Childhood in Germany
Hannelore Baron practiced an art of concealment and protection. Out of rough and common materials she fashioned constructions, drawings and collages that transmuted the painful experiences of her life into indelible images of the darkness and mystery of being. Baron was born Hannelore Alexander in Dilligen, a small town in the Saar region of Germany in 1926. Her father, Julius, was a Jewish textile merchant, and almost as soon as Hitler came to power, the family began to feel the ominous consequences. Hannelore and her brother were sent to a special school for Jews only. On Kristallnacht, the family’s apartment was ransacked and her father beaten. Thus began a period of flight and border crossing that did not end until the family managed to emigrate from Lisbon to New York in 1941. In the midst of all this, one of Baron’s most vivid memories was that of a brief return to her family’s wrecked apartment, where the bloody handprints of her father were still visible on the walls.
Life in New York
By the time she graduated from the Staubenmiller Textile High School in Manhattan, Baron was avidly reading eastern philosophy, making increasingly abstract paintings and probably already experiencing the symptoms of claustrophobia and depression that would lead to a series of nervous breakdowns throughout her life. On one of her rare forays out, to sketch, she met Herman Baron, a book salesman for the Philosophical Library, and they married in 1950. The milieu was intellectually rich: Baron’s brother ran a small press and published works by avant-garde writers such as Maya Deren and Henry Miller, and Baron himself soon opened his own bookstore in the Bronx. Isolated by her mental distress, however, Hannelore developed her art without instruction and without direct knowledge of the currents that were changing the art world. Her abstract paintings betray no debt to Rothko, Gorky or Motherwell. But she did manage to visit an exhibition by John Heliker, a friend of Baron’s brother, and the experience was decisive: she saw how collage could combine all aspects of art, from drawing and painting to sculptural manipulation of materials. Over the next three decades, Hannelore would explore the implications of mixed media with depth, subtlety and daring.
Occupied with raising two children (daughter Julie and son Mark) and beset by psychological problems, Hannelore nevertheless exhibited her work and in 1969, the year of her one-person exhibition at Ulster County Community College, she began to make the box constructions that would become her signature. In these works, damaged wood and metal, often tied or nailed together, enclose secrets that can only be guessed at: scraps of her past, mysterious games without rules, concealed objects. In their rawness and obscurity they form the necessary counterpart to Joseph Cornell’s elegant enigmas. In these works and in her collages, Hannelore was able to convey her sense of the fragility of life, the mythic substratum of human experience, and broader concerns for the environment, the injustices of war, especially the Vietnam conflict, and the physical pain of existence. In 1973, she was diagnosed with cancer and would struggle with various forms of the disease until it took her life in 1987. After her death, Hannelore’s work was the subject of a one-person exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and, in 2002, a national touring exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution. She once remarked of one of her works, “The solution didn’t come only from my head, it was lived out and worked out. It is a complete thing.”