Watch photographer Anneliese Hager: The Lost Face

A show shows Anneliese Hager’s surreal world created with cameraless photography. The unknown woman went into internal emigration during the Nazi era.

Anneliese Hager, undated (portrait AH), 1947 (detail) Photo: Estate of Anneliese Hager, President and colleagues of Harvard College

Investigative look, hands placed one on top of the other. Anneliese Hager’s body language already suggests conflicting things. As if she were an observer, living a secret existence deep within herself, secretly looking for like-minded people in the material world.

The photo was taken in 1948 in one of the two small rooms in which she stayed with a farmer in Königsförde, not far from Hameln, after the Second World War – together with her two or three youngest children, there were five in total. Your forearms reveal physical work. The laundry had to be washed in the nearby stream, meals had to be put on the table, and a small child had to be looked after. And yet 1948 is a year of hope in which she was able to show her new photograms in an exhibition that traveled from Stuttgart via Innsbruck and Neustadt to Hanover.

“My mother’s photograms were never an issue for us,” says Waltrut Kupsch in an interview. “I am sure that the light and shadow techniques she used in her photographs and photograms came from nature. She was a very great observer.” When snow changed the landscape, she was fascinated by the play of light and dark, including by bodies of water.

Waltrut Kupsch kept her mother’s work after Hager’s death in 1997. In 2018, thanks to the commitment of curator Lynette Roth, it took over the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Hoover Hager Lassnig”: Kunsthalle Mannheim, until February 11, 2024

It wasn’t easy to locate the estate, says the art historian, who researches post-war German art at the Harvard Art Museums. Nothing by Hager could be found in any of the German museums she wrote to. It is also a slim work with an estimated total of 150 unique pieces. “We are ten years away. Hager began experimenting with cameraless photography in 1935. But she lost “All of her belongings when Dresden was bombed in 1945.” She barely escaped the flames with her two children.

Retreat into inner worlds

In relation to Hager, the term internal emigration applies in two respects. Their withdrawal during the Nazi era was not just social, it also fueled their imagination.

In a prose poem, Hager describes her growing inner world, which is not visible from the outside thanks to a protective tower. “(…) if it weren’t for this tower, this inward-looking miracle, which, like a speaking mechanism, increases in sounds, noises, tones, words, calls, warnings – always increasing, like a glittering, reflective, crackling film that takes us out of the confused Emulsions of every presence crystallize the pure core (…).”

How could this be achieved by a girl born in West Prussia in 1904 who completed training as a photographer and laboratory assistant at the Lette-Verein women’s technical school in Berlin in 1920 and worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Dahlem, where she produced microphotographs?

Even then, Lynette Roth says she was said to have noticed that what she saw through the microscope reminded her of Cubist images she had seen in the museum: “She had an understanding of shapes and the new vision of the time. It was only later that she decided to experiment with the medium of photography herself. Some of her late photograms show organic, cellular structures.”

Informal artist circles during the Nazi era

The first photomontages and photograms were created in 1934. By then she had already had her first marriage and wanted to learn weaving at the Aachen School of Applied Arts. She also took photographs – forbidden, abstract pictures by a young artist named Karl Otto Götz. Soon they began their artistic life together undercover, perhaps disguised by their motherhood. Three children lived with her, and she was expecting a fourth from her new partner in 1936.

Although modern art was banned, informal artistic circles formed during the Nazi era. In Dresden, Hager became close friends with the painter-photographer Edmund Kesting and his wife Gerda. After the end of the war and billeting in Königsförde, Götz made further contacts. He founded the magazine with his partner The metamorphosisin which modern art and poetry appeared, also by Paul Celan, who is said to have loved Hager’s 1947 prose poem “The Red Clock”.

In 1949, the penniless couple took part in the Exposition Internationale d’art expérimental organized by the group CoBrA, which radically broke with the past, in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The following year they showed their work at the Rosen Gallery in Berlin. Although things were progressing artistically, Anneliese Hager seemed to find it difficult to find her “inner tower,” “which, above the gray smile of the Sphinx, always rekindles the moons of your darkness.”

When she was offered a position at the Technical University in Düsseldorf in 1950, she declined. Because of the children. The couple moves to Frankfurt am Main and becomes part of the circle around the Zimmergalerie Franck.

Doyenne of the photogram

The woman, torn between everyday life and poetry, clearly noticed the loss of her visibility. She was considered the doyenne of the photogram, a medium of the 1920s. And she was ten years older than Götz. While his career really took off in 1959 with a professorship at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, she had no choice but to intensify her translating work from French.

In any case, she found her “inner tower” again. She once again created a large series of magical, non-representational photograms, which she published together with her poems in the bibliophile volume “White Shadows” in 1964. Once again she placed an oval from a strip of coarse fabric on the photo paper like a symbol. “Lost face” is what she calls this picture, which is black except for the grid-like structure of the contour. In 1965 Anneliese Hager separated from KO Götz. In the same year he married Rissa, a former student.

Hager’s visual work fell into oblivion, although it was presented in the volume “The Photogram in the Art of the 20th Century” edited by Floris M. Neusüss and Renate Heyne in 1990 and there were smaller presentations of her photograms in the 1990s. However, according to Lynette Roth, the museums showed no interest. Maybe because Hager’s photographic works were too picturesque for some and too technical for others? Her cross-media work, expressed in words and images, obviously did not fit into any category.

Anneliese Hager’s work, a mixture of a surreal world view, her fascination for natural processes and modern technology, could strike a chord today. At least that’s what the first comprehensive exhibition of her photograms in Germany suggests, which can currently be seen at the Kunsthalle Mannheim. In addition to the self-portraits of the Austrian painter Maria Lassnig (1919–2014) and the reduced video and light installations of the American Nan Hoover (1931–2008). Lassnig and Hoover, although very well known today, like Hager, received recognition for their art late in life.

Hank Peter

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