Become, who you are! Ruth Baumgarte - The Art of Living

Museum for Art and Cultural History, Dortmund, 15th November 2020 – 21st February 2021

Viola Weigel and Wiebke Steinmetz (eds.): Become Who You Are! Ruth Baumgarte – The Art of Living. Hirmer: Munich 2020, 264 pages, German/English.

In a time marked by radical changes and tumult, Ruth Baumgarte (1923–2013) created an artistic oeuvre which put the fragility of human existence in the twentieth century at centre stage. Clear-eyed and highly precise in its grasp of the social and societal failings and negative developments of her time, her work includes perceptive portraits as well as depictions of various work environments and images from her travels in journal-like format, and not least critical reflections of the environmental-political and social issues that defined the end of the twentieth century. The ultimate culmination of her work was her Africa cycle, which was the result of her forty journeys across the African continent and includes more than 100 drawings and paintings. Simultaneously, the cycle can be considered a special artistic highlight of her life’s work. During her artistic career, she fully developed the personality that had always been rooted in her innermost self.

The extensive retrospective was curated by the renowned art historian Dr. Eckhart J. Gillen and leads visitors through the life and work of a German artist in four thematic chapters featuring approximately 180 paintings, water-colours, drawings, illustrations and historical documents.

Ruth Baumgarte is presented as a representational artist and her relationship with the contemporary is emphasised, for example, when it comes to her self-identification and self-perception as an emancipated woman or when looking into the characteristics of her work as dealing with the conflict between human and environment and subjects such as (forced) migration and displacement, which she explored in her Africa-cycle long before an art-historical discourse on this topic was established in the Western world.

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COMING OF AGE 1940-1953

Gypsies in the Rain, 1942
Chalk on Paper, 48 x 37,8 cm.

Ruth Baumgarte, daughter to an old theatre family, was born in 1923 in Coburg, Germany. She grew up in Berlin, and after attending Emmy Stalmann’s Private Kunstschule des Westens (Private Art School of the West), she decided to study art at the Berlin Hochschule für bildende Künste (Academy of Fine Arts). Despite living under the Third Reich’s dictatorship, she developed into an astute observer of humanity and reality already during her studies, without ever allowing her work to become tainted by the themes pushed onto so many other artists by the regime of that time.

Ink pen, pencil and especially watercolour brushes, with which she created more than 500 works, became her instruments for capturing her impressions of the world around her with both immediacy and complexity. Based on her solid academic training, paired with her sharp and strong eye for her vis-à-vis and her curiosity regarding human encounters, she created astonishingly vibrant, immediately appealing portraits from 1943 onwards. With both distance and empathy, she drew and painted herself as well as her family members, friends, and acquaintances.

During her studies in Berlin, Ruth Baumgarte already created drawings of figures at the margins of society, such as the Sinti and Roma persecuted and murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazi regime, or explored the working-class milieu in her immediate surrounding. They were tentative, yet courageous approaches to finding her own perspective on the world surrounding her.

Following her marriage with her fellow student Eduard Busse, who was born in Bielefeld, she witnessed the end of World War II in 1945 in Berlin, where she briefly worked as press illustrator at the Berliner Zeitung, a newspaper published by the Soviet occupying forces.

Additionally, nude studies, interior paintings, first illustrations and portraits, some painted in oil, came into being, shortly before she and her family moved to Bielefeld in West Germany.

One group of works is dedicated to the world of theatre, a world that Ruth Baumgarte had been familiar with from an early age on due to her parents’ professions, both of whom were actors. Next to costume designs and illustrations inspired by famous stage plays, portraits of the actor Hans Wintrath, who lived in Bielefeld and became a close friend of the artist, are at the centre of Ruth Baumgarte’s world of theatre.

During the post-war years, a time in which female artists gained few recognition, Ruth Baumgarte made her mark at first exhibitions in Bielefeld, and made a living by accepting numerous commissions as a graphic artist and illustrator.

FACTORY WORLDS 1954-1967

In 1952, the artist married the Bielefeld-native entrepreneur Hans Baumgarte. Seeing her new husband’s ironworks function at the time of the economic boom was what inspired her industry cycle. Now she directed her talent for artistically capturing the quintessence of the world around her to a place where no artist, certainly no woman artist in West Germany, had ever set foot in before: the workbenches of the factory production hall.

Anonymous industry photographs documented the production and manufacturing as well as the employee’s work at the Eisenwerke Baumgarte in the company’s annual calendar. It therefore was an obvious decision for Ruth Baumgarte to offer illustrations of the inner workings of the factory to her husband.

What sets her work apart is that she had direct access to all areas and facilities of the company. Moreover, the artist was able to choose her models herself and could sketch them directly “from life”.

Thus, these works were commissioned works in the best sense of the word. They advertised products in the areas of steam boiler production, foundry operations, and apparatus construction, as well as the company’s modern technical equipment and the employee’s efficiency, craftsmanship, and skills.

This pioneering set of works, which already shows the first thematic connection to Africa, is for the first time put on display along with representatives of the emerging industrial photography of that time. Select works from the collection of the Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Dortmund are being presented. As examples of Ruth Baumgarte’s work, some of her original drawings are shown together with their print version as part of the company’s calendars. Alongside, the complete year of 1967 is put on display.

FEARS FOR THE FUTURE 1969-1990

At the end of the 1960s, West Germany experienced its first economic slump. The predominance of rational, economic thinking showed its first cracks and a new emotional culture took hold of the student movement. Ruth Baumgarte dedicated her entire artistic self to studying the phenomena that oppressed her, such as the “limits to growth” first reported by the Club of Rome in 1972, the Cold War arms race or the Chernobyl disaster, while another series of works titled A la recherche du temps perdu examined the idea of collective memory. Symbolic motifs played an increasingly important role in Baumgarte’s work; layers of imagery pushed themselves together into an interweaving tapestry to create distinct compositions. Darker and more gloomy colours became predominant, and her depictions increasingly distanced themselves from being objective, moving towards symbolist, sometimes surreal compositions.

In the mid-1980s, Ruth Baumgarte increasingly pushed herself out of the narrow world of the Federal Republic of Germany, which was marked by the terrorism of the Red Army Faction, the rearmament debate, and the cynicism of a postmodernism characterised by diffuse fears.

AFRICA UTOPIA 1984-2004

Distancing herself from the fear-shaped reality of West Germany during the 1980s, Ruth Baumgarte more and more frequently reoriented herself towards her long-time place of longing: the African continent. She started her exploration of the African continent as early as by the end of the 1950s. Later, between 1984 and 2004, she began further, deeper self-guided explorations of the African continent as she travelled its vastness over forty times. Completely fascinated with the people, the social divides and fragmentation of African cultures as well as the wealth of colours to be seen everywhere around her in the landscape and in the life she observed in the cities and villages, she decided to work in oils again. These imbued the figures embedded in the flat, blazing fields of colour with some gloss and depth.

This cycle of paintings marked the beginning of an exhibition career that would make her well known both nationally and internationally.

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