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

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Angela Gregory and Antoine Bourdelle in Paris

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A Dream and a Chisel is the memoirs of Angela Gregory (1903-1990), one of Louisiana’s leading artists and an honoured sculptor of public statues and busts. Gregory is a link to the past. She trained in the Paris atelier system developed in the Nineteenth Century. Born into an age of steam trains and telegraphs, Gregory trained in Paris before the Great Depression and died in an era of satellite television and computers.

This book is an amalgam of extracts from Gregory’s contemporaneous diaries and letters, augmented by many interviews with Nancy Penrose, which were conducted throughout the 1980s. Penrose and Gregory collaborated on the manuscript and finished it shortly before Gregory’s death in 1990. Gregory intended the memoir to centre on Bourdelle, the teacher she revered, hence the focus on her Paris years. The tone is lively, reflective and candid. We get a sense of her character, as well as her attitudes during the 1920s and her reflective perspective in old age. Extensive footnotes by Penrose identify many of the individual artists mentioned and supply biographical data.

This book describes the three years that Gregory spent in Paris, but there is sufficient commentary to explain the trajectory of her life. Gregory was born into a cultured middle-class family in New Orleans. Her father was a university professor and her mother was a successful artist who had stopped working to raise her children. Gregory was trained in art at Newcomb College, New Orleans. However, she wanted more. Despite the good reputation of Newcomb, Gregory was unsatisfied. She wanted to experience the most advanced art of the period first hand. She had her heart set on studying in the studio of Bourdelle. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) was the leading sculptor of his generation. He was widely admired and considered to have taken on the mantle of Rodin, with whom he had studied. Bourdelle produced numerous large works, mostly modelled and cast in bronze. He was also viewed as a Modernist, who combined expressiveness with the influence of archaic art, which gave his sculpture added vitality. His giant studio in Paris was a hive of activity, with numerous assistants working on maquettes, carvings and giant models in plaster.

In 1925 Gregory was granted funds to travel to the Paris. She arrived in June 1925 and commenced attendance at the Paris branch of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (later Parsons School of Design). In the spring of 1926 she worked up enough courage to knock on the door of the master. A maid gave her his telephone number and she called to arrange a brief meeting. Meeting a young American woman who wanted to learn stone carving piqued the master’s interest and he agreed to take her on. This made Gregory the only American student to work in his private studio. Leaving Parsons, she worked in Bourdelle’s studio in tandem with instruction at Académie de la Grande Chaumière (where Bourdelle taught).

The memoirs include some of the standard staples of bohemian Paris. She saw Josephine Baker dance. “When I was in Bourdelle’s studio, however, and taking classes at the Grande Chaumière, I would occasionally run across to the [Café du] Dôme for a quick cup of coffee to get warm while the model was taking a break from posing.” She evocatively the experience of studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. “There was a concierge at the door from whom I bought several little aluminium admission tickets to the modeling and sketch classes. I walked into the classroom and found it filled with students of all nationalities. The cigarette smoke was so thick it was hard to see, but a strong spotlight was leveled at one of the best models I had seen in Paris.” The school was “open” and did not monitor attendance strictly and students kept their own hours (or failed to keep them). Students without masters brought their own materials and came for a place to work, access to models and the chance to have work corrected by established artists.

Bourdelle was only five feet four inches tall, bearded and dressed in clothes of his own design. He was modest in character and full of dignity, which impressed the young American. He described his students as confrères (colleagues) and refused to accept payment from Gregory. Gregory recalled Bourdelle’s critiques as incisive, considerate and marked by humour. He did not seek to mould artists in his own image but to bring out the character of the young artist. According to Gregory, Bourdelle described advice he got from Rodin. “’But you should exaggerate, exaggerate.’ But you cannot exaggerate until you know what you are exaggerating. ‘You cannot make a centaur until you can make a man.’”

Gregory was assisted by a Swiss instructor at Bourdelle’s studio, named Otto Bänninger. Bänninger would become the husband of Germaine Richier; when Gregory met him, he was friends with Alberto Giacometti. Gregory and Giacometti worked in Bourdelle’s studio at the same time but she never met him, something she regretted in years to come. A fellow student was Jeanne Bergson, the deaf daughter of philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson was impressed by the sculptor’s generosity towards Jeanne and Bourdelle’s ideas. Bergson arranged a meeting and the men became fast friends.

The book describes Bourdelle’s skills, methods and attitudes. Gregory characterises his approach as architectural and forceful, contrasted against Rodin’s art as naturalistic and sensual. Bourdelle emphasised feeling over talent, though he proffered constructive practical criticism. She writes that his fair direct comments prepared her for professional life dealing with committees. She describes the origins of his most famous statue – Hercules the Archer (1910). The model could only pose for ten hours so Bourdelle had to work fast on the maquette. The man was later killed in the Great War. It is a testament to the admiration Bourdelle generated that Gregory’s first thought when considering her memoirs was to memorialise her master rather than herself. Our admiration for both Bourdelle and Gregory increases as we read more. Evidence of Bourdelle’s respect for his student is apparent in his copying of an original portrait bust by Gregory. His version adds his qualities. Bourdelle was very supportive and arranged for exhibition opportunities and wrote a letter of warm recommendation. Bourdelle had no prejudice against female students. It is striking that when he was photographed at the Salon of 1928, the students around him are almost all women.

Gregory returned to New Orleans in 1928 while her art was on display at the Paris Salon. She embarked on a long a successful career. She made a speciality of portraying black subjects, treating them in a particularly sympathetic manner. She later ascribed some resistance to these pieces to a racially conditioned aversion to black portrait subjects. Some examples of those, and publicly commissioned decoration and monuments, are reproduced in the book. A check list of over 100 of Gregory’s sculptures is given in an appendix. In 1941, she was appointed state supervisor for the WPA Louisiana Art Project. Aside from her many commissions and exhibitions, she taught and was a participant in a number of organisations. She was inducted into the Chevalier de I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1982 and received other awards.

What about Gregory’s life as a woman artist? She was encouraged by her family. She admired her mother’s ability as a potter; she was taught by a female art teacher (whom she notes by name) and was inspired by a woman sculptor (whose name she did not remember but Penrose has discovered was Clyde Giltner Chandler (1879-1961)). Although professional women artists were uncommon, by her testimony, Gregory encountered disapproval and disappointment rather than hostility and opposition. She was accepted to study in the studios of Newcomb, Parsons and Bourdelle, France’s most prestigious sculptor. Nowhere in her narrative does she note that she was refused entry or service, dismissed or barred from acting like her male colleagues. Within her chosen field, she was considered a novelty because of her nationality and gender. While that patronisation might have been irksome it did not prevent her progress. On the contrary, she comments that some individuals offered her favourable treatment precisely because of her nationality and gender. In the USA, she won grants, commissions, awards and held exhibitions. She was entrusted a senior position in the WPA. One should not assume any of this was easy; Gregory was clearly an unusually determined and adept as a professional artist.

Overall, the book paints a vivid picture of Angela Gregory, Antoine Bourdelle and the Paris art world of the 1920s. Special commendation must go to the designers for the attractive and clear layout. The cloth cover is handsome. A Dream and a Chisel has the appearance fitting a classic book describing the excitement of an American artist at the epicentre of Parisian Modernism.

 

Angela Gregory, Nancy L. Penrose (ed.), A Dream and a Chisel: Louisiana Sculptor Angela Gregory in Paris, 1925-1928, University of South Carolina Press, 2019, cloth hb, 248pp, 25 mono illus., $39.99, ISBN 978 1 61117 977 4

 

© Alexander Adams 2019

To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

City of Women/Stadt der Frauen

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[Image: Exhibition View CITY OF WOMEN, Photo: Johannes Stoll, © Belvedere, Vienna. NB: Ries’s “Self-Portrait” at the centre]

The current exhibition City of Women/Stadt der Frauen, 1900-1938 (Lower Belvedere, Vienna, 25 January-19 May 2019) outlines the art of female artists made in Vienna over 1900 to 1938. Most of these artists will be unknown to the general public. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. The catalogue has some introductory essays, sections of colour illustrations, essays on certain artists and summary biographies of artists. The text is in English and German. City of Women/Stadt der Frauen is an essential addition to any library on Austrian art and a good reference for those studying Modernism, Jugendstil, Expressionism, Symbolism and women’s art.

The significance of the dates is as follows. 1900 is seen as the point when Modernism  became the dominant artistic mode in Vienna, publicised through Modernist-supporting channels such as Wiener Secession and illustrated journal Ver Sacrum (1898-1903). This period lasts until 1918, when the defeat of the First World War and the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire reduced the importance of Vienna. 1938 is the year of the Anschluss, when Nazi Germany gained control of Austria and merged it into the German Reich. At this point Modernism was no longer considered acceptable for public display, Modernist artists lost patronage and faced imprisonment if they were known Socialists. Jews were subject to extensive legal and social persecution;many emigrated. As much of the cultural life of Vienna was made by and consumed by Jewish Austrians, Nazi restrictions on Jews and Modernism effectively overlapped.

The exhibition focuses upon (but is not restricted to) members and activities of the Vereinigung bildender Künstlerinnen Österreichs (Austrian Association of Women Artists), which was founded in Vienna in 1910 with the specific aim of promoting knowledge of women artists. The association was not approved of by all women artists and two already successful artists (Tina Blau and Käthe Kollwitz) roundly rejected offers of membership. They seemingly considered that such institutional gender solidarity, which segregated women artists from male colleagues, unnecessary.

The exhibition curators’ case is that the women artists selected for the exhibition have been unjustly neglected and that women artists faced career impediments that men did not. As to the merits of the individual artists, we will cover those later. Although these artists may have been neglected during the mid-century period, they were hardly unknown in their own time. It seems they (almost) all received professional instruction (privately if not in the male-only academy), exhibited in mixed displays, sold pictures and won prizes. They had work purchased by museums and had their art discussed by newspaper critics. They were treated respectfully by some male artists. Some enjoyed successful international careers. Determined, talented and socially adept women artists were able to forge commercially and critically successful careers in the period 1900-1938.

We might note that resistance to women artists by some male artists was not purely a matter of chauvinism but one of careerism disguised as gallantry. Restricting the entry of women artists into the professional art market was an attempt to protect male artists in that field from a cohort of commercial competitors. Opposition to women’s emancipation (and, elsewhere, racial emancipation) was, as with the guild system of trade regulation, at least partly a matter of protectionism and self-interest.

Even compared to other attempts to revive attention for lesser-known artists, the paucity of information on artists in City of Women/Stadt der Frauen is notable. In the section of artist biographies there are some artists for whom photographs could not be found. In other cases, dates of birth or death (and even both) cannot be ascertained. It may be that they married and changed their names (possibly ceasing to exhibit) or they could have emigrated. The records of their deaths have been lost in the maelstrom of war or the vicissitudes of recordkeeping. It may also be that they were victims of the Nazi Final Solution of the Jewish genocide. (On that subject, more later.)

So, who are these artists?

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[Image: Exhibition View CITY OF WOMEN, Photo: Johannes Stoll, © Belvedere, Vienna. NB: Ries’s Eve (1909) in the foreground.]

Teresa Feodorovna Ries (1874-1956) is a very accomplished sculptor. Her style blends the Neo-Classical and Romantic in a post-Romantic style close to that of French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875). Her Eve (1909) verges on outright realism in an honest representation of a lying woman, curled on her side, hands over her face. The great sensitivity and acute observation in her sculptures (judged from these illustrations) is impressive; added to which she had originality. Sadly, her renowned Lucifer (c. 1897) was destroyed by bomb damage and the sensual Penelope (c. 1912) was destroyed by fire in 1956. She is an exceptional sculptor and her statues are well worth seeking out. It is easy to see why her sculptures caused a sensation and why Klimt invited her to exhibit at the Secession. She was also a painter.

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[Image: Ilse Beatrice Twardowska-Conrat, Empress Elisabeth (c. 1907), Photo: Johannes Stoll, (c) Belvedere, Vienna]

As a sculptor, Ilse Twardowski-Conrat (1880-1942) is much more of a Modernist, integrating clean lines and simple forms into the otherwise conventional portrait bust of Empress Elisabeth (c. 1907). Elza Kövesházi-Kalmár (1876-?) was a sculptor and printmaker. Enjoyable but lightweight, her bronze statuettes are decorative and unadventurous. Nude Girl (c. 1901) (carved in marble) and some portrait busts are attractive and prove she had range but are unremarkable. The overall impression is that of the conservativism of Viennese sculpture in this period. Sculptors depended more on work derived from public commissions and on portrait busts and gravestones, made to the taste of conventional patrons.

What of the painters and graphic artists?

Hermine Heller-Ostersetzer (1874-1909) specialised in working-class archetypes and nudes of adolescent girls. Her graphic cycle The Life of the Poor is More Bitter than the Death of the Rich (1900) is a classic example of social-realist agitation, which flourished in the illustrated press of the period. A self-portrait and nude painting (both around 1905) by Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934) are boldly painted, full of confidence, yet earlier paintings are very weak. It seems the painter made a dramatic breakthrough at this time and grew into her potential only in middle age. Her later work is some of the best painting in the exhibition.

Essay writer Alexander Klee points out the potential influence of Elena Luksch-Makowsky (1878-1967) on Schiele and Kokoschka. She exhibited at Secession exhibitions and the 1908 Kunstschau. Her art is in line with Symbolism. Ver Sacrum. Self-Portrait with Son Peter (1901) shows the naked infant at the centre of the painting, while the mother is shadowy and in the background. This is strikingly similar to infant paintings by Schiele and Kokoschka.

A sad case is the short life of Franziska Zach. Born in 1900, she trained at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts). She specialised as an enamel painter and travelled between France, Great Britain and Ireland from 1928 onwards before moving to Paris. 1930 was the year she received a prize from the city of Vienna awarded her a prize for her painting and also the year she died of a gastric disorder, apparently partially attributable to chronic poverty and lack of timely medical treatment.

No less curious is the life of Stephanie Hollenstein (1886-1944). She was born into a farming family and studied art in Munich. During the Great War she underwent medical training. Cutting her hair short, she joined the medical corps of the Austro-Hungarian army as an orderly and went into the theatre of war. Her deception was exposed after two months and she was cashiered but the subsequent publicity of her exploit led to her being hired as a war artist. After the war she worked as a landscape painter, living with her female partner. She became a member of the banned Austrian branch of the Nazi Party before the Anschluss. She was briefly chairperson of the Aryanised Association of Women Artists of the Reichsgau of Austria. She defended some fellow members of the charge of artistic degeneracy. Her own work was Expressionist in style, thus not entirely conforming to National Socialist artistic principles. Shortly after her resignation of this position, she died of a heart attack.

Marie-Louise von Motesiczky (1906-1996) was a painterly portraitist with a dry style and a tough detached view of her subjects. She lived her later life in London and it might be worth a British commercial gallery putting on a solo exhibition. Of the outright vanguardists, Stefi Kiesler (1897-1963) is a standout. During 1925 to 1930, she made art from using a typewriter to create patterns of characters on paper. Kiesler and her architect husband were part of the De Stijl group. Although the two pieces exhibited are not her best, the catalogue illustrates a number of others. Apparently, she was diffident about these pieces.

Other artists are less individualistic and original. We find followers of Beardsley, Klimt, Hodler, Modersohn-Becker, Beckmann, Kokoschka, Dufy, Kollwitz, Heartfield and other artists. We have Biedermeier landscapes, Orientalism, Aestheticism, plein-air Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, De Stijl, Rayonism, Neue Sachlichkeit, Surrealism and social realism. This is not to suggest that this group of artists is any more derivative than a random selection of comparably professional and comparably overlooked artists from any other metropolitan art centre of the period, regardless of nationality and gender. Worth comment is the broad selection of prints. The curators are to be commended for including prints, which are one of the most important facets of Viennese Modernism. Colour woodcuts were one of the distinctive contributions to Modernist printmaking, made by Austrian artists in this period. Other prints range through Expressionist woodcuts, Jugendstil etchings, Symbolist aquatints, social-realist lithographs, Post-Impressionist drypoints and exhibition-poster designs.

 

….

 

The Anschluss of 1938 led to Nazis taking control of many institutions, causing the firing of Jewish teachers, thereby removing the salaries of some artists. The Aryanisation of non-state organisations applied to artists’ associations, which were purged of Jewish and half-Jewish members. Museums removed art by Jews from display and deaccessioned art. In this newly hostile environment, Jewish women faced career-ending restrictions. Some managed to emigrate before the outbreak of war. Of the others who did not move, many were interned, deported and died in camps. This catalogue acts as a melancholy roll-call of artists who died in the Nazi death and extermination camps and of sculptor Ilse Twardowski-Conrat, who committed suicide at the point of forcible transportation.

In historical terms, this suppression of Jewish art, the destruction or loss of the war years, the displacement of artists and records and focus on post-war reconstruction formed a break in the art historical record. Afterwards, for many in Vienna it seemed best not to dwell on the dark years, especially as Austrians had been active instigators and beneficiaries of Nazi brutality. Julie M. Johnson comments “In Austria, a national reluctance to deal with the past also contributed to the belated rediscovery of its women artists. It would take a new generation of scholars to investigate their histories and to begin to tell the truth of what had happened.”

Nazi action in culture was targeted primarily against Jewish and Modernist artists, not specifically women. Jewish or Modernist artists, male and female, suffered alongside one another. The Nazi ideology espoused the primacy of the traditional family, with the woman confined (ideally) to the roles of mother and wife. While emancipation of women was strongly discouraged, women still worked in many areas. Moreover, women still worked in the arts. Women were permitted to remain members of arts organisations and continued to exhibit and publish. The ambiguous status of fine art under National Socialism placed women in a field with unclear, changeable, contradictory and capricious regulation. Women artists were unequivocally worse off under the Nazi Reich than in the Weimar Republic, but any comparison between the Nazi era and the Habsburg period in Austria is a much less straightforward one.

To summarise: in Vienna 1900-1938, women artists experienced more restrictions than men artists, though these were more social than legal/professional and – other than in the field of professional instruction – they are difficult to quantify. Nazi regulation did affect women marginally more than men but much less than it did Jews. Obscurity is an impediment faced by many artists (male and female) for many reasons and is hard to overturn. Due to the work of the academic historians and gender-activism campaigners, obscure women artists have a much greater chance of having their reputations revived than men artists do.

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[Image: Broncia Koller-Pinell, The Artist’s Mother (1907), Photo: Johannes Stoll © Belvedere, Vienna]

So, how much do we gain from this exhibition? We encounter artists not widely known. Although all of them achieved varying degrees of recognition in Austria in their lifetimes, there is not a reason why most of them would now be known internationally. Much art of this type (flower paintings, illustrations, abstract graphics) is hard to revive as it is currently unfashionable. A few individuals stand out as potentially important. Teresa Feodorovna Ries, while being outmoded stylistically speaking by 1905, is an artist of great ability and achievement. Her art should receive new international exhibitions and a monograph. Marie-Louise von Motesiczky (early period) and Broncia Koller-Pinell (late period) also deserve greater international exposure.

The catalogue fails to address critical roles women had other than as artists. Viennese women were the commissioners and patronesses of many artistic works. They were perhaps the principle consumers of Wiener Werkstätte products; in their roles as mistresses of the home, they decided upon the decoration of their residences. Art was often collected with a view to its part in a decorative scheme in a domestic setting, thus it was often the wives of bankers, doctors, politicians and factory owners who chose suitable pictures from exhibitions, which were used to adorn their homes. They selected their preferred painter to make their portrait. Society ladies were as much the tastemakers of the era as were newspaper art critics. Women often followed the arts more closely than their fathers or husbands, who would pay for the art, and it was they who made decisions on aesthetic matters, decoration being “a feminine domain”. This is not counting the women who inherited considerable fortunes lavished money upon their favoured causes and creators. It is arguable that women as art collectors, portrait subjects and social influencers exerted more power in the Vienna art scene than the women artists did.

 

Sabine Feller, Stella Rollig (eds.), City of Women/Stadt der Frauen, 1900-1938, Belvedere/Prestel, 2019, hardback, 309pp, 200 col., German/English text, illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5865 9

© Alexander Adams 2019

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

Amrita Sher-Gil: Unseen Brilliance

“Some grand claims have been made for the art of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Christie’s described her as ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century’, yet few art-history students in Europe and America know her name. The reissue of Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings, which collects all of the artist’s writings and reproduces her 172 surviving paintings, allows us to judge the acclaim. In the foreword, Salman Rushdie explains how Sher-Gil became an inspiration for his character Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh.

“There is scarcely a day without a gallery press release announcing the rediscovery of a female artist who has not just been neglected but ‘excluded from the Western fine-art canon’. The claim that any artist can be excluded from the canon is nonsensical. The Western canon is a list of the most important good art that a person should know in order to understand the Western art tradition. The canon is not a set text, but a composite of opinions and has no central authority and changes over time. Therefore no art or artist can ever be excluded from the Western canon, whatever you may be told. (For an explanation, read my essay here.)

“Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913 in Budapest. Her family was middle class. Her father was Amrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh writer and religious ascetic. He was a skilled photographer and his favourite subject was his family. Amrita’s mother was of French and Hungarian Jewish descent. The couple were mismatched in some respects and the conflict between an ascetic detached father and neurotic socialite mother would prove a source of instability in Amrita’s life. The family (including Amrita’s younger sister Indira) spent Amrita’s early years in Hungary before the family moved to Simla, India in 1924.

This two-volume book publishes all of Amrita’s writings, translated from the original French and Hungarian. She spoke English to her family and Indian colleagues, so much of the text is in her own words….”

Read the full review online at Spiked here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/amrita-sher-gil-unseen-brilliance/21365#.Wu7uNC7wbIU