Like many artists’ wives of her time, Benjamine Kolbe (1881-1927) remained in the shadow of her husband. Thanks to the spectacular estate find that came to the Georg Kolbe Museum in 2020, several hundred letters and photographs can now shed light on the darkness for the first time and answer the question: Who was the woman Kolbe adored and immortalised in countless works?
At the same time, the German-Canadian artist Iris Häussler creates a feminist commentary on the male-dominated history of the 20th century in a spatial installation in the large studio. She brings to life two female artists who never existed but could have. In Häussler’s work, what historiography has overlooked becomes reality.
Image above: Georg Kolbe, Portrait of Benjamine Kolbe, ink drawing 1903 © Photo: Markus Hilbich, Bildarchiv Georg Kolbe Museum
“No one knows me, only you know how I am, only to you have I given myself as I am, other people don’t need to know that either”, Benjamine van der Meer de Walcheren (1881-1927) confesses to the young Georg Kolbe (1877-1947) at the beginning of their acquaintance. This intimate confession is testimony to a bond that will endure beyond her early death. The young Dutch opera student and the sculptor, who was at the beginning of his career, met in Bayreuth in 1901 in the company of the Wagner family; they married in 1902. Her husband’s work brought Benjamine Kolbe first to Leipzig and then, as a threesome, to Berlin with their daughter Leonore. Her facial features find their way into many of Georg Kolbe’s works and testify to her constant presence in his life.
In 2019, an estate find brings to light several hundred unknown letters and photographs by Benjamine and for the first time allows a completely new view of a person who until now remained hidden behind that of the artist Georg Kolbe. Now the own voice – the written word – of a woman who navigated between her roles as musician, wife, mother, muse or companion complements the narrative of her life in a time of historical upheaval. In the exhibition “Kein Mensch kennt mich”, sculptures, drawings and paintings by Georg Kolbe complement this and form an image of Benjamine Kolbe.
The reconstruction of Benjamine Kolbe’s biography leaves gaps at the same time and thus creates space for imagination. The artist Iris Häussler, who lives in Toronto (Canada), uses these spaces for questions to stage an encounter between the Kolbe couple and two of her fictional characters: the French painter Sophie La Rosière (1867-1948) and the nude model Florence Hasard (1882-?), who was their lover and an artist herself. Using various manufactured mementos and works of art, Häusler tells of a fateful encounter between the two pairs of lovers.
The installation “If” (2021) goes back to Häussler’s profound research work on women’s art-making in the early 20th century. The coming together of historical and imagined figures, of artistic fiction and art historical research enables a playful approach to forms of historiography and questions their perspectives and narratives.
Iris Häussler’s work also poses the question of female self-determination and self-assertion in the temporal context of early modernism. The imagined intersection of the lives of Benjamine Kolbe and Häussler’s “art figures” not only brings the individual characters to life, but also challenges visitors to enter into a story in which the boundaries between reality and fiction sometimes become blurred.
The exhibition is curated by Dr Sintje Guericke and Dr Marlene Gunia.
The exhibition was supported by the Ilse Augustin Foundation, the Friends of the Georg Kolbe Museum and the Canadian Embassy.
Saturday, March 5th to Sunday, May 29th 2022
Mon-Sun 10 am – 6 pm
Georg Kolbe Museum
Sensburger Allee 25
+49 (0)30 304 21 44
Access via Heerstraße, parking spaces directly in front of the museum.
S-Bahn: S3, S9 (S-Bahn station Heerstraße),
Bus: M49, X49, X34, 218 (S-Bahn station Heerstraße)