Leonore Mau Exhibition Escape into the World

Carnaval em favela de Salvador
Carnaval em favela de Salvador | © Nachlass Leonore Mau. S. Fischer Stiftung

For a quarter of a century, the artist couple Hubert Fichte and Leonore Mau travelled throughout South America, Africa and Europe and grappled with the production-related aesthetic circumstances of literature and photography. An exhibition by the Goethe-Institut Porto Alegre entitled A casa de Leonore Mau (The House of Leonore Mau) is showing over 100 photographs by the artist that she produced during a number of journeys between 1969 and 1982 in Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, São Luiz de Maranhão, Brasília and Porto Alegre. Most of these works are being shown in Brazil for the first time.

In his opening address on the exhibition, cultural scientist Diedrich Diederichsen summed up the relationship and the work of the two artists by referring to parallels to Fichte’s highly autobiographical novel series Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit:

Leonore Mau Leonore Mau | © Nachlass Leonore Mau. S. Fischer Stiftung “What we know of Leonore Mau’s career as a photographer, we know primarily from the character of Irma in Hubert Fichte’s novels. […] The novel Hotel Garni, which Fichte did not complete until near the end of his life, is about how the gay poet and the successful, married photographer and mother meet. They talk about how they each grew up, about female hetero- and male homosexuality and sexuality in general, about art, music, photography and the Nazis.”

“Should I write that I need you?”

When she met Fichte, Leonore Mau was almost twenty years older than he. Born in Leipzig in 1916, she was already a well-known press and documentary photographer. She had studied stage design and later trained as a press photographer. Fichte, in contrast, was still largely unknown as a writer. He described Mau as a Lichtbildnerin or “light artist,” a description she did not appreciate.

Most of the works were never shown in Brazil. This photograph was made during festivities in the Favela de Mangueira. Most of the works were never shown in Brazil. This photograph was made during festivities in the Favela de Mangueira. | © Estate of Leonore Mau. S. Fischer Stiftung
Mau’s entry into artistic and journalistic life began with her rebellion against the bourgeois concept of a life as a housewife. Residing in Hamburg after the Second World War, she began to travel and photograph for various magazines, for Schöner Wohnen and Merian. At first, she was interested in architectural photography; after all, she was married to an architect. But she found her real subject matter by documenting foreign cultures, in what is usually hidden to outsiders in West African cults and “Afro-American religions” as written in the subtitle of Xangó, which she explored together with Fichte.

Hubert Fichte and Leonore Mau lived and worked together from 1962. She left her husband and two children for him. In 1969, they travelled together to Brazil for the first time, financed by Fichte’s bestseller Die Palette. Their ethnological interests also took them to Portugal, Rome, Morocco, Chile, Haiti, Grenada, Belize, Togo, Senegal, Benin, Tanzania, Florida, Cuba and Bahrain. Their unique relationship lasted until Fichte’s death. In a letter to her he wrote, “Should I write that I need you? It’s true, but I don’t like to write it. It is not a good thing if you just need someone.”

The two were united by a great yearning for freedom; together they escaped into the world.

Visitors to the exhibition opening. Visitors to the exhibition opening. | Photo: Carol de Góes

Macumba and Candomblé in Brazil

The few joint works by Fichte and Mau are the books Xangó and Petersilie, containing interviews and journal logs by Fichte and photographs by Mau, and the photography book Psyche about African psychiatry in Senegal, Togo and Benin. They visited clinics, psychiatric villages and pharmacological institutes there and conducted detailed conversations with physicians. Mau photographed voodoo rites in Haiti, Santería, Cuba, Macumba and Candomblé in Brazil and carnival in Haiti with an impressive balance of proximity and distance that combined the artistic eye with the documentary. In 1975 Mau received an award from the World Press for her image “Boy with a Blister Pack Mask” taken in Benin. In 1988 she photographed the Pina Bausch Ensemble in Wuppertal. She recognized parallels between the precise choreography of dance and the voodoo cult.

The cultural scientist Diedrich Diederichsen during his opening address at the Goethe-Institut Porto Alegre. The cultural scientist Diedrich Diederichsen during his opening address at the Goethe-Institut Porto Alegre. | Photo: Carol de Góes “When you have the camera in your hands, you are always saved,” Leonore Mau once confessed in an interview for ZEIT. Fichte saved himself in literature. He frequently reflected on the rivalry between image and word in his novels. The House of Leonore Mau clearly illustrates that Leonore Mau’s works were not merely accessories to Fichte’s literary work, but possess their own aesthetic attributes.

The exhibition “A casa de Leonore Mau” is a project by the Goethe-Institut Porto Alegre in cooperation with the S. Fischer Stiftung.