The inspiration of decadence is rediscovered in St John's Wood

PUBLISHED: 00:06 02 August 2012

Dodo with beret, circa 1928
Amsel Estate, Athens

Dodo with beret, circa 1928 Amsel Estate, Athens

Amsel Estate, Athens

Berlin-born Jewish illustrator Dodo held a mirror up to Twenties self-obsession

The high point of the career of Berlin-born illustrator Dodo was the production, between 1927 and 1929, of more than 60 caustic images for the satirical magazine ULK. She held up a mirror to her time and conveyed the atmosphere of the Golden Twenties in high style.

“Using radiant colours and artfully drawn contours, Dodo portrayed the cosmopolitan lifestyle and elegance of a world to which broad swathes of the population in the nineteen-twenties aspired,” writes Miriam-Esther Owesle in the lavishly illustrated catalogue for The Inspiration Of Decadence, Dodo Rediscovered: Berlin-London 1907-1998 at the Ben Uri Gallery in St John’s Wood.

The female protagonists of these illustrations, with their slits for eyes in mask-like faces, exemplify the boyish ideal for the modern woman, with figures so slim they appear to have neither breasts nor waistlines. But the twist is that the characters portrayed do not reveal the satisfaction that might have been expected from realising their goals. Instead, they are, in the main, self-obsessed poseurs who appear icily alienated from each other and turn their backs on majestic or exotic landscapes.

Dodo captured the estrangement of the sexes in details such as lovers averting their gazes even as they embrace or pushing each other away, sometimes in disgust, with long sharp fingers. Her own honeymoon with her first husband, the lawyer Dr Hans Bürgner, in the Swiss Alps is alluded to in several ULK images with alpine settings including The Gentleman With The Glacier Eye (pictured).

Even more unnerving are images she produced when in therapy with Jungian psychoanalyst Gerhard Adler, who became in 1937, albeit briefly, her second husband. These include vivid watercolours populated with surreal winged figures or menacing armoured women, as in Witch. Apart from these hallucinatory images, she produced a few works reflecting the horrors of the real world, such as Jews Looking Around, where three elderly Jewish men are depicted against a swastika.

Dodo, who was born Dörte Clara Wolff into a comfortable middle-class Jewish environment, left Berlin for London in 1936. Although she lived here for more than 60 years, her artistic output was limited. The exhibition’s curators speculate that this might have been because her mood and emotions were no longer fierce or challenging.

However, it might also be that to support her family she had to take on work outside her field, including cleaning. But she did win commercial design commissions and clients included Ackermann’s chocolates, established in Hampstead by a fellow émigré from Berlin, and John Lewis for whom she created fashion layouts. She also illustrated children’s books and designed greetings, Christmas cards and, later on, theatre costumes.

One joy of this intriguing exhibition is the inclusion of affiliated material, much of it from Ben Uri’s collection. The pre-war exhibits range from modernist designs for an Italian production of The Death Of Dr Faust, in 1928, by Viennese émigré Margareta Berger Hamerschlag to the powerful 1939 George Grosz work Interrogation, depicting the brutality of Nazi guards towards a Jewish prisoner. The post-war pictures include a life drawing by Frank Auerbach displayed beside one of Dodo’s, both made when they attended classes in Hampstead. It’s a tenuous connection but an adventurous juxtaposition.

Dodo’s daughter Anja Amstel believes her mother’s reaction to her posthumous rediscovery would have been “amusement, followed obviously by gratification and perhaps surprise” because she never considered herself an artist – while looking down on people who were merely illustrators. For visitors to this exhibition, surprise and amusement are virtually guaranteed.

Until September 9 at 108a Boundary Road, off Abbey Road, St John’s Wood. Open Monday to Friday 10am to 5.30pm, Sunday noon to 4pm. Tickets £5 (concs £4, Friends, Art Fund members and under-16s free)

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