Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Dodo Burgner - The Inspiration of Decadence at the Ben Uri Gallery

The new exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery - The Inspiration of Decadence - features the work of little known Berlin artist Dorte (Dodo) Burgner. It covers her early work in the Bohemian Berlin of the 1920's and early 1930's as well as her later works as an emigre in London.

Born in February 1907 to a respectable German Jewish family, she demonstrated independence from an early age. Perhaps the best example of this is changing her name to Dodo, saying "I was called Dorte, which is an unsuitable choice for a very dark little Jewish girl". One of three children, she led a sheltered life but her parents ensured she had regular access to art, theatre, cinema, museums, books and music. She claimed they had an unhappy marriage and that her father was distant, but she found solace in her paternal grandmother, Adelheid Wolff. Adelheid who lived with the family, taught Dodo to read from an early age, took the children regularly to the Berlin Zoological Gardens and once temporarily transformed the shop within their building into a gymnastics studio that she rented out! She died in 1919 leaving the 12 years old Dodo devastated.

Dodo's early school years were spent at the municipal lyceum in Wilmersdorf. She was not an outstanding student and was something of a loner. In 1918 she transferred to the Auguste Viktoria School, where her sister Suse had been a classmate of the young Marlene Dietrich. Her school life was occasionally interrupted by the First World War which also brought about  rationing of food and fuel, but which left the family largely untouched. Leaving school in 1922 with ordinary results, she had excelled in only one area - drawing, her mother encouraged her to paint landscapes during the family's summer trips to the mountains. Dodo had other ideas and drew courting couples, suicides and nude nymphs! Shocked, her mother consulted a paediatrician about her, who reported that she had nothing to worry about!

A further struggle with her parents erupted over Dodo's desire to go to art school. A compromise was reached when she agreed to spend a year at "finishing school" to learn household skills, before enrolling at the private Schule Reimann in autumn 1923. She went here because her secondary school grades had been insufficient to gain entry to the State Academy for the Arts. However, Schule Reimann suited her down to the ground when she discovered that it had a "reputation for bad moral behaviour of its students" and that life classes included visits not only to the zoo, but also to night clubs! She was at the Schule until 1926 and during that time had works published in the magazine Form und Farbe whilst others came into the possession of the Liperheide Costume Library, now part of the Berlin State Museum.

Bored with the staid social life of her family, she longed for excitement, dated several men and saw Josephine Baker appear at the Nelson Theatre on Kurfurstendamm, dressed only in a banana skirt. Extremely taken with Ms Baker, Dodo went on to produce a series of drawings of her. Hired to do freelance work upon leaving the Schule in 1926, she was commissioned to make fashion drawings based on swatches of material, for the Michels & Cie fashion boutique, many of which appeared in the store magazine. Well paid and not needing to help her parents financially, she spent freely on taxis, cigarettes with her own name printed on them and somewhat avant-garde attire, including a monocle to avoid wearing glasses!

The exhibition includes several of Dodo's fashion designs from this period, showing elegant hats, scarves and other accessories, drop waist skirts and dresses, several of which are clearly inspired by art deco and jazz age styles as well as a range of theatre costumes and some highly stylised advertising posters for fashion and perfumes. Like many European artists of this period, Dodo was able to excel across a range of disciplines including costume design and graphic art. She also produced a number of expressionist works that bear comparison to those of George Grosz and Otto Dix. It is interesting to consider what impact she might have made had her life not been interrupted by the Second World War and exile, but more of that later.

EX7003537-4 by Yekkes

In 1927, Theodor Wolff, editor of the arts section of the famous Berliner Tageblatt newspaper commissioned her to make full page illustrations and double page spreads for ULK - a satirical magazine, with a circulation of up to 300,000 at its peak. This was an excellent opportunity for her to show off her talents and more than sixty of her illustrations were published in ULK between 1927 and 1929, many of them on the covers or in the centre fold. This was a huge achievement for a young women in her very early twenties and in later years she described this period as the peak of her artistic career. In 1928 she was engaged to design two costumes for a Berlin stage musical called There's Always Something in the Air. One of these costumes was worn by a very young Marlene Dietrich.

The ULK work really is a highpoint of the exhibition, illustrating life in the Weimar Republic in all its decadence. From the same period, Street Scene from 1928 couldn't possibly be anywhere else other than Weimar Berlin, with its depiction of glamour, wealth, decay and menace. The characters could easily inhabit a Grosz work whilst there is also a feeling of the works of Kirchner in this and some of her other works from this period.

During this time she had her first encounter with Dr Hans Burgner, 25 years older than her and a successful lawyer. They met at a party where they talked until the early hours of the morning before Dodo proposed marriage to him. Flattered and surprised, he politely declined but a close relationship soon developed, including many dinners, theatre trips and holidaying together. In summer 1928 whilst Hans was in Italy, Dodo wrote him an ultimatum, marry or forget it. She posted the later late at night, going to the post box wearing only a coat and gloves, but forgot to take her keys, giving her parents quite a surprise when they had to open the door to her!

Hans accepted, they married on his return and spent their honeymoon in Switzerland. Unfortunately, she soon tired of the round of domestic duties and dinner parties and came to realise that they had different personalities, worrying that she could never really share his life. In July 1930, Dodo gave birth to her first child, Anja. Dodo enjoyed the pregnancy but the little girl  cried continuously for most of the first two years of her life, sending her into a deep depression which she tried to resolve with a second child. This time, the pregnancy did not go well and when son Thomas was born in March 1932 she found it hard to bond with him.

The early 1930's heralded deep trauma for Germany's Jewish population, even those as secular and relatively uninvolved in the community as the Burgners. Hitler was elected to power in January 1933 and Dodo began to find it difficult to obtain commissions. In 1934 she returned to drawing, concentrating on illustrating children's books, Bible stories and theatre scenes solely for Jewish publications. Just prior to this, Dodo had met and fallen in love with Doctor Gerhard Adler, who worked under Carl Jung in Zurich. She became pregnant by Adler, but had an abortion. Hans Burgner was aware of this affair and possibly also of an affair with the educationalist and writer Tami Oelfken who later helped the Burgners to leave Germany.

She became pregnant to Adler a second time and again underwent an abortion before leaving her family and moving to Zurich with him. During this time she commenced therapy and produce a number of extremely disturbing works, some of which can be seen in the exhibition. These include a representation of the abortion scene in Madame Does Not Want Children, Death and Accusation, all from 1933. These works show the dark side to her life during this time and represent the feelings of guilt she felt at the abortions and at abandoning Hans and the children. There followed a period where she maintained a relationship with both Adler and Burgner. Throughout this time the restrictions on Germany's Jews began to be implemented. Things came to a head for the Adler/ Burgners when Anja was old enough to start formal school. Hans did not want her to go to a Jewish school and also refused to allow Dodo and Adler to take the children to Palestine, preferring instead to send them in 1936 to his sister, Hedwig, who had a boarding house in London.

Hans remained in Germany whilst Adler acquired rooms a few minutes from away from Dodo. Anxious to marry her, he pressed her to divorce Hans which she did somewhat reluctantly and despite the relationship beginning to cool. No doubt this was because Gerhard was already having an affair with another woman. Dodo was distraught but still married him, only to divorce the following year as he continued the other relationship. 

Dodo's parents followed her to London in 1938, as did her sister Suse and her children. Hans Burgner also came to London following legislation in Germany banning Jewish lawyers from practising. Apart from Hans, they lived in adjoining houses in Finchley. Hans was a regular visitor to the family and in 1944 proposed that as he and Dodo got on so well that they re-marry, which they did, remaining married (although not continuously living together) until Hans' death in 1974, aged 92.  After separating from Adler, Dodo saw him only once more when by chance he enrolled for a art class in Hampstead - the same class that she had enrolled for. He came to the first class and never returned. Adler died in 1988 and Dodo attended his funeral.

After moving to England, Dodo found it hard to obtain commissions - her style was considered too "continental" and for a time she worked designing Christmas cards and illustrations for children's books.  During the war years she also obtained some fashion design work for the John Lewis department store, but never returned to the bohemian style she had worked in, during her time in Berlin. In her later years, Dodo retained an interest in art, regularly visiting Florence with her daughter and travelling extensively in Great Britain. She died on December 22nd 1998, shortly before her 92nd birthday.

The exhibition includes examples of Dodo's work from the early Berlin years, the ULK magazine illustrations, her work for Jewish magazines in 1934-35 and the later works in London. Unlike many German artists of her generation, she was never involved in politics, but I was particularly struck by one of her works entitled Jews Looking Around. It shows three somewhat stereotypical Jewish men standing behind a globe and in the shadow of a swastika. What does it mean? Without the swastika it could almost be a piece of Nazi propaganda - the myth of Jewish world control. The presence of the swastika and the date of the work - 1933 - for me at least, signifies the hopelessness of the Jewish situation in Europe at that time. Three successful men, but without a home, driven out of Germany, but with nowhere to go. Prophetic. 

One of my favourite works in the exhibition is a postcard with New Year's greetings from 1927, featuring Dodo as a 1920's flapper and with a small dog on her shoulder. It shows a young, happy woman at the very beginning of what might have been a glittering career, but who was to suffer from many trials and traumas, both personal and political due to the times she lived in.

I also like the more restrained, but equally stylish catalogue page layouts from 1942 for bags and cushions.They are very much of their time, but still show a keen sense of style - simple but striking, using two colours and a touch of "the continent" to attract English ladies.

The exhibition also features work of other German Jewish emigres who were contemporaries of Dodo's - Frank Auerbach, Margaret Berger-Hamerschlag and Bettina Ehrlich amongst others. The Ben Uri really is a gem amongst London galleries - a small space with a big impact and a great programme of exhibitions and events. And their next exhibition will feature Judy Chicago. It doesn't start until October, so plenty of time to view the Dodo Burgner before then!


  1. Thank you for a great blog.
    The Ben Uri is too small to do justice to the many works.

    Earlier in the year Dodo's work was shown, to great acclaim, at the Stadtliche Museum in Berlin in a much larger space which gave prominence to her work.

    1. Hello Anonymous,

      You must be a loyal admirer of Dodo's work given your comment.

      Tell us please;
      1] Have you too (as I have)visited both museum exhibitions - Berlin earlier this year and Ben Uri in the past few weeks?
      2] What did you think of the difference of curatorial approach at Ben Uri to Berlin?
      3] Would it have been better for Dodo not to have been shown in her post war home city London rather than be shown where space is tight compared to the beautiful Stadtliche Museum?

      Look forward to your views.
      Anonymous #11

  2. Wow - interesting piece about Dodo and those illustrations are wonderful!

  3. As I am quiet new in Jewish, looking around for some Jewish information> Got something important here. Nice to get it.
    Have you seen this video It helped me get over my internal anger.

  4. I think my family has 3 art pieces from dodo. The are 3 chairs that are painted. Ones is of a blond women, one is of a black haired woman and one is a child size chair that looks like a rabbit. They are signed "dodo". Would this be some type of piece she would produce?