Benjamine Kolbe was known in the early twentieth century as the woman at the side of the sculptor Georg Kolbe. The exhibition approaches the question of who she was over and above that, what she could have been, which facets of her personality remained undiscovered throughout her life.
„[…] no one knows me, only you know what I am like, only to you have I given myself as I am,“ confessed Benjamine van de Meer de Walcheren (1882-1927) to the young Georg Kolbe (1877-1947) around the time they first met. „Others do not need to know that either.“ This intimate admission testifies to a bond that will endure long beyond her untimely death. The young Dutch opera student and the sculptor at the outset of her career met in 1901 in Bayreuth in the company of the Wagner family; they would marry in 1902. Her husband’s profession took Benjamine Kolbe first to Leipzig and later, along with their daughter Leonore, to Berlin. Her facial features often found their way into Georg Kolbe’s work, bearing witness to her constant presence in his life, even after her death, which has always given rise to numerous speculations.
In 1928, shortly after Benjamine Kolbe’s death, the widower had the retreat located near her grave built for himself; encompassing his new residential studio, it is now the home of the Georg Kolbe Museum. Several hundred previously unknown letters by Benjamine were discovered in 2019 among the papers in her estate, making it possible for the first time to take a completely new look at someone who until then stood in the shadow behind her husband Georg Kolbe. We can hear her own voice – as expressed in the written word – of a woman who navigated between her roles as musician, wife, mother, muse or companion while looking for herself, thus complementing the narrative of her life in a time of historical upheaval. At the same time, however, gaps remain open in this reconstruction of her biography, creating spaces for the imagination.
Iris Häussler: If (2021)
Canadian-based artist Iris Häussler (b. 1962) uses these question spaces to stage an encounter between the Kolbes and two of her fictional characters: The story of the French painter Sophie de la Rosière (1867-1948) and the nude model Florence Hasard (1882-?), who is her lover and an artist herself, becomes tangible in the exhibition. The installation stems from Häussler’s profound research on women’s art-making in the early 20th century. By juxtaposing her historical narrative with historical material from the Georg Kolbe Museum archive, the exhibition addresses the nature of remembering, preserving, and narrating human biographies. The coming together of historical and imagined figures, of artistic fiction and art historical research, enables a playful approach to forms of historiography.
Moreover, Iris Häussler’s work poses the question of female self-determination and self-assertion in the temporal context of early modernism. The imagined intersection of the lives of Benjamine Kolbe and Häussler’s fictional characters not only brings the individual figures to life, but also challenges visitors to enter into a story in which the boundaries between reality and fiction sometimes become blurred.