Collagestudie:horizontal (1926) and the lost work of Ella Bergmann-Michel

Joshua Tengan
Feb 6, 2014 6:53AM

for the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Among her artist friends and contemporaries, Ella Bergmann-Michel’s prominence in the canon of 20th Century Modern artists is significantly disproportionate to that of her contribution. Despite being an influential pioneer in the collage technique, a simple Google-seach would reveal an insubstantial Wikipedia page, links to pages in German and some unrevealing sites dedicated to her films. 

Along with her husband, Robert Michel, her work was regarded as being on par with contemporaries, Duchamp, Picabia, Moholy-Nagy, and good friend, Kurt Schwitters. As a prolific artist who worked across important artistic movements such as Dadaism, Constructivism, and Surrealism, many of Bergmann-Michel’s works on paper are unsigned and untitled, making her work hard to identify in art markets today.

Bergmann-Michel was born in Paderborn, Westphalia, in 1896. She attended the Grandducal College of Fine Arts, in Weimar, from 1915-1918, where she was a student of Constructivism. There she developed her Constructivist collage technique, in which she began to incorporate photographs. A notable work from her time in Weimar was Sonntag für Jedermann, a relief collage constructed of wood acquired from a local flea market, predating the famous assemblage works of her friend, Schwitters (Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries 2013). It was at Weimar that she met Robert, marrying him in 1919, the same year their college was rennamed Bauhaus, by its new director Walter Gropius. The Michels were friends with many of the Bauhaus teachers, and Gropius decorated the walls of University with their work.

Bergmann-Michel maintained her studio practice in Weimar until 1920, when she and Robert parted ways with Bauhaus and moved to Michel’s home, Schmelzmühle, a converted paint mill, in Vockenhausen, near Frankfurt. Throughout the 1920s, the couple continued to develop their collage technique, and their home became a hub of artistic activity among the avant-garde and the couple often hosted Dada meetings there (Glueck 1984). The well known movements of Constructivism and Surrealism both trace their roots to Dada. In 1921, the Michels began their friendship with Schwitters and over the years he was a frequent guest at their home (Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung n.d.)

It was during this period that Bergmann-Michel created Collagestudie:horizontal (1926), a work that can now be found in the collection of the Hatton Gallery, in Newcastle upon Tyne. In the collage-drawing, she uses oil, ink, traces of graphite, and collaged paper, to experiment with line, value, and relationships between geometric shapes. The composition includes arrows and curves, which appear to destabilise the composition, swirling the rectangular shapes across a central axis. That same year in 1926, Ella and Robert exhibited their work together at the Kunsthalle in Mannheim.

In 1927, Schwitters visited Schmelzmühle, and they help form “ring neue webegestalter,” an association of new advertising designers, along with other artists and designers such, Willi Baumeister, Jan Tschichold, Walter Dexel, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, César Domela and László Moholy-Nagy (Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung n.d.). After the group’s founding, the Michels travel through Holland with Schwitters, where they met Hannah Höch, in the Hague. A year later, they were included in Société Anonyme’s 1928 touring exhibition of European avant-garde artists in the U.S., organised by Katherine Drier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. In the 1930s, Bergmann-Michel worked in film. “Between 1931 and 1933 she made five documentary films that constitute a rare example of socially involved and equally artistic film” (Edition Filmmuseum 2004). 

It was in 1933, at the height of their careers, when Adolph Hitler came into power. As members of the avant-garde of the Weimar period, the Michels were victims of the Nazi regime’s dictatorial distaste of modernism. From 1933-45, the couple worked little on art. For a brief period, from 1937-1939, Bergmann-Michel held a studio in London. “The couple and their children survived during World War II by farming and fish hatchery work, but after the war [Bergmann-Michel] became a lecturer and propagandist for abstract art in Germany” (Glueck 1984). Critics have written that Bergmann’s work after the war was not as strong as before. Despite the lukewarm reviews she continued to exhibit widely around Europe and the States, during the 1960s through the early 70s. 

In 1967, the Michels exhibited together at the Gulbenkian Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne. Sometime after, the Hatton acquired Collagestudie:horizontal and a work by Robert. In 1966, Schwitter’s Merzbarn wall, was installed in the Hatton after it was acquired the previous year. 

Bergmann-Michel died in August 1971, at Schmelzmühle. In October 1972, the Hatton Gallery hosted a retrospective of Ella Bergmann-Michel’s and Robert Michel’s work from 1917-1966, organised by Annely Juda Fine Art, London, also including their works held in Hatton’s permanent collection.

Joshua Tengan