Ben Uri past exhibition
The Inspiration of Decadence: Dodo rediscovered Berlin 1920-30s: Fashion, jazz, sex, Jung, art, politics and migration
Exhibition dates 22nd June 2012 – 9th September 2012
Ben Uri’s exhibition The Inspiration of Decadence: Dodo Rediscovered – Berlin to London, 1907-1998, focused on the life and work of Berlin émigré artist, Dodo Burgner (1907-1998) in the broader context of her émigré peers.
The exhibition gave a fascinating glimpse into Berlin’s bohemian society of the 1920s and 1930s, set against the contrasting reality of a struggling émigré existence in post-War London.
Berlin and bohemian society
Born in Berlin in 1907 as Dörte Clara Wolff, into a comfortable upper middle-class Jewish environment, Dodo drew from a young age before enrolling in the prestigious Reimann Schule for artists/designers. The early works on display are from her burgeoning career in Weimar Berlin, first as a student and subsequently as a freelance fashion designer and illustrator.
The influence of Josephine Baker on Dodo
Dodo’s exotic and playful student costume designs from the mid-1920s often echo the spirit of negrophilia, which flourished in Berlin and Paris, inspired by Josephine Baker’s scandalous cabaret. Subtly-toned fashion designs evoke the carefree gaiety of the 1920s, juxtaposed against caustic illustrations for the German satirical magazine ‘ULK’, whose complex and atmospheric compositions are drawn in the New Objectivity (‘Neue Sachlichkeit’) style, characterised by intense colour.
They narrate the sophisticated life of the modern urbanite, as much as the increasing estrangement of the sexes, and expose the superficiality of the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the period that Dodo knew.
Jungian psychoanalysis and Dodo
As photographs show, Dodo was an attractive figure, often posing against a backdrop of glamorous pre-war locations with one or other of the two men that featured in her tangled personal life. In 1928, she began a particularly turbulent phase in her life and she shifted between poles of happiness and despair.
During this time, Dodo undertook Jungian psychoanalysis in Zürich and produced a group of intense, intimate, and sometimes brutal, ‘unconscious’ drawings. Although there are scant allusions to the wider political situation and the rise of National Socialism, the emotions captured in these works suggest universal themes of alienation, guilt and separation.
An artist exiled in London
The Ben Uri exhibition was held in summer 2012 and coincided with London’s 2012 Olympics, a poignant echo back to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when the Nazis mounted their own showcase games in the city. This was the year Dodo was forced to leave her city and her situation did not stabilise until after 1938, when she settled into the life of an exile in London.
The exhibition closes with examples from her post-war oeuvre. Although she lived in London for nearly 60 years, her output was limited in comparison with the abundance of the continental years, perhaps because her mood and emotions were no longer fierce or challenging.
Key Berlin artists also showing with Dodo
The exhibition further contextualises Dodo’s oeuvre with works by émigrés from the Ben Uri collection. This includes a number of artists who contributed to the magazine ‘ULK’, including one of Weimar’s most savage artist critics, Georg Grosz, and less well-known figures, such as Katerina Wilczynski and Julius Rosenbaum, who are now almost unknown in this country.
Dodo’s vsions of Berlin’s bohemian society contrast dramatically with snapshots of the difficult life of émigrés in post-war London by Eva Frankfurther and Frederich Feigl. Dodo’s applied art is complemented by costume designs and illustrations by Viennese émigrées, Margareta Berger Hamerschlag and Bettina Ehrlich, and by illustrations by Berlin-born Susan Einzig, best known for Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958). Dodo’s life drawings are shown alongside an early nude study by Frank Auerbach, who was also a Berlin émigré.
The exhibition revised and expanded the Berlin exhibition Dodo – A Life in Pictures curated by the Sammlung Modebild, Lipperheidesche Kostümbibliothek, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Berlin, 1 March – 28 May, 2012). The exhibition was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue in English and German, published by Hatje Cantz Verlag: Renate Krümmer (ed.), Dodo – Life and Work, ISBN 978-3-7757-3274-1.