Anfall", no year, pencil

fig. 12
"Gelage", 1931, watercolour/crayon

Yet while other contemporaries fled into inner and outer emigration, Wächtler’s fate was ultimately sealed with the stigma of the mentally ill. On July 31, 1940, together with 20 other women, she was gassed in the ”shower room” of the institution Pirna-Sonnenstein. Robbed of her personal and artistic freedom, Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler died because her initial suffering couldn’t be clearly diagnosed. ”Schizophrenia? Transitory psychosis of an unstable individual?” is what the institution’s doctor noted following her first treatment in 1929, for want of unequivocal medical evidence.

Today, another diagnosis would probably be made: an occasional persecution complex, irritability, workaholic symptoms, stress, burn-out syndrome, exacerbated by bad nutrition.

Selected Literature on Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler:

Sibylle Duda, Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler (1899-1940) - Das seltsame Rätselbild des Menschen zu begreifen, in: S.Duda/ L.F.Pusch, Wahnsinns Frauen, Bd.3, Frankfurt/ Main 1999.

Ingrid von der Dollen, Malerinnen im 20.Jahrhundert - Bildkunst der "verschollenen Generation", Hirmer Verlag, Munich 2000.

picture proof:

fig. 1, 2 und 4: picturearchive Sammlung Deutsche Bank.
fig. 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 11: Bernd Küster (Hrsg.), Malerinnen des 20. Jahrhunderts, Bremen 1995.
fig. 7 and 12: Ingrid van der Dollen, Malerinnen im 20. Jahrhundert. Bildkunst der 'verschollenen' Generation, Munich 2000.
fig. 10: picturearchive Fischer Kunsthandel, Berlin.

© Marianne Rosowski, Hamburg
© Förderkreis Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Hamburg

Translation: Andrea Scrima