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First comprehensive survey of the work of Hildegard Heise on view at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg
Hildegard Heise (1897–1979), Alfred Mahlau mit Filmstreifen, 1928–1933, Silbergelatinepapier, 23,2 x 17,4 cm, Privatsammlung, © Nachlass Hildegard Heise, MK&G.



HAMBURG.- The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg is presenting the first comprehensive survey of the work of photographer Hildegard Heise (1897–1979). The photographs she produced between 1928 and the early 1970s are nothing less than a revelation. In 1930, Heise exhibited alongside avant-garde photographers such as Max Burchartz, Andreas Feininger, Hans Finsler, Hein Gorny and Anneliese Kretschmer at the “Internationale Ausstellung – Das Lichtbild” in Munich. But this buoyant period of bright prospects was followed after 1945 by a systematic side-lining of women artists. Heise continued to privately pursue photography, but her work fell into oblivion and was little researched. With around 160 images on view, the exhibition now pays delayed tribute to this important photographer. As an exponent of the New Objectivity, Heise often focused in closely on details and emphasised the structure, surfaces and form of her subjects. Her images span the areas of object photography, portrai­ture, in particular portraits of children, city scenes, travel photography and landscapes. Heise lived in Lübeck until 1933 and in Hamburg from 1945 to 1959, where she helped shape the city’s cultural life together with her husband, Carl Georg Heise, director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle from 1945. The couple counted among their close friends the painter Anita Rée, the graphic artist and painter Alfred Mahlau, and the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch. Heise did a number of portraits while in Hamburg, for example of Oskar Kokoschka, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and the weaver Alen Müller-Hellwig. Hildegard Heise’s estate, comprising around 3000 photographs and 2500 negatives, is housed at MK&G.

The exhibition is organised along Heise’s major areas of focus. In her OBJECT PHOTOGRAPHY she highlighted graphic structures and the formal qualities of the objects depicted. In 1930, for example, she photographed the “bathing machines” in the French town of Carolles from an unusual camera angle and showed the turrets lined up atop Lübeck’s town hall. She devoted the same attention to the worn surfaces of “Much-Loved Dolls” (1928) as she did to the immaculate exteriors of technical vessels produced by a Berlin porcelain manufactory.

Heise found models for her portraits all around her, for example among her friends or artists such as Oskar Kokoschka, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Alfred Mahlau. These are often half-length portraits concentrating on the sitter’s face, manifesting the great preoccupation during this period with physiognomy. Children’s portraiture – mainly the realm of women photo­graphers at the time – became a specialty that Heise continued to pursue over the years. She did such portraits on commission but also in her circle of friends, where she proved to be an attentive observer, seemingly capturing candid moments.




From 1934 to 1936 Heise created an extensive CITY PORTRAIT of Emden that interweaves photographs of people, the cityscape and the northern German dike landscape. Her study of Emden combines shots of boatmen, carters and other occupational groups with scenes of the harbour with its herring factory and views of the Hanseatic city’s architecture and cultural monuments. Heise would continue in the following decades to work with the stylistic device of linking varied perspectives.

In 1937/38, Heise and her husband took an extended trip to the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, Jamaica and Hispaniola in search of traces of her Caribbean grandmother. The photographic travel reportage she created during the journey conjoins portraits with scenes of the landscape and built environment. In addition to the sea, exotic vegetation and archi­tecture, she evinced a keen interest in the people she encountered and the different ways of life of the various social classes. Her subjects include the wife of a priest, an elegantly dressed Caribbean lady she spied on a ferry as well as a chambermaid in a grand hotel and the children of market vendors. By addressing everyday human experiences, Heise’s work thus anticipates the humanist photography of the post-war period. After the war, Heise’s travel photography became even more spontaneous and situational. In Naples in the 1960s, she captured the colourful comings and goings at the harbour, and in 1969 she observed the process of wood being loaded onto ships at a port in Finland. The photographer’s pronounced interest in painting a broad portrait of society with its different classes and cultures is in evidence once more in her images of New York’s Central Park (1970).

Another consistent theme in Heise’s work is landscape photo­graphy. Until an advanced age, she engaged in an almost meditative contemplation of trees and their root systems, remaining true to her matter-of-fact, objective approach. Her nature observations intensified even further after she moved to Nußdorf am Inn, where starting in 1960 she produced extensive series of scenes of the Upper Bavarian winter landscape surrounding her new home. Photography would remain an important means of expression for her until the very last; she was still photographing passing clouds from the window of the residential home where she spent her final years.

Hildegard Heise, born in Lübeck in 1897, initially trained during the First World War as a kindergarten teacher, baby nurse and social worker, unusual occupations for a woman from the upper middle class that testify to her social commitment. After marrying Carl Georg Heise in 1922, she gave up these activities and took up photography, studying in 1928 with her contemporary Albert Renger-Patzsch, a friend of the couple who was at the time a museum director in Lübeck. She accompanied Renger-Patzsch to Holland and Alsace as his assistant. From 1929 to 1930 she continued her training with Hans Finsler (head of the photography class at the Burg Giebichenstein School of Art in Halle) and spent three months working in Grete Kolliner’s portrait studio in Vienna. In 1930 Heise exhibited at the “Internationale Ausstellung – Das Lichtbild” in Munich. Thereafter she participated in a showing of the “Kurt Kirchbach Collection” at the Hamburger Kunstverein in 1932 and in an exhibition on “Contemporary German Photography” at Mills College in California around 1934. Her photographs were featured in magazines including “Atlantis”, “Das Deutsche Familienblatt” and the “Allgemeiner Wegweiser”. Heise sold her pictures through the photography agencies Bavaria and kind-foto and accepted commissions to document works of art and decorative art and architecture, including for the publication “Das Lübecker Orgelbuch” (1931). From 1945 until the early 1970s, Heise continued to pursue her artistic activities in private.










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