Jeanne Mammen & the Women of Berlin’s Cabaret

German painter Jeanne Mammen was born in Berlin in 1890, however she spent her early years living in Paris. Here Mammen’s formative years were immersed in a love of French literature and the arts of the age. The artist’s privileged upbringing enabled her to study painting and drawing at various top academies in Paris, Brussels and Rome. However, with the outbreak of World War I, Mammen’s family had their assets confiscated as they were categorised as a foreign enemy, leading to impoverished conditions for the artist. Mammen, however, also benefited from the experience, as she was able to associate with a variety of people from various backgrounds, an eclectic world once hidden from the limited niceties of her middle class social circle. This, in turn, would have a major influence on her later artwork.

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After moving back to Berlin, in 1921 Mammen began a professional career in art, first as a poster designer for films and later as a magazine illustrator. However, it was the colourful and daring nightlife of the Weimar Republic that caught Mammen’s artistic attention. Between the period of the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, the artist began to create many sketches and watercolour artworks capturing the raucous nightclubs, cafes and cabarets of the city. Here the artist was able to present the vibrancy of a world inhabited by Jewish intellectuals, fellow artists, bohemians and a flourishing lesbian scene, amidst the chaotic pleasures and passions of  the metropolis after dark.

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Mammen’s work, however, is especially noted for her focus on women. The artist did not simply portray shallow, passive props, but presented her women as subjects. Mammen’s females are alive, strong, confronting and confident in their sex and sexuality. Her portrayal of lesbians is ground-breaking from a female perspective, while ignoring both the taboos of the age and their cliched sexualised presentation for the male gaze. Mammen painted such subjects with a rare sense of strength, humour and with the simple joy of women enjoying the company of other women.

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The artist was involved in many art shows, including in an exhibition of female artists in Berlin. However, it was Mammen’s  disregard for apparent ‘appropriate’ female submissiveness in her expression and her subjects which caused the Nazis to later ban her lesbian work and brand her work degenerate and ‘Jewish’. Despite this, Mammen refused to comply and join in with the Nazi regime’s artistic propaganda machine and for much of World War II the artist did no more artworks, even selling books from a cart to survive.

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Having survived the war, in her later years the painter moved into more abstract expressions of art. However, it was her observations of a particular period of German history which are perhaps most remarkable. Her courage to resist the onslaught of the Nazis and to observe and capture a much marginalised yet positive portrayal of life is certainly worth celebrating. The artist’s portrayal of women especially should be honored as a joyful and valuable expression of confident womanhood and sexuality.

 

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The artist reflected on her own work…

“I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others….”.

Jeanne Mammen continued her observations and her painting until her death in 1976.

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The Glasgow School Sisters who Influenced Klimt

Despite being central to the “Glasgow style” of art, influential in the expansion of the Art Nouveau movement, sisters Margaret (1864-1933) and Frances MacDonald (1873-1921) were both born in England. The MacDonald family, however, moved to Scotland when the girls were still young.

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Margaret MacDonald

Due to their privileged upper-middle class background, Margaret and Frances received a rare female broad education in subjects ranging from Latin to science from a pioneering school for girls. After their earlier schooling, in the early 1890’s the sisters then enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art. Unlike many places of education, which still restricted and excluded on the basis of sex, the Glasgow School was described as providing a more “enlightened” space for women artists. Here the sisters and their fellow females were allowed to work towards a career in art by studying a variety of mediums, from textiles and embroidery to painting and metalwork designs.

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Central to this progressive atmosphere were specific women-only societies providing particular support and encouragement, such as the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists (founded in 1882). Such groups created spaces for women to exhibit their work in addition to meeting and exchanging advice and encouragement. This was pivotal to the foundation of women’s sense of self belief in an ongoing sexist and hostile society. Aiding in a sense of solidarity,  many of the female students and staff were also involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage. In fact, many of the artists were responsible for creating suffragist banners.

Buoyed by their experience, Margaret and Frances left the School in the mid 1890’s to set up their own shared art studio at 128, Hope Street in Glasgow. The sisters worked collaboratively on a number of projects and their work developed into a particular and distinctive style, as they drew heavily from folklore and mysticism for their themes. With their education and professional status as artists, Margaret and Frances may be described as prime examples of the eras “new woman” an early feminist ideal and term to describe independent, career women.

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Frances MacDonald

During their student days, both sisters had met their future husbands. Margaret later married designer and architect Charles Mackintosh and Frances wed James MacNair, a Scottish artist and designer. Their marriages, in turn, lead to a dissolving of the sisters’ artistic partnership as Margaret and Frances began collaborative work with their respective partners, as was expected of dutiful wives. During such work much of the sister’s own artistic input was credited to their husbands. However, the sisters exhibited their work internationally. Margaret’s artwork was shown in Vienna, for example, and has been highlighted as a profound influence on such renowned artists as Gustav Klimt.

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Margaret never had children, unlike Frances who gave birth to a son, and this was influential on both sister’s futures. Margaret, without the responsibility of children, was able to have a certain limited freedom and independence that Frances now lacked. The elder sister therefore received more attention and success. Also Frances and her husband suffered financial losses which impacted on their artistic careers. It could be said that such differing paths are evident in the work each sister produced. While both artists focused on highly stylized women and symbolic female experience within their artworks, Margaret’s figures are perhaps more positively portrayed than the sometimes later lonely and bereft figures created by her sister.

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Despite the difficulties encountered by women artists, from restrictive gender role to artistic erasure by male spouse, Margaret and Frances MacDonald did however, both gain from an era of burgeoning feminism. The importance of access to education, professional status and the support of fellow women can not be denied. Both artists, in turn, require full recognition for their vital, inspirational and unique role within Western art.

This was something Charles Mackintosh, husband of Margaret, himself could not deny. While he received international acclaim…he stated of his much lesser known wife…

“Margaret has genius, I have only talent.”

Amrita Sher-Gil, not ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was not born in India but in Hungary, to a Sikh aristocrat father and a bourgeois Hungarian Jewish mother. Such heritage would, in turn, enable a unique artistic perspective for the future artist.

The family relocated to India when Amrita was a child, and here she continued to pursue an early talent for painting. The artist’s burgeoning self expression soon manifested in a declaration of atheism, a statement which enabled her expulsion from her convent school.

Later Amrita studied art in Florence and was hugely inspired by the wealth of Western Renaissance, avant-garde and modernist artworks which surrounded her. At the age of only sixteen, Amrita visited Paris and was already painting in earnest.

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The artist returned to India in 1934 however, as she longed to explore the traditions of Indian art as key to her own part Indian identity. Here Amrita was inspired by a rich history of Pahari and Mughal painting styles and philosophies. As a result her own work began to highlight her tours of Southern India, in not only terms of colour and atmosphere, but also reflecting an understanding and connecting empathy with her subjects. Amrita painted villagers and rural lives, with equal respect. Her painting The Bride’s Toilet (1937) for example, reflects the rights, rituals and limitations of female lives, one of many works enabling unique female themes and perspective for the era.

brides-toiletThe Bride’s Toilet (1937)

Despite her privileged background, Amrita was very much a proponent of challenging both poverty and injustice, while supporting political freedoms for an India still under the rule of the British Raj.

Amrita, who had married her Hungarian husband Victor, later moved to Lahore in early 1941, a city significant for both its role in the independence movement of India and Pakistan and for its then artistic community. The artist continued her prolific work here, while having affairs with both men and women. Amrita had already scandalised the art world with such paintings as the Self-Portrait as Tahitian (1937) reflecting her half naked body in an artwork which questioned ideas of cultural identity and exotic cliches. Despite white male artists placing their own ideology upon women of colour as object for centuries, an Indian female artist utilising her own body as subject was deemed shockingly unacceptable. Amrita however rejected the Orientalist stereotypes in Western modernism, by creating work which not only highlighted herself and other real people, but challenged Imperialist perceptions in an era of ongoing British rule.

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Self Portrait as Tahitian (1934)

In December of 1941, just before the opening of her first major Lahore show, Amrita became ill, went into a coma and died. The artist was just 28 years old. The cause of her death is not clear, but there are some suggestions that Amrita became ill after an unsafe abortion. The artist’s mother accused Amrita’s husband of her murder although no charges were ever brought against him.

Despite her short life, Amrita created a huge body of work which continues to be celebrated for its affection without sentimentality, its challenges without overt confrontation.

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The painter is often referred to as ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’. However, it is more apt to refer to Amrita as simply herself, an artist and pioneer of modernist 20th century art, whose talent defies a need for comparison. Like Frida Kahlo, Amrita was an unconventional woman of her time, bold and pioneering in both life and in art. However, the artist was unique, creating a lasting legacy all of her own. Her work not only reflected and aided a growing insurgence of Indian strength in identity, but significantly linked both East and West, reflective of  Amrita Sher-Gil’s own sense of self and self rule as both artist and woman.

 

Hannah Höch, and the Deconstruction of The Beautiful Girl

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) was a German artist who was part of  the early 20th century European avant-garde art movement known as Dada.  Such artists emphasised the absurd and irrational in their art, aiming at protesting a bourgeois and capitalist society in the aftermath of World War one.

Höch was one of a small number of female artists involved in the male dominated movement. Her work clearly reflects the importance of a female perspective, amongst many male voices, as she sought to highlight specific themes in relation to women and society.  Höch created her photomontage,  Das Schone Madchen/The Beautiful Girl (1919-20), in an era which saw the rise of the ideal of the European ‘New Woman’.  This was a time of women’s suffrage, and demands for female rights as citizens in society and within the workforce.

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Höch utilised clippings from women’s magazines and other media to comment on the contradictions and complexities of female roles in a rapidly modernizing, yet also compromised post war German society. While a common medium today, the artist was one of the originators of photomontage.

The Beautiful Girl is a deliberately unsettling piece which highlights women not as a rising autonomous subjects but emphasised  as objects within a growing industrialised and corporate landscape. The work is created by considered deconstruction and reconstruction of everyday monochrome, sepia and colour pictorial media photographic imagery. The busy, disjointed arrangement of larger and smaller pieces, in turn, produces a composition which is deliberately disorientating for the viewer.

Höch’s work utilises realistic imagery which has been reorganised to be visually and compositionally confronting.  Female body parts and advertising imagery are placed in conjunction with symbols of bourgeois commodities and machine components, wheels and crankshafts. By foregrounding the dominating image of the cut out and detached, floating modern ‘feminine’ hairstyle, Höch points towards the gendered themes of the work while creating a top-heavy sense of disorder.

The Beautiful Girl was created during the Weimer Republic,  an era in which women’s roles where being explored, not only regarding voting rights and work, but also in terms of female sexuality and identity. However, the reality and struggle of women’s everyday lives was one that often contradicted the ideals and expectations being placed upon them.

Höch wanted the viewer to be disturbed by notions of gender in society as she presented conflicting ideas of femininity (and masculinity). This was in conjunction with her use of repetitive elements, e.g. oval wheel, circular badges and watch, to project a backdrop of chaotic capitalist fever. Höch deconstructs and subverts the intentions of the advertising and glamorous media imagery she utilises. Rather than attractive, the colours are sickly; the decapitated female figure is reconstructed as part commodity, while a model stares blankly out of a disembodied eye. Women are reflected as not only denied autonomy but humanity itself, as the processes of corporate modernism envelop them.

Höch is not simply addressing and protesting the issues of early 20th century European life like her male contemporaries, but enabling a vital female-centric reading of the themes presented.  The artist however struggled, as was the case with many women in the arts, to be recognised and valued on an equal basis as the men around her.  Höch stated that women artists were dismissed as “gifted amateurs’’ and denied professional status.

The fact that Höch was an innovative pioneer in both her artistic field and in highlighting a female perspective, despite the injustices of a male dominated culture, reflects both her talent and resilience – common traits for so many of her fellow women artists.

Book Review: Openings, A Memoir from The Women’s Art Movement, 1970-1992

“What is feminist art?” was a question posed to Sabra Moore in her newly published book Openings, A Memoir from The Women’s Art Movement, 1970-1992. As a New York based artist, writer, and activist who worked at the center of one of the most defining eras of Western feminist creativity, Moore is extremely well placed to answer.  The author, as former president of the Women’s Caucus for Art, member of the Heresies feminist collective and one of the instigators of a major protest at MoMA, played a vital role in the unfolding events of the time. Produced from years of intricate journal keeping, Moore presents her memoirs including her interlocking pathways, affiliations and friendships with the most renowned US female artists of the age, from Louise Bourgeois and Faith Ringgold to Ana Mendieta and Georgia O’Keeffe. In doing so the author not only creates insights into her own innovative artistic ventures and that of her female contemporaries, but provides an invaluable account of art and the women’s liberation movement which lays bare the very ethos of feminism.

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A sense of the era’s hopes wrapped in outrage are outlined as Moore highlights women’s struggle for artistic autonomy and personal self-definition, within a conjoined exploding world of civil rights activism, anti-Vietnam war protests and black arts movements. In doing so the author conveys an intriguing historical primary source inclusive of a tangible sense of the excitement of the age. Moore’s autobiographical journey through her late 20th century feminist activism painstakingly reflects the many groups and initiatives, studios, protests, publications and galleries set up to counter the sexism and racism involved in the mainstream art world. From the influential feminist Heresies collective, who sought both women’s artistic and human rights, to the Guerilla Girls and demonstrations against MoMA’s lack of female representation to which she was central, Moore highlights a continuous campaign of activism interwoven with the ongoing and related creativity of herself and fellow female artists. In a contemporary age perhaps removed from the significance and integrity of terms such as ‘sisterhood’, Moore’s insights into a diverse women’s artistic community lays bare the sheer effort, pain and joy involved in women’s collective labour to initiate positive change.

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The personal is certainly political in Moore’s writing, and fascinatingly so as she entwines the era’s feminist artistic and political progress with her own private narrative. From the bonds and traumas of parental relationships,  poetic dreams and work in a newly legalised abortion clinic to the horrors of being subjected to intimate partner violence, Moore presents a candid viewpoint. In doing so, the descriptions of women’s activism are fleshed out and given added relevance within a significantly female story. In turn, Moore’s moving recollections of the circumstances surrounding the death and believed murder of friend and fellow artist Ana Mendieta are particularly poignant.  The rage felt by the author and her companions, such as artist Faith Ringgold, at the presumed male violence and colluding injustice of the authorities is palpable. Juxtaposed with ongoing recollections of the politics and artworks of the age, the author instills a real sense of feminist purpose.  Moore thus exposes the reader to a rare and unapologetically intimate and bold centering of women and the issues surrounding them by women themselves.

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Sylvia Sleigh, A.I.R. Group Portrait, 1977-78

Such attention to female bonding is also reflected in the artworks of the many women artists Moore highlights in her book. Sylvia Sleigh’s group portrait of A.I.R. (Artists in Residence), the first all-female cooperative gallery in the US, including such artist as Nancy Spero and Agnes Denes, is indicative of the era. In addition Moore highlights such innovations as Sleigh’s male nude series ‘the gaze returned’ and Faith Ringgold’s The Flag Is Bleeding . The artist Mary Beth Edelson is also recorded as creating her humorous and irreverent feminist version of the Last Supper, substituting the disciples with many of the women artists in Moore’s circle and replacing the Christ figure with a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe.  This, in turn is compared with Judy Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party (1979), both artworks emphasising and honoring the gathering together of women.  Moore’s own work, however, is described as having roots in the skill and creativity of her grandmother’s textile crafts. The author states ‘’Quilts serve a function; the context of women working together could serve as a model to change the art world’’, and so considering female collective effort and creativity with positive feminist/political transformation.

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The book itself is dedicated by Moore to her grandmother, in homage to the often invisible skills and ingenuity of female ancestors. In doing so, the author reminds the reader that her own writing is an acknowledgement of past and present women, their struggle, rage, creativity, resourcefulness, bravery and community which goes far beyond the bounds of an artistic movement. Moore enables a focus on the female artist which is still relevant today, highlighting such issues as tokenism, lack of economic resources, and including artist Alice Neel’s advice to ‘stay healthy’ as success, if it comes at all, will ‘come late’ for women.  In conclusion, ‘feminist art’ is explained by Moore as ‘a way of life, a state of mind, a political commitment to other women’’.  This is not simply an intriguing autobiography or a valuable archive and resource on women artists and art history, this book is feminism……..please read it and learn.

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Openings, A Memoir from The Women’s Art Movement, 1970-1992 by Sabra Moore, Published by New Village Press, New York (2016)

Paula Rego ‘Secrets and Stories’ (BBC 2) Review

The Paula Rego documentary ‘Secrets and Stories’ (BBC 2) directed by her son Nick Willing, was never going to be the usual detached academic and clinical dissection of a painter and their work, and that is what made it so compelling. The relationship between director and subject quite naturally enabled a highly personal insight into the life of a notoriously shy painter. Willing places Rego at center stage, her meandering monologue acts as if a fascinating gift, painstakingly and delicately unwrapped.  What is revealed is exactly as the title suggests, the secrets and stories of a life at times bold and fragile, humorous and dark, loving and tragic, so often reflected in the complexities and often autobiographical narratives of Rego’s own paintings.

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Not dwelling on the painter’s eventual international success, Willing focuses on the earlier years of Rego’s life, her childhood, her life at the Slade, her pregnancy, marriage, affairs and widowhood. This is not a film focused on fame, but about the interweaving relationships that create a human existence. Willing, acting as gentle inquisitor, engages the viewer by sharing his quest to illuminate a mother who was at times both secretive and distant. Each stage of Rego’s life is pondered on, the painter’s, at times, wistful recollections accompanied on a chronological journey by relevant artworks, personal snapshots and home movies. All, in turn, not only permit the viewer to establish connections between the painter and her work, but to unravel who Paula Rego actually is.

That unraveling inevitably reveals Rego’s experiences in life and in art as shaped by her womanhood. Rego describes a repressive, middle class Portuguese life as one in which women were highly encouraged to do nothing, while working class women were forced to do everything. The painter recalls girlhood as a time of learning obedience to men, in addition to secretive and confused messages about puberty, sexual abstention and female middle class propriety.  Subsequently, after leaving 1950’s, then fascist Portugal (described by her father as a ‘killer society for women’), to attend London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Rego recollects an era including coerced sex leading to many secretive back street abortions. Her affair with highly regarded and married painter Victor Willing proved life changing as she was forced to leave for Portugal when pregnant and deserted by the male artist, who she eventually married.

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Speaking candidly to her son, Rego recalls her marriage as a complex mixture of artistic support, love, unfaithfulness, secrets and fear of abandonment, later further complicated by Willing’s debilitating health problems.  The documentary includes recollections of the painter’s two daughters whose anecdotes, despite their obvious respect and admiration, reflected their feelings of distance from a mother preoccupied with her work (a circumstance rarely negatively associated with Picasso or Lucian Freud for example). The artist herself commented on her own inability to provide absolute caring attention for her children and husband, an expectation of duty for many woman and one which often prevents career success.

Rego highlights her use of art as therapy, after lifelong anxiety and depression, a history she shares with her father. In her paintings, for example, her father becomes a comatose figure and incapacitated Victor is depicted as a dog to be treated with a cruel kindness. In artworks, Rego calmly states, you can ‘let all your rage out’, her coping mechanism. Despite her anxieties however, Rego’s strength, determination and own experiences are  exemplified in her ‘Abortion’ series highlighting the horrors of unsafe abortion after the failure of the 1998 referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal. Rego recalls the whispered secrets of women in the gallery while looking at her paintings. In turn, after being shown in Lisbon, her work actually helped change both public opinion and the law in 2007.

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Somewhat eccentric, steely, shy and charming, Rego, the gift, is slowly revealed. The  scratchy super 8 films of the younger artist’s hedonistic pleasures, dancing with Victor and friends, interspersed with the almost silent concentration of footage of present day older Rego still in the studio, reflect a women’s lifetime of experience and creativity.

‘Secrets and Stories’ is both a sensitive and honest conversation between mother and son, and also artist and viewer, that should not be missed.

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Available to watch in the UK for a limited time:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08kz9qz/paula-rego-secrets-and-stories

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Hengameh Golestan: 100,000 Women Protest the Hijab

Hengameh Golestan (1952-2003) was a pioneer among Iranian women photographers. Born in Tehran, she traveled extensively documenting the lives of women in both Iran and Kurdistan. As a woman herself she was able to gain access to intimate domestic settings, as well as the rituals, work  and practices of her fellow females’ lives.

Hengameh’s work was also politically motivated. In 1991, for example, she assisted her husband on the project `Recording the Truth`, a film which examined the role of censorship in Iran.

Perhaps Hengameh’s most captivating photographic work, however, documented the public responses of women in Iran in the aftermath of the exile of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic.

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During the spring of 1979 more than 100,000 women began to gather on the streets of the capital. This huge upsurge of female unrest was in protest against the compulsory hijab ruling which was sanctioned by the new Islamic government. Women, who had previously been allowed to dress as they wished, were now being forced by the state to wear a headscarf at all times in public spaces. This was not only an issue of enforced dress codes, but for many was indicative of the dismissal of women’s human rights.

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Hengameh, who was 27 at the time, documented this huge women’s protest, focusing on the scale, determination and bravery involved in such an uprising. The women protesters originated from all quarters of society, including nurses, artists, doctors, teachers, lawyers and domestic workers. The photographer herself spoke of the charged political atmosphere of the time, in which excitement and fear were never far away. Hengameh also recalled documenting the protest, noting the difficulties of photographing such a huge crowd while also hiding from government officials. Never the less, Hengameh’s black and white imagery perfectly captures such vibrant resistance and intensity.

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The photographer’s work was only publicly exhibited in recent years and in London, long after Hengameh’s move to Britain in 1984. Hengameh herself continued to work as a photojournalist until her death in 2003.

The protest itself ended in violence for many women and without the freedoms so many had been inspired to demand. The photographs captured by Hengameh not only documents the protest, but also the last day women could walk the streets uncovered.

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Hengameh’s photography, however, captures a unique moment in Iranian history, reflecting the strength and resilience of Iranian women, while raising concerns about the fragility of all gained female human rights and ongoing subjugation of women throughout the world.

Hilma af Klint: Female Founder of Abstract Art

Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) is now believed to be the first Western abstract artist.

Hilma grew up in idyllic rural Sweden and it is considered that nature and also a keen interest in mathematics were crucial influences on her later paintings. In addition, the sudden death of her sister impacted Hilma’s preoccupation with spirituality, another element associated with the artist’s body of work.

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Tree of Knowledge, 1913 – Hilma af Klint

Hilma’s talent for visual art soon became clear and she was able to enroll in Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts (1882), an educational opportunity which women in many European countries were still denied.  At first Hilma concentrated on landscapes and portraiture for her studies. However she had already developed an interest in theosophy, a mystical philosophy concerning the mysteries of life and nature.  Significantly this was a semi-religious and philosophical movement that did not discriminate against women and was in fact founded by a woman, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

The ideas and beliefs incorporated within this movement were simultaneously inspiring male abstract pioneers such as Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky and would have a profound influence over the work of these artists, including Hilma’s.

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Hilma af Klint

Hilma became involved with a group of fellow female artist known as ‘The Five’ who shared her interest in mysticism.  Together they worked on an artistic philosophy which centered on knowledge deemed beyond the senses, focusing on spirituality.  In 1896, Hilma began a series of ‘automatic drawings’ believed to be driven by forces beyond the natural and human world. Such work encompassed much of the geometric symbolism that the artist would later refer to.  Hilma later gained employment as a draughtswoman, another aspect of her life that would be reflected in her ensuing pioneering artwork.

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Hilma’s automatic drawings (1896)

In 1906, Hilma began creating abstract paintings in a series entitled ‘Primordial Chaos’. From this point onward Hilma produced a body of work encompassing and exploring the ideas of her day, from scientific discoveries of electromagnetic fields to musical oscillations, from prisms of light to the occult. The artist still studied the theosophical texts, drawing on a wealth of ideas which she translated into a visual philosophy aiming to depict a higher world beyond the everyday. Hilma created a large and pioneering body of work that incorporated a complex and new artistic language, within a movement that would be regarded as changing  Western art forever.

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Chaos, Nr. 2, 1906 – Hilma af Klint

Hilma’s ability to create as a woman artist was shaped by certain circumstances. The first is that she was from a fairly well off family which enabled her to pursue her artistic goals. The second is that she was allowed an art education, unlike so many other women artists who were systematically denied access to academies and art schools. Thirdly, Hilma was involved with a female-friendly philosophical stance, which enabled her to deeply explore particular theories, from which otherwise she may have been excluded. Fourthly, the artist was able to develop her ideas within a group of fellow women artists. Even if female artists could access art schools, they were seldom included in less formal groupings of artists there, unlike men who often formed ‘boys clubs’, such as the Pre-Raphaelites for example,  in which they could support each other to cement their artistic practices and goals.

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Altarbild Nr.1, Gruppe X, 1915 – Hilma af Klint

Hilma died in 1944, without ever showing her work in an exhibition. In turn, her hugely pioneering artistic achievements have never been properly recognised. The role of abstraction in Western art history is never the less, one of incredible significance. Hilma’s work is now believed to predate the work of Kandinsky, an artist usually credited with the introduction of abstract art. However, even today the work of Hilma is seldom referenced in the same breath as the innovative male abstract artists of the era.

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The Dove,No 13, 1915 – Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint, as founder of abstract art, surely deserves her place in history.

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Frida Kahlo, Retaliation, Independence and Assertion- A Painting Analysis

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) created the painting “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” in 1940. It was painted in the aftermath of her divorce to her husband Diego Rivera who had been unfaithful to the artist.

Kahlo was already known for her challenges to gender construction. As a younger woman she had posed in family photographic portraits wearing a suit, a shocking act of defiance in an era in which female dress codes were both limited and enforced by convention. Her androgynous appearance was therefore early evidence of a fierce independent and rebellious spirit which would translate to both the artist’s later life and work.

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Frida kahlo, family portrait, age 17, (far left)

Kahlo’s 1940 portrait is an embodiment of such bold defiance. Once again the artist steps outside the boundaries of social norms and also the perceived ‘feminine’ artistic practices expected of the female self-portraitist of her day, by presenting herself dressed in ‘masculine’ attire.

As a response to Rivera’s affairs with other women, the artist represents herself boldly in her ex-husband’s suit, as she seizes for herself the social privileges of her former male partner. Rivera was regarded as a great artist of his time and had gained both wealth and fame. Kahlo’s work, however, received little attention in comparison and her international success was only granted posthumously.

The 1940 portrait portrays a complex act of female retaliation, independence and assertion in reaction to a context of societal and marital female subordination and personal trauma. The out sized suit, as an embodiment of male authority to which the artist lays claim, acts as armour, a statement of both courage and self-protection. The figure’s gaze is defiantly engaging, the expression is one of strength.

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Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” 1940

In addition to wearing a suit, the artist portrays herself in the aftermath of cutting her own hair short. Kahlo subverts existing power structures, defying gendered conventions. In doing so she frees her painted self of the limitations of imposed femininity. Hair is strewn around the scene as if the subject of an act of previous rage and frenzy. The lyric at the top of the painting reads “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore”. The artist portrays herself as empowered by her own actions, her own self imposed loss, estranging herself from her former life.

Kahlo’s symbolic painting works as a personification of a woman’s anger, defiance and independence. The scissors are a tool utilised to reflect that the figure is in charge of her own destiny.

They are also significantly held at a level suggestive of castration.

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Public Art and Ideological Censorship

Women are hugely under represented in public art. Using the UK as an example, research carried out by campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez stated that out of over 900 public statues in Britain, only 158 are of lone women.

Despite exceptions, such as Queen Victoria, the most common representations of women are allegorical figures, for example representing ‘Justice’, or mythical and religious figures, such as near naked mermaids, goddesses and angels. Womanhood is thus publicly presented as abstract or illusion, objects of fantasy and projection, or vessels for announcement. This, in turn, is reflective of enduring practices to utilise women’s bodies in specific ways, including as titillation for the male gaze and as contemporary  commodities for advertisements.

That women are reflected in this way and not in terms of their lives and achievements is therefore not only indicative of their erasure from public life and societal value, but negates the idea of female humanity.

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Conversely, male-centric public representation endorses the idea that men alone have guided both history and culture. In fact such perceptions are so embedded that they have become virtually unquestionable norms.

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For centuries in the West public art has been utilised to communicate certain messages to a vast audience in order to sanction specific values and beliefs. In terms of figurative art, this may be encoded with signs of status, worth and power. A history of mostly male-only representation therefore is itself representative of a shameful gendered hierarchy, utilising visual propaganda and ideological censorship.

The failure to represent women, half the human population, is indicative of a failure of culture.

Campaigners have highlighted such inequality, aiming to raise the public profile of women as integral to a fair and just society. Taxes from women equally fund public art, yet public representation remains inexcusably male.

Womanhood, and indeed culture itself, can only benefit from the removal of such binding perimeters.