I was tumbling through Tumblr, one of my favourite places on the internet to discover history’s lesser-known muses and there, on page thirty-something of my browsing, I stopped at a photograph of an androgynous woman taken by Marianne Breslauer, a name unfamiliar to me. As I began googling her work, my screen was soon taken over by black and white images revealing her captivation with the elegant 1930s tomboy style, which was finding its niche right around the time Marianne had decided to pick up a camera.
Marianne’s career as a photographer was a very short one and she left behind only a small photographic body of work, created in between 1928 and 1938. She was born in Berlin in 1909 and travelled to Paris at the dawn of the 1930s where she briefly became a pupil of Man Ray. When she returned to Germany, her photographs were published in several leading magazines, but she would soon have to confront the anti-Semitic practices that were coming into play in her home country. Her employers wanted to continue publishing her avant-garde photos, but under a pseudonym to hide her Jewish background.
At a time when photography was moving from the status of a painterly salon art to that of a radical new photography, the Nazis were already breaking up modern exhibitions and auctions, beginning Hitler’s war on “degenerate art”. Refusing to yield and publish her work under a false name, Marianne fled Germany and found safety in Switzerland as WWII broke out. It was around this time that she admitted she was “finished with photography”. After the war, she became an art dealer with her husband, specialising in French paintings and 19th-century art.
Marianne’s subjects are alluringly liberated and ahead of their time, reflected in their “borrowed-from-the-boys” wardrobe of soft slouchy trousers, button down shirts and cropped hairstyles. Even in a long evening dress, they have a sullen masculine air with the beauty and grace of a swan.
One face in particular became Breslauer’s main muse– Swiss writer, journalist and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Marianne described her close friend as “neither a man nor a woman, but an angel, an archangel”.
If you have time to discover her story, even just pieces of it, it’s a fascinating tale…
“From an early age she began to dress and act like a boy, a behaviour not discouraged by her parents, and which she retained all her life—in fact in later life she was often mistaken for a young man.”
As a child, Annemarie was called Fritz. A wondrously beautiful and androgynous creature, she had the men and women of bohemian Berlin at her feet. She led a fast life in the bustling artistic city, driving fast cars and partying endlessly. A friend recalled that Annemarie ” lived dangerously. She drank too much. She never went to sleep before dawn”.
As Hitler tightened his grip on Europe however, her decadent lifestyle took a different turn. Her industrialist Swiss family sympathised with the far-right Swiss Fronts and favoured closer ties with Nazi Germany. Tensions arose as family members encouraged her to cut ties with her bohemian circle which included Jews and political refugees. She ended up defiantly helping finance an anti-Fascist literary review, Die Sammlung, but she also found herself under such pressure that she attempted suicide, causing an even bigger scandal among her family and their conservative circle.
You wouldn’t guess from her fresh-faced appearance in Marianne’s photos, but for most of her life Annemarie battled an addiction to drugs, particularly morphine to ease problems with depression. She had a lot of turbulent affairs, with both men and women, briefly marrying a French diplomat while living in Teheran. They were both homosexual, but it was a marriage of convenience for both of them and she was able to obtain a French diplomatic passport which enabled her to travel without restrictions.
She took daring road trips with her friends in a small Ford cabriolet, travelling from Geneva via Istanbul to Afghanistan and Iran, conquering the Silk Road long before the hippies did. Anne Marie reportedly had affairs with the daughter of the Turkish Ambassador in Teheran, where she lived for several years. She was in Kabul when World War II broke out; a war foreshadowed in her own photographs, which had documented the rise of Fascism in Europe.
Next she headed to the United States where she captured the difficult living conditions in the Depression and helped support the formation of labour unions, much to the distaste of her family back home, which owned many textile mills in the US.
Annemarie died tragically young at the age of 34 when she fell from her bike and suffered fatal injuries to her head. Her mother, with whom she’d had a difficult relationship and wrote about in her books, destroyed some of her archives. Annemarie was long forgotten until she was rediscovered in 1987 at a retrospective exhibition in Switzerland.
Today Annemarie is a cult figure; in part thanks to the photographs of her friend, Marianne Breslauer, pictured below in a self-portrait.
Marianne’s tomboys, are my vintage muse du jour. With their slouchy pants, tight shirts and confident attitude, I tip my hat to these ladies for breaking boundaries when only just a few years earlier, women were still wearing corsets. As bold as they were beautiful, I would have loved to have been part of their girl gang.