Exhibition review

Back Into The Light

Four Women Artists – Their Works. Their Paths / 11/25/2022 - 05/29/2023

On November 25, 2022, the Jewish Museum Frankfurt will open an exhibition presenting four women artists from Frankfurt who are nearly forgotten today.

Erna Pinner, Rosy Lilienfeld, Amalie Seckbach, and Ruth Cahn were among the first women artists in Frankfurt to enjoy professional success. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, these four Jewish women left their mark on Frankfurt’s art scene, published and exhibited internationally, cultivated a cosmopolitan lifestyle, and competed with their male colleagues. When the National Socialists seized power, their careers came to an abrupt end. From then on, they were persecuted as Jews and their works ostracized; later, after the end of World War II, they were largely forgotten. Now, the exhibition “Back into the Light” is at long last bringing them back to the public eye.

The departure point for the exhibition was an article by art historian Sascha Schwabacher, published May 1935 in the Frankfurter Israelitisches Gemeindeblatt, a German-language Jewish newspaper in Frankfurt. Schwabacher recalls her visits to the studios of the four artists and describes their personalities—at a time when these women had no more than limited job opportunities in Germany as a result of the persecution they suffered at the hands of the National Socialists. The exhibition delves into these four studio visits, and in doing so, it brings the Frankfurt art scene of the 1920s back to life, making palpable the disruption Nazi rule meant for the four artists’ work and lives.

Frankfurt in the 1920s

Painting by Ruth Cahn, Bethmann-Weiher, Frankfurt am Main, vor 1929
Ruth Cahn, Bethmann Pond, Frankfurt am Main, before 1929, Watercolor on paper. Municipal Art Collection, Cultural Office Frankfurt am Main

In the 1920s, Frankfurt was a bustling city with a vibrant cultural scene, and the exhibition brings this atmosphere to life for the viewer right from the start: after World War I, the Stiftungsuniversität (Foundation University), which opened in 1914, and the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), founded in 1923, were centers of cultural innovation. In terms of theater, the importance of the Schauspiel Frankfurt extended far beyond the city’s limits. Young Jewish intellectuals and artists found a spiritual home at the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus (Free Jewish Teaching House), while art journalists and other members of the cultural scene met in the affluent Westend, where renowned collectors presided over their art salons.

At the Städelschule, young artists were trained by prestigious teachers such as Max Beckmann and Ugi Battenberg. “Intellectual” Frankfurt was shaped by the likes of Städel director Georg Swarzenski (1876–1957); Benno Reifenberg (1892–1970), publisher and head of the features section of the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper; and other artists who supported younger colleagues, including Jakob Nussbaum (1873–1936) and Ottilie W. Roederstein (1859–1937). Galleries such as the Ludwig Schames Gallery and the Flechtheim Gallery, which opened a Frankfurt branch in 1921, offered outstanding artists the opportunity to gain public attention.

Women’s Art Education and the "New Woman"

Painting by Ruth Cahn: Woman in purple dress (portrait study),
Ruth Cahn, Woman in a purple dress (portrait study), 1920s, oil on canvas, private collection M. Kopp

While women were barred from German art academies until 1919, the Städel Institute had already established the first “Ladies’” studio in 1869. From 1900 onwards, female art students at the Städel had access to all teaching professors’ master studios, and the city earned a considerable reputation for women’s art education. Names such as Louise Schmidt and Ottilie W. Roederstein, who had a studio at the Städel Institute, stand out during this time. The former ran the “master sculpture studio for ladies” at the Städel, making her the first female teacher at a public art school in Germany.

The desegregation of art education arrived at the same time as the “new woman.” This new type of female stood for emancipation, relaxed role models, suffrage, and professional employment. Images of women with short male (“bobbed”) haircuts, flapper dresses, and shiny cars became the epitome of progress.

Amalie Seckbach (1870, Hungen – 1944, Theresienstadt)

Portrait photo of Frankfurt artist Amalie Seckbach (1870-1944)
Portrait photo of Frankfurt artist Amalie Seckbach (1870-1944)

Amalie Seckbach moved with her parents from Hungen (Hesse) to Frankfurt am Main in 1902. Inspired by Far Eastern philosophy and religion, she had amassed a collection of Chinese color woodcuts that were highly praised in specialists’ circles of the early twentieth century. It wasn’t until the age of 52, after the death of her husband, architect Max Seckbach (1866–1922), that she started working as a painter and sculptor.

Amalie Seckbach began exhibiting her sculptures in 1929, in a show with James Ensor (1860–1949) at the Musée des Beaux-Arts; in Paris, she took part in exhibitions of the Salon des Indépendants. Starting in 1933, she was only able to exhibit in Germany at the Jüdischer Kulturverein (Jewish Cultural Association)—or abroad, for instance at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she showed in 1936. In 1941, Amalie Seckbach made the decision to flee Germany, but was arrested in September 1942 and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she continued to paint with whatever means were available to her. She died in August 1944 from the harsh conditions of imprisonment.

Erna Pinner (1890, Frankfurt am Main – 1987, London)

Erna Pinner, the epitome of the “new woman,” is the best known of the artists introduced here. Together with her partner, writer Kasimir Edschmid, she explored the world on extended trips abroad and eventually achieved fame.

Pinner studied first in Frankfurt, at the Städel Institute, and later with Lovis Corinth in Berlin and at the Ranson Academy in Paris. When World War I broke out, she returned to Frankfurt and exhibited with Ludwig Schames and later at the Flechtheim Gallery. In the 1920s, she gained public acclaim with her works Das Schweinebuch (The Book of Pigs, 1922), Eine Dame in Griechenland (A Lady in Greece, 1927), and Ich reise um die Welt (I Travel the World, 1931), which featured an independent style of graphic illustration with precise and elegant lines that gave visual expression to what she had seen and experienced and combined it with text.

After emigrating to London in 1935, Pinner developed a new style of scientific illustration in which she was able to depict volume, proportion, and texture with almost photographic accuracy. She studied zoology and took graphics courses, and her postwar publications increasingly explored the history of biological species.

For the first time, we present previously unknown drawings and photographs that offer new glimpses into Pinner’s life and work.

Ruth Cahn (7 December 1875 - 20 May 1966)

Amalie Leontine Cahn was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1875; beyond the city limits, she became known as Ruth Cahn. Her artistic training took place in Munich, Barcelona, and in particular with the Fauvist Kees van Dongen in Paris. In the 1920s, her paintings were displayed at the Frankfurt art dealers H. Trittler and Ludwig Schames. The Galeries Dalmau in Barcelona—which also gave Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, who were unknown at the time, their first exhibitions—presented Ruth Cahn’s paintings in a solo exhibition in 1924.

In 1935, the painter emigrated to Chile, and her family was scattered across Spain, Switzerland, and South America. She returned to Barcelona in 1953 and finally to Frankfurt in 1961, where she died in 1966. The bulk of her work did not survive the turmoil of World War II and the Spanish Civil War and is today considered lost.

Rosy Lilienfeld (1896, Frankfurt – 1942, Auschwitz)

The greatest discovery of this exhibition is probably Rosy Lilienfeld, who was born on January 17, 1896 in Frankfurt am Main and whose family lived in the wealthy Westend district. In the early 1920s, she studied at the Städel Institute under the painter Ugi Battenberg and maintained a studio in the Sachsenhausen painters’ district, which she rented from the art school until the lease was terminated in 1936. Lilienfeld had been unemployed since 1933 and was no longer able to pay the studio rent. In July 1939, the forty-three-year-old mother applied for permission to emigrate to England, but when she fled, it took her to the Netherlands.

The traces of Rosy Lilienfeld’s journey lead to Rotterdam and Utrecht; until recently, those of her mother were unknown. In the course of research for the exhibition, we discovered that Lilienfeld’s mother survived the war in a Catholic monastery. Rosy Lilienfeld was arrested in Utrecht in 1942 and sent to Westerbork camp; from there, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered just a few weeks later.

Our collection contains approximately 200 ink and charcoal drawings as well as several prints by the artist, around half of which the Jewish Museum acquired on the art market in the 1990s. The works are in large part landscapes and views of the city of Frankfurt, created in the mid-1920s in an expressionist style. At times, Lilienfeld’s paintings convey an atmosphere of uneasiness and can seem almost nightmarish. Her love of Hasidic legends inspired the artist to create a large number of works focused on Eastern Jewish stories. Thus, in her own way, she entered into Hasidic narrative tradition, which to this day is still almost exclusively dominated by male figures. In the spirit of the Jewish Renaissance, Lilienfeld transported the legends of Baal Shem into the twentieth century and expanded them with an additional pictorial level.

A Contemporary Response: Elianna Renner

The exhibition culminates in a specially created multimedia installation by the contemporary artist Elianna Renner that addresses the memory and commemoration of Jewish women artists, in particular the gaps in the lives of Ruth Cahn and Amalie Seckbach.

Guided Tours

On the second Sunday of every month at 11 AM, we offer English-language tours of the exhibition. To the calendar 

Public Call

We are on the lookout for additional material on these four women artists and their works. If you have access to any further information, kindly contact us! Write to: eva.atlan@stadt-frankfurt.de


Kuratorin: Dr. Eva Atlan
Co-Kurator*innen: Annika Friedman, Dennis Eiler


The exhibition catalog will be published by Kerber Verlag in time for the opening. With the kind support of the Kulturfonds RheinMain.

Cover of the exhibition catalog

Virtual Guided Tour on April 4

On Tuesday, April 4 2023 at 6 PM we offer an English-language guided tour of the exhibition. Further information

Finissage am 29. Mai

Am 29. Mai feiern wir die Finissage der Ausstellung mit mehreren Führungen, Livemusik und einer Performance. Weitere Informationen finden Sie hier.

Sponsored by:

Event location:
Jewish Museum Frankfurt

Opened today: 10:00 – 20:00

  • Museum ticket (permanent exhibition Jewish Museum+Judengasse) normal/reduced
    12€ / 6 €
  • Kombiticket (temporary exhibition+ museum ticket) normal/reduced
    14€ / 7€
  • Temporary Exhibition
  • Family Card
  • Frankfurt Pass/Kulturpass
  • Kids under 18
  • Every last Saturday of the month ("Satourday")
  • Entrance to the building (Life Deli/museum shop/library)

  • Reduced entry for:

  • Students / Trainees (from 18 years)

  • People with disabilities from 50 % (1 accompanying person free)

  • People doing military or alternative civilian service / unemployed

  • Owners of the Frankfurt Card


  • Free entry for:

  • Members of the Society of our Friends and Patrons association

  • Birthday children of all ages

  • Children and teenagers up to 17 years

  • Students of the Goethe University / FH / HfMDK

  • Apprentices from Frankfurt

  • Refugees

  • Holders of Museumsufer-Card or Museumsufer-Ticket

  • Members of ICOM or Museumsbund

Link to location Link to location

Bertha-Pappenheim-Platz 1, 60311 Frankfurt am Main

Plane route