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  • Christian Hain

Fantastic Beasts and How to Paint Them: Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald at Bröhan Museum

(Berlin.) We hope, nobody will take offence if this little known blog writes, a little known museum is on a mission to make a little known art nouveau painter a little more famous. Bröhan Museum takes its name from the art collector who founded it back in the 1970s and twenty years later donated his collection to the city of Berlin. Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald was a prominent face of the fin/début de siècle and the 19(!)zero years in Berlin, together with her then husband, writer of fantasy/horror novels Hanns Heinrich Ewers. An outgoing personality, she tried herself on stage for a while after the couple had moved from Western Germany to Berlin and HH Ewers became the artistic director of a small theatre here. Ewers also implicitly portrayed her in one of his most popular, worldwide bestselling, books, Alraune (literally: “Mandrake”, a hallucinogenic plant enjoying a long tradition in religion and the occult) that also made it to the big screen, repeatedly. A multitalented artist, Ilna later co-translated classical French texts with her husband, designed his and other writers’ book covers, did some fashion design, and, most importantly, pursued a career in painting.

Today’s rediscovery of Ewers-Wunderwald’s work is largely owed to one researcher who, having published on her lately, approached Bröhan Museum with the idea for an exhibition. Her body of work has never been very extensive to begin with, and hardly anything ever entered a museum, even the titles of those works that have survived in private collections are often lost. The curators at Bröhan who put the show in their attic – the so called “Black Box” exhibition space where, however, only three walls are not painted white – did certainly face a challenge here.

Ilna’s strange – indeed for German ears too, and even more so - maiden name “Wunderwald” is no alias, as proves not least her slightly better known cousin, New Objectivity painter Gustav Wunderwald. It translates to “Forest of Miracles”, or “Miraculous Forest” and to get that out of the way immediately: unlike comparable names, it does not reveal any Jewish roots. You can be quite sure though, she liked it only the better for its extravagancy. The fairy tale, magical, allusions might well have been the only reason to keep it after marriage, that decision having rather less to do with any conscious “feminist” tendencies (even though her later style in fashion and haircuts are sometimes seen in that light).

Art Nouveau is not Art Deco, yet mixing up those two might be art lovers’ most common mistake. (Having googled it again:) Nouveau - natural, floral, dreamy; Deco - technical, linear, sober. Both sought to reconcile the artistic and the practical, to encompass different spheres of life. The only known piece of furniture, Ilna Ewers-Wunderlich ever designed, and that we find here at Bröhan Museum, is a wooden table as aesthetic as it is useable. You wonder, whether she could not have made it much bigger instead of falling into obscurity still in her lifetime, had she ever considered a move to the artistic – and design! - capital of the time. Yet strangely, Paris seems to be missing from the list of her travel destinations. That list is otherwise extensive, Ewers and Ewers-Wunderwald having travelled a lot, from their favourite Italian island of Capri to South America and India. In this context belongs the design of an on-board menu for a German shipping company, the Hamburg-America Line (1905). HH Ewers also wrote ads for them, which secured the couple many a free passage.

Some of the most fascinating works in Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald’s career have been created on a trip to (and, very possibly: in) India. Temple frieze inspired abstract patterns, precise lines, coloured or monochrome, neither too realist nor ever too disorderly. She was open to every inspiration that would come her way, not least with her eyes closed - one work’s title is simply Opium. If you think you’ve seen this already too often in outsider art exhibitions, in mental institutions and on “alternative” Art&Music festivals, remember: Back then, it was still new(er), and to be fair: she did it with much skill. Oh so very stereotypical maharajas, snake charmers, and fakirs meet jungle scenes and mythology (well, maybe it just was like this?!), the latter being at once a new and very classical topic for European art. No half-schooled eye hailing from our regions could contemplate that Kali carrying a severed hand in a basket while taking a ride on a tiger taxi, and not think of the innumerable Judith and Holofernes images in art history. Ewers-Wunderwald must have been aware of the analogies.

Interestingly, Ilna Ewers-Wunderlich declined every offer to have her images printed, maybe she was too much of an individual herself. The obvious exception being the book illustrations that kind of prepared her works leaning more and more towards the fantastical. Now, in the 1910s, it’s no longer about well-established myths, but the creation of a microcosm of her own. A magical land under the sea inhabited by sea monsters and mermen (no, Guillermo del Torro did not see those images, ever. And even though some of these creatures do look a lot like faithful servants to Ctulhu, HP Lovecraft only started publishing some years later). You might think of art history again, hellish scenes from Bosch e.a. on the one, Japanese prints on the other side. This series is linked to more realist studies, animals and flowers of the Indian period - a crocodile, a rhinoceros in obvious quotation of Dürer -, as well as studies of flowers she’d continue to paint later (some of them appearing like Sybille Merian having taken a crash course in Japonism).

Talking about more of Ewers-Wunderwald’s inspirations and idols, it's impossible to omit the likes of William Blake, le Douanier Rousseau, and, obviously when it comes to German speaking Art Nouveau with Symbolist tendencies, Klimt. One self-portrait, Diana (1909) appears like her personal version of Manet’s Olimpia with abstract pattern and fantastic scenes on the walls around (possibly pointing at others again).

A second marriage with a composer, then widowhood, later, she went on another voyage around the world in the 1930s, this time on foot. Or so she claimed, there already being sparse documentation on her work, even less details are known about her private life. It cannot be established with certainty, whether she went indeed any farther than Capri once more. The earliest and the latest painting in show, both hanging side-by-side, depict that island of her dreams, Capri - an almost Mandala-like exhibition design.

Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald, Mandrake of Jugendstil, 28 February-16 June 2019, Bröhan Museum

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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