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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Magazine Organise #69 - Margaret Michaelis – visual chronicler of the Spanish Revolution

Date Sat, 12 Jan 2008 09:34:06 +0200

Margaret Michaelis’s prowess as a photographer has been until recently hidden
away. Recent exhibitions in Canberra, Australia in 1988 and 2005 and in
Valencia, Spain in 2005 have begun to dispel this cloud of obscurity. Her best
photographs from her stay in Spain between 1932 and 1937 are now beginning to be
admired and recognized and rightly seen as moving and striking depictions of the
period. ---- Margarethe Gross was born into a Jewish family in Dzieditz in what
was then Austria, in 1902. Dziedzitz is now Dziedzice in southern Poland near
Krakow. Her liberal upbringing led her to be given every educational opportunity
by her parents. She studied photography at the Institute of Graphic Arts and
Research in Vienna. During the 1920s she worked in leading Viennese studies,
including the prestigious Studio d’Ora, as copyist, retoucher and photographer
for adverts, fashion and industry. These years of apprenticeship made her
conscious of the use of modern styles in photography and sparked a lifelong
interest in photographic portraiture. Women of her generation were beginning to
see photography as a possible career and Margaret appears to have seen herself
as a neue frau, a modern woman challenging established convention and morals.

In 1929 she moved to Berlin and a few months later she met Rudolf Michaelis.
Born at Leipzig in 1907 he became an anarchist in his teenage years and was an
important member of the anarcho-syndicalist union, the FAUD (Freie Arbeiter
Union Deutschlands – Union of Free Workers of Germany). He wrote under the name
of Michel and worked in the State Museum of Berlin restoring antiquities from
the Near East. He also took part in archaeological expeditions, including one to
Uruk in Iraq for six months in 1932–1933. Rudolf was the main animator of the
GFB (Corporation of Libertarian Booklovers) a book club set up by the FAUD. He
had been one of the German anarchists who met with the outstanding Spanish
anarchists Francisco Ascaso and Buenaventura Durruti, when they stayed in Berlin
in 1928.

Margaret and Rudolf became close and were to marry in 1933. The poor economic
situation meant that she could secure only short-term jobs in various
photographic studios as an assistant. She set up her own studio Foto-gross in
1931. In 1932 she visited Barcelona. She lodged in a hotel in the poorest and
shabbiest part of town, the Barrio Chino. She began to photograph the local
people with a little Leica camera, taking pictures of gypsies, card players,
children, street musicians and sailors. However, there was mistrust in that
neighbourhood towards outsiders, and she was mistaken for a police informer and
forced to take shelter in her hotel with her German compatriots. She wrote
movingly on her experience in the Barrio Chino and how statistics pointed to
between 90% and 95% of neighbourhood children being affected by congenital
syphilis. She had seen a street accordionist start playing outside her hotel,
who became surrounded by local children, with noses eaten away, bald, blind and
on crutches—“A sad and terrible image … the Barrio Chino is the shame of all
Catalonia. The children are a silent denunciation”. Her images from this visit
are both a record and a savage social critique.


The rise to power of the Nazis in Germany spelt danger to both Jews and
anarchists. Rudolf had secretly attended the congress of the International
Workers Association (IWA), the anarcho-syndicalist international, in Amsterdam.
His anarchist and antifascist activities and his refusal to recognize the new
regime meant that he was soon to be sacked from the museum. He was imprisoned
for five weeks and only freed with the intervention of the museum director. For
her part Margaret was arrested on a flimsy charge of book theft. They both
decided to leave Germany in November 1933, and chose Barcelona as their destination.

In Barcelona they met up with other German anarchists and formed the DAS (German
Anarcho-syndicalists) group. But life was hard for them in Spain. They spoke
neither Spanish nor Catalan and lived in poverty. They were suspect in the eyes
of the authorities as either anarchists or as German spies! This difficult
situation led to the break-up of the relationship between Margaret and Rudolf in
1934, although they remained in contact throughout their lives.

In the same year Margaret opened a studio, Foto-Studio, which later became
Foto-Elis. She made contact with the avant-garde architects of the GATPAC (Group
of Catalan Architects and Technicians for the Progress of Contemporary
Architecture), led by Jose Luis Sert and worked with them between 1934 and 1936.
These architects wanted to revitalize and rehabilitate the Barrio Chino, a
project that was never realized. She took many photographs of Barcelona on their
behalf and contributed to their exhibition Nova Barcelona (New Barcelona) in
1935. Her photos appeared in the modernist magazines AC (Documents of
Contemporary Activity) and D’aci e d’alla. She acquired a knack of getting
people on the street to be relaxed at having their picture taken. She used
techniques of taking pictures of streets and their inhabitants from rooftops and
attic windows and buildings from low on the ground. Her images of dilapidated
and grimy dwellings, poverty-stricken interiors, rubbish-strewn courtyards and
sick and diseased children were accompanied by graphics, statistics and diagrams
which further dramatized them. Her photomontages were arranged in a similar
fashion, combining images with texts and statistics.

She accompanied Sert and the painter Joan Miro to Andalusia and her photos of
this tour were published in AC. She made photos of Miro’s paintings. She made
architectural studies for individual architects of the new modern buildings
being built in Barcelona.

The coming of the revolution

The coup d’etat organised by right-wing forces in the armed forces, the Church
and in the far right and royalist parties and its initial defeat in parts of
Spain unleashed a revolution in 1936. Rudolf for his part became delegate of the
German anarchist unit, the Erich Muehsam Group, named after the famous German
anarchist murdered by the Nazis in 1933. This became part of the anarchist
militia column, the Ascaso Column, where Spaniards fought alongside Germans. The
DAS became part of the local federation of anarchist groups in Barcelona and
Rudolf took part in the occupation of the German Club in that city, which had
been a notorious nest of Nazis.

For her part Margaret’s work became more and more closely associated with the
burgeoning revolution. She accompanied the American anarchist Emma Goldman on a
tour of Aragon along with the German anarchists Hans Erich Kaminsky and Anita
Garfinkle and Arthur Lehning, the secretary of the IWA and they visited the
collectives being set up in the countryside. She realized a heroic portrait of
Emma Goldman during this tour. At the end of the year she photographed the
funeral of Durruti.

In 1937 she worked for the Propaganda Commission of the Catalan Government,
recording scenes from everyday life in Barcelona, with reportages on public
health and support to children. Her quick and propagandist documentary images
were used in magazines and papers. She undertook a series of photo shoots in the
Barrio Chino, this time being able to snap away without being driven off. Her
rapid image taking, as mentioned above, is apparent in these photos, including
one of a pickpocket dipping into a handbag! Some of these images were later
seized and used by the Francoists in a publication Homage from a Freed Catalonia
to its Caudillo, without, obviously, Margaret’s permission.

With the worsening situation in Spain, Rudolf was arrested several times by the
Stalinists in 1937. The couple was divorced that year. Whilst Rudolf stayed on
to fight, Margaret left for France and then visited her parents in Poland in
1938. She photographed some graphic views of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. She
then obtained a visa from Britain and then moved on to Australia, having in the
meantime secured the release of her equipment and photographs which eventually
reached her in Australia.

Rudolf had crossed over to France with the defeat in 1939. He returned secretly
to Spain in 1939, was arrested and imprisoned until 1944.

Exile in Australia

In Australia, German incomers were viewed with suspicion and kept under
surveillance. Margaret arrived in Sydney a few days after the outbreak of the
Second World War. She worked first as a housekeeper and then in 1940 opened
Photo-Studio. Her work from this period was strictly bread and butter, with the
usual studio portraits, although they were mostly of artists, dancers and
writers, like her, European and Jewish refugees. She undertook very little open
air photography. In these war years she experienced a “very, very sharp,
loneliness” in her own words.

Margaret was forced to close her studio in 1952 because of her failing sight.
She married Albert Sachs in 1960 and worked with him in his window framing
business in Melbourne. In the years after the war she began the agonizing
process that many others experienced of hunting for her family and friends back
in her home town. All had perished in the Holocaust. One rare open air shot, a
kind of self-portrait, from this period, Paramatta River, taken on 14th June
1948, shows her in the middle distance facing away from the camera looking out
over a landscape of industrial desolation.

She renewed contact with Rudolf in East Germany in the post-war years. He, like
a number of other surviving German anarchists, had been under the illusion that
he could join the Communist Party and spread anarchist ideas from within.
Instead he became its captive and was forced to write denunciations of
anarchism. She visited him in East Berlin in 1967 and remained in correspondence
with him until 1975 (he died in 1990). Grete (as she was known to Rudolf and
other close friends) kept the letters, dried flowers, maps and photographs she
had received from Rudolf in a large envelope on which she had written Michel in
large black letters. She kept these until the end of her life.

Margaret kept her collection of photographs from the Spanish period hidden
throughout her sojourn in Australia up until her death in 1985. With her death
her photographic collection and archives were given to the National Gallery of
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