“What am I to do? I just come up with odd ideas.”
(Martel Schwichtenberg, 1940)
Some encounters are fateful. There are objects that spark an irrepressible curiosity in their makers through their sheer magnetism. And there are voices so loud that you can still hear them more than half a century later. All three of these exceptional situations come together in Ingo Mittelstaedt’s artistic exploration of the life and work of Martel Schwichtenberg.
A Bahlsen biscuit tin first lead Mittelstaedt to discover the dazzling life of an artist caught between highs and lows, German gloom and a light-filled Africa. Following the exhibition Martel S. staged at the beginning of the year in the Kunstverein Hannover, the artist continues his investigation of Schwichtenberg’s legacy in Cella.
Mittelstaedt’s primary aim is not to rediscover the work of a marginalised artist. Indeed, Schwichtenberg’s personal writings left an even stronger impression on him than the quality of her work. The starting point for Cella is the artist’s letters, scraps of text and diary-like entries upon which Mittelstaedt stumbled during his research at Schloss Gottdorf in Schleswig-Holstein. Two large folders gave a panoramic view of the life of a woman quite untypical for the time. Precisely for this reason these writings become important historical documents in their own right, hilariously funny despite many tales of oppression.
Martel Schwichtenberg was born under a different name on the 5th July 1886 in Hannover. The fact that she chose her favourite cognac brand as a pseudonym already says a lot about her. She recorded different episodes of her life, free from self-pity and armed with a strong analytical incisiveness. After drinking several glasses of the cognac in question at a gathering of “extremely posh people”, for instance, she had to be removed by a “doctor’s car”. Schwichtenberg signed her personal letters not with her artist name, but with the shorthand Cella, which lends the exhibition its name.
Mittelstaedt visually translates Schwichtenberg’s testimonials by printing selected passages onto flowing banners of fabric using the alternative photographic process of the cyanotype. This procedure has the advantage of eliminating the necessity of an intermediate stage of reproduction, the works on show all being produced in Mittelstaedt’s own studio. The choice of material is also an homage to a woman who even in her darkest hours played with textile means of self-presentation in her reflections.
About Martel Schwichtenberg:
Schwichtenberg experienced success very early in her artistic career, both as a painter of portraits in Berlin where she mingled with bohemian circles and as what one would today call a graphic designer. Her designs shaped the corporate identity of the biscuit manufacturer Bahlsen. Indeed, the logo of the Hannover-based business bears her signature to this day. The biscuit tin that Mittelstaedt discovered in a museum is one of the most well-known objects stemming from this collaboration.
Schwichtenberg was married to a Jewish artist whose works were shown in the Nazi propaganda exhibition Entartete Kunst. She fled the country in 1933 to live in South Africa where she spent many happy years. Six years later her life took a tragic turn; a fire in her studio destroyed 400 of her works and on a private visit to Munich the outburst of the war prevented her return to Africa. She went into hiding in the Black Forest, intermittently in a sanatorium, plagued by depression and alcoholism. Shortly after the end of the war she passed away due to complications linked to cancer at the age of 49.
Text by Diana Weis / 2016