Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Kandinsky by Hajo Düchting (1993)

The German publisher Taschen launched its inexpensive ‘Basic Art’ series back in 1985 with a volume on Picasso. 33 years later, it has nearly 200 titles in the series and recently relaunched them as tall, slim hardbacks at a standard price of £10. Decades ago I picked up a clutch of titles about the Expressionist painters when they were in their cheaper, paperback incarnation.

This one, about the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, is 96 pages long. It has about 80 illustrations, mostly in full colour, which give you an excellent overview of Kandinsky’s development from late-Victorian figurative work, through the Expressionist years – which saw his accelerated movement into abstraction around 1910 – his 7-year spell back in Moscow, before he moved back to Germany to teaching at the famous Bauhaus school of art and design, before his final years in exile in Paris.

Colourful Life by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)

Colourful Life by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)

Kandinsky’s life in six chapters

The chapter titles give a good overview:

  • Mother Moscow 1866-1896
  • Kandinsky in Munich 1896-1911
  • Breakthrough to the abstract: Der Blaue Reiter 1911-1914
  • Russian Intermezzo 1914-1921
  • Point and Line to Plane: Kandinsky at the Bauhaus 1922-1933
  • Biomorphic abstraction: Kandinsky in Paris 1933-1944

The pioneer of abstract painting

A picture paints a thousand words, so here’s an overview of his evolving style:

Moscow

Born and educated in Moscow, Kandinsky’s parents divorced when he was young and he was brought up by his aunt who gave him a lifelong love of Russian legend and fairy tales. He studied law, and had a sideline in anthropology – in fact he was made a member of the Society for Anthropology and Ethnography for a study he made of rural peasant culture. But by the mid-1890s Kandinsky’s thinking had moved on. He had decided he wanted to be an artist. Recently married, in 1896 he persuaded his new wife that he was going to abandon his law studies and that they should move to Munich.

Munich

Munich had already experienced a ‘secession’ of progressive young artists from the official art school in 1892 and, as Kandinsky arrived, was just becoming the German centre of Art Nouveau (in Germany dubbed the Jugendstil) which advocated the rejection of Victorian mass-produced clutter, and a return to clarity of line and design.

Kandinsky applied to various art schools, took life and painting classes but he also proved to be a good organiser. In 1901 he was instrumental in setting up the ‘Phalanx’ group of painters and organising a series of exhibitions. For the next 14 years he was a leading light in a whole succession of movements and organisations in southern Germany.

In 1908 Kandinsky settled in the small Bavarian town of Murnau, where he lived and worked with his second wife-to-be, the painter Gabriele Münter. He joined the Theosophical Society, a promoter of arcane spiritual knowledge. We know from his letters that he was studying the abstruse teachings of the 13th century writer, Joachim of Fiore. In other words, Kandinsky was soaked in arcane and hermetic spiritualist teachings, convinced that the world stood on the brink of a new era and that his painting would help to usher it in.

In 1909 he began to divide his works into three categories:

  • Impressions which still have elements of naturalistic representation
  • Improvisations designed to convey spontaneous emotional reactions
  • Compositions the most serious category, only created after substantial preliminary work

Note how all three names are taken from the language of music, indicative of the era’s interest in ‘synaesthesia’, in the combination of music and art which had been fashionable since Whistler’s ‘nocturnes’ and ‘compositions’ of the 1870s.

The Blue Rider

In 1911 Kandinsky formed the Blue Rider group, which he led with Franz Marc. Both men wrote extensively on the importance of the ‘spiritual’ in the new art, indeed that’s the title of Kandinsky’s major theoretical work, On the Spiritual in Art (1913).

Together he and Marc compiled the ‘Blue Rider almanac’, designed to include a wealth of illustrations, not only of contemporary art but primitive, folk, and children’s art, with pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, Russian folk art, and Bavarian religious art painted on glass. It included nine major essays, not only about art but on contemporary music and included the scores of pieces by the new group of ‘Second Vienna’ composers, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

In both the selection of essays and its innovative interplay of word and image, The Blaue Reiter Almanac remains one of our most critically important works of literature on the art theory and culture of the twentieth century.

The almanac was a call for spiritual renewal across all the arts, which would unite, in particular, music and painting, an idea which remained an inspiration for Kandinsky all his life.

Very quickly he now moved through increasingly abstract depictions of the subject to his first utterly abstract work, painted in 1910 (when he was 50 years old). Kandinsky spent the next four years experimenting with the new idea of ‘subjectless’ painting and was still exploring this new approach when war broke out in 1914 and he was forced to flee Germany to Switzerland. In 1915 he moved back to Mother Russia.

Back in Moscow

Düchting explains how Kandinsky the organiser and networker had also developed quite a career as an art journalist and critic. He had been working for Russian art journals throughout the 1900s, reporting on developments in Germany’s avant-garde. Through his contacts with Russian art journals he had been associated with successive post-Symbolist art movements in Russia such as ‘the World of Art’, ‘the Blue Rose’ and the ‘Karo Bube’ groups – so Kandinsky had plenty of contacts to look up when he reappeared in Moscow in 1915.

But he was to be disappointed. Kandinsky found his extreme spiritual attitudes and wispy abstraction out of tune with the times. The 1912 Futurist manifesto, ‘A slap in the fact to public taste’, had been popular with the new generation of iconoclasts in Russia. Constructivism had been founded in 1913, Suprematism in 1915 – and both were fiercely anti-spiritual, interested in very hard edges and geometric abstraction.

The coming young artists were Rodchenko, Malevich and El Lissitzky, artists who were to flourish in the extreme avant-garde environment created by the Bolshevik revolution, a world away from the nature worship and spiritual ideals of his colleagues in Germany.

Nonetheless, Moscow was a big city, with many artistic strands, and so Kandinsky found employment. He helped to organise a series of exhibitions, found teaching and journalism work – but felt unwanted. He managed to navigate the chaos of the early years of the Russian Revolution. He even found work in the early versions of a State Cultural Institute. It wasn’t Soviet pressure that led him to feel increasingly alienated as the 1920s dawned – it was the opposition of the leading figures in new Russian art. The times were changing.

The Bauhaus 1922-33

In 1921 he returned to Germany – wise move as it turned out. His key compadres in the Blue Rider (Marc, Macke) had been killed in the war and Berlin was now dominated by the bitterly satirical mode soon to be named ‘the Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’).

So Kandinsky was relieved to be invited to join the new Bauhaus school of art and design in Weimar, where some of his former colleagues – Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger – were already working. It looked to be a more congenial environment.

Kandinsky began teaching at the Bauhaus in 1922. He taught students in the new Introductory Course where he could involve them in his ongoing investigations of pictorial elements. A few years later he published a summary of his discoveries in ‘Point and Line to Plane’ (1926).

Kandinsky’s teaching was highly schematic, with courses on the meaning and nature of the different colours, their relative positions on colour wheels, their warmth or coldness etc – as well as technical teaching about the effectiveness of different binding media for painting canvas, glass, walls and murals. Paralleling these were lessons on lines, curves, circles and other shapes, exploring their effect on the eye and mind.

(It all sounds technical and impressive, but it’s important to emphasise that all these teachings, thorough and systematic though they were, were essentially subjective, based on his own knowledge of colour and line. If you’re looking for a truly scientific understanding of the impact of colour and line, you have to look elsewhere.)

In 1923 the Bauhaus underwent a reorganisation, with the departure of Johannes Itten, a precursor of the hippies, who valued intuition, held meditation and controlled breathing classes, and was a follower of the obscure fire-breathing cult of Mazdaznan – and his replacement with the Hungarian polymath, committed communist and devotee of industrial design and functionalism, László Moholy-Nagy.

Under the influence of the Bauhaus new emphasis on unifying the arts in the practical cause of building affordable houses for the masses, Kandinsky’s art entered a new, ‘cool’ phase, exploring the interplay of much more clearly defined, geometric shapes.

The Bauhaus went through a number of iterations, the original Weimar incarnation closing in 1925 and moving to purpose-built buildings at Dessau. By the end of the 1930s the leadership and some of the students were becoming politicised by the deteriorating situation in Germany. Hannes Meyer, director from 1928 to 1930, was a communist and encouraged students to criticise Klee and Kandinsky’s ‘ivory tower painting’.

It’s worth stopping and pondering the enormous social and cultural changes Kandinsky had seen since he arrived in Germany in 1901.

The Bauhaus was harassed by the Nazis before they even came to power and once Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 the intimidation intensified. Its final director, the architect Mies van der Rohe declared it officially closed in August 1933. By that time many of the faculty had left the country. Once more Kandinsky had to flee, this time heading west to France.

Paris 1933-1944

Kandinsky’s output from this last decade in Paris is characterised by wonderfully light, even humorous, zoomorphic and biomorphic abstractions. They often look like a fantasy of bacteria seen under a microscope.

He was, as always, involved in the politics of the art world, finding himself rejected by the dominant school of Constructivist artists as well as remaining traditionalists. Believe it or not, he flirted with the Surrealists and met their leader, André Breton who in the 1920s bought some paintings off him. But by the mid-1930s Breton had hardened his approach, politically and aesthetically: for the Surrealists the unconscious was everything, but Kandinsky’s post-war output had been the opposite – extremely carefully planned and organised using his elaborate theories about colour and shape – the opposite of ‘automatic painting’.

Most interesting to me is that, although they all came from different roots, and from different countries, Kandinsky’s art ranks alongside that of Klee, Miro and Arp in a generation which fully established abstract art as a profound and varied visual universe. It’s an odd social phenomenon, the convergence of so many artists on such a similar approach.

And with regard to Kandinsky in particular, it is lovely to finish the book and discover that, even as the world situation deteriorated through the later 1930s, and even as a new World War broke out, he continued to produce work of unparalleled calm, clarity and beauty.

What a colourful journey! What a wonderful life!

Around the Circle by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)

Around the Circle by Wassily Kandinsky (1940)


Related links

Related exhibition reviews

Related book reviews

The Expressionists by Wolf-Dieter Dube (1972)

[In Expressionism] the expression was to determine the form, and no longer be obliged to appear in the guise of nymphs, heroes and allegories… [Expressionism is] the process whereby the colours and forms themselves become the repositories of the pictorial idea. (p.7)

1972 is a long time ago, before the politically correct mindset, before feminism, anti-racism and post-colonialist discourse took over university humanities departments. Therefore this book is a remarkably straightforward account of the various groups of German artists who are generally lumped together as ‘the Expressionists’, with none of the usual naming and shaming of artists as sexist, racist, imperialist cultural appropriators, which is so common in art history nowadays (for example, in Colin Rhodes’s book on Primitivism, or Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art and Society).

The German character

Wolf-Dieter Dube was a senior curator at the Bavarian State Art Collection (home to an extensive collection of paintings by the Blue Rider group of Expressionists) and the book was translated from his original German by Mary Whittall. His German-ness is interesting because it allows Dube to make generalisations about German culture and German character which might not be allowed to non-Germans nowadays.

Comparison of Wilhelm Leibl or Hans van Marées, however much we may admire them, with Courbet or Manet, illustrates how difficult if not impossible it is for a German to produce ‘pure’ art. The harmonious equilibrium of form and content, ideally achieved in a ‘pure’ picture, is all too easily upset by the weight of philosophical concepts, by idealism or Romanticism. This fundamental trait of the German character was to be the mainspring of Expressionism… (p.7)

So a ‘fundamental trait of the German character’ is the impossibility for ‘a German to produce “pure” art’ because ‘the harmonious equilibrium of form and content … is all too easily upset by the weight of philosophical concepts’? Interesting thing for German art curator to say.

Half-Naked Woman with a Hat (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Half-Naked Woman with a Hat (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Pre-critical theory

It’s also interesting to read a 46-year-old text because it reminds us what used to fill up books like this before the various elements of post-modern art and critical theory came along. For politically correct criticism, among other things, gives the critic something to write about i.e. a whole checklist of indictments which can be applied to anyone and require little or no knowledge or sensitivity to art. For example, it requires only a casual knowledge of Paul Gauguin’s biography or works (pictures of South Sea islanders where he settled in the 1890s) to be able brand him as a racist, sexist, paedophile exploiter of under-aged girls in Tahiti. And so:

Feminist post-colonial critics decry the fact that Gauguin took adolescent mistresses, one of them as young as thirteen. They remind us that like many men of his time and later, Gauguin saw freedom, especially sexual freedom, strictly from the male point of view. Using Gauguin as an example of what is ‘wrong’ with primitivism, these critics conclude that, in their view, elements of primitivism include the ‘dense interweave of racial and sexual fantasies and power both colonial and patriarchal’. To these critics, primitivism such as Gauguin’s demonstrates fantasies about racial and sexual difference in ‘an effort to essentialize notions of primitiveness’ with ‘Otherness’. (Wikipedia article on Primitivism)

Easy, once you’ve picked up the lingo. Thus modern art critics often read as if they’re doing the job of the police, acting as a kind of ‘history police’. If he’d been alive today, Gauguin would have been sent to prison and put on the sex offenders register.

Modern critical theory is all the more useful as a device for generating large amounts of text because modern academics are under unprecedented pressure from the terms of their university tenure to continually generate new essays, articles, lectures and conference papers, to show output and productivity.

So, applying the insights of modern critical policing to the biography, writings and paintings of dead white male artists is an invaluable method for generating copious pages of much-needed text. If you interpret Gauguin’s attitudes as (in effect and despite his own claims to the contrary) a form of collaboration with the French colonial powers to ‘constrain and contain’ the native populations within ‘the visual discourse’ of ‘colonial power’ (and so on and so on), you might be able to spin it out for a whole chapter, possibly even a book. And so justify your job and salary.

But for Wolf-Dieter Dube, writing back in the early 1970s, this entire Armoury of Accusation wasn’t yet available. So, lacking the rhetoric of modern critical theory/moral accusation, Dube fills his text by repeating and amplifying the artists’ own intentions. He takes the artists at their own word in a way which would look terribly naive in a modern critic.

Thus this book includes very generous extracts from the writings, especially the letters, of all the artists mentioned, as well as by eye-witnesses like their art college tutor Fritz Schumacher. These numerous quotes help build up a really strong feeling of what the Expressionists were trying to do and how they felt about it.

The book is based on first-hand evidence and so, although its critical approach may be dated, the numerous quotes remain very relevant today. He quotes enough from each artist that you not only get a sense of their distinctive styles of painting, but of writing and thinking, too.

Under the Trees by Max Pechstein (1911)

Under the Trees by Max Pechstein (1911)

Art in Wilhelmine Germany

Dube sets the mood of Wilhelmine Germany (i.e. Germany under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II – or ‘Emperor William’ II) at the turn of the century. For a start Germany had only recently been ‘unified’ (in 1871) and its different component parts, the states or Länder, still had very strong regional identities. Cities with good technical schools included Dresden, Cologne, Munich and so on, but Berlin was the only truly metropolitan city. Even Berlin couldn’t match Paris for artistic tradition and glittering cultural production. German art was dominated by a late academic realist style, as taught in all the state art schools.

In the generation before the Expressionists, all the main cities with art schools had experienced ‘secessions’, when artists influenced by Impressionism had found their works rejected by the academies and salons and had set up independent progressive groupings – the Munich Secession in 1892, the Dresden Secession in 1893, the Vienna Secession under Gustav Klimt in 1897, the Berlin Secession in 1898.

Another sign of the times was the number of artists’ colonies which were set up in remote rural locations, starting with Worpswede in the 1890s (whose most lasting member was the woman artist Paula Modersohn-Becker). According to Colin Rhodes’s book on Primitivism, by 1910 there were about 30 artists’ colonies based in remote rural locations around Germany.

And the 1890s had also seen the founding of the German branch of Art Nouveau (known as the Jugendstil) in Munich in 1896. Like parallel movements elsewhere in Europe, the Jugendstil was dedicated to rejecting the accumulation of clutter which had encrusted Victorian furniture and handicrafts, and returning design to simpler, purer lines and more co-ordinated interiors.

As to the French influence, Dube explains how Impressionism came late to Germany, only being gathered and exhibited in a significant amount around the turn of the century. In fact it was almost immediately overtaken by Post-Impressionist works which were much more up to date and were exhibited at about the same time.

Of the Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh and Gauguin were the primary influences on the new young generation of German artists – the former for his emphasis on vibrantly thick brush strokes to convey strong feeling, and the latter a) for his odysseys, first to rural Brittany then to remote Tahiti, in search of the ‘primitive’ and ‘authentic’, and b) for his quest to simplify painting into thick black outlines containing areas of garish colour. And so Dube includes early works by Heckel, Kirchner and so on which are obviously influenced by van Gogh’s thick bright brushstrokes (Brickworks by Erich Heckel, Lake in the Park by Kirchner).

Histories of German Expressionism tend to focus on two main groups, Die Brücke (meaning ‘the bridge’) and Der Blaue Reiter (‘The Blue Rider’). Many artists joined these groups, then left, were simultaneously members of other groupings like the various ‘Secessions’, set up splinter groups, and so on. It was a fluid, fertile scene. But these two groups were the most organised, produced manifestos and held exhibitions, and so are easier to write about.

Origin of the term ‘Expressionism’

The term ‘Expressionism’ itself has about half a dozen possible sources. No one group ever claimed to be Expressionists, the word seems simply to have become current among journalists, critics and reviewers soon after 1910. An exhibition held in Cologne in 1912 referred to ‘the movement known as Expressionism’ and the first academic monograph on the subject was written in 1914, positioning it (inaccurately) as the German equivalent of French Cubism and Italian Futurism – so it was being used by contemporaries by those dates. But it never became the badge of a clearly defined group (unlike Impressionism in France).

What is certain is that the term was only just becoming widely known when the war broke out and art movements all across Europe were decimated.

Die Brücke 1905-13

Die Brücke was formed in Dresden in 1905. The four founding members were Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (who was still alive when this book was published). Later members included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. They considered themselves a ‘bridge’ which would link together all the young artists of their time who were driven by the need to express themselves more forcefully, clearly and purely than academic conventions permitted. As manifestos and interpretations multiplied, they also saw their work as a ‘bridge’ to the more spiritual ‘art of the future’.

The four founder members were all originally architecture students, which explains why they felt free to take liberties with the tradition of figure painting. In their quest for new forms and visions they were all attracted to the technique of woodcut prints, which naturally accentuate stark outlines and sharp contrasts between light and shade.

Nowhere do severity of construction, strength of contrast and an uncompromising emphasis on plane and line find so complete fulfilment as in the woodcut… (p.26)

Their drawing technique was deliberately crude, and colour was garish and unnaturalistic, both devices to emphasise their freedom of expression. Kirchner wanted ‘free drawing from the free human body in the freedom of nature’.

Crouching woman by Erich Heckel (1913)

Crouching woman by Erich Heckel (1913)

Die Brücke harked back to the German tradition of harsh angular work by Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Typical of their polemical intent was the programme published in 1906 and which Kirchner carved in wood:

Believing in development and in a new generation both of those who create and of those who enjoy, we call all young people together, and as young people, who carry the future in us, we want to wrest freedom for our actions and our lives from the older, comfortably established forces. (quoted page 21)

Elsewhere they wrote that they belonged to a generation:

who want freedom in our work and in our lives, independence from older, established forces.

They wanted to apprehend art as ‘intensified, poetic life’ (p.37).

Looked at in the cold light of day, most of the manifestos, letters and other writings of both the Bridge and the Blue Rider seem extremely anodyne (in fact Dube concedes that this is the conventional modern view of them). After a century of impassioned manifestos, proclamations and statements of intent, the Bridge’s writings seem little more than codified excitement about being young and full of confidence in their burning mission to change the world.

The four would-be artists hired an empty butcher’s shop in a working class area of Dresden which they decorated extensively, packing it with paintings, drawings and prints. Nudity of both sexes was common – making it all sound very like a idealistic but scruffy commune from the early 1970s, just when Dube was writing. In summer they frequented the Moritzburg lakes, which features in many of their landscapes and nudes.

Summer by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1911)

Summer by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1911)

Dube devotes separate sections to each of the important Bridge artists – namely, Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Pechstein and Mueller – outlining their development over the key years from around 1905 to 1914. He follows them into the maelstrom of the Great War and beyond, with liberal quotes from their writings to help the reader really understand the aims and intentions and developing style of each of them.

Kirchner was the dominant personality and the best artist of the group. In 1913, as the Bridge began to drift apart, Kirchner wrote an account of the history and development of the group which the other three disagreed with so strongly that it precipitated the final break-up. Sic transit gloria iuventae.

Der Blaue Reiter 1911-14

The Blue Rider was slightly later. It was founded in 1909 in Munich by a group of artists who rejected the official art school there. Broader based than the Bridge, its founders included a number of Russian emigrants, including Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, as well as native German artists such as Franz Marc, August Macke and Gabriele Münter. The Blue Rider also lasted till the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Village Church (1908) by Wassily Kandinsky

The Village Church (1908) by Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky was the central figure. Some people thought the name derived from an early painting of the same title by Kandinsky, created in 1903, but Kandinsky himself later wrote that it came from Marc’s enthusiasm for horses and Kandinsky’s love of riders, combined with a shared love of the colour blue.

Kandinsky was an intensely spiritual person. Indeed it’s one of the ironies of Expressionism that it looks so harsh, angular and repelling to us today (and especially in contrast to the softness of the French tradition — even the garish Fauves eventually led on to the decorativeness of Matisse and Dufy) – and yet all its proponents thought of themselves as highly spiritual visionaries, returning to nature, depicting the human soul, and other essentially gentle, hippy ideals.

For example, for Kandinsky blue was the colour of spirituality: the darker the blue, the more it awakens human desire for the eternal (as he put it in his seminal 1911 book, On the Spiritual in Art). All the other colours had similar spiritual connotations.

The history of the group is complex as it formed after the collapse of a previous group which had itself been created in opposition to the Secession Munich. All that takes a bit of explaining.

But the key point that emerges is that the Blue Rider’s main claim to fame is that its central figure, Kandinsky, was one of the first painters in Europe to push beyond Expressionism into pure painterly abstraction. This seismic event took place in or around 1910.

Certainly the Blue Rider was a large group whose intentions and ability varied from artist to artist. Broadly speaking, they all rejected the realist academic tradition and wanted to create a more spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting.

Their interests ranged from European medieval art to children’s art, to the ‘tribal’ art from Africa and the Pacific which was becoming fashionable in the latter part of the 1900s, and they were all well aware of contemporary developments in Paris – especially of Fauvism (1905) and Cubism (1908).

Portrait of a Young Woman in a Large Hat by Gabriele Münter (1909)

Portrait of a Young Woman in a Large Hat by Gabriele Münter (1909)

The Blue Rider group organised two exhibitions – held from December 1911 to January 1912, and from March to April 1912 – that toured Germany.

The Blue Rider almanac

In May 1912 they published an ‘almanac’ which included contemporary, primitive and folk art, along with children’s paintings. It contained reproductions of more than 140 artworks, and 14 major articles. A second edition was planned but never published because of the outbreak of war.

The Blue Ride Almanac is a fascinating record of the ‘turn against the European Tradition’ in the way it was dominated by primitive, folk, and children’s art, with pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, Russian folk art, and Bavarian religious art painted on glass.

The five works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gauguin were outnumbered by seven from Henri Rousseau and thirteen (!) from child artists.

The group broke up with the advent of war, in which both Franz Marc and August Macke were killed, while Kandinsky was forced to move back to Russia. It had a ghostly post-war existence when Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee and Alexej von Jawlensky were persuaded to form Die Blaue Vier (the Blue Four) group in 1923 as a money-making scheme to exhibit and lecture around the United States from 1924.

The Blue Rider painters one by one

Dube moves systematically through the main Blue Rider painters (Kandinsky, von Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc, Auguste Macke, Paul Klee, Heinrich Campendonk, Alfred Kubin) detailing their evolution from their beginnings, through their key contributions to the movement, and into the Great War, explaining the origin and development of their styles, quoting liberally from their letters and diaries.

  • Wassily Kandinsky – older (b.1866) Russian, earnest and spiritual, in the late 1900s he moved quickly through Fauvist garishness to achieve the breakthrough into pure abstraction (Cossacks, 1911)
  • Alexej von Jawlensky (b.1864) Russian, brilliantly coloured works exhibited in 1905 at the same Salon d’Automne show which gave birth to the term ‘les Fauves’, his portraits of women are popular but the war shocked him out of Expressionism and into semi-abstract religious painting – Saviour’s face, 1919
  • Gabriele Münter (b.1877) German – Kandinsky divorced his first wife to marry Münter and they lived in a house in Murnau which became known locally as ‘the Russian house’. She painted woman and landscapes with strong outlines and colours – Jawlensky and Werefkin, 1909
  • Franz Marc (b.1880) highly eloquent writer of art theory, and beautiful painter of animals, specially horses, evolving a steadily more abstracted style before his untimely death in 1916 – the Mandrill, 1913
  • Auguste Macke (b.1887) younger than Marc with whom he became close friends, Macke was – unusually for this gang – light and unspiritual. He frequently went to Paris, entranced by the experiments in colour of the Fauves and Delauney. He painted light, bright depictions of scenes of real life – Zoological gardens, 1912. Macke was developing quickly towards a lighter more abstract palette when war broke out and he was killed almost immediately, in September 1914.
  • Paul Klee (b.1879) from early on Klee had a facility for fine line drawing but found it hard to combine with colour. In 1914 he went on a two-week trip to Tunisia with Macke which has become famous in art history because both artists found it crystallised their styles and helped Klee, in particular, paint in watercolour washes which were to define his mature style – The Föhn Wind in the Marcs’ Garden, 1914. Klee went on to teach at the Bauhaus school.
  • Heinrich Campendonk (b.1889) friends with Marc and influenced by his animal paintings, Campendonk went on to develop a decorative, fairy-tale style – Cow, 1914.
  • Alfred Kubin (b.1877) A highly-strung Austrian print-maker who developed a grotesque style of illustration based on things he saw under a microscope and is perhaps more appropriately labelled a Symbolist, though he befriended and exhibited with the Blue Riders, before abandoning art altogether to become a writer in the 1920s.

Kandinsky has gone down in history as the most important figure because of his decisive move into complete abstraction – but Marc comes over as the more charismatic and fascinating character. Marc initially devoted himself to studying anatomy in order to do nudes better but, eventually repelled by humans, concentrated for his key four years (1910-1914) on wonderful stylised and colourful paintings of animals.

Tiger by Franz Marc (1912)

Tiger by Franz Marc (1912)

The Expressionists’ reversal of values

By now (about three-quarters of the way through the book) what is clear is that these two groups – the Bridge and the Blue Rider – taken together, had effected a complete revolution in thinking about art, quite literally reversing the priorities of 400 years of post-Renaissance painting:

Colour is not there to serve the representation of an object, or something material, but the object serves as the starting-point for the arrangement of colours. (p.114)

In the words of Franz Marc, their works were seeking:

the completely spiritualised, de-materialised inwardness of perception which our fathers, the artists of the nineteenth century, never even tried to achieve in their ‘pictures’. (quoted page 125)

Released from nature, colour is able to radiate its essence for, as Herwarth Walden put it:

Art is the gift of something new, not the reproduction of something already in existence. (quoted page 155)

As the preface to the third exhibition of the Neue Sezession, held in Berlin in spring 1911 put it:

Each and every object is only the channel of a colour, a colour composition, and the work as a whole aims, not at an impression of nature, but at the expression of feelings. (quoted page 159)

Or as Marc put it:

We no longer cling to reproductions of nature, but destroy it so as to reveal the mighty laws which hold sway beneath the beautiful exterior. (Marc, 1912, quoted p.132)

It comes as a surprise to learn that Marc’s very last paintings abandoned the subject altogether and became completely abstract exercises in vibrant colour and form. He was hard on Kandinsky’s footsteps and who knows where he would have gone next. But he had barely started when he was called up, then killed in the war. Which is why history remembers Kandinsky as the great pioneer of abstract art.

Berlin and Vienna

By this stage, 150 pages into the text, I felt overflowing with words, pictures and ideas. But there’s more! The book continues with a final fifty pages or so exploring other contemporary painters of Berlin and Vienna who were working in the same style, devoting four or five pages to an overview of the artistic scenes in those cities before going on to consider the individual works of:

  • Max Beckmann (b.1884) German painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer, Beckmann experimented with a late realistic style influenced by Munch (who met and advised him) until the war came and the experience of horror and murder led to a nervous breakdown in 1915, after which Beckmann completely rejected his earlier work and went on to perfect a style of highly figurative, angular caricatures, becoming part of the post-war taste for the grotesque. – The Night, 1918
  • Lyonel Feininger (b.1871) German, had a successful career as a political cartoonist, but during the later 1900s developed a sort of shimmering semi-Futurist way of depicting natural scenes, using ‘crystalline or prismatic construction’. – Bicycle race, 1912 He went on to work at the Bauhaus school.
  • Ernst Barlach (b.1870) German, part of the new generation, Barlach however rejected the move to the abstract, and produced prints and sculptures of stylised but essentially natural figures, mostly of a religious nature. – The Cathedrals, 1922
  • Ludwig Meidner (b.1884) German, Meidner was a prolific writer who studied in Berlin, then Paris, scraped a living by writing and painting until, at age 18 in 1912, he suddenly began expressing himself in vivid and violent religious visions. – Apocalyptic landscape, 1913.
  • Oskar Kokoschka (b.1886) Austrian artist, poet and playwright, a major figure whose physical pain and psychological unrest drove him through a series of styles. Most famous is the swirling angularity of a work like The Bride of the Wind, painted just before the war – note the nervously clenched hands of the male figure.
  • Egon Schiele (b.1890) staggeringly gifted figurative painter and draughtsman who developed a distinctive style depicting angular, naked or half-clothed bodies, reminiscent in the use of decorative mosaic-style detailing of his mentor Gustav Klimt, except Schiele removed all the gold and luxury from the designs, austerely emptying them out into starker elements surrounding and threatening his subjects. Schiele caused scandal with his nudes but was also widely recognised in Vienna and Germany. – Embrace, 1917, Self portrait

The Great War killed off Expressionism as a movement (not least by killing some of the most promising Expressionist painters). Germany lost the war and in short order saw the abdication of the Kaiser, the end of the Empire and street fighting in Berlin and Munich as Communists tried to declare a revolution. These disturbances were brutally crushed by right-wing militias and then the Weimar Republic settled into an uneasy, bitter and disillusioned peace.

In this context, long-haired artists going off to remote communes to paint sensitive nudes amid nature seemed like sentimental hogwash. The Dada manifesto of 1918 mocked Expressionism for being hopelessly out of date. Artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz painted bitter pictures of post-war poverty, corruption and prostitution, the Weimar Germany of Brecht and Weill’s bitter satires.

In 1925 an exhibition was staged of the new satirical artists with the name Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and this became the slogan of the new generation.

Summary

Although old-fashioned in tone and approach, this is a really informative book, made extra valuable by the extensive quotes from the artists themselves, their friends and lovers, contemporary critics and writers – a collage of quotations which conveys a really powerful sense of the artists, their time and place, and their determination to create something really new and enduring. Which they did.


Related links

Related reviews

50 Women Artists You Should Know (2008)

This is a much better book than the Taschen volume which I’ve just read – Women artists in the 20th and 21st century edited by Uta Grosenick (2003) – for several reasons:

1. Although, like the Taschen book, this was also originally a German publication, it has been translated into much better English. It reads far more fluently and easily.

2. It is much bigger at 24cm by 19cm, so the illustrations are much bigger, clearer and more impactful. There is more art and less text and that, somehow, irrationally, but visually, makes women’s art seem a lot more significant and big and important.

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

3. It is a chronological overview of the last 500 years of women’s art. As I explained in my review of the Taschen book, because so many female artists have come to prominence since the 1960s and 70s when traditional art more or less collapsed into a welter of performance art, body art, conceptual art, video, photography, digital art and so on, that book gave an overall impression that 20th century women’s art was chaotic, messy and sex-obsessed, with only occasional oases of old-style painting to cling on to.

By contrast, this book gives a straightforward chronological list of important women artists starting with Catharina Van Hemessen born in 1528 and moving systematically forwards through all the major movements of Western art – Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Victorian Realist, Impressionist, Fauvist and so on. It kind of establishes and beds you in to the long line of successful women artists who worked in all the Western styles, long before it arrives at the chaotic 60s and beyond.

4. The Taschen book – again because of its modern focus – invoked a lot of critical theory to analyse and explicate its artists. Here, in stark contrast, the entries are overwhelming factual and biographical, focusing on family background, cultural and historical context, the careers and achievements of these women artists. Although this is, in principle, a more traditional and conservative way of writing about art, the net result is the opposite. Whereas you can dismiss great swathes of the Taschen book for being written in barely-comprehensible artspeak, this book states clearly and objectively the facts about a long succession of tremendously successful and influential women artists. It’s all the more effective for telling it straight.

To sum up, 50 Women Artists You Should Know makes a really powerful argument for asserting that there have been major women artists at every stage of Western art, holding important positions, forging successful careers, creating really great works, influencing others, contributing and shaping the whole tradition.

It is the History of Western Art, but done through women, and women only.

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Quite simply it destroys forever the idea that there haven’t been any significant women artists until the modern era. There were loads.

Ironically, this goes a long way to undermining the common feminist argument that women have been banned, held back, suppressed and prevented from engaging in art for most of history. This book proves the opposite is the case: again and again we read of women artists in the 17th and 18th centuries being encouraged by their fathers and families, supported through art school, securing important official positions (many becoming court painters), being given full membership of art academies, awarded prestigious prizes, and making lots of money. It’s quite a revelation. I never knew so many women artists were so very successful, rich and famous in their times.

Take some examples:

Surprisingly successful woman artists

1. Old Mistresses

Catharina Van Hemessen (1528-1587) Trained in the Netherlands by her father Jan van Hemessen, Catharina specialised in portraits which fetched a good price. She was invited to the court of Spain by the art-loving Mary of Hungary.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) her art studies paid for by her father who networked with rulers and artists to promote her career, Sofonisba was invited to Spain by King Philip II to become art teacher to 14-year-old Queen Isabella of Valois. By the time Isabella died, young Sofonisba had painted portraits of the entire Spanish court. She went to Italy where she taught pupils and was sought out by Rubens and Van Dyck.

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) Trained by her artist father, Fontana became a sought-after portraitist, even being commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to paint his portrait. She married a fellow artist who recognised her superior talent and became her manager, helping her paint a number of altar paintings. – Venus and Cupid (1592)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1598-1652) Taught by her father who was a successful baroque painter, Artemisia moved to Florence and was the only woman admitted to the Accademia del Disegno. She painted dynamic and strikingly realistic Bible scenes. In her 40s she was invited to paint at the court of King Charles I of England. – Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Judith Leyster (1609-1660) Unusually, Judith wasn’t the daughter of an artist but made her way independently, studying with the master of the Haarlem school, Frans Hals, before at the age of 24 applying to join the Guild of St Luke. – Boy playing the flute (1635)

Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) forged a lucrative career as a portraitist in pastels in her native Venice with a clientele which included the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, the Danish King Frederick IV. In 1739 the Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony bought her entire output of paintings which is why Dresden Art Gallery has 150 of her pastels. In 1720 she was invited to Paris by an eminent banker who gave her a large suite of rooms and introduced her to the court. – The Air (1746)

Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-1782) Seventh child of the Prussian court painter Georg Lisiewski, Anna received a thorough training and went on to a successful career painting portraits around the courts of Europe, being admitted to the Stuttgart Academy of Arts, the Academy in Bologna, the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, working at the end of  her life for Tsarina Catherine II of Russia. – Self-portrait (1776)

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Kauffman was encouraged from an early age by her father, himself a portrait and fresco painter, who helped his child prodigy daughter go on to become one of the leading painters of her day, known across Europe as a painter of feminine subjects, of sensibility and feeling, praised by Goethe and all who met her. – Self-portrait torn between music and Painting (1792)

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was taught by her father the painter Louis Vigée, soon attracted the attention of aristocratic French society and was invited to Versailles by Marie-Antoinette to paint her portrait, eventually doing no fewer than 20. Forced into exile by the French revolution, she eventually returned to France, continuing to paint, in total some 800 works in the new classical, unadorned style and published three volumes of memoirs. – Portrait of Countess Golovine (1800)

Rosa Bonheur‘s father was a drawing master who encouraged her artistic tendencies. She sketched and then painted the animals of her native Bordeaux and struck it rich with a work called The Horse Market which made a sensation at the Salon of 1853. An enterprising dealer had it displayed all round the country, then sent to England where Queen Victoria gave it her endorsement, and then on to America. It toured for three years made her a name and rich. She bought a farmhouse with the proceeds and carried on working in it with her partner Nathalie Micas.

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

2. Modern women painters

Somewhere in the later 19th century in France, Modern Art starts and carries on for 50 or so years, till the end of the Great War.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was the female Impressionist, her family being close to that of Manet, so that she got to meet his circle which included Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley, Monet and Renoir. She had nine paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and exhibited in each of the subsequent Impressionist shows until 1886. – Reading with green umbrella (1873).

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia before moving to Paris where she was taken up by Degas and exhibited in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition. Later in life she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts Gold Medal. – Woman in a loge (1879)

By the time Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was 30 she was one of the leading portrait painters in America. I love Reverie or the Dreamer (1894).

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912) was Canadian, moved to New York, Venice, Munich, to Pont Aven where she experimented with the new plein air technique, but it was only when she moved on from London to Newlyn in Cornwall and married the artist Stanhope Alexander Forbes, that Elizabeth found a permanent home. The couple went ton to establish the Newlyn School of open air painting in Cornwall. – A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885)

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) progressed through the Munich Art Academy and is famous for the affair she had with Russian avant-garde painter Wassily Kandinsky. They bought a house in 1909 which became a focal point for the painters of the Blue Rider movement, Franz Marc, August Macke and so on. Her clear bold draughtsmanship and forceful colours are well suited to reproduction. – Self-portrait (1909), Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909).

3. Twentieth century great women artists

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was the first woman to be the subject of a major retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1946). Her paintings are super-real, occasionally sur-real, images of desert landscapes and flowers.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) famous for the photomontages she produced as part of the Dada movement. – Cut with Kitchen Knife DADA through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Era (1920)

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) fabulously stylish images of 1920s women caught in a kind of shiny metallic blend of Art Deco and Futurism. What is not to worship? – The telephone (1930) Auto-portrait (1929)

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) politically active Mexican artist who painted herself obsessively, often in surreal settings although she denied being a Surrealist. – The Broken Column (1944).

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) American abstract expressionist, worked as a mural painting assistant for socially conscious works commissioned by the Federal Art Project before developing an interest in abstract art and exhibiting in the 1941 show by the Association of American Abstract Artists. In that year she met the king of the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock, and married him four years later leading to an intense period where they influenced each other. After his death in 1956 she developed a new style taking the natural world as subject. – Abstract number 2 (1948)

Louise Bourgeois (1911-1993)

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) was only 23 when she created the work she’s known for, Object – a cup, saucer and spoon covered in the furry skin of a gazelle. – Object (1936)

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) died tragically young but not before making a range of stimulating abstract sculptures. – Accession II (1967)

4. Contemporary women artists

With Hesse’s work (maybe with Louise Bourgeois’s) the book swings decisively away from traditional art, from oil painting and recognisable sculptures, into the world of installations, happenings, performances, body art, conceptual art, the style of art we still live among. This means, in practice, fewer reproductions of 2-D works and a lot of photographs.

Rebecca Horn (b.1944) German. Rooms filled with objects, photographs, films, video, mechanical works made from everyday objects. – River of the moon (1992)

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

Barbara Kruger (b.1945) American leading conceptual artist noted for large-format collages of images and texts. – Your body is a battleground (1989), We don’t need another hero (1987).

Marina Abramovic (b. 1946) Yugoslav performance artist often directly using her body, sometimes going to extremes and inflicting pain. In The Lovers: walk on the great wall of China her boyfriend started walking in the Gobi desert while she started from the Yellow Sea and they walked towards each other, meeting on the Great Wall whereupon they split up. In Balkan Baroque she spent four days surrounded by video installations and copper basins cleaning with a handbrush 5,500 pounds of cattle bones. – Balkan Baroque (1997)

Isa Genzken (b.1948) German artist producing abstract sculptures and large-scale installations. – Schauspieler II (2014)

Jenny Holzer (b.1950) American ‘neo-conceptualist’ famous for her projection of texts, often pretty trite, in large public spaces. – Jenny Holzer webpage. In her hands art really does become as trite and meaningless as T-shirt slogans.

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017)

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017) by Jenny Holzer

Mona Hatoum (b.1952) Palestinian video and installation artist, producing dramatic performances, videos and unnerving installations. – Undercurrent (2008). In 1982 she did a performance, standing naked in a plastic box half full of mud struggling to stand up and ‘escape’ for fours hours. – Under siege (1982) I love the look of the crowd, the sense of complete disengagement as a pack of blokes watch a naked woman covered in mud.

Kiki Smith (b.1954) German-born American who, like so many modern women artists, is obsessed with the female body, in this version stripped and flayed as per Gray’s Anatomy. – Untitled (1990)

Cindy Sherman (b.1954) American photographer and art film director. Lots of photos of herself dressed as historical characters or as stereotypical ‘types’ from Hollywood movies, ‘questioning stereotypical depictions of “the feminine”‘. As she’s gotten older her the subjects have changed to spoofing Old Master paintings, and she increasingly uses dummies and models in her mock-ups. – Untitled film still #206 (1989)

Shirin Neshat (b.1957) Iranian visual artist producing black and white photos of women in Iran e.g. her series Women of Allah. Her videos emphasise the distinction between West and East, men and women.

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Pipilotti Rist (b.1962) Video artist who works with video, film and moving images, generally of herself. – Selfless in the bath of lava (1994)

Tracey Emin CBE (b.1963) English artist making provocations, interventions, installations which are often powerfully autobiographical, like the tent, the unmade bed. Also hundreds of scratchy prints. – Everyone I have ever slept with (1995), My bed (1999).

Tacita Dean OBE (b.1965) English visual artist working in film and photography. – Bubble House (1999), The Green Ray (2001).

End thought

I’m not sure – it may be because I’m simply exhausted at the end of this thorough survey – but it does feel to me as if the contemporary art of women born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, with its interventions, installations, film and video and photos and happenings and performances – is somehow much the most unhappy, most neurotic, self-punishing and self-flagellating body of work, than that of any previous era.

Maybe their work simply reflects Western society as a whole, which has got richer and richer and somehow, as in a children’s fable, more and more miserable.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)

Background

The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one: 13th-15th century 30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’ Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe 19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque 18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight: An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting 12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905-20 12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting 8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15 are devoted to temporary exhibitions – earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh
  • I like works which contain black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which reveals the object is wider, the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

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