2013 | 16 | 49-57
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Erasing identity: Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann

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Born in Riga, Harriet von Rathlef-Keilmann was a Jewish artist and author. Virtually unknown today, she was one of the most successful woman sculptors in Germany who produced religious art in the early twentieth century. Today, all but a few of her works have vanished, erased from art history. Raised and educated in an affluent Latvian family, she benefitted from private art lessons. She had studied with the sculptor August Volz in Riga prior to studying art in Berlin and Munich in 1906-08. Upon returning to Latvia she married a Christian, Harald von Rathlef, a botanist, and they produced four children between 1909 and 1914. Despite domestic and childrearing responsibilities, she continued drawing and sculpting. Up until the first war, the Rathlefs lived in the Latvian countryside, where she made small-scale sculpture, both modelled and carved, and also participated in two exhibitions in Riga. Influenced by Medieval art, Russian icons, and folk art, she focused on creating simplified religious imagery. Rathlef-Keilmann's sculptures fit in with German Expressionist tendencies. Her works were mainly carved, and occasionally modelled in plaster and terracotta. In 1918 she fled Latvia and immigrated to Germany, where her turbulent life became intertwined with the complexities of women's emancipation during the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism. After relocating to Germany, the Rathlefs settled in Weimar. Despite severe financial difficulties, Harriet enrolled at the Weimar Academy of Fine Art, where she studied with the German-Jewish artist/teacher Richard Engelmann, and later briefly at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Between 1921 and 1933 her works were featured in several exhibitions throughout Germany. In 1923 von Rathlef moved to Berlin, where her reputation as a sculptor became increasingly visible. Her sculptures were featured in several exhibitions as well as German art and religious journals. Highly regarded and on the brink of success, von Rathlef planned to leave Germany in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution. Unfortunately, she was thwarted by a Nazi sympathizer, her landlord, who barred medical access to von Rathlef and she died from medical complications while she lay bedridden and helpless.
  • Duquesne University, 600 Forbes Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15282, USA
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