Ella Bergmann-Michel und Robert Michel – A Modernist Artist Couple

26. May 2018 – 02. September 2018
Sprengel Museum HannoverSprengel Museum Hannover
Ella Bergmann-Michel (Paderborn 1895 – 1971 Vockenhausen) and Robert Michel (Vockenhausen 1897 – 1983 Titisee-Neustadt), the highly experimental and inimitable artist couple that lived and worked at the “Schmelzmühle” in the Taunus region, far removed from the urban art centres, are being honoured with a major retrospective at the Sprengel Museum Hannover. They were part of the art avant-garde of the Weimar period, celebrated early on as “pioneers of pictorial collage”. But they were also at home in many other media – from drawing, advertisements, typography and photography to architecture and film. Drawing on Dadaist and Constructivist approaches, Ella Bergmann-Michel and Robert Michel sought, each in their own, personal way, to unite art, technology and nature in their works.

Their art output spans almost five decades, both also remaining highly creative in the post-war period until the end of the 1960s. They embarked on their careers during the Expressionist and Dadaist phase of radical change during the First World War, and their work was invigorated decisively by the breakdown of the imperial world. As a former pilot, Robert Michel, like many of his contemporaries, was enthusiastic about technology – its machines, gearwheels, piston motors and technical drawings – and integrated it in his collages and drawings. He saw himself as an artist-engineer, with a pronounced sense of Dadaist humour. Ella Bergmann-Michel shared his interest in the natural sciences and technology but had more of a romantic relationship with nature. In her early collages and drawings of the 1920s, she often combines animals such as fishes, birds and insects with technical design elements to form organic, surreal machine entities. Or she includes extracts from technical textbooks in her later constructive collages as her response to the rational modernity of the new age.

The couple met in drawing classes in 1917 while studying art at Saxony’s Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar. They both belonged to the circle of artists associated with “Sturm” artist Johannes Molzahn and experienced the mood of euphoria during the founding years of the Bauhaus. In 1920 they moved to Robert’s birthplace, the “Schmelzmühle” in Vockenhausen in the Taunus hills, which was to remain their home for the rest of their lives. Their first exhibitions were held at the beginning of the 1920s, among other things at the Galerie von Garvens in Hannover as well as in Leipzig, Wiesbaden, Cologne and Berlin. From 1921 they were close friends of Kurt Schwitters, visiting each other and travelling together, e. g. to Holland in 1927, where they built up contacts with Mart Stam, Hannah Höch and Piet Zwart. Through Schwitters’ agency, they participated in the touring exhibitions of the “Société Anonyme” through the USA.

From the mid-1920s, Robert Michel turned his attention increasingly to architecture, neon signs, typography and advertising. At the “Schmelzmühle”, he and Schwitters developed the “ring neuer werbegestalter” (Association of New Commercial Artists) in 1927, which was officially founded in 1928 with Jan Tschichold, Willi Baumeister and Walter Dexel among its members. As of 1928, the artist couple were also actively involved in the group “das neue frankfurt”. From 1927, Ella Bergmann-Michel started experimenting with photography and film and managed her own studio for commercial art and advertising photography in Frankfurt. Together with Paul Seligmann, she ran the “Liga für den unabhängigen Film” (League for Independent Film) from 1930.

During the National Socialist period and the Second World War, the couple scaled down their artistic activities, with Robert Michel devoting himself energetically to fish farming and nature conservation until into the 1950s, before resuming his art activities with drawings and collages in 1954. Ella Bergmann-Michel continued to produce mainly drawings, as her personal, critical response to the “period of darkness”. The couple were re-discovered in the post-war period, and numerous exhibitions were put on in Germany, Britain and the USA.

Robert Michel’s work was shown in extensive retrospectives at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe and the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 1988/89. His pre-war work was most recently exhibited at the Städtische Galerie in Paderborn in 2014. Ella Bergmann-Michel was most recently retrospectively commemorated in 1990, with an exhibition of her photographs and film works being held at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, the Sprengel Museum Hannover and the Historisches Museum in Frankfurt am Main in 2005/06.

The two artists are being shown together for the first time in this exhibition that presents the complete spectrum of their output side by side.

The art estate of Ella Bergmann-Michel and Robert Michel, comprising well over 2,000 collages, drawings, sketches, designs for advertisements, and typography, has been on permanent loan to the Sprengel Museum Hannover since 1988. Ownership of the documentary estate, the Robert Michel/Ella Bergmann-Michel Archive, was transferred as a gift to the Sprengel Museum Hannover in 1988.

This remarkably extensive collection forms the basis of the exhibition, enriched with selected loans from Paris and Paderborn and supplemented with dedicated works by friends and companions such as Johannes Molzahn and Kurt Schwitters. On show are about 250 works from all periods and in all media, including collages, drawings, graphic prints, advertisement designs, typography, architectural drafts, photographs and film. The exhibition is chronologically organised with the direct juxtaposition of the works of Ella-Bergmann Michel and Robert Michel.

With the family, the Sprengel Museum Hannover is planning the permanent transfer of this highly important estate as a donation to the museum so that it will continue to be available for exhibition and research.

The exhibition is taking place in the temporary exhibition rooms of the Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Ella Bergmann-Michel’s socially critical documentary films of the 1930s are being shown in the Blue Box.

A 176-page catalogue with 215 colour illustrations and texts by Dörte Wiegand, Karin Orchard, Megan R. Luke, Lisa Felicitas Mattheis, Sünke Michel and Philipp Michel, edited by Karin Orchard, is being published by Snoeck Verlag. Price: 29 EUR

Curator: Dr Karin Orchard

With funding from the Land of Lower Saxony

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