Talent – Fate – A life’s work

One name is inextricably linked with Wendt & Kühn: Olly Wendt (née Sommer). On February 15, 1920 she began work at the manufactory as a craftswoman and for more than 60 years her work as a designer left its creative imprint on the story of Wendt & Kühn. Countless figurines in our collection such as the Marguerite Angels, the animals and the Moon Family bear her unmistakable hallmark. To mark the 100th anniversary of her joining Wendt & Kühn, we will be showing the path taken by this extraordinary woman and talented designer.

An interview with Marlis Rokitta.

A historian and specialist in German studies, she has for the past three years been in charge of the extensive company archives at Wendt & Kühn in her role as a research associate.

What can visitors to the exhibition expect to see?

In this, our sixth special exhibition in Grünhainichen we are for the first time focusing on one particular person, Olly Wendt. But anyone who thinks this means there will be only a few figurines on display, would be wrong. There will be a total of 183 exhibits on display in the exhibition, including 50 figurines some of which have never been shown to the public before. We are tracing the journey through life of a great designer. What becomes clear is how strongly intertwined was her private life with everyday life at the manufactory. We venture back into Olly Sommer’s childhood and teenage years in Riga, we look at the exciting phase of her life she spent studying in Dresden and we follow the path that led her to Grünhainichen. And here I would like to mention one particularly important detail. It concerns an original letter dated February 8, 1920, that Olly received from Grete Wendt, one week before she started work at Wendt & Kühn. The hope expressed in it that her work would bring her much pleasure certainly came true.

And over and above that Olly also found her own personal happiness, from which, with her children and then their children, generations were born who still guide the fortunes of the manufactory to this day.

The chapter on love and loss is a very emotional and moving part of the exhibition. During this time Olly designed figurines that represented special events in her life such as the pair of twins and the brocade angels. It also shines a light on the period after the Second World War and her work during the GDR era. The emotional burden of losing her beloved husband and the father of her children, and then the increasing restrictions on the private sector, which ultimately resulted in the nationalization of the manufactory, shaped the second half of Olly Wendt’s life and is also clearly evident in her later work.

What particular challenges did you face when putting together this exhibition?

Exhibitions about individuals are always a balancing act. And particularly here, as this special exhibition is dedicated to the life and work of the “grandma” of our current general partners. I see their decision to allow me to put together this exhibition on their behalf and with their support, as a great vote of confidence in me, and therein lies the first challenge. Does my interpretation of what is displayed correspond to the experiences of family members and of the many other people in and around the manufactory who knew Olly Wendt and had a special relationship with her? I was privileged to get to know her personality

through the available documents. Photos, letters and personal items give insights into her character, but one must not only interpret and construe, but also stick closely to the facts. In the exhibition we needed both to do justice to the individual and reveal the different facets of her character, and at the same time show in parallel the history of the manufactory and the strong influence Olly Wendt had on it. Striking this balance was a further challenge. So it would bring me the greatest pleasure if after they had seen the exhibition, the people who knew her during her lifetime were able to say that they recognized “their” Olly.

How do you present Olly Wendt in the exhibition?

Through my research I found her to be a woman who was full of the joys of life. Her happiest years were certainly the 1920s and 30s, after she had moved to Grünhainichen, and the time she spent as a family with Johannes Wendt and their children. It spurred on her creativity. During those years she designed a large number of figurines in a wide range of subjects.

After she lost Johannes Wendt, her themes became more melancholy, but she herself always remained positive and full of hope. This can be seen in the copious letters we have. In these she was compassionate and concerned about those she was writing to, she always inquired about the health of friends and family members of the addressees, and she offered her help and support in all situations of life. It is particularly in these documents that her warm-heartedness shines through. She was also a very hard working woman. From talking to the family, I know that she started her work in the

paint shop at 6 o’clock sharp every morning. This is also confirmed by documents in the company archives, according to which she was nearly 87 when she finished her final day of work.

In her personal life she was very interested in the arts. She painted and sketched, she played the piano and she loved flowers. She read many books and wrote poems, particularly in the second half of her life, and in these she also processed her more melancholy thoughts. Incidentally, this was a hobby whose scope was hardly known even to close family members. When she was not writing herself, she collected the works of philosophers and scholars, and would certainly have drawn spiritual strength and joy from them. Looking back, the curating of this exhibition has enabled me to get to know a very likeable and strong woman. I hope that this is reflected in the exhibition.