Else Meidner grew up the daughter of the well-to-do Berlin physician Dr. Heinrich Meyer and his wife, Margarete, née Fürst. She had two sisters. She was encouraged by Käthe Kollwitz and Max Slevogt to pursue her dream of becoming an artist and studied at the Applied Arts School and the Art Academy in Berlin. She later attended Ludwig Meidner’s drawing class at the Berlin Studienatelier für Malerei und Plastik.
Else Meyer decided at an early age to become an artist. She had supporters in Max Slevogt and Käthe Kollwitz, who encouraged her to study art. "I was determined to become an artist. And I was defiant... If the teachers had disputed my talent instead of encouraging me, I wouldn’t have listened. I would have pursued my dream anyway."
As an artist, Else Meidner attached great importance to her independence: "I never allowed myself to be corrected, I never listened to my teachers, I never did what they wanted – I always did the opposite. When one of them once drew something in my picture, I became furious."
According to Else Meidner, when she showed Ludwig Meidner, her teacher, the work she had completed in her youth, he became ill, saying the drawings were "demonic." She was horrified and immediately tore them up before he could stop her. He tried to paste the scraps back together, but was not entirely successful.
"I never painted in class. I only drew. I started drawing nudes right away and was passionate about it. . . . I’m a self-taught painter. I started painting when I was twenty-four or twenty-five. Ludwig Meidner once told me, ‘You paint like a bird sings.’"
In addition to landscapes and still lifes, Else Meidner’s favorite genre was portraits. These works have a static quality and focus on the confrontation between viewer and subject.
Initial success in Berlin
In the late 1920s, Else Meidner received initial recognition for her work. In 1928, her portrait etching of the writer Alfred Döblin won a prize at the graphic contest held by the artists’ group Die Schaffenden.
In May 1932, she held a solo exhibition at Juryfreie in Berlin that featured thirty of her works and was well received by critics. Describing her images, renowned art critic Max Osborn wrote, "The grand form is everywhere to be seen, the strange sense of the enigmatic, painful connection between worldly things, the firm hand that never loses its way. We see a path leading upward."
This path was abruptly blocked in 1933. Now Else Meidner was only allowed to exhibit her works to a Jewish audience – for example, at the Jewish Cultural Association. In 1935, Ludwig Meidner accepted a position as a drawing teacher at a Jewish school in Cologne, and Else Meidner followed him there with their son, David.
Joseph Paul Hodin, Aus den Erinnerungen von Else Meidner, Darmstadt, 1979
Here in London I walk about as in a dream and am surprised I’m here. Some plants thrive wherever you transplant them, but I could never put down new roots. My roots are in Berlin.
In August 1939, Else Meidner immigrated to England with her family. She initially worked as a servant for an elderly woman in the south of London, where she also lived. During Ludwig Meidner’s internment as "enemy alien" in 1940–41, she was once again on her own. Later the family lived in precarious financial conditions, and recognition as an artist largely eluded her.
The couple became increasingly estranged, and when Ludwig Meidner moved back to Germany in 1953, Else Meidner remained in London. She had adopted British citizenship and refused to return to Germany. However, when Ludwig Meidner fell ill in 1963, she made an exception and visited him for several months.
Else Meidner created her last works in the mid-1960s and afterward gave up all artistic activities – not only due to health reasons, but probably also because of discouragement.
This view of her studio with paintings hung close together reveals the restrictions of her life in exile. The telephone and radio were the most important link to the outside world.
Else Meidner created a surprisingly large number of self-portraits. These were a means of self-reflection and self-affirmation.
In London, Else Meidner also painted many female nudes. Most of the figures are massive, block-like, and heavy. By contrast, her watercolors and paintings feature a brighter and louder color palette.
Else Meidner occasionally held exhibitions in London, but most were a disappointment. She increasingly withdrew from society, as can be seen in her images. Her portraits present the same small group of people, and dozens of drawings portray the same corner of her garden.
This figure symbolizes the artists’ loneliness. In letters and autobiographical notes, Meidner repeatedly complained about her friends abandoning her.
Masks were a common theme in the paintings and drawings that Else Meidner produced in her final artistic phase. Not only do they embody her demons, but they also stand for the hypocrisy and social role-playing she detested.