The Henkin Brothers Archive: Rediscovered Treasure

In February, I submitted an assessed essay discussing the image of the Neue Frau as documented through various media formats in Weimar Germany (see previous blog post ‘In Her Image’). So when Rebecca introduced me to the Henkin Brothers Archive a couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see primary photographic material rendering 1930s Berlin with a warming, frank humility. 

Before discussing their photographs, I think it’s best to get to know the brothers and their posthumously formed foundation first. The photographs of brothers Evgeny (b.1900) and Yakov Henkin (b.1903) were freshly unearthed in 2012. For over 70 years, untouched boxed filled with rolls of film had sat in Yakov Henkin’s former home in Leningrad. The rediscovery of these photographic heirlooms set in motion the creation of a wonderful archival foundation, with Yakov’s descendants taking full advantage of new technologies and digitising the thousands of negatives they had uncovered. 

Fig 1. Evgeny Henkin, Self-portrait with a Leica camera, c.1936-1937, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

Despite growing up together in Rostov-on-Dov (situated in the European South of the Russian Empire), the brothers’ paths diverged in the wake of the October Revolution (1917) in Russia, with Evgeny travelling to Berlin and Yakov moving to Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). This disruptive parting between the two siblings is documented in their separate photographic collections: Evgeny capturing the cityscape of interwar Berlin (1926-1936) and Yakov the distinctive streets of 1930s Leningrad; until his voluntary enlistment in 1941 (his subsequent death on the Leningrad Front shortly thereafter). 

Fig 2. Yakov Henkin, Self-Portrait in a mirror, c. mid-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

In accordance with this blog’s dress historical premise, I thought it would be on-theme to select two images—from Berlin and Leningrad respectively—to demonstrate the brothers’ natural photographic talents whilst simultaneously illustrating the contemporary fashions of their individual city-spaces (neither brother worked professionally as photographers: each chose to hone their natural talent as amateurs while undertaking alternative careers). The first (Fig.3) is the stuff of fashion-historian dreams. Evgeny provides us with the street-side setting of what I assume to be a hair-salon’s storefront. This is a remarkably kitschy-cool image: quaffed and glossed mannequin heads line the length of the windowpane, while two living models occupy the foreground, emulating the pose of their backdrop inspirations. The Bubikopf, modelled here in various incarnations, was a masculine-inspired haircut symbolic of the New Woman’s revolutionary personhood. Bubikopf translates directly to ‘boy’s head’, and this affluent grooming modification was reconfigured several times, such as the shortened and smoothed ‘Eton crop’, which featured defined, exaggerated waves (see central mannequin for main reference). I am desperate for this wool coat on the left also, truly desperate. 

Fig 3. Evgeny Henkin, Two women, c.1930s, Berlin (Germany). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

The second image (Fig.4), taken by Yakov, is a more traditionally composed portrait that shows two women standing on one of Leningrad’s many riverfronts (c. late-1930s). In this image, we are treated to a fantastic display of jazzy pullovers that set the overall, fabulous fashion tone: matching ‘v’ neck-lines, each woman sporting a fun and unique woven motif (a dot pattern vs. a form of waved, rib knit) that is offset by equally distinguished collars (neat, petite bow vs. oversized Peter Pan collar). I could discuss at length the killer shoe-game on display here, but I am fully obsessed with the mirror-image diagonal poses each woman is striking (the soft, harmonious ‘v’ their bodies unintentionally create, repeating the motif of their corresponding necklines) and the headwear-cherries they have placed atop their ensemble-cakes: a structural cloche and the timeless beret (that always screams chic). Good show, ladies! 

Fig 4. Yakov Henkin, Two women, by the river, c. late-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

These two corresponding images, from individual European cities, depicting two pairs of fashion-conscious female friends and the style aesthetic of two unique landscapes, perfectly demonstrate the important, historical and cultural reference the Henkin Brothers’ work represents. 

In recent years, the collection has been displayed at the @hermitage_museum (St. Petersburg) in the archive’s inaugural public exhibition, entitled: The Henkin Brothers: A Discovery. People of 1920s-30s Berlin and Leningrad (2017). And just this May (16-19 May), a selection of Henkin Brothers photography was shown at the 2019 @streetphotomilano festival. It’s safe to say that the Henkin Brothers are making a stellar, 21st century comeback! 

I would like to thank Denis Maslov, Yakov Henkin’s great-grandson for his assistance and helpful emails concerning the writing of this post. Denis works to preserve the archive and develop its social media presence with his mother Olga—the only living descendants of the Henkin Brothers. 

To learn more about the Henkin Brothers Archive Association, go to www.henkinbrothers.com  

And visit their Instagram ASAP—it’s full of photographic treasures: www.instagram.com/henkin.brothers 

In her image: the documentation of the Neue Frau in German Weimar-era lesbian magazines

I came across these magazines when researching the topic of my most recent written assessment. By now, I have carried an intense fascination with the sexual socio-political climate of the Weimar Republic for a couple of years. On the course ‘Reassembling Modernism: Artists’ Networks in Europe 1909-1960’ as an undergraduate, I was introduced to Weimar culture when we examined the Neue Frau in the Berlin of the 1920s. It was a text by Maria Makela entitled ‘New women, new men, new objectivity’, however, that truly peaked my interest in the subject. 

‘The Latest Acquisition of the Masculine Woman – the Tuxedo’, Das Magazin, August 1926, addition to image made by the author

This year, I revisited the Neue Frau and explored her myth and ideological potential whilst considering her as a phenomenon of cosmopolitanism—in relation to class, gender and violence in the city. Makela’s essay was my starting point, and these magazines gave me an example of how the Neue Frau’s multi-faceted identity was utilised to develop a progressive symbol of gender subversion. The Neue Frau/neue frauen is the German adaptation of the New Woman. The New Woman was a female figure, a new gender type, who emerged in modern society towards the end of the nineteenth century, becoming a popularised construct in the first half of the twentieth century. 

‘What do you say about Fräulein Mia?’, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, November 1927, additions to image made by the author

The Neue Frau was a fashionable woman who adopted traditionally heteronormative, ‘masculine’ traits within her dress identity to disassociate herself from the pre-WWI woman. Her image epitomised modern femininity, but it also effectively mirrored how interwar Germany perceived itself to be under cultural threat from the masculinisation of a ‘New’ generation of emancipated women. In the pages of queer publications, however, the Neue Frau’s image was represented without ridicule or cynicism. It was interesting to reconfigure my own perception of her image after months of aligning it with the caricatured parody that male, Neue Sachlichkeit artists had painted her to be.

Otto Dix, Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926, oil and tempera on wood: 47¼ x 31½ in (120 × 80 cm), additions to image made by the author

In the case of the women depicted in Liebende Frauen (1927-1930), the tensions felt nationwide between opposing genders are made redundant. At the time of the1929/30 issue, Liebende Frauen was one of two lesbian magazines in Berlin; the other, the more widely-known Die Freundin (The Girlfriend: Journal for Ideal Friendship between Women) had been in circulation since 1924. Art historian Heike Schader notes that Liebende Frauen is most likely a reprint of the magazine Frauenliebe (Women Love); which in turn was renamed Garçonne in 1930.

Liebende Frauen: Wochenschrift des ‘Deutschen Freundschafts-Verbandes’ Vol. 4, no.13, (1929), Berlin, Spinnboden—Lesbenarchiv und Bibliothek, Berlin, additions to image made by the author

In the above image, a cover dated 1929, the female subject sports a bubikopf—a haircut strongly associated with the Neue Frau, which translates directly to ‘boy’s head’ and was reconfigured into numerous variations, such as the shortened and smoothed ‘Eton crop’, similar to that of Louise Brooks’ Lulu in Pandora’s Box. The overlapping strings of pearl necklaces that decorate her neck, the draped cut of her neckline and way in which her face is coquettishly turned from the camera’s gaze tells the reader that this Neue Frau, like Brooks’ Lulu—will not apologise for claiming her own sexuality. This cover presents allure and a conscious play on the provocation of desires, celebrating the figure of the New Woman by virtue of her dress and demeanour.

These covers are truly wonderful examples of how the New Woman, specifically the homosexual New Woman, found alternative means of how her image could be disseminated in popular culture via ways less damaging to her personhood. Each cover is a portal into an important history for women, and they each contribute to the Neue Frau as a social construct: one that was repeatedly well-documented until the Weimar Republic’s fall.  

To see more of these wonderful covers, go to the Spinnboden Lesbenarchiv und Bibliothek, Berlin’s online archives: www.meta-katalog.eu 

Additionally, there are lots of many interesting texts covering the Neue Frau’s image, such as: 

  • Women in the Metropolis: Gender and Modernity in Weimar Culture by Katherina von Ankum 
  • Women in German History: From Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation by Ute Frevert
  • Women in Weimar Fashion: Discourses in German Culture, 1918-1933 by Mila Ganeva 
  • The New Woman International by Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco
  • Visions of the “Neue Frau”: Women and the Visual Arts in Weimar Germany by Marsha Meskimmon
  • The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany by Katie Sutton 

Sources
Maria Makela, “New Women, New Men, New Objectivity” in New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919-1933
Heike Schader, ‘Liebende Frauen’
Katie Sutton, ‘The Masculinisation of Woman’ in The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany