In Between: the paintings of Anita Rée, 2

Anita Rée (1885–1933), Self-portrait (1930), oil on canvas, 66 x 60.8 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Image by anagoria, via Wikimedia Commons.

Between 1922 and 1925, Anita Rée stayed and painted in the fishing village of Positano, on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Over this period, her work matured to a very modern style, and she painted several of her most important works.

Anita Rée (1885–1933), Semi-Nude Before a Prickly-Pear Cactus (1922-25), oil on canvas, 66 x 53.5 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Rée’s Semi-Nude Before a Prickly-Pear Cactus (1922-25) is often assumed to be a self-portrait, and certainly resembles her other self-portraits, except in one prominent detail: its blue eyes.

Rée not infrequently used breasts in motifs and designs, such as her delightful series of Double-Breasted Postcards sent to friends on honeymoon in 1929. Although she made inevitable sensual associations, in other paintings they are central to her depictions of motherhood, and become symbols of feminine power.

Anita Rée (1885–1933), Teresina (1922-25), oil on canvas, 81 x 61 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Of all her many insightful portraits, my favourite is that of Teresina (1922-25), a girl looking wistfully into her future, clutching some lemons, the major local crop, amid dense tropical plants.

Rée returned to Hamburg from Italy by November 1925. As her family home had been sold, she then had to work from a succession of temporary studios in boarding houses, and staying with friends. Despite that, she continued to exhibit extensively, particularly in Hamburg.

Anita Rée (1885–1933), Bertha in a Frame of the Sacred Heart (c 1927), oil on wood, 44 x 41 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Rée painted one of her favourite models, a maid to family friends, in Bertha in a Frame of the Sacred Heart (c 1927). This is shown in its original Baroque Sacred Heart picture frame, which had been brought back from Bavaria. Like some of her other portraits of women, it appears to have been inspired by early Renaissance portraiture, and perhaps the funerary portraits dating back to 100-200 CE which had been found in the Egyptian desert.

Anita Rée (1885–1933), The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1931), mural, dimensions not known, destroyed in 1942. Wikimedia Commons.

There is some uncertainty as to the date of her wonderful mural of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, which had been commissioned by a Senate Commission, and was most probably completed in the summer of 1929, or perhaps in 1931. This was installed in a Hamburg girls’ school, but was destroyed during the Second World War.

Later in 1929, her application for a grant to attend the prestigious German Academy in Rome was rejected in a letter signed by Max Liebermann.

Anita Rée (1885–1933), Self-portrait (1930), oil on canvas, 66 x 60.8 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Image by anagoria, via Wikimedia Commons.

Anita Rée is perhaps best known by this Self-portrait painted in 1930, which reflects the increasingly difficult times in which she was trying to express her art.

However, 1930 also brought her international recognition at last, when one of her paintings was shown at the Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA, in an exhibition of modern German art. She also carved and painted some wonderful puppets for a play about Pygmalion and Galatea staged by a marionette theatre.

There were more worrying signs: she made preliminary designs for a triptych for a Hamburg church, but her work was strongly opposed by Nazi press, and the panels, completed in October 1931, were never installed. Although she had never herself been Jewish, and had painted several overtly Protestant works, her father’s ancestry was increasingly used by Nazis against her.

Anita Rée (1885–1933), Orpheus and the Animals (detail) (1931), mural, dimensions not known, former school, Hamburg. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1930, Rée was commissioned to paint another mural for a girls’ secondary school in Hamburg, which she completed in October 1931: her joyous Orpheus and the Animals has been preserved, and is now part of a ballet school. This image shows but part of it, with Orpheus riding a mythical beast over the lintel of the door.

After she had completed that, Rée returned to Positano during a month-long car tour with a friend. On the return journey, they visited Oskar Reinhart’s collection of art in Winterthur, Switzerland. That collection now forms two separate museums in Winterthur.

Anita Rée (1885–1933), Two Mythical Animals (c 1931), oil on canvas, 52 x 112.5 cm, Private collection. Image by ArishG, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been unable to find suitable images of many of Rée’s more decorative works, but her Two Mythical Animals from about 1931 may give an idea of their bold lines, colours, and patterns. Much more is included in the current exhibition, and in the book to accompany it.

However, Anita Rée was looking for ways out of Hamburg, and away from the increasing hostility of that time.

Anita Rée (1885–1933), Dune Landscape (1932), watercolour on paper, 24.8 x 29.3 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the summer of 1932, Rée moved to Sylt, a low island off the west coast of the Schleswig-Holstein/Jutland peninsula. Lying on the eastern edge of the North Sea, Sylt is made up largely of shifting sand dunes, and very nearly in Denmark. There, she withdrew and painted only landscapes and a few animals. Working exclusively in ink and watercolour, her colours subdued, as in this Dune Landscape from 1932.

In early 1933, she declined an offer of a studio in Hamburg. In March, the Hamburg Secession exhibition was closed by the Reich Ministry of Propaganda, and the group dissolved in May. In September, Gustav Pauli was dismissed as director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, and others who had supported her work were similarly removed.

On 12 December 1933, Anita Rée took an overdose of barbiturates, from which she died, aged 48. In 1937, her work was officially declared ‘degenerate’, and was removed from museums, although at least one of the staff at the Hamburger Kunsthalle hid many of her works to preserve them.


Exhibition: Anita Rée. Retrospective is at Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany, from 6 October 2017 to 4 February 2018. Details are here.

Karin Schick (ed) (2017) Anita Rée, Retrospective, Prestel. ISBN 978 3 7913 5711 9. Highly recommended: a beautiful and very informative book to accompany the exhibition, with ample high-quality colour illustrations.