The war on America’s past continues

In the wake of recent attempts – some successful – to have Confederate statues removed from the US south, what is the future of colonialist statues in the US west? In Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory, Cynthia Culver Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, senses a reluctance to apply to pioneer monuments the ideological zeal that was turned on Confederate memorials. ‘We resist applying the insights of settler colonial studies to American pioneer narratives because to do so would call into question foundational myths of Jeffersonian agrarianism and American exceptionalism, and lay bare white conquest of native lands and peoples.’ She outlines the cases against statues of colonialists, and particularly against female settlers, who took part in the drive to colonise the American west in the 19th century.

“Statues depicting women have been criticised by academics and campaigners for being idealising, inaccurate, generalising and stereotypical. There is a sense that campaigners direct such ire at statues of women settlers not just because they embody sexism and colonialism but because they show women as complicit in the act of dispossessing native peoples. There is a residual resentment that – in intersectional terms – a political minority took part in a project to oppress another minority….”

Read my article on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/07/29/the-war-on-americas-past-continues/

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New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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Artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) founded his printmaking workshop Atelier 17 on the Left Bank of Paris in 1927/8. Hayter as an artist and teacher was close to Surrealism, particularly the practice and theory of automatism. He encouraged students to experiment but accepted artists of outlooks contrary to his. At the outbreak of war, Hayter left Paris. In October 1940 he re-opened Atelier 17 in New York. Christina Weyl’s The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York is a new study of women who trained in Atelier 17 in its New York incarnation. It focuses on eight of the most adventurous and committed women artists who worked at the studio: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Anne Ryan (1889-1954).

Hayter moved back to Paris in 1950 to re-establish his studio there. A number of replacement directors maintained the New York studio. The New York studio closed for financial reasons in September 1955. The Paris studio of Atelier 17 only closed in 1988, upon Hayter’s death; a replacement studio has since been run under the name Atelier Contrepoint.

Weyl’s thesis is that the activities of Hayter’s studio allowed women in the 1940s and 1950s to develop proto-feminist practices and associations. “My reading of women artists’ affiliation with Atelier 17 and their experiences both inside and outside the studio is shaped by feminist art history and gender theory. The scaffolding provided by theorists and feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, and Lucy Lippard allows for a more sophisticated analysis of this moment in history and of this particular group of women artists and makes it possible to reframe Atelier 17 through a feminist lens.” Weyl says she intends to continue “the scholarly trajectory of decentering and demythologizing [American modernism] that began decades ago”.

Weyl admits her thesis is partial. “Giving women artists a space in which they could flex their artistic muscles was radical for the 1940s and 1950s.” This is followed by an admission that often women outnumbered men at art school and that the WPA in the 1930s provided equal treatment of women artists. Weyl overlooks Black Mountain College, Hans Hofmann’s studio and any number of places where women could train without sexist prejudice. When Weyl writes about the limited career options open to women artists, she could just have easily written the same about male artists. There was great competition and few opportunities for all young artists and they had difficulty selling any non-traditional art. At the outset, one senses that Weyl has overstated her case to prove a point and by the mid-point of the book this judgment seems well founded.

The residual fallacy persists throughout the book. Whenever female artists do not pursue their studies, are discouraged, fail to exhibit, leave the studio prematurely and so forth, Weyl’s first resort is to explain this as the outcome of sexist obstruction. Environments are “coded masculine”; “ambivalent attitudes” are “largely unspoken but no less impactful”, nonetheless Weyl seems to be to unerringly identify it at a distance of seven decades. “Given the prevalence of wartime and postwar messaging about personal hygiene and hand care, female members of Atelier 17 had to be cognizant that their ink-stained hands were nonconforming to gender norms.” This sums up the approach and tone of The Women of Atelier 17.

When Hayter was peremptorily dismissive of some applicants (whom he disparaged as dilettantes), Weyl interprets this as sexism rather than impatience with less dedicated artists. Whether or not Hayter was fair in his assessments is not easy to weigh. This was a question of reciprocal respect – not just the master printmaker judging the seriousness of prospective students but of students realising that by studying with Hayter but not treating the work seriously they would be wasting the time of a busy teacher who could have been expending energy on more receptive students. Teachers such as Hayter had justifiably little patience for students who were dabblers. This was a serious problem for artist-teachers, who needed to guard their reputations and to assess how best to apportion limited resources and spaces. When Weyl chides Hayter for being too domineering, this contrasts with the reader’s sympathy regarding Hayter’s protectiveness towards his materials and tools, which were shared and sometimes expensive to replace. The author displays a measurable deficit of empathy towards Hayter, the individual who provided so much support, encouragement and opportunity for women artists.

The place of women in Atelier 17 is an interesting subject worth studying. Simply reviewing commonalities between eight female printmakers and discussing how their working approaches overlap and diverge is worthwhile. The illustrations are numerous and important, as many of these prints are obscure and rarely exhibited or discussed. There is also a useful guide to the societies, open exhibitions and co-operatives that were used by printmakers of the period. Notes of sources and summary biographies of artists will be of use to researchers. Weyl identifies a verifiable case of a woman being overlooked by colleagues. Fuller revived the sugar-lift technique detailed in E.S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which went on to be a popular technique in the 1940s.

The author’s vexation with the two most prominent women artists of Atelier 17, Bourgeois and Nevelson, is apparent. “[They] had indecisive relationships with feminism. Though often touted as the two greatest women artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Bourgeois and Nevelson were not overly supportive of other women artists and treated those from younger generations, especially, with suspicion or ambivalence.” Weyl has a very definite idea that women artists are by nature more collegial than their male colleagues. Therefore great women artists should be greatly collegial. Why would they be?  Wouldn’t unusually competent, ambitious and individualistic artists act in ways that are the opposite of collegial? Why would tough exceptional female artists act any different from tough exceptional male artists and why would those female artists be feminists?

Weyl is insistent on the importance of group solidarity between women artists. “Women taught women, women promoted their fellow sisters’ new editions or current gallery exhibitions, and they supported each other’s business ventures in the print world.” Networking happens at all levels. The most successful artists will tend to network with their successful peers but not be dependent on those connections. One suspects that class solidarity tends to appeal to less competent and less successful practitioners who profit from pooling resources. It is not a matter of gender or temperament but of success. In a modern age when artists do not have or need apprentices, very successful artists usually do not teach. It is less successful artists who teach, print other artists’ editions, promote each other’s work, share studios and form co-operative groups. We might posit that the success of Bourgeois and Nevelson caused them to be less in need of group activity.

Worryingly, there are a number of statements that are inaccurate. “[…] transitioning from social realism to abstraction was not as simple or seamless for women as it was for their male colleagues (think of [Camilo] Egas or someone like Jackson Pollock).” This is overlooks the resistance that Pollock faced as a former student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton from that trained by European abstract artist Hans Hofmann. Lee Krasner commented – as did a number of other artists of the time – that Pollock was taken less seriously precisely because his background was in realism and American art rather than European Modernism. One way in which Egas and Pollock earned a degree of respect from the Modernist camp was having worked with the Mexican Muralists, who were seen as the acceptable face of realism. The Muralists blended social realism with Modernism. Formerly realist artists (male and female) faced resistance from the influential New York School supporters of Surrealism, abstract or Modernist sympathies if they had not displayed some sort of engagement with a “more advanced” semi-Modern form of realism before they came to abstraction.

“At Atelier 17, women artists not only upended centuries-old gender boundaries guiding the division of labor within printmaking, but also participating in redefining beliefs about men’s and women’s work in American society  at midcentury.” Setting aside the second clause, the first clause can be identified as absolutely false. Not only have women have been engaged in every part of printmaking since the Middle Ages, it is widely known to be an area where they practiced effectively in every area of workshop activity. Weyl will be aware of the New York Public Library’s exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers: 1570-1900 (October 2015-January 2016) which covered just this topic. Exaggeration, distortion or falsehood – the quoted statements deserve no place in a reputable study.

Weyl, who has done enough research to know the common sources that I am familiar with, must know that such aspersions of sexism are unfounded. The authority of her statements relies upon the unfamiliarity of general readers with the wider body of literature. Additionally, there are errors of fact (such as technical descriptions on pp. 79, 156, etc.).

The persistent political direction of interpretation distorts the subject. When Nevelson was criticised for using too much ink, it was not a critique of her violating gender roles but of using too much communal material and creating mess that inconvenienced others. “Though Citron ultimately admired Nevelson’s resulting prints, she, Grippe, and others perceived Nevelson’s methods as slapdash and, implicitly, inappropriate for a woman.” Or colleagues may have found her use of shared materials reckless and a bad example to other students. “[…] she was unwilling to concede to postwar expectations and instead transgressed feminine norms with her bold and outsized personality.” Or she was thoughtless, egocentric and entitled. “Citron asked her friend, the sculptor Ibram Lassaw, to solder the plate parts back together. (Her aversion to the soldering gun is revealing because it follows the post-war taboo against women embracing home repair equipment.)” Or Citron was unfamiliar with a dangerous tool and asked an expert to perform the work for her using his tool. You see how hopeless the “gendered reading” is in practice. The best work in the book is in the second half, which contains an informative discussion about the market, distribution, exhibition, collection and status of Modernist prints in the period – material that is unrelated to gender.

The Women of Atelier 17 is a title that should be treated as partial and in some respects misleading. It is likely to cause of much misunderstanding if it is used liberally by writers unaware of the wider art historical scholarship on this period.

 

Christina Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Yale University Press, 2019, hardback, 296pp, 76 col./63 mono illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 300 238501

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Abstract Expressionist Women Painters

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As with other past art movements, these individuals are predominantly male; in this case, not only are they male, but their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism.[i]

So stated is the recent feminist case against Abstract Expressionism, an art style associated with hard-drinking, brawling men who wore workmen’s clothes and used industrial paint. For feminists, the discussion of such art is embodied in the language of criticism.

Discussion of the work of abstract expressionists abounds with highly gender-laden adjectives, it is “strong” “incisive”, “thrusting” and “aggressive”. Its image of barely controlled violence is reinforced by the frequent title of “Action Painting”, all these elements conforming to popular perceptions of masculinity. […] cultural stereotypes of female passivity made the function of the female artist within “Action Painting” difficult to define, hence the often peripheral position allocated to artists such as Lee Krasner or Helen Frankenthaler. […] in art as in so many other areas of activity, women were denied a central role in post-war western culture.[iii]

Critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess would arbitrate on the quality of art using language that would lock in place a masculine set of virtues, the argument goes. “A so-called canon would arise that solidified Abstract Expressionism as male.” [iv] Yet one of the leading critics was Elaine de Kooning – a shrewd, intelligent and informed woman who was also a painter.  Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler enjoyably and thoroughly surveys the lives of five prominent female artists of the New York scene. Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Elaine de Kooning née Fried (1918-1989), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) are all artists well worth biographical and critical attention, which have received to varying degrees over the decades.

The starting point of the book is the Ninth Street Show, a group show held in a building in New York due for demolition. The show displayed the depth and variety of the New York School as it became the vanguard style of world Modernist art. The show, held over May and June of 1951, brought together the leading artists of the first generation of newly prominent New York School (including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Krasner) alongside many members of the second generation (including Hartigan, Frankenthaler and Mitchell). The second generation were not much younger than the first generation (sometimes only a matter of ten years). The main differentiation was participation in the experiences of the 1930s as artists: the Great Depression, the conflict between Modernists and Regionalists, the WPA (which provided indigent artists with paid employment for public benefit) and the political activism of unionism and Socialist events.

Gabriel captures the excitement, poverty and cultural ferment of the arts starting in 1929, when artists divided into camps and argued vehemently (to the point of fistfights) about aesthetics. Social commitment meant being gaoled for affray during protests. The writing is lively, informed and strongly narrative. It is an approachable entrance in the atmosphere, politics and characters of the New York School. Although it is centred on five painters it weaves in the stories of other major (and a few of the minor) figures of the time: Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Hess, Rosenberg, Greenburg, Peggy Guggenheim, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers and John Graham. Most prominent of the other figures are Pollock and de Kooning. The book closes in 1959, with a coda describing the later lives of the painters.

Krasner trained at the Cooper Union, New York. Discouraged by the limitations of social realism (the Ash Can School) and the politics of Communism in the wake of Stalin’s show trials, she turned to abstraction and Modernism by taking classes under Hans Hofmann. She became a committed Modernist and admired Mondrian; soon she had a chance to meet her hero when he moved to New York as part of the influx of emigre artists. During the war years she met Pollock, they moved in together and shared ideas. In 1945 they married. Together with Clement Greenberg, Krasner made Pollock’s career a joint effort, even to the extent of painting less. It seems that Pollock’s emotional demands and ego inhibited Krasner from working for a time, though they did co-operate for a number of joint exhibitions.

Elaine Fried studied at Leonardo da Vinci School. In 1938 she met de Kooning at about the same time as Gorky and John Graham, the painter and theoretician who wrote System and Dialectics of Art (1937). This eccentric book on the subject of Modern art was one of key references for the tiny group of American artists of the era. Well before their marriage in 1943, Elaine made de Kooning’s career her project, networking with critic Harold Rosenberg. Her art was portraiture of herself and fellow artists, executed with painterly bravura. In 1948 Hess, editor of ArtNews, commissioned Elaine de Kooning to write exhibition reviews. This made her an important figure in the New York art world and appreciated by artists, about whose work she could write with the knowledge and sympathy of an insider.

Frankenthaler studied at Bennington College and with Hans Hofmann and entered an art world where the nascent Abstract Expressionists were already being exhibited and sold. Unlike the first generation, she never experienced the pre-war scene. She was joining an art world where Modernism was in ascendant with the cognoscenti even if it was not widely accepted by the general public. While freshly graduated, she met Greenberg and began an affair with him. Although he did not write about her art, his status helped to open doors for Frankenthaler. On 26 October 1952 she painted Mountains and the Sea, which is made with diluted paint which she splashed and soaked into the canvas while it was horizontal on the floor of her studio. It is credited with starting the Colour Field School.

Hartigan, without art qualifications, she worked as a technical draughtsman during the war. Her future husband Harry Jackson was a painter and fan of Pollock. She met Pollock and Krasner in 1948 and the couples became friends. Hartigan’s rise was faster than that of most artists and she was soon exhibiting and selling paintings alongside veteran painters. The 1953 purchase of one of her paintings by MoMA marked a remarkable level of recognition for one of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionists.

Mitchell studied painting at the School of Art Institute, Chicago. She married fellow Chicagoan Barney Rosset, filmmaker and future publisher of Grove Press, in 1949. In New York she became an abstract painter, influenced by a tour of Europe. Critics consider her part of Abstract Impressionism, fusing Abstract Expressionism and the inheritance of Monet. Substance abuse and infidelity caused a split from Rosset. Later, Mitchell had a long-term relationship with French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.

All of these artists knew each other and had periods of close friendships, sometimes working side by side, at other times estranged through personal differences. All achieved public and commercial recognition, sometimes slow, sometimes ebbing, subject to the changing critical tastes of their times. All achieved financial independence.

Reading Ninth Street Women we come to understand how important painting as painting was for this generation. Painting was a way of discovering the world and unlocking doors to new experiences; it was an expression of individual humanity in an era of Cold War. The earnest atmosphere of The Club and the boozy raucousness of the Cedar Tavern are conveyed in the author’s descriptions, augmented by recollections of artists. The poverty and neglect these artists faced brought (relative) camaraderie; with fame and money came (relative) rivalry. The main narrative ends in the year 1959, which marks the decline of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field Painting and the rise of Pop Art. By 1959 American Modernist art had become mainstream, big business and a haven for speculators. Mitchell had moved to France to be closer to Riopelle and escape the drinking culture of the Five Spot (the replacement for the Cedar Tavern). Frankenthaler had married Robert Motherwell. Krasner was managing Pollock’s estate and making her own art on Long Island. Elaine was estranged from de Kooning, painting and teaching art; she would go on to paint portraits of many notable people, including President Kennedy. Hartigan was changing her art, leaving behind the sturm und drang of Ab Ex impasto and diluting her paint to washes, influenced by Colour Field Painting.

The hard-drinking uninhibited lifestyles of the New York School were punctuated by arguments that escalated to fistfights. Affairs were common and marriages and relationships imploding regularly. In 1956 Pollock died when he crashed his car whilst drunk. These women painters strove for equality and some of them – in their hard drinking, heavy smoking, drug taking, casual sex and flouting of conventions – sometimes partook of the freedoms and temptations of bohemian life as much as their male counterparts. Like the men, they suffered consequences. Mitchell experienced fits of depression after bouts of drunken wildness and earned a reputation as a hell raiser. In 1953 Mitchell attempted suicide attempt following an extreme party. By the mid-1950s many of the New York School were struggling with excessive alcohol consumption, a problem heightened by their increasing incomes.[v] “Marriages and relationships born in poverty and obscurity could not withstand the onset of fortune and fame.”[vi] Hartigan suffered depression[vii] and later experienced alcoholism and would attempt suicide. Like Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning overcame alcoholism. Elaine de Kooning died of cancer, possibly caused by lifelong smoking – the same cause as Mitchell.

Gabriel discusses the situation of women artists of the time with sensitivity and fairness. Gabriel uses the words of the artists to give us their views on the subject. “Throughout her career, Grace was loath to acknowledge any difference between the sexes when it came to making art – except in the case of children [i.e. childbearing and childcare].”[ix] Only one of these five women had a child; Hartigan spent prolonged periods apart from her only child.

Gabriel remembers her first interview with Hartigan. “As Grace [Hartigan] spoke, she didn’t dwell on the fact that she was a woman artist. […] but each time she mentioned a woman painter or sculptor, I found myself wondering why, in the official history, those names so rarely surfaced. Their contributions were significant. […] and yet, the story of that movement has been taught and accepted as the tale of a few heroic men.”[x] The story of these artists is worth telling but we should not think that these women artists have not been overly neglected. The question is where are the books advancing forgotten figures such as Milton Resnick, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Friedel Dzubas, Norman Lewis and Theodoros Stamos? The Abstract Expressionist movement is full of skilled artists who were successful for a brief heyday but subsequently suffered a slump in recognition and today we hear almost nothing about them. The tough truth is that if the curator of a group exhibition can include only 10 artists then the temptation is to exhibit work by the 10 most famous artists to attract visitors and press. There is also the weight of expectations. If the same 10 artists appear in histories then it is hard for any writer of a new history to exclude any of those 10 artists to include an unfamiliar artist because it will look like an omission. Expectation and complacency play a greater role than prejudice in generating histories.

In every art movement or school, vanguards get the majority of attention, influence, press and market appeal. It is only later – as the primary figures get played out biographically and critically (and their art becomes scarcer in the market) – that scholars and dealers move to lesser-known figures. This is a universal phenomenon observable in all cases in fine art. Why women artists might find themselves as secondary or peripheral figures is another matter but it is one that they share with male counterparts. In the case of these five painters, only one of them was part of the first generation of the Abstract Expressionists, so in any short account of the brief heyday of the movement only Lee Krasner seems like a necessary inclusion, though Frankenthaler is essential if one wants to discuss the transition between Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field Painting. Elaine de Kooning was not really an Abstract Expressionist in style. Hartigan and Mitchell are talented painters but not innovators. This book reminds us that the artists (male and female) who make a success of their careers are often abnormal – abnormally confident, selfish, dedicated (or obsessive), ambitious or in some other way outliers in psychological terms. One might also say they are also abnormally lucky. Among the dozens or hundreds or (in our era of widespread global higher education in the fine arts) thousands of aspiring artists, it is only a handful who become successful, respected and remembered. Elaine de Kooning, Krasner, Frankenthaler, Hartigan and Mitchell were such artists.

The advent of feminism in the 1960s was in some ways antithetical to these artists. None of them wanted to be judged as a “woman painter” and social issues did not feature in their art. They distanced themselves from trends towards conceptualism and performance, remaining resolutely painters. Many of the younger generation of women artists resented and despised them as upholders of tradition. In later years Frankenthaler endured insults from political critics and artists for her perceived aloofness and affluence.[xi]

The book includes photographs of the artists and the main movers of the art scene, as well as some colour images of paintings. Over 160 pages of detailed notes and bibliography attest to the formidably thorough work of the author. The book is a sweeping panorama of an excitingly dynamic period in Modernism, when the creation of advanced art was a prize worth sacrificing everything for. Ninth Street Women will stand as a classic and rich recounting of Abstract Expressionism alongside Naifeh and Smith’s biography of Pollock and Stevens and Swan’s biography of de Kooning.

 

Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, Little, Brown, 2018, hardback, 927pp + xvi, col./mono illus., $35, ISBN 978 0 316 22618 9

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

 

 

[i] P. 10, Gwen F Chanzit, “Introduction to the Exhibition”, Marten etc.

[iii] Teresa Grimes, Judith Collins, Oriana Baddeley, Five Women Painters, Lennard, 1989, p. 179-180

[iv] P. 22, Joan Marten, “Missing in Action”, Marten etc.

[v] Elaine de Kooning “I was addicted to alcohol, and so was almost everyone else on the scene at that time.” p. 637

[vi] P. 587

[vii] “I had been seriously mentally ill those last two years in New York.” Quoted p. 678

[viii] P. 31

[ix] P. 288

[x] pp. xii-xiii

[xi] Pp. 713-6

Georgia O’Keeffe & Feminism

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Linda M Grasso’s aim in Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism (originally published in 2017, reissued this month) is to explore Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) in relation to two distinct phases of feminism (historically, first and second waves) in the 1910s and 1970s and the way O’Keeffe has been taken up as an iconic figure by feminists during her lifetime and since. This is a significant topic because O’Keeffe is one of the most prominent – perhaps the most prominent – female artists of the previous century; she lived through eras of feminist public activity and responded to it. The difficulty for feminists is that O’Keeffe had mixed responses to feminism and feminists – often decidedly hostile. So although O’Keeffe was a great and successful woman artist – and thus an ideal candidate as a feminist icon – her own reactions against feminism and to being classed a “woman painter” make her a problematic subject for feminists.

Grasso’s position is openly pro-feminist. The difficulty with a politically committed academic following a line of scholarship that has political ramifications is that the academic wants to advance a cause even if the evidence is ambiguous. Bearing this in mind, let us examine Grasso’s evidence, reasoning and conclusions.

“The feminism [O’Keeffe] embraced and practiced ennobled individualism, self-expressionism, and professional achievement as ultimate forms of liberty.” To the average person, this seems a positive good, yet this wilful individualism displays a distinct lack of the class solidarity which is necessary to effective feminist activism. While the ostensible goal of feminism is individual liberation, its nature demands commitment to group goals such as emotional solidarity, directed activism and conformity to shared principles. This is manifest in vehement denunciation of “choice feminism”. This is on the ostensible basis that individual choices of women – to work more or less, have children or not, adopt traditional standards of feminine dress or not and so forth – actually conceal the systematic nature of societal oppression and effectively act as a cover for the coercion of women. Thus choice feminism perpetuates the illusion that any woman is actually free to choose – or at least has equivalent freedom to that granted to men. In reality, one suspects that this ideological opposition to choice feminism is tactical. If women can opt in and out of feminism, express disagreement with feminist principles and enact independent discrimination in everyday life, feminism as a political movement – which relies on homogeneity and unity – becomes splintered.

Significantly, during the formative period of O’Keeffe’s adulthood (the 1900s and 1910s) she was in agreement with first-wave feminism which advocated for legal/electoral rights. It was this position she held throughout her life, that women should have the chance to act in whatever ways men acted and to choose what they did with such freedom. O’Keeffe was unequivocally a “choice feminist”. For today’s feminist, who views choice feminism as selfish individualism which perpetuates patriarchal structures, O’Keeffe’s views are incompatible with true feminism. (O’Keeffe’s responses to later feminism are discussed below.)

In Grasso’s very next sentence we encounter another plank of modern feminism. “Arguably, however, O’Keeffe’s art could have inspired women and men of all races, classes, politics, and statuses to imagine worlds not governed by industrial logic, stultifying labor, and multiple discriminations.” This is an example of intersectionality, the idea that we exist in multiple classes, often determined by demographic factors (such a sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and so forth) and that these categorisations intersect in ways that frame our existences in multiple co-variant manners. The idea that art by a producer of certain demographic(s) will be understood best by other members of that demographic(s) has become pervasive in leftist cultural theory. Grasso tentatively asserts that although O’Keeffe’s art may have been the result of an attempt to liberate the white heterosexual affluent woman artist, it may have performed a political function for others.

Grasso gathers evidence from the artist’s early years, when she was an indirect supporter of women’s suffrage through her friendship with active campaigners, to show that O’Keeffe later omitted this sympathy from her late-career management of her public image. Grasso may be correct to suggest O’Keeffe wanted to distance herself from the cultural expressions of artists-as-women that had become common currency in the era of second-wave feminism in the fine arts, causing her to neglect to mention activities that could be seen as affiliated to feminism (albeit of an earlier generation). Grasso’s observations seem apposite but the evidence presented is very limited. O’Keeffe was a member of the National Woman’s Party and was a sponsor of the World Center for Women’s Archives.

Alfred Stieglitz’s role in refining her ideas and promoting O’Keeffe’s art is looked at in a gendered way. O’Keeffe’s acknowledgement of the encouragement, ideas and publicity that Stieglitz’s provided her professionally is seen as a comparative dismissal of Anita Pollitzer, a friend who supported her before she met Stieglitz. An objective assessment of the relative amount and nature of the help Pollitzer and Stieglitz provided the artist must favour the latter. To cast Pollitzer’s role in O’Keefe’s career as valuable but subordinate to Stieglitz’s – as O’Keeffe did – is not unreasonable nor is it evidence of systematic privileging of man’s power over woman’s friendship. Grasso is correct in suggesting that O’Keeffe was begrudging in overlooking her friend Pollitzer in retrospective accounts. The artist blocked Pollitzer’s biography of her and used that manuscript to source material for her subsequently published autobiography.

Generally, the artist refused association with societies and events relating women’s art.  She refused permission for feminist writers to use her art and declined interviews with them. She was dismissive of the idea of women artists being distinct and claimed that her career had never been impaired by sexual discrimination. Certainly, in public she wished to be known as a painter, a modern artist and an American artist but not as a woman artist. O’Keeffe’s view was that to achieve equality, her accomplishments should not be limited as “female”. She had to have her art accepted as she wished it to be: genderless and hung among the art of men. Other female artists thought the same, considering separate art to be a way of avoiding competition with the best and accepting lower standards. Of course, to many feminists O’Keeffe’s denial of her sex was a concession to earn acclaim as a desexed artist in a male-dominated field.

The book summarises the lifetime articles written about O’Keeffe, with a focus on how her gender was discussed. Special attention is paid to the attitude of female journalists. Wealthy women, including Elizabeth Arden and Abby Rockefeller, were among the artist’s collectors. The collection of fan letters written to the artist (and preserved by her) is mined to examine what women of the time found to admire in O’Keeffe and her paintings. In old age, she was a national celebrity and an icon of a liberated woman.

Although much of the information is useful, and discussions about O’Keeffe’s actions are plausible, these rest on a foundation of contentious assumptions. The idea that society is a system of mechanisms developed to suppress opponent groups (rather than a complex evolving structure of traditions, systems, values and hierarchies that favours people with different qualities in varying ways that alter over time) seems to be a goal-orientated assessment directed by political allegiance.

These assumptions can be seen in instances of over-interpretation.

In 1970 the Whitney Museum of American Art did not practise “exclusion of white and black women artists in their annual exhibition”. Declining art submitted to an open-exhibition jury is not exclusion. When feminists targeted the museum by “conducting sit-ins, demonstrating outside the building holding placards and blowing whistles, and utilizing theatrical tactics such as planting uncooked eggs and sanitary napkins inside galleries,” is it any wonder that O’Keeffe wished to disassociate herself from such a movement? An artist who had conquered the art world through tenacity and talent and who had never benefited from – or had need of – quotas had nothing in common with these activists.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe systematically stripped her autobiography of all traces of feminist example and enablement in order to present her achievements as being personal ones. Grasso’s position echoes the slogan “You didn’t build this”. She suggests that O’Keeffe’s work could only have come about following the advances in education, emancipation and empowerment achieved by pioneering feminist and proto-feminist activists generally, as well as the help certain specific associates of the artist (including critics, journalists, teachers and artists) whom Grasso classes as feminists. Well, so be it. Should O’Keeffe have acknowledged the scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians, soldiers and educators who made her country safe, prosperous and free? Grasso’s criticism is – most pertinently – implied criticism of choice feminism and a deprecation of O’Keeffe’s apparent lack of gender solidarity.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe’s life, art and example enacted a form of feminist practice. In aspiring for equality, even though she eschewed identification as a woman artist, O’Keeffe was a feminist in Grasso’s view. However, the artist’s distancing of herself from her gender, makes her “incomplete” for many feminists. With all its ideological limitations, even neutral readers will find Equal Under the Sky a thought-provoking book full of useful research and new perspectives.

 

Linda M. Grasso, Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism, University of New Mexico Press, 2019, hardback, 336pp, mono illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 8263 5881 3 (other editions available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

 

Bauhaus Women/Bauhaus Bodies

35_4_from Avantgarde Museum

[Image: Ivana Tomljenović, Bauhaus Students, Dessau, (1930). Marinko Sudac Collection]

I.

The year 2019 marks the centenary of the foundation of the Bauhaus. Founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus functioned as the most advanced art-and-design school in the world until its closure in 1933. The school would use advanced teaching techniques by Modernist artist- creators such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Oskar Schlemmer. Subjects taught included architecture, painting, textile design, weaving, interior design, industrial design, theatre design, graphic design and dyeing, with students encouraged to use concepts, materials and techniques from other disciplines. The Bauhaus moved a number of times, being based in Weimar (1919-1925), Dessau (1925-1932) and Berlin (1932-3). The nomadic existence of the school was due to politics. When the Nazi national government came about, the Bauhaus closed completely and its tutors and students dispersed.

The Bauhaus was remarkable in many respects: the combination of fine art and applied art, the interdisciplinary nature of teaching, the stress upon modernity, the embracing of advanced technology, the commercialisation of student production and the openness to experimentation. The Bauhaus is remembered as a beacon of progressive artistic and social ideas and is held up as a model of art education.

There were structural barriers for female students but despite that the Bauhaus was considered progressive by staff, students, journalists and outsiders. Falling short of a perfect ideal in a setting run by individual adults who had grown up with certain traditional cultural expectations was perhaps inevitable. Gropius had doubts about the high ratio of women in the school. He implemented a limit on the number of women students and the number of female teachers declined. This has been attributed to sexism. Perhaps it was so. There is an additional reason. It seems that Gropius thought that if the Bauhaus became widely known as a female-dominated institution that it may have been taken less seriously, particularly in light of the fact that arts and crafts were treated comparably at the Bauhaus. An art school that had many female students and tutors and was also advocating for crafts to have a higher status would have looked less like avant-garde inter-disciplinary educational modernity than an attempt to feminise fine arts and design by infusing them with the handicraft ethos. Gropius may have actually considered most women unsuited for the design professions, but his actions to limit their entry into the Bauhaus was an act of contingent reputation management. This managerial motivation does not contradict or override Gropius’s attitude towards women in the arts, whatever that may have been.

Bauhaus Women is a survey of 45 of the most noteworthy of the 462 female students (out of an alumni population of 1,276) who attended the institution, as well as women tutors and wives/partners of tutors. Following a brief introduction, the authors give condensed biographies of the creators, including images of the creators of their work. It is impossible to encapsulate an entire life’s oeuvre in a single image but the lesser-known creators benefit from the one or two introductory images.

It is impossible to assess contributions on such brief entries but there is enough to give us a flavour of the person and their creations. The bibliographic sources are skimpy, sometimes consisting of as little as an article in a specialist journal. The authors state that their selection was partly based on the amount of evidence they could gather about subjects. Many of the male colleagues of these female Bauhaus students – whose names come up in the text – have disappeared into historical oblivion. Readers will be satisfied to find a mixture of known and lesser-known names.

Some Bauhaus women followed a variety of activities; these included Lore Leudesdorff-Engstfeld (textiles, fabric design, film scriptwriting, printmaking) and Marianne Brandt (metalware design, photography, painting). The single 1930 masked photographic self-portrait of Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk) (1903-2000) reproduced in the book uncannily anticipates the work of Cindy Sherman.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-11-20,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

[Image: Bauhaus Student ID card “Mityiko” Yamawaki]

Michiko Yamawaki (1910-2000), along with her husband, spent two at the Bauhaus before returning to Japan. The books, journals and photographs that they brought with them were eagerly scrutinised by Japanese designers and architects, spread European Modernism. The couple taught at the New Architecture and Design College, Tokyo. In 1939, the nationalist government, espousing Japanese cultural superiority, closed the progressive institution.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944) produced abstract collages, highly stylised metal sculpture and political montages in the style of John Heartfield. Dicker-Brandeis is one of the Bauhaus women who lost their lives in the Nazi holocaust. A number of these creators died in the Nazi death camps. It is reminder of not only the destruction of historical treasures of the war but the stunting of European (and especially German and Austrian) art due to the ideals of National Socialism.

Another victim was Otti Berger (1898-1944), born in Croatia, studied weaving. She proved to be a star student, popular teacher and admired textile designer. She struggled to maintain a career in Germany after 1933, but by 1936 she was unable to earn income from her patents. The following year she was offered work by a British firm. Unfortunate timing and acting against advice led to her visiting her mother in Yugoslavia in 1939. She was trapped due to the outbreak of war. Unable to leave Yugoslavia, she was eventually deported to Auschwitz along with her family, where she was killed.

Architects include Lotte Stam-Beese (1903), Kathe Both (1905-1985) and Wera Meyer-Waldeck (1906-1964), who was cut down by ill-health just as her career was taking off. One of the principal routes that Bauhaus ideas were dispersed internationally was the photographs of Lucia Moholy (1894-1989). Sadly, Moholy was separated from her invaluable negatives recording the architecture, art work and individuals of the Bauhaus. While exiled during the Nazi era, Moholy did not know that her negatives had survived and were in the possession of Gropius in the USA. While others benefitted from her precise memorable photographs while she had no control, accreditation or royalties. She eventually regained the negatives.

A 11485

[Image: Four ceramic objects by Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (later Marks), produced by Haël-Werkstätten, Marwitz near Berlin, 1923-1934. Collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin]

Many German artists and architects viewed the accession of Hitler as presenting them with a direct choice. They thought they had to choose whether they should contribute support to the new regime, retire from public life, cease working or emigrate. While Jewish creators were clearly disadvantaged and had to act to protect themselves, their incomes and relatives, for non-Jewish creators (especially those without public commitment to Socialism) the choices were less clear cut. Some Bauhaus women approved of some Nazi actions, finding other actions objectionable. Protecting persecuted friends did not mean that creators also refused to benefit from government-sponsored events and organisations under National Socialist direction. Some emigrated in protest or due to necessity, while others had family members who joined the party. Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden was a 1934 declaration of loyalty to the National Socialist government made by prominent figures in the cultural sphere. However, the list was not exclusive and attestations of loyalty did not guarantee approval from the authorities. Mies van der Rohe, last director of the Bauhaus, signed this statement. His wife Lilly Reich (1885-1947) did not sign but she did continue to work with Nazi authorities on exhibitions. She was a considerable designer and it seems she may have played an important role in the conception of the Barcelona Chair, officially accredited to her husband.

Lydia Driesch-Foucar (1895-1980) was a ceramicist who was left destitute after her husband died in 1930. With young children to support, Driesch-Foucar used her skills to make and decorate biscuits. Her Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) are wonderfully drawn in light icing, sureness of drawing, visual wit and appropriate elaboration raise these biscuits to the level of handicraft – something that was recognised by museums and a trade union.

3_Replacement 3_from Sammlung Driesch via Friedrichsdorf Archives

[Image: Two Lebkuchen designs by Lydia Driesch. Collection of the Sammlung Driesch, Cologne]

This recognition allowed her to participate in trade fairs. During the 1930s, her biscuits became a national success, which led to more orders than her workshop could cope with. Being associated with the National Socialist-supported folk art movement damaged her post-war career.

Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (1899-1990) founded the Haël ceramics firm, which produced clean-cut unadorned sets of crockery. A signature set was the “Norma” tea-set, with plain coloured exteriors and white interiors. The firm exported worldwide and thrived despite the Great Depression. As a Jew in National Socialist Germany, she was left with little choice other than to sell up – selling her moulds, premises and client list for a pittance. She emigrated to England but not able to regain her former success.

The most famous name among the women creators associated with the Bauhaus is Anni Albers (1899-1994). She taught textiles at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale. Her book On Weaving (1965) is now a set text on many textile courses. Her career is covered in summary fashion here because of the numerous exhibition catalogues and books about her weaving designs, rugs and printmaking, which are already available. Her work is becoming increasingly influential and valuable; her prominence is likely to lead people indirectly to the creations of her female colleagues. (For my review of Albers’s “On Weaving”, click here.)

0_1_from Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

[Image: Weavers on the Bauhaus staircase, 1927. From top to bottom: Gunta Stölzl (left), Ljuba Monastirskaja (right), Grete Reichardt (left), Otti Berger, (right), Elisabeth Müller (light patterned jumper), Rosa Berger (dark jumper), Lis Beyer-Volger (centre, white collar), Lena Meyer-Bergner (left), Ruth Hollós (far right) and Elisabeth Oestreicher. Photograph by T. Lux Feininger. Collection of the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin]

II.

In recent years scholars have adjudged that the way Bauhaus women (Bauhäuslerinen) saw and were seen presents a unique case history of the way women’s experiences intersected with cultural politics during the heyday of High Modernism. “Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School makes the bold claim that the Bauhaus cannot be fully understood without exploring the post-First World War culture of embodiment that was a seminal aspect of the school’s project of rethinking art and life.” The book consists of 14 essays by specialists on gender-related topics within the orbit of Bauhaus studies.

The Modernist art movement is inextricably linked to social causes and a negative critique of the traditional culture. This social critique is sometimes radically subversive. The incomprehension and derision that Modernist art faced was accompanied by fear of the seismic political change.Although the Nazi opposition to Modernism was extreme, it was by no means atypical of those Germans wedded to traditional views. The Bauhaus was the prime forum for Modernist artistic experimentation in Germany.  The public association between avant-garde ideas and social liberation in the setting of the Bauhaus was cemented in the popular press and the school’s own publications. To a degree, the political suspicions of conservatives about the Bauhaus were justified. In 1928 Gropius retired from directorship of the Bauhaus. His replacement was Hannes Meyer, who had a commitment to communism. His lead encouraged political activism among tutors and students. KoStuFra (the Communist Student Organisation) had an active cell in the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was under surveillance as a centre of subversion and Communist agitation placed its future in jeopardy. Additionally, the Bauhaus’s students – with their peculiar clothing, haircuts and incomprehensible art – were “mostly foreigners, in particular Jews”, which alarmed locals. When Mies van der Rohe took over in 1930 from Meyer (who was removed by the Mayor of Dessau and who subsequently left for the USSR), he attempted to curb political excesses with decisive action.This included expelling students and banning the remaining students from joining political organisations. However, Nazi seizure of total national power could mean nothing other than the end of the Bauhaus project.

7_1_from Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

[Image: Portrait of Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (later Heymann-Marks), c. 1925. Photographer unknown. Collection of the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin]

Not the least manifestation of Bauhaus’s modernity was its attitude to women. The overlap between gender liberation and left-wing politics is embodied in the New Woman (in the guise of the flapper, garçonne, athlete or businesswoman) was an archetype – or set of archetypes – which frequently appeared in films, newspapers and journals. The recent slaughter of German men and hyperinflation impoverishing middle-class families thrust German women into public life in a way they had not been previously. In the many photographs taken by Bauhaus students and staff we see women and men playing with gender roles. The cross-dressing and masculine hairstyles of some women echoed the adventurous New Women across Germany, enjoying the freedom of the constitution of the Weimar Republic (founded in 1919) which gave women equal rights. (It should be noted that the phenomenon of the New Woman was largely limited to younger women in urban or suburban locations, by no means universal even among that demographic.) The teachers at the Bauhaus actively promoted equality and fraternisation between male and female colleagues. In recent years there has been controversy about the gender division between students. There is testimony that women were discouraged and even strongly opposed from taking painting and industrial design courses, instead being directed to more traditionally feminine pursuit of studying textiles and weaving. The exact official policies of the Bauhaus regarding female students entering the courses on architecture, painting and industrial design are not quoted, leaving readers uncertain of what was implemented.

The influence of painter Johannes Itten (1888-1967) was partly pedagogical and partly mystical. He was a follower of Mazdaznan, a modern variation of Zoroastrianism. It included elements of phrenology and physiognomy, which he applied to assessing the students as character types. His primary contribution is viewed as being colour theory, but his spiritual and psychological ideas played a part in his teaching. Itten taught the Vorkurs (introductory course) that students passed through when they enrolled. This was associated with one aspect of the Bauhaus, that of Lebensreformbewegung. Lebensreformbewegung – the life-reform movement – was a widespread response to urbanisation, industrialistion and militarism. Although it originated in the last decade of the previous century, the movement flourished widely in Weimar Germany in the wake of the Great War, especially as it was seen as complementary to pacifism. Lebensreformbewegung took the forms of naturism, vegetarianism, naturopathy, teetotalism, communal living, eastern spiritualism (including yoga, meditation), exercise (including gymnastics, swimming and cycling), sunbathing, strict dieting and dress reform. Gymnastics and dance played a part in Bauhaus life. Gender non-conforming behaviour could be seen as linked to Lebensreformbewegung but we should not attempt to force connections.

Gertrud Grunow (1870-1944) based her teaching at the Bauhaus upon Itten’s lead. Her teaching is less well known than Itten’s and differs from it in some respect, being less theoretical and more therapeutic. The text published under her name (posthumously) is adapted from her manuscript and is not a true transcript, which makes it hard to assess what she actually taught at the Bauhaus. She believed that colour and human “psychophysicality” were spiritually connected and that bodily movement was associated with colour. This falls into the area of ideas of synaesthesia.

5_7_from St Annen-Museum

[Image: Gunta Stölzl: 5 Chöre (1928), jacquard weave; cotton, wool, rayon silk; 229 x 143 cm. Collection of the St Annen-Museum, Lübeck]

Kathleen James-Chakraborty notes that – unusually for an art school and in an era when nude sunbathing and naturism were widely practiced – there was a near complete absence of nude bodies in the art and photographs of the Bauhaus. (A confluence of asexual Mazdaznan spirituality and an emphasis on abstraction and design, possibly. One could also note the marked absence of eroticism of the Bauhaus art.) She goes on to discuss the way Bauhauslerinen dressed and paradox that none of them went into the fashion industry. Most of the fabrics produced by the Bauhaus were intended for furnishing rather than clothing.

Other essays discuss the Loheland dance group, political beliefs of Bauhaus staff, Klee’s images of dancers (including Greta Palucca and Karla Grosch), Bauhäuslerinen in the wall-painting department, androgynous personages in Schlemmer’s paintings, photographs with androgynous subjects, photographic double portraits and the socialism in the photographs of Irena Blühová, The work of Bauhaus administrator Ise Gropius, wife of the director, is examined. Her extensive daily chronicle of the Bauhaus 1924-8 seems to be a valuable and comprehensive source. Surprisingly, it has remained unpublished. It should be published as resource for researchers.

Although Bauhaus Bodies could be classified under the rubric “Gender Studies”, that should not put off fans of the Bauhaus and art-history scholars. The book is a serious advance in studies of the Bauhaus, European/German Modernism and Weimar Republic culture. It is a compliment to the intelligence and light on the political grandstanding that often disfigures otherwise useful research in the area we describe as Gender Studies. This is a model approach: measured, informative, analytical.

 

Elizabeth Otto, Patrick Rössler, Bauhaus Women: A Global Persepctive, Herbert Press (distr. Bloomsbury), March 2019, hardback, 192pp, fully illus., £30/$40, ISBN 978 1 912217 96 0

Elizabeth Otto, Patrick Rössler (eds.), Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, March 2019, paperback, 392pp, 12 col./110 mono illus., £23.99, ISBN 978 1 5013 4478 7

© Alexander Adams 2019

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism

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PUBLICATION DAY

Publisher’s notice:

“Why has identity become so central to judging art today? Why are some groups reluctant to defend free speech within culture? Has state support made artists poorer not richer? How does the movement for social justice influence cultural production? Why is post-modernism dominant in the art world? Why are consumers of comic books so bitterly divided?

“In Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism Alexander Adams examines a series of pressing issues in today’s culture: censorship, Islamism, Feminism, identity politics, historical reparations and public arts policy. Through a series of linked essays, Culture War exposes connections between seemingly unrelated events and trends in high and popular cultures. From fine art to superhero comics, from political cartoons to museum policy, certain persistent ideas underpin the most contentious issues today. Adams draws on history, philosophy, politics and cultural criticism to explain the reasoning of creators, consumers and critics and to expose some uncomfortable truths.”

This book is available from bookstores, all online book retailers and the site of the publisher, Imprint Academic: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100083870

 

Gala Dalí: Between Goddess & Monster

9. eric schaal © fundació gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018. drets de gala i salvador dalí reservats. fundació gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018

[Image: Eric Schaal, Salvador Dalí and Gala working on the “Dream of Venus” pavilion, 1939. © Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

I. The Life of Gala

Gala Dalí has had a decidedly mixed public reception. She has been seen as a muse, an enigma, a sensitive cultivator of creativity and a debauched heartbreaker. She is one of the most divisive figures among historians of Surrealism. Her shadow looms large, extending in a Dalínian fashion across the landscape of Surrealism. A number of major creative people were smitten by her – she had relationships with Dalí, Éluard, Ernst and de Chirico, among others – yet many who met her described her as difficult and demanding, commanding more respect than affection from acquaintances. Above all, she is lodged in the memories and imaginations of millions of people as the central recurring subject of the art of her husband Salvador Dalí, who was so devoted to her that he habitually signed himself “Gala Salvador Dalí”.

The English-language translation of the catalogue for a recent exhibition at Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (5 July-14 October 2018) examines the life of Gala Dalí, showing startling photographs and private documents. This is a review of the catalogue.

10. autor desconegut. retrat de gala tête à chateau. drets de gala i salvador dalí reservats. fundaci gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018

[Image: Unknown author, Portrait of Gala “Tête à chateau”. © Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

Elena “Gala” Ivanovna Diakonova Éluard Dalí was born in Kazan, Russia, 7 September 1894. Suffering at an early age from tuberculosis, Gala was sent by her middle-class family to a mountain sanatorium in Switzerland. On her arrival in 1912, she met the budding poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952). They began a love affair which would, in 1916, lead to marriage. He often wrote about her and her beauty and the hypnotic gaze which inspired many painters, photographers and writers associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements.

She was a complex character but that has often been overlooked because of how reticent she was in some respects. The common accusation that Gala was a gold-digger – in connection with relationships – is unfair. When she left Éluard for the young and poor Dalí in 1929, she took a risk and it seems a genuine emotional commitment on both sides. Her attractions to men never seem materialistic, even though she was materialistic. Gala was both emancipated by her roving eye and also ensnared by her libido. As she exercised her freedom, the more she became dependent on her erotic drive and romantic relationships. The assertion of her independence in sexual matters locked her into a life pattern which led to her being seen publicly as a muse and mistress. Although Estrella de Diego, the catalogue author, fairly notes that views of Russian women and Spaniards were bound up with the influence of Orientalism (as put forth by Edward Said), that point is belaboured. All cultures develop narratives including views of themselves and foreign cultures which assert and reiterate stereotypical traits of in-groups and out-groups. This phenomenon is not unique to Western Europe but a reoccurring universal.

Though the trope of the mysterious devouring goddess – one who charms and repulses, seduces then disposes of lovers – is a cliché it is also an accurate description of the role Gala fulfilled in the Surrealist circle. She was indeed a prolific lover, confident and assertive, frighteningly cutting, inspiring yet personally deeply private, not least about her Russian past and her innermost feelings. Although the cliché is not whole truth, it does describe well Gala’s function as Surrealist muse, whilst neglecting the truth (so far as it is ever attainable) about her inner life.

In 1929 Gala and Éluard travelled to summer in Cadaqués at Dalí’s home. (See my review of Magritte and Dali here.) Gala started an affair with Dalí which led to marriage and lasted until her death. They were constantly together in the early years, attending high-society functions, Surrealist balls and bohemian gatherings, where they partook in séances and answered questionnaires. They were a striking couple, both very attractive and stylishly dressed. When they spent time in New York in the 1930s they became an immediate hit with art collectors and the press. Dalí came to be seen as the mad Surrealist par excellence and the mysterious Gala his aloof and glamorous muse. They spent the 1940s in America, fraternising with Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock, with Dalí making a living painting Surrealist portraits of millionaires. When they returned to Spain in 1949, Dalí was considered a sell-out and a traitor for supporting General Franco. When Dalí announced he would paint religious pictures glorifying the divine majesty of the Catholic faith, with Gala as his model, he was dismissed as shameless publicity-seeker by the Surrealists and followers of Modernist art. In the 1960s, Dalí was considered by many to be an irrelevant clown. He found a new wave of supporters among the hippies and groupies who travelled to the Dalís’ Port Lligat home. His dreamlike imagery was the ideal accompaniment to LSD trips. Dalí’s sexual licentiousness was indulged by androgynous youths on a secluded beach while Dalí held court on a stone throne. (He preferred to watch rather than participate.)

Gala pursued affairs with younger men. Her need for seclusion – she distained the sexual antics of the beach groupies – led to the purchase of a tower at Púbol in 1969. Not far from their house in Port Lligat, this tower would be her private domain and Dalí would not be permitted to visit with written invitation from her. (This was a manifestation of his deep masochism, he declared.) Together, the couple oversaw the renovation and designed decorations, some of which Dalí painted. Others seem to be the work of his studio assistants. Instances of Dalínian inspiration can be seen in the illusionistic murals, the stuffed animals and Surrealist assemblages. This catalogue features many photographs of the tower during Gala’s time and its current state, which is largely as it was. In 1971 Vogue featured photographs of the couple in the tower and the new decorative art works. However, Gala was fanatically private and refused to allow visitors while she was away, restricting access to her tower as much as possible. Púbol is often overlooked by historians, who tend to pass over the artist’s last years in cursory fashion. It was a collaborative project though it is unclear – on the evidence here – who was responsible for which parts. Since the 1990s, the tower has been accessible to visitors.

Gala died in 1982 and was buried in the basement of Púbol tower. Dalí, already ailing with Parkinson-like symptoms and unable to walk, refused to eat and was subsequently fed through a nasal tube. He was incapable of painting due to tremors and deeply depressed. Dalí intended to be buried in the tower next to Gala. He designed the twin tombs to be linked, so that their spirits could hold hands. Upon the death of Dalí, in 1989, the mayor of Figueras stunned people by announcing that in his last days Dalí had confided to him his wish to be interred in the Teatro-Museo in Figueras, making a public announcement that caught everyone off guard. Nobody who knew Dalí believed it was Dalí’s will to be separated from Gala. The mayor had committed a cynical coup by retaining the artist’s body for reasons of civic pride. Before anyone could mount a serious protest, the funeral took place in Figueras. Today, visitors to the museum wander over his gravestone without noticing it.

Dalí should be reburied in Púbol tower beside Gala.

 

II. The Exhibition

The exhibition in Barcelona focused on the life of Gala, stressing her role as muse and collaborator. The description of Gala as a creator is contentious. (This will be discussed in part III.) The exhibition uses photographs, art and possessions from her tower at Púbol as a point of focus which typifies the interaction between her and Dalí. Dalí was only one of the artists in her life, though admittedly the most important to her. The tower is viewed by the curator as a collaboration which reflects not only Gala’s character but as a manifestation of her creativity as a co-creator.

The catalogue reproduces some of her possessions including books, mirrors and icons. She knew the poet Anastasia Tsvietáieva from childhood and in the collection is a copy of one of her books inscribed to Gala from the author, dating from 1974. Many of her books are Russian-language, mainly classics in hardcovers. These, and a few sentimental tokens from Russia, remind us of the unseen side of Gala as a Russian émigré. There are examples of the dresses and jackets that Gala wore in the 1940s and retained. Gala remained slim so the dresses fitted her even decades after she acquired them. There are photographs from her childhood right up into the 1970s. In her very last years, Gala was averse to being photographed. There are other photographs (by no means all late ones) where Gala has scratched off her face, dissatisfied with her appearance – a mark of her vanity and insecurity. Some of the most intriguing photographs are of Gala as a young woman, with Éluard in the sanatorium: standing in the dazzling snow, seated inside with fellow lung patients playing chess or reading a book. A striking couple of photographs show Gala and Éluard dressed as Pierrots. One of the photographs belonged to André Breton

The photographs here of the young couple in the 1930s show the intense affection they felt, their physical intimacy and enjoyment of each other’s company. The photo-booth strips of the couple embracing are some of the most touching instances of their personal chemistry. We see the young lovers living in domestic settings, mixing with fellow Surrealists in galleries and on the beach in Spain. There are photographs by Man Ray, which cemented her reputation as the presiding Surrealist muse. There is the famous face shot of Gala, demonstrating the “gaze that pierces walls”, as Éluard put it. There are photographs of the handsome couple by Beaton and Horst. Poet René Crevel’s close friendship with Gala makes its presence known in their photographs and letters. Crevel’s suicide in 1935 was powerfully felt by both Gala and Dalí. Such friendships make Gala appear more sympathetic than has appeared in biographies of Dalí.

Many photographs of Gala show her as a muse for fashion designers. With her good bone structure and slim yet feminine physique, not to mention her prominence in social circles, meant that she was often given outfits to wear to public events. There is a photograph of her wearing the famous Schiaparelli high-heel hat – a concept that Dalí and Gala had invented for a Surrealist ball, which was developed by the couturiere with their permission.

8. andré caillet. gala amb barret-sabata

[Image:André Caillet. Gala with Elsa Schiaparelli’s shoe-hat inspired by a Salvador Dalí design (1938) André Caillet. París. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved.
Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

Illustrations include sources photographs of Gala posed for Leda Atomica (1947), Galarina (1945) and other paintings. (Gala was not shy about modelling nude.) There is a 1933 profile photograph which was used for Portrait of Gala with Lobster (1933). The exhibition included many paintings, drawings and prints by Dalí. This shows how frequently Gala appeared in Dalí’s art, often as the central motif. Gala has become an entire world which Dalí’s imagination inhabits and animates. She is the Madonna who floats immaculately (Madonna of Port Lligat), the embodiment of classical grace (Leda Atomica), the eternal woman atomised (The Flesh of the Décolleté of My Wife, Clothed, Outstripping Light at Full Speed), the mysterious paranoiac apparition (My Wife, Nude, Contemplating Her Own Flesh Becoming Stairs, Three Vertebrae of a Column, Sky and Architecture), the dreamt-of woman-child (Remorse), the unknowable figure from an Old Master painting (Sugar Sphinx) and the confidently sexual modern woman (Galarina).

Many of Dalí’s art works featuring Gala were exhibited in the Barcelona display and illustrated in the catalogue. The range was good, taking work form every period. The few late works that are weak show Dalí’s tiredness in the 1960s and 1970s. There are some drawings on tracing paper, showing Dalí traced photographs while preparing paintings. Heliogravures – a method of photo-sensitive transferral of drawing on to an etching plate – show Dalí using technical means to reproduce art. Whilst this is a valid way of producing prints its use disincentives the artist learning of etching technique and developing facility in the medium of etching. Already, by the early 1930s, Dalí was employing shortcuts to create art. Increasing commercial and public pressure to produce art led Dalí to make work with less involvement, including the use of assistants, photo-reprographics and – eventually – licensing others to produce material he would endorse.

6. salvador dalí. la mémoire de la femme-enfant (monumento imperial a la mujer niña), 1929. museo nacional centro de arte reina sofía

[Image:Salvador Dalí, The memory of the woman-child. Imperial monument to the woman child (1929), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Dalí bequest. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2018.]

Happily, most of the art here is made well, with originality and genuine feeling. It includes loans from the Teatro-Museo and prominent museum and private collections. For fans of Dalí there is much here to enjoy, not least the source photographs of Gala that Dalí used. Dalí enthusiasts will be fascinated to see the juxtaposition of art and sources. A handful of art works not made by Dalí but featuring Gala were included.

There are a handful of cadavres exquises in which Gala participated in the display. The game consists of a folded sheet of paper which is passed around, players drawing part of a picture without knowing the rest of it. There is also a version with words. A journal illustration documents a now lost Surrealist assemblage made by Gala. Such objects were commonly made by artists and non-artists in the Surrealist group, so much so that around 1930-2 it was considered a mania. Documentary photographs of Gala, Dalí and a team of fabricators making the Dream of Venus (Dalí’s contribution to the New York World’s Fair of 1939) show Gala’s input into the creative process. The pavilion was part Surrealist environment, part theme-park attraction, part shop-window display; it was dismantled when the fair closed.

Some private cards and letters to and from Gala were exhibited. These include a draft letter to her father in Russia written in 1945. Gala maintained links to her siblings and parents despite her geographic separation. The single greatest contribution this exhibition made was to expose the aspects of Gala not present in the art of others – namely her private reading and her Russian background.

 

III. The Catalogue

This catalogue presents Gala as an active participant in the art that was inspired by her and also suggests she was a sensitive writer, on the basis of her letters and an unfinished memoir fragment. The manuscript was found only recently and published in 2011. On the basis of the short quotes presented here it is definitely an informative and engaging document. Gala acted as Dalí’s translator in their early years in the USA. She managed his career and used charm and tenacity to promote his art. However, one should not over estimate her impact here. Dalí had already achieved considerable success in Spain before he met Gala and there is no reason to think that his unique vision, eccentricity and desire for fame (all established by 1929) would not have carried on to great success without Gala. De Diego moots the possibility that Gala had a hand in Dalí’s published writing, yet beyond evidence that Gala corrected the French of The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí she presents nothing more than conjecture. No doubt some of Dali’s writing springs from conversations with Gala but – again – Dalí was already a prolific writer before he met Gala.

2.salvador dalí. gala placidia. galatea de les esferes. 1952

[Image: Salvador Dalí, Gala Placidia. Galatea of the Spheres (1952), Fundació Gala- Salvador Dalí, Figueres. Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2018.]

It seems that Gala was content to work with and through other creative people rather than presenting herself as the primary creator. She published very little. De Diego notes Gala’s preface to an early volume of Éluard poems. Ultimately, it seemed collaboration as a model satisfied Gala adequately. It may be that she was uncertain of her abilities and, surrounded by acclaimed authors, was diffident about presenting her writing. There certainly seems to be sufficient material of high to warrant a collection of writings including her memoirs, occasional pieces and letters being published an independent volume.

As a biographical study (admittedly not a full biography) the catalogue text by Estrella de Diego is gravely flawed. Anna Maria, Dalí’s sister, is not covered in much depth and her importance is not made clear. The siblings were very close and Anna Maria is the subject of many early portraits. Anna Maria and Gala disliked each other from that start and a mutual rift opened between (on one side) Anna Maria and Dalí senior and (on the other) Dalí and Gala. Another omission is Cécile, Gala’s daughter with Éluard, who was treated poorly by her mother: abandoned in childhood and rejected in adulthood. Following Gala’s death, Cécile traded the Dalí art she had for photographs and letters relating to her father in her mother’s estate. Gala’s dislike for her own motherhood and her coldness towards her daughter are virtually missing from this account. De Diego suggests that the complete absence of Cécile from Gala’s draft memoir text was something that Gala would have gone back and added later. One wonders though.

De Diego sets forth “Gala the creator with no apparent work”.  She also sees Gala as co-creator of Dalí’s art, partly on the basis of here presence in his art, Dalí’s signature of “Gala Salvador Dalí” and his constant references to her in public statements about his ideas and art. This leads her into ideas of devolved authorship of art and concepts proposed by Post-Modernists. These arguments are no more or less comprehensible or compelling than any other argued along Post-Modernist lines. The idea that the tower of Pubol is akin to a conceptual work of art may have validity. However, de Diego’s other claim that the Teatro-Museo is not a conceptual work of art – due to it prioritising the staging of pre-existing art and being a public space – is unsupportable. Much of the experience of visiting the Teatro-Museo is a conceptual staging of art, collaborations and assemblages made specifically for the location. Indeed, the existence of the museum, which occupies a theatre from Dalí’s childhood reconceptualised as a partially ruined, partially transformed stage for his art, is a conceptual project.

The author draws parallels between Gala and other creators in a tenuous fashion. Due to the limited public understanding of Gala, this catalogue might better have been spent describing her activities using quotes from letters and her incomplete memoirs, including the personal photographs of Gala and Dalí’s photographs for paintings, in order to expand general knowledge about Gala. There is a comprehensive chronology which will be a resource for researchers; it is an indication of what this catalogue could have been.

Perhaps one reason de Diego prefers to dwell on speculative parallels with Claude Cahun  and Georgia O’Keeffe rather than discussing Gala’s life is the moral murkiness. That is not a reference to the Dalís’ open marriage – a matter to be negotiated in private by the couple themselves – but rather Gala’s involvement in unethical behaviour. De Diego omits verified tales of Gala driving Dalí on produce more and more commercial work, with much of which he had little creative involvement. Dalí authorised sculptures of works made by craftsmen – including series of variations fraudulently produced in “extra” editions. Dalí signed tens (possibly over a hundred) thousand blank sheets for production of prints authorised, pirated and outright faked. This did immense damage to Dalí’s artistic reputation. The art world is flooded with fake Dalís, as even Dalí experts and museums admit. Gala was complicit in this fraud.

Dalí had a compulsion for debasing both himself and those around him, taking pleasure in watching associates bend their morals until they snapped, giving in to their greed. Yet, had Gala exerted her personal power, she could have prevented or curbed this. Gala was involved in fraud, currency smuggling, tax evasion and forgery. She carried suitcases of undeclared cash on flights; she travelled from Paris to New York to deposit cheques in her bank to evade Spanish tax. Gala participated at every level in Dalí’s personal, artistic and legal corruption and the subsequent defrauding of thousands of Dalí collectors.

This is only one aspect of Gala but it is central because it is tied to her acquisitiveness and selfishness. This corruption is nowhere mentioned in this book. Yes, Gala has been maligned and this book sought to bring out Gala’s creative side and her connections to artists and writers but without acknowledging the dark side of Gala’s character we get a portrait that is unrecognisable. Readers of this book will come away knowing only half of Gala.

De Diego makes a warranted case for assessing Gala in a more sympathetic and rounded manner. The letters, photographs and personal items she has encountered in the Dalí Museums collection (and presented in this exhibition) are enough to provide evidence of Gala’s complexity, cultured nature and creativity. However, on the evidence of this book, de Diego is a poor advocate. The author’s attacks on André Breton achieve the unimaginable – they make Breton appear sympathetic and dignified by assaulting him with petty criticism. Breton was an immensely flawed character: arrogant, authoritarian, aloof, aggressive, a bearer of lifelong grudges, a veritable tyrant. Yet de Diego is so intent on championing Gala (and other female Surrealists) that her arguments make – by transference – these women appear weak and shrewish, downtrodden and ireful. Anyone who has studied the female Surrealists – as I have done for numerous reviews – will know better. When your arguments drive away naturally sympathetic readers you have to examine your failings as an advocate.

De Diego is so convinced of the idea that Gala is yet another talented woman written out of history by chauvinists – and so energised by her role as Gala’s champion – that she gets carried away by the unpublished writings of Gala, seeing her as “an artist without a body of work”. We come perilously close to the Feminist fallacy: due to past injustice, today’s unworthy individual must in compensation be awarded unearned status. Being an artist requires the effort, commitment, accomplishment and concentration of an artist. Being an artist is not incidental. Gala Dalí, talented writer of occasional prose and correspondence, was no artist.

To summarise: the primary material in the exhibition and catalogue give us a Gala more complex and sympathetic than hitherto presented; the case for Gala as an independent creative artist-writer is not supported by the material and concepts put forth in the catalogue, though the material is worthy of extensive publication; the catalogue presentation of Gala’s life and involvement with Dalí is so incomplete as to be misleading. If one can set aside the author’s partisan position and blind spots, this book contains valuable source photographs and facts about Gala Dalí and the art of Salvador Dalí.

 

Estrella de Diego, Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own at Púbol, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Dalí Museums, 2018, paperback, 255pp, fully illus., €40, ISBN 978 8480 433396 (Spanish and Catalan versions available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art