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Alma del Banco * 1862
Hasenhöhe 95 (Altona, Blankenese)
Freitod am 8.3.1943 HH
Alma del Banco, born on 24 Dec. 1862 in Hamburg, suicide on 7 Mar. 1943 (died on 8 Mar. 1943)
Alma del Banco was born in Hamburg on Christmas Eve 1862. She grew up as the youngest daughter of an assimilated Jewish family in well-off circumstances. Her mother’s name was Therese del Banco; her father, Eduard del Banco, operated a trading firm for tobacco products, bristles, and down.
Sigmund del Banco, Alma del Banco’s older brother, expanded this business, enabling him to finance a generous lifestyle for him and his sisters after the early death of their parents. He and Alma del Banco remained unmarried and shared an apartment at Jungfernstieg 50 until his death.
At the age of 30, Alma del Banco devoted herself to painting and began studies at the private art school for women, the renowned "Painting School for Ladies” of Valeska Röver. There she attended the class of Ernst Eitner, who was a well-known representative of plein air painting and belonged to the Hamburg Artists’ Club of 1897 (Hamburgischer Künstlerclub von 1897). Ernst Eitner had considerable influence on the early work of his student: Alma del Banco, too, initially became a plein air painter. In about 1913, the artist traveled to Paris. Stimulated by this study visit, she began a phase of several years’ intensive analysis of the most diverse modern artists and trends in art: Paul Cézanne, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, and Franz Marc, Expressionism and Cubism.
In about 1918, the artist, by then far past the age of 50, created the first paintings in her typical style that is a hallmark of all her major works: By designing the contour lines in conspicuously dark colors and abstracting the subjects into slightly angular color fields, she combined roughly sketched and pictorial elements to shape compositions imbued with tension. The artist found her motifs in her North German environment but also on trips in Southern Europe. In addition, she was very much in demand as a portraitist.
When the Hamburg Secession got together in 1919, Alma del Banco was among the founding members. Similar to the more well-known Secessions in Berlin and Vienna, established already at the turn of the century, the Hamburg foundation also entailed rejection of a conventional conception of art. The painters, sculptors, and architects forming a group here constituted the avant-garde of Hamburg, and Alma del Banco was one of the most recognized female artists of the Secession. Moreover, she belonged to the Community of German and Austrian Women Artists (Gemeinschaft deutscher und österreichischer Künstlerinnen), today’s Association of Women Artists and Promoters of Art reg. soc. (Verband der Gemeinschaften der Künstlerinnen und Kunstförderer e.V. – GEDOK), which was founded in 1926 as a branch of the "Women’s League for Promoting German Fine Arts” ("Frauenbund zur Förderung Deutscher Bildender Kunst”). Alma del Banco was active on the advisory board of the expert group on "painting.”
The ousting of Alma del Banco from her profession and from the public proceeded step by step. On 30 Mar. 1933, the 12th Exhibition of the Hamburg Secession was closed down by police because supposedly "the overwhelming majority of exhibits were apt to promote cultural Bolshevism.” Shortly afterwards, the artists’ group was ordered, based on the Gleichschaltungsgesetz ("law for forcible coordination”) passed for all associations to declare its unconditional support for the new regime, to practice the leadership principle, and to exclude their Jewish members. The members of the Secession were not able to reconcile any of these stipulations with their political and moral conscience. Unanimously, they resolved to dissolve the Secession and gathered to drink away the association’s assets. With the disbanding of the Hamburg Secession, Alma del Banco lost her most important artistic reference group. The GEDOK, too, soon felt the full force of the transfer of power to the Nazis. The end of Apr. 1933 saw a general meeting in the course of which – due to the impending "forcible coordination” – the members were supposed to discuss the dissolution of the local branch. However, the National Socialists preempted this proposition of the female artists by showing up at the meeting, replacing the elected executive by an executive determined by them, and pushing through the exclusion of all Jewish members.
The third association to which the artist belonged was one concerned with matters of social politics: the ZONTA Club. Still active worldwide even today, this women’s association, which admits only working or self-employed women, advocates women’s rights and support for women by acting politically and by funding individual projects with scholarships and grants. In 1931, Alma del Banco co-founded the first German association of the club originally established in the USA. In order to evade "forcible coordination,” the women had their association deleted from the register of societies and met only secretly in a private setting.
In 1934, Alma del Banco moved to her studio at Grosse Theaterstrasse 34/35. In 1935, she left the Jewish religious community in the hope of evading the marginalization of Jews. Compulsory membership in the Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer – RKK) constituted another measure directed against artists not convenient or "racially” ostracized. Every person active in the arts had to join and prove his or her "Aryan” descent. Non-admission or exclusion automatically resulted in cancellation of health and social insurance as well as a ban from exhibitions and artistic work. In the period from 1936 to 1938, all Jews who, for reasons not adequately researched yet, had been admitted initially were excluded – as was Alma del Banco. The year 1937 saw the beginning of the operation "Degenerate Art” ("Entartete Kunst”), accompanied by great propagandistic fanfare, whose vortex caught Alma del Banco’s paintings as well. In the course of this wave of confiscations of art in public possession, 13 works of the artist were seized from the Hamburg Art Galley (Hamburger Kunsthalle), nine paintings were destroyed, and one is missing. The Nazis banned modernism from the museums and accepted only German chauvinistic, naturalist painting. The once successful artist, who had ranked among the greats of the regional art scene and who had been described by Ida Dehmel as undeniably "the foremost female painter of Hamburg,” experienced the ostracism and destruction of her art.
In 1938, her brother Sigmund died at the age of 80. Alma del Banco dissolved her studio apartment and moved in with her brother-in-law. After the death of his wife in the mid-1930s, he had built a house for himself in Blankenese at Hasenhöhe 95, designing it in such a way that Alma del Banco could later move in with him: On the upper floor, he furnished two rooms for her with large studio windows. Starting on 19 Sept. 1941, Jews were forced to wear a "yellow star.” In her great-niece’s recollection, from then on, Alma del Banco left the house only very rarely. She was in fact under house arrest. In Oct. 1941, the deportations began. In early Mar. 1943, the 80-year-old Alma del Banco received a deportation order for 10 Mar. to Theresienstadt. During the night of 7 to 8 Mar., i.e. three days before, she took her own life. The great-niece, together with her father, called on the artist the afternoon prior to her death. Her decision to depart from life was – according to the great-niece – already a settled issue. Alma del Banco met up with her in her usual cheerful manner. The brother-in-law recalled the very last hours: They ate supper together. "Ah, don’t we still have something nice?” asked the painter. She remembered the butter stamps received from her friend, and so they ate their bread with butter. After that, she took an overdose of morphine and said euphorically, "You can’t have it any better than that.” Toward morning, she passed away.
Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.
© Friederike Weimar
Quellen: Bruhns, Kunst in der Krise, S. 48ff.; Archiv Verfolgte Kunst in Hamburg; Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden, Hamburg (Hrsg.), Das Jüdische Hamburg, S. 31.