This photograph shows Helene Abelen, wife of the Cologne painter, Peter Abelen. During the 1920s August Sander befriended many Cologne artists because of his involvement with the Cologne Progressive Artists Group (Gruppe Progressiver Künstler Köln). In 1926 Sander was asked by Peter Abelen to create a portrait of his young wife. With her short, slicked-back hair, collared shirt, thin necktie and trousers, Frau Abelen is presented as a distinctly androgynous figure. Her masculine garb and haircut, as well as the cigarette held between her teeth, signal a defiance of traditional gender roles. Staring determinedly out at the viewer Helene Abelen’s animated expression is unusual for a Sander portrait and falls somewhere between bravado and agitation.
This portrait reflects the so-called ‘new woman’ of the Weimar Republic. The concept of the ‘new woman’ dates from before the First World War but became firmly rooted during it when women were mobilised in the workforce. Within Germany this created considerable anxiety about women’s roles, particularly in relation to the family. In 1928, on the tenth anniversary of the end of the war, the Münchner Illustrierte Presse showed on its cover a photograph of a young woman, with short hair and skirt, astride a motorcycle with a lit cigarette in hand, with the heading, ‘Only ten years – a different world’. Like this magazine image, Sander’s portrait of Helene Abelen reflected a consciousness about the blurring of gender roles in the wake of the ‘new woman’.
Painter’s Wife represents an anomaly in Sander’s work. For the most part, his depictions of women show them as wives and mothers, as the soul of the home and the family. Contrary to appearances, this portrait should not be taken to represent an unqualified vision of female independence. The costume Helene Abelen is wearing was created for her by Peter Abelen and the haircut she sports was also his choice. Her daughter later commented of this work: ‘This was the creation of my father. He wanted her to look like this. He always did our dresses’ (quoted in Greenberg 2000, p.121).
Ulrich Keller, August Sander: Citizens of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 1989, reproduced p.188.
Mark Greenberg (ed.), In Focus: August Sander: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2000, pp.119–22, reproduced no.21, p.48.