This Boundary-breaking Artist From The 1920s Speaks To The Current Moment


I usually write in these pages about books, art or theater. This one is about a life story, not yet captured in a book, reframed in a play or film, or documented in a museum.

It’s the story of a creative, independent and boundary-breaking Jewish woman who was way ahead of her time. Born in Vienna in 1885, Lene Schneider-Kainer was a painter and fashion designer in Berlin in the 1920s who navigated scandal, dressed as a man to pursue her art, divorced her husband and traveled through rarely visited parts of Asia and the Middle East in the path of Marco Polo. Later, after returning to Berlin, she escaped and stayed a few steps ahead of the Nazis, eventually making her way to New York City. She died in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1971, where she had moved to rejoin family members who settled there after fleeing the Nazis.

More than 400 watercolors depicting her Asian travels, a diary of the 18-month trip, a scrapbook, photographs and other materials rest in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, housed in the Center for Jewish History. Last week, Michael Simonson, head of outreach and an archivist at LBI, presented the details of Schneider-Kainer’s story in “Paint, Pray, Love.”

The program was the third in a new series of public programs at the center, “Out of the Box,” in which in-house archivists dig into the collections of the various organizations that make the center their home for uncommon stories rarely shared with the public. The first, “El Torero de la Torah, or the Bullfighter from Brooklyn,” was an examination of the life of Sidney Franklin, the first Jewish matador, who was secretly gay and the son of an Orthodox family of immigrants from Russia. His story was drawn from the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, one of the center’s five on-site partners.

Simonson, a Lutheran who grew up in Minnesota, discovered Schneider-Kainer’s story 17 years ago and was asked to translate her diary from German to English. Drawn to her spirit, he embarked upon extensive research on her life and also the question of how European Jews viewed the Middle East and Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Reading the very personal letters and diaries helps us to understand the larger picture of history,” he tells The Jewish Week in an interview.

Schneider-Kainer’s story begins with her parents, who moved in prominent Viennese social circles. Her mother converted to Judaism and her Jewish father was an illustrator, able to get her into art school even though women weren’t allowed to attend. Her husband Ludwig Kainer was a doctor and set designer and they lived in affluent style; they had one son.

Her early Expressionist artwork was mostly erotic portraits of men and women. Even though renowned male artists were dealing with the same subject matter at the time, her art was considered scandalous. A debut solo show of her work at a Berlin gallery in 1917 caused an uproar. But she persisted, undeterred.

According to Simonson, her husband was known as a philanderer, and she had an affair with the novelist Bernhard Kellermann. He was known especially for his 1913 novel “The Tunnel,” which was translated into 25 languages including Yiddish, sold more than a million copies and was the basis for four films. Kellermann was not Jewish, but his socially critical novels were popular among Jews.

In 1926, Schneider-Kainer and her husband divorced after 16 years of marriage and she set out on an epic trip with Kellermann, sponsored by the Jewish-owned newspaper “Berliner Tageblatt” — he wrote about the trip, and she took photographs and illustrated their encounters. Their itinerary was unusual for the time, following the allure and romance of places in the East little known to European readers. “A new life,” she wrote in her diary.

With an entourage including cooks and servants, they traveled by ship, truck, caravans, luxurious houseboats and horseback. The only woman in the group, she cut her hair short and dressed like a man to blend in and gain access to certain destinations; she was pleased at the outset when asked “where the gentleman is traveling to.”

Beginning in Venice, they went by sea to Persia, going south to Teheran, Isfahan and the port of Bandar-Bander-Abbas, before traveling by ship to Kirachi (now in Pakistan, then India) and up into the Himalayas to Kashmir and then down to Agra and Benares. From Calcutta they travelled by boat to Burma and Malaysia, and then spent an extended period of time in what is today Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and then on to China.

“Every moment something else happens, something unexpected,” she wrote.

Often, people would run from her camera, never having seen such equipment, or they’d create obstacles through their curiosity. She was particularly interested in drawing women dressed as dancers, and visited brothels — thanks to her masculine looks — to encounter them, hear their stories and paint their portraits.

She found much beauty and sorrow among these young women. Her illustrations, in color, capture their expressiveness and, with the flair of the fashion designer, the flow and texture of their outfits. Simonson says that when he first opened the boxes, he was amazed by the bright watercolors and particularly by “the eyes, that looked so alive to me, as if coming out of the darkness, out of the past to live again.”

Most of the 2000 press photographs she took have been lost. She and Kellermann made a film in Persia, which survives, in what now seems like National Geographic style. They filmed local people and since no women would participate, Schneider-Kainer played the part of a veiled bride, taken away on a caravan to marry — she wrote about how difficult it was to mount the camel and how many times they had to redo the scene.

In her writing and illustration, Schneider-Kainer seems so contemporary in outlook; she was very open in speaking about sex and gender, her curiosity and empathy for those she met as well as her own inner life. Ever adventurous, she spent time in kitchens, opium dens, Buddhist temples and theaters in small villages. In a monastery, one lama held a water glass, another her paintbrush, and when they saw her representation of their world, one fixed a red flower to her hair.

In 1928, Kellermann went on to Japan and Schneider-Kainer returned to Berlin, reuniting with her son. Picking up her old life, she showed her work as well as objects she collected along the way in museums and galleries, as she would over the next decades. As the Nazis came to power, she left Berlin in 1933 for Spain and opened a hotel in Ibiza, largely visited by artists. During the Spanish Civil War, she made her way to New York and again got to know artists, writers and even Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped try to get her son out of Europe. Under the name Elena Eleska, she worked as a book illustrator and invented the washable cloth book for children. When she moved to Bolivia to join her family, she started a company there helping indigenous people market their hand-made fabric internationally. Jacqueline Kennedy helped her launch a show of those textiles in Washington, D.C.

Schneider-Kainer’s great-grandson was in the audience last week, hearing many things about her for the first time, as he tells The Jewish Week in an interview. Faid Kainer, a Brooklyn-based musician, producer and visual artist who was born in Germany, grew up in the U.S. with her watercolors in his bedroom; he’d hear stories of her hotel in Ibiza, where people like Billie Holiday would stay, and of her friendships with painters like Matisse and Egon Schiele.

On a repeat visit to the center, Simonson shows me her carefully composed scrapbook, with original copies of the newspaper and glossy magazine articles about the trip and announcements of major museum shows. I also see the beautiful original illustrations up close, their colors still vibrant and her perspective so intimate. In photos sent by her family, she is dressed to look manly and in other photos she appears quite feminine in a fur coat (in a note on the scrapbook, she writes that the coat is not hers).

In 1967, her materials were donated to LBI. Now that the archives have been digitized, readers can make their own deep dives into this treasure and others through the Center for Jewish History website ( Nancy Spielberg, take note.