Leonor Fini, a Life Less than Ordinary

Leonor Fini (1907 –1996) was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, although her heritage was European and she spent her formative years in Trieste, Italy with her mother. The turbulent marriage of her parents aided in creating the young Fini as a rebellious and independent character who would later become an internationally recognised painter, designer and author.

Moving first to Milan then later to Paris in the early 1930s enabled her youthful talent to blossom and she was soon mingling with the Avant Garde elite of the Western art world. As a self-taught artist her early painting work began to explore an intriguing world of symbolism, mythology and sexuality, often focusing on the female form. Whether sphinxes, queens or demons, Fini’s expression would fast become entangled with the Surrealist movement and she began to exhibit both at home and abroad to great acclaim.

La fête secrète , 1964

As the artist gained a reputation for her work, the subject matter would often include erotic scenes of lesbianism, though Fini declared she herself was bisexual. Having had affairs with women, the artist drifted mostly between two male lovers and refused to settle for any form of traditional or typical lifestyle. Her work, in its frequent presentation of matriarchs and androgynous women seemed to mirror her own unique strength and individual style.

Le lecon de botanique, 1974.

Fini granted her viewers fascinating, sensual and bold female subjects extracted from the imagination of a female painter, in contrast to projections of male desire, fantasy and fear shaped by her surrealist contemporaries, such as Dali and Man Ray.

Sphinx Ariene, 1973

In her eccentricity, the painter also acquired twenty three cats who would sometimes share her dining table.

After a lifetime of exceptional creativity, Fini died in Paris in 1996 and her work is today an integral part of the finest art collections in the city, as well as in New York and London.

Leonor Fini (1907 –1996)

Ever true to her early nonconformity, the painter once stated,  “I always imagined I would have a life very different from the one that was imagined for me, but I understood from a very early time that I would have to revolt in order to make that life.” …And indeed she did.

Alma Thomas, Abstract Pioneer

Alma Thomas was born in the state of Georgia in the United States in 1892. At school she was a model student who shone in many subjects. The family later settled in Washington D.C in order for the gifted young Alma to live in a region which created more educational opportunities for African American youngsters.

The Eclipse, 1970

After leaving school, the future artist went into teaching and this was an area which she would stay close to her heart for the rest of her life. Given the chance to attend Howard University, a historically black centre of learning, it was here Thomas met influential tutor and artist Loïs Mailou Jones. Urged to study art and experiment in painting, Thomas began an early exploration of the area of abstraction. After graduation with a degree in the subject, Thomas went back to teaching.

Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968

It was not until her retirement in 1960 that Thomas became a full-time artist. Inspired by the abstract expressionism and colour-field painters of the age, she began to direct her work in a similar area. Exhibiting her work in 1966 at Howard University, she began to develop the brightly coloured mosaic style for which she became famous. Taking inspiration from the moon landings at the end of the decade, her abstract style continued. It was nature however which motivated Thomas to paint many of her works. Remembering the rural landscape of her home state, she captured impressions of the seasons, flowers and the elements among other aspects of the natural world in her following work. Her resulting paintings received much praise from critics.

Springtime in Washington, 1971

It was aged 81 that Thomas became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The artist continued to work and exhibit her work for the following seven years until her death in 1978. While not overtly political in an age of civil rights activism, Alma Thomas, nevertheless made huge inroads for African American artists into an art world run by the exclusively white and male art establishment.

‘Marxism will heal the sick’: Frida Kahlo and Karl Marx

Marxism will give health to the sick, Frida Kahlo, 1954 

One of the last paintings Frida Kahlo ever created was entitled ´Marxism will heal the sick` (1954).  Analysis of the painting, however, necessitates an understand of the artist herself, her motivation and personal context within an intriguing life and artistic career, culminating in this work which would be one of her final messages to the world.

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, into an early 20th century global era of political upheaval, bloody revolutionary uprisings and world war. In turn, the artist´s native country did not escape such instability and in 1910 Mexico was plunged into revolution. Kahlo´s childhood progressed therefore, amid a backdrop of armed rebellion against the suppression of the peasant classes, calls for land reforms and nationalization of resources. The rebels also rejected a European-style cultural template as the ideal, in favour of promoting indigenous Mexican culture. The political fervour and reclaiming of a more authentic national identity not only informed Kahlo´s own political perspective but, in turn, would have a major influence on her later artworks.

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Marxism will give health to the sick, Frida Kahlo, 1954

By the time Frida was twenty years old she had already joined the Mexican Communist Party and here her relationship with Diego Rivera, a painter of revolutionary murals and fellow member of the Party (later expelled), intensified. To describe Rivera as the more politically influential partner, citing the difference in age and experience, is to do Kahlo an intellectual disservice however. Kahlo was from a middle-class family and therefore benefited from an education including a wide range of resources and reading. The artist´s father also encouraged his daughter in gaining full advantage of an education only made possible by the recent admittance of girls to preparatory schools during the revolution. Here the teenage artist was heavily involved with a group of socialists known as the Cachuchas. This small society of young intellectuals were known not only for their adolescent pranks, but also for their sharing of ideas on history, philosophy and the political theorizing of Marx.

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Above: Tina Modotti’s photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, with members of the Artists’ Union, on the May Day March, Mexico City, 1929 to protest for workers rights and to show working class unity.

While the revolutionary events of the era, an informed education, in addition to politically motivated associates, all aided the formation of Kahlo’s Marxist ideals, it was perhaps her personal circumstances that created an extra dimension to her perspectives. As a child Kahlo had suffered from polio, contracting the disease at the age of six and as a result was forced to spend nine months in bed. As part of her recuperation, Kahlo fought back against both her disability and gendered expectations of the era by taking part in sports such as boxing, to strengthen the weakness created by her illness. The artist´s later only partial recovery from a catastrophic tram accident not only heavily impacted on her physically, but also aiding in forming her character and beliefs. Her ability to survive the tortuous aftermath of multiple devastating injuries emphasized her resilience in the face of extreme personal adversity. Both her pain and endurance were also often themes and motifs within many of her artworks, forming an empathetic link between Kahlo and all those who struggle and yet must fight to survive.

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A metaphorical relationship between Kahlo´s own disability and her politics is clearly evident in her painting ´Marxism will heal the sick´. The artist presents a self-portrait in orthopaedic leather corset, as an embodiment of the suffering of the masses under the oppression of US capitalist forces. As the artist portrays herself as gently embraced by the reassuring, god-like hands of Marx however, she is reflected as able to throw away her crutches, promoting an evangelic-like message regarding the healing properties of Marxism for society. Kahlo´s use of symbolism and iconography communicate as if a political poster with rather simplistic reading. The divided ´good and evil´ composition of the canvas with use of opposing and familiar icons of war and peace, in addition to the saintly Marx and the strangling of the US eagle, are clearly illustrating a specific political agenda.  Even Kahlo´s dress and commonly adopted naïve, brightly coloured folk style of painting, reflect the promotion of indigenous arts embraced by the Mexican Renaissance movement, and is symbolic of a cultural identity freed by revolution.

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Having spent decades producing many groundbreaking and what may be described as feminist self-portraits examining the physiological and often painful areas of her own life, from the disintegration of her marriage to her miscarriage, Kahlo`s move to a more overtly political stance was a form of resolution for the artist. As Kahlo´s commitment to the Communist Party grew, so did her wish to create a greater connection between her art and her political beliefs. The artist´s home had been an open house to many radical thinkers and her involvement with Trotsky, who sought refuge there, has been well documented. In the last days of her life she continued to be politically active, demonstrating against US imperialism in her wheelchair, despite the recent amputation of her leg and a deterioration in her general health. Kahlo died in 1954, leaving her painting unfinished. A rousing chorus of The International was sung at the painter´s funeral and her coffin was shrouded in the red flag with the Communist emblem of hammer and sickle.

Frida Kahlo

 

Kahlo, as a woman who defied expectations of sex and sexual orientation, as a Mexican, as a survivor of great personal trauma and disability, knew only too well the meaning of the struggle to be free, an ideal she perceived was embedded in Marxism. Her political beliefs in fact, in addition to her art, her country and her lifelong endurance, defined the artist. Kahlo apparently finally found her own inner peace within the message of her last painting, in which a lifetime of personal pain and political struggle are united. Kahlo’s paintings are famous for their tears, but as her life ebbed away, the painter reportedly said of this work “For the first time, I am not crying any more”.

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First published in Culture Matters, 2018  http://culturematters.org.uk/index.php/arts/visual-art/item/2739-marxism-will-heal-the-sick-frida-kahlo-and-karl-marx

 

Tove Jansson, Moomins Creator, Artist & Author.

Tove Jansson was born in the capital of Finland, Helsinki, the eldest of her siblings. Both her parents were artists and from a young age Tove aided her mother, illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, with her commissions. As an adolescent she began creating books with her own illustrations. It would be the start of a lifelong love affair with creativity for the future artist, illustrator and author.

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Signe Hammarsten-Jansson’s self portrait.

Tove’s enrolment at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1938, after studying art in her homeland, would eventually lead to exhibitions of her work. During the pre World War 2 era, Tove would regularly have illustrations published in magazines. It was at this time, the artist began to be involved with Garm, an anti-fascist Finnish-Swedish satirical magazine for whom she created many illustrations.

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Tove’s illustrations for ‘Garm‘ magazine (c.1939)

Although she was once briefly engaged, Tove met her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä, a US born, Finnish graphic artist who was also a professor in Seattle, during the 1950s. The two began working on projects together, a circumstance that would later lead to a deep romantic connection. Same-sex relationships were illegal in Finland at the time and would remain so until as late as 1971. Their early love affair had to be hidden and at first demonstrated through coded messages and discreet meetings.

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Tuulikki and Tove (c.1960)

Tove’s first Moomins book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was created in 1945 at the end of a very grim period of European and global history involving two world wars and the unleashing of atomic bombs on Japan. Her early books often metaphorically reflected such times as a result. In her first work Tove invented a forested world beset with hidden dangers for her Moomin characters to navigate, while her second, Comet in Moominland (1946), contemplated a world of catastrophes and natural disasters. Highlighting the darkness often found in traditional folk and fairytales, the books however, would also reflect the relationships of family members and the values of kinship. In this way Tove explored themes for children and adults without simple sentimentality, but an honest awareness of life as consisting of both light and shade… and the world in-between.

“I love borders….Twilight is the border between day and night, and the shore is the border between sea and land. The border is longing: when both have fallen in love but still haven’t said anything. The border is to be on the way. It is the way that is the most important thing.”― Tove Jansson

The Moomin characters related to Tove’s own family. The wise and practical Too-Ticky, however, who was introduced in Moominland Midwinter (1957), was based on her lover who had inspired and motivated her to write the book. It was a work which incorporated a theme of the dread of winter corresponding with Tove’s own depression, only to end with the eventual and inevitable light of spring. In turn, Tove saw herself as a combination of Moomintroll, a character portrayed as a dreamer and a thinker and the fiery and irritable Little My.

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Moomintroll and Too-Ticky 

Tove’s female characters were often far from stereotypical. The mischievous Little My, for example, represented a girlhood that could be bold and defiant. Meanwhile Too-Ticky, reflected a gender non-conformity and skilful practicality far from common in the era the character was created. Both, in turn, highlighting Tove’s own perceptive insights and progressive ideas.

In the 1960s, the partners created their own house on a small uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland. Klovharu would became their summer home for almost 30 years. Tove and Tuulikki captured many of their experiences there on 8 mm film, documentation of romantic lives entwined in nature and creativity.

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Klovharu Island

Their alternating urban life was spent in the city of Helsinki, in adjoining apartments with connecting studios.

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Tove Jansson in her Helsinki home and studio,1956

In addition to her continuing Moomin books, Tove was a painter who worked in both impressionist and abstract styles and had a number of exhibitions. She was also a serious writer and, in addition collaborated in many theatrical works, including creating set designs for the Finnish National Ballet.

Jansson died in 2001 aged 86 years old, leaving a heart broken Tuulikki who survived her for eight more years.

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Tove’s legacy includes leaving the world with a lifetime of successful creative endeavours which have continued to fascinate and enthral people without barriers of age. The artist, author and illustrator herself once stated wisely …

“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.”

Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

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Little My

Käthe Kollwitz, A Vision of Humanity

Käthe Kollwitz was born in 1867 into a large Prussian family, whose religious concerns and passion for socialist politics would hugely influence her future work as an artist. As a child Kollwitz began to reveal a particular talent for drawing, a skill that would later become central to her life and eventually recognised and revered globally.

Encouraged by family support, Kollwitz developed her artistic gifts first in the home and then in her studies at the Women’s Art School in Munich. Here she was further inspired by the social concerns of the age and Kollwitz began to reflect the struggles of the working classes.

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The Weavers’ Revolt, ‘March of the Weavers’, 1893-1897

As the artist developed her artistic style, she found herself more attracted to printmaking, utilising lithographic techniques, woodcuts and etchings, rather than the more fashionable painting genre, in addition to viewing herself as a draughtswoman.

Kollwitz later moved to Berlin after marrying her doctor husband Karl. Through his practice attending to the poor of the city, the artist drew on her knowledge and understanding of the workers and the peasant community. Depictions of proletariat uprisings, the pain of poverty, toil, sacrifice and loss, became constant and highly emotive themes, emphasized in the artist’s stark, graphic compositions.

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Kollwitz’s 1903 etching Outbreak focuses on rebel peasant leader ‘Black Anna’ who incited a historic revolt. The idea of the female revolutionary appealed to Kollwitz so much that she created Anna in her own image in a series of work.

Kollwitz’s portrayal of her fellow women perhaps became the most striking phenomena within her body of work. The artist was able, for example, to capture and convey the strengths, anxieties and suffering of women by combining such elements as sensitivity and stoicism.

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In her 1942 work Seed for the Planting Must Not be Ground Kollwitz highlights an anti- war message utilising the female subject, the mother, as the embodiment of protection against the folly of human waste. There is no sentimental or delicate femininity here, but an impacting vision of solidity and determination. Kollwitz lost her own son in World War I and her grandson in World War II. Her work was therefore profoundly relevant to her own experience as a woman.

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Kollwitz also created over fifty self-portraits in her lifetime, without vanity but with a complex sense of self examination.

The artist sadly died in 1945 only two weeks before the end of the Second World War and much of her work was lost in an allied bombing raid. However, her surviving artworks have inspired generations of art lovers.

Kollwitz herself once stated:

”I am in the world to change the world”

…and indeed, she did.

The Story of Gerda and Lili

The artist Gerda Wegener (née Gottlieb) was born in semi-rural Denmark into a conservative and religious family. As a young woman with a promising artistic talent, she was later allowed to attend the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. It was here, in 1904, that Gerda first met fellow artist and landscape painter who’s given name was Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, but who would later become globally known as Lili Elbe.

It is believed they married at the ages of 19 and 22 years old.

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Gerda Wegener

After Gerda graduated in 1907 the couple travelled around Europe, eventually settling in Paris. The artist hoped that the French capital would offer her an artistic opportunity in the world of fashion. Gerda’s work was shown at various exhibitions and she eventually gained a living in advertising creating posters. Here she developed a specific art deco figurative style. Her work, often featuring women and erotica, was considered too risqué in her homeland, but was readily accepted in the more relaxed atmosphere of Bohemian Paris.

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Gerda Wegener, A Summer Day-detail, 1927

Gerda and her partner soon became well acquainted with the dancers, intellectuals, fellow artists and the radical lifestyle of the capital. It was at this time that Elbe began to present as Lili. The artist, like Gerda, had also worked as an illustrator to earn money and had been a successful landscape painter, even exhibiting at the Salon in Paris, but had ceased painting believing it was part of a former life.

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Poples along Hobro Fjord, 1908 signed in Elbe’s former name.

Gerda, however, continued in her work, sometimes utilising Lili as model. Little did her viewers know the story behind her new muse. The circumstances of their complex bond both on a personal and artistic level was somewhat unconventional, even for the relaxed atmosphere of Paris in the early 20th century.

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Lili Elbe, 1926

The couple continued a close relationship for many years despite Lili often being explained as a cousin of Gerda’s. In 1930 Lili became one of the first people to undergo reassignment surgery and became celebrated by many as a pioneering transsexual (a term appropriate to the era). However, due to complications involved in further surgical interventions Lili died. Elbe’s autobiography was published posthumously in 1933.

By this time Gerda had become involved in a new relationship which evolved into an unhappy marriage and a period of time spent in North Africa. Later divorced, she spent the last years of her life alone.

The story of Gerda and Lili, which inspired the film ‘The Danish Girl’, has been perceived by many as challenging the typical gendered power dynamics of artist master and model. Gerda’s work has also been praised for her bold depictions of independent women, including lesbian erotica, created from the female rather than typically male gaze.

 

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“Lili y Gerda” by Gerda Wegener

 

The entwined bond of artist Gerda and former artist Lili, is certainly one of historical interest, and has a significant place in the history of both culture and art.

The Abortion Pastels, Paula Rego

In 1998 Portuguese born artist Paula Rego created a series of work entitled Untitled. The Abortion Pastels.  Rego created her work in response to a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal, which was very narrowly defeated. Each canvas depicted the image of a woman undergoing an unsafe abortion.

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Rego was born in Portugal in 1935, into what she describes as a repressive, middle-class Portuguese life 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 propriety.  Then fascist Portugal was described by her father as a ‘killer society for women’.

After leaving her homeland in the late 1950’s to attend London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Rego recollected an era including coerced sexual encounters leading to secretive and often tortuous back street abortions. In turn, her Abortion series would be both inspired by her own experiences and that of her fellow female students, utilising what she had witnessed growing up around the small Portuguese villages of her formative years.

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While Rego’s series depicted a theme uncommon in a Western cannon of art often only concerned with the idealisation of womanhood, its harsh realism exposed a hushed up, yet very real world for many women. The artist, however, did not reflect any particular emotion, nor are her subjects portrayed as passive victims. In fact their eyes often gaze blankly outwards at the viewer, thus putting the emphasis of judgement, of guilt, of collusion on those passively spectating.

The artist’s brutal images question the idea of ‘respectability’ in what she believed was a denial of reality for many women. Rego was enraged at her country’s inability to truly face up to the experience of women who would have abortions with or without choice, and whether legal or not. She recalled the women who had died.

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Rego’s Abortion series is an intentionally unnerving and uncomfortable experience as a result. When the series was exhibited in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, Rego recalled the whispered secrets of women in the gallery while looking at her artworks. In turn, after being exhibited, her work is stated to have been integral in changing public opinion.

“It is imperative women have a choice” Rego stated.

Abortion laws in Portugal were liberalised to a greater extent on April 10, 2007.

 

 

 

Othering

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(Amrita Sher-Gil (Indian painter) 1913 – 1941 Tribal Women, 1938)

‘Othering’ is the process of viewing or treating a person or group of people as intrinsically different from and alien to yourself. It may be ascribed to the historical treatment of Western women artists (as discussed in the previous blog post) by the male-run art establishment. However, it also applies to the way in which the reading of art has been skewed to suit a particular Western narrative.

Western art history is viewed in terms of the development of European ‘high art’. This progression is considered to have Greco/Roman classical foundations, a Renaissance ‘rebirth’, progressing to the modern era. Particular ideas are associated with Western art, such as that of the individual artist genius. Great artists were not only perceived as male, but also as white and European.

Unsurprisingly such ideals were formulated and established by white European men.

When contemplating the work of women artists globally, it is therefore imperative to contemplate the impact of such dominating and oppressive cultural ideals.

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(South African artist Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2008)

Western art historians, when considering art created beyond Europe, perpetuated the values of Western culture as the template for all cultural and artistic standards. In turn, ideas of Western and ‘non-Western’ art were created with the assumption of superiority and therefore inferiority.

Such polarity was embedded by the use of certain negative assumptions and stereotypes  ranging from ‘exotic’ to ‘primitive’.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and the Thai Farmers, 2008, video

(In her short film The Two Planets (Dow Song Duang) 2012, the farmers of small Thai villages discuss several classic works of modern European painting while Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook fixes her camera on them).

Imperialist and Eurocentric ideas have been highly influential in the reading of art from many diverse cultural origins. When considering European analysis of Chinese art, for example, the wealth of Chinese written theory and a complex artistic tradition spanning two thousand years (pre-dating European definitions of ‘high art’) threatened the very concept of Western superiority.

Chinese art was therefore viewed from the perception of an advanced history of Western art history. Fundamental and complex concepts such as the significance of brush method as other culturally valuable expressions were often devalued, dismissed or misinterpreted.

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(Artwork by Guan Daosheng (1263-1316),  Chinese poet and painter who was active during the early Yuan Dynasty)

Western scholars often ignored or failed to recognise the variety of changing styles, subjects and evolution of ideas within Chinese art as part of a culturally rich and complex culture with its own canons and hierarchies. To emphasise the idea of the East/West binary opposition, Chinese art was largely labelled as ‘traditional’ and therefore not evolving in comparison to ‘progressive’ Western art.

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(Contemporary artist Jessica So Ren Tang explores Chinese-American cultural identity through textiles and embroidery)

Likewise colonial discourses from the West often considered the historically rich and culturally/religiously diverse India and the many countries and cultures of Africa, for example, as primarily ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’. Assumptions of a more enlightened, modern Western culture were part of the justification for colonialist rule therefore.

Ideas of acceptable forms of artworks to the West from specific cultures were also formed on the basis of concepts like ‘purity’. This meant that ‘non- Western’ art must suit the narrow and often racist assumptions of Western theorists. Artworks read through such Western eyes were therefore often misunderstood in terms of their cultural context, spiritual or social significance and their symbolism and function.

Within the enforcement of Imperialist ideologies, women, and therefore women artists, suffered not only under the influence of such colonialist ideals, but also in terms of being female. The combination of racism and sexism created a particularly hostile climate for women often already subject to their own patriarchal cultures. Women viewed as existing beyond the perceived ‘respectable’ boundaries of European norms of ‘femininity’ were classified as exotic toys for the Western male gaze or labelled as  animalistic and therefore sub-human subordinates. This, in turn, justified the many specific and normalised abuses perpetuated on women, such as sexual violence. The 19th century French male painter Delacroix, for example, promoted titillating myths of the harem in his work, thus creating an eroticizied idea of a ‘wild non-Western’ (and therefore untamed) womanhood to gratify the pornographic fantasies of rich white Western males.

(In her 1982 work, No To Torture (below), Algerian artist Houria Niati questions the exotic stereotype perpetuated by 19th century French painter Delacroix)

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The othering of people, of women, of cultures, and the creation of such ideals incorporating the dominating influence of European Imperialism and Christian evangelism sadly remain to some extent, producing a long shadow over the reading of artworks from many diverse and complex origins. However, ongoing challenges from post-colonial and black feminist discourses continue to highlight and counter both the racist and sexist narratives and assumptions which still pervade much of Western culture.

The Elusive Female Artistic Genius

The use of the masculine term ‘master’, or idea of ‘male genius’ encapsulates much of the assumptions of Western historical ideas of ‘the artist’.
However, the view that women artists absence from the canon is due to their incapacity for greatness has been challenged in recent years, citing lack of recognition. Talented Western women artists have always existed….. but often against all the odds….

The existence of women artists has to be recognised in a highly significant historical and social context of restricted female access to public life, lack of economic independence, education, art academies, patronage, family limitations and so on.

The very ideals of Western art were formalised in institutions in which women were excluded. This has, in turn, greatly impacted on ideas surrounding women artists, included notions of women’s creativity being afforded a lesser cultural status. In turn, male artists have created and controlled female representation, often coded as passive, decorative or sexually objectified, to suit a male consumer of art. This was both an image and a social landscape at odds with that of a capable, intelligent and professional female artist.

During the Renaissance, a sixteenth century Italian female context was one of extreme restriction, enforced dependence, and life within the limited arena of the family. In an era emphasising learning and the academy, female artists had to rely on the cooperation and kindness of male relatives to provide tutorage in the home, due to lack of access to public education.

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German Renaissance male artist Albrecht Dürer’s Christ-like self portrait, 1500

As male artists began to increase their wealth, power and status separating from craft, there was a corresponding strengthening hostility towards women in the arts. As females were perceived to lack the ability for ‘genius’ of their male counterparts, they were largely excluded from highly regarded fields/genres and therefore high artistic merit.Male creators of art began to produce self-portraits as signatures or bystander portraits reflecting status and accomplishments, to gain patronage and individual recognition. Although the act of painting was itself often personified as ‘female’, the tradition for depicting the male as artist (including the self-portrait) continued to develop. The few women who were lucky enough to gain some private tuition in painting, in comparison, had to promote the very idea that they even existed as artists, often having to depict themselves at the easel in the process of creating.As a trend for portraits of the wealthy (from the fifteenth century) began, ideas of femininity were embedded by male artists reflecting contemporary gendered social mores. Women were depicted by promoting their dependent status as decorative appendages, maidens, wives or widows (highlighting passiveness, modesty, honour, attractiveness, availability, for the ‘male gaze’/gendered viewer). If we compare the artwork of (rare) female artist Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait (1579)….

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…..and male artist Cornelis Cort, after Jan van der Straet An Ideal Roman Academy (1578), we are able to gain some interesting insights.

Fontana’s artwork is itself representative of a gendered restriction to the field of painting (rather than sculpture) and the lesser valued genre of portraiture. It is however, also a rare and challenging reflection of female artist within this historical, social, cultural context.

It is a particularly small painting, linking to the idea of female restriction, women’s tradition for embroidery and miniature painting. Fontana also conventionally reflects her respectable married status and wealth by foregrounding her wedding ring and (sexually modest) wealthy apparel.

As the painting was intended for display amongst male scholars (a rare honour) and aimed at a male audience, Fontana constructs her own image with significant care. Her outward direct gaze suggests control as she engages the viewer’s eye. By emphasising her knowledge and skill, placing herself within a defined scholarly and scientific space with classical statuettes and anatomical casts, she portrays herself as learned artist rather than crafts-person.

In production and representation Fontana cleverly and complexly depicts herself as both woman within the limitations of her society and artist.

Fontana’s work emphasises that the female artist has portrayed herself in a limited, isolated and introspective space.

In contrast, Cort’s engraving reveals a hectic scene of exclusive male learning, a busy masculine collective of shared skills and knowledge. The work reveals what we may refer to today as an absolute ‘boy’s club’.

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Cort’s composition and theme emphasises new hierarchical ideas of genres. The artist reflects much iconography of Renaissance humanist ideas. The acquirement of artistic skill and study is portrayed, for example, as learning anatomy from a flayed corpse, (reflecting one of many areas from which women were excluded).

Females are represented within the work only as objects/sculptures reflecting beauty (mid-right) and allegorical figures (top right). Cort presents the ‘ideal’ Renaissance academy, as the title reflects, a gendered model reflecting intrinsic assumptions for much future artistic practice in Europe, further embedded by male discourses on art (promoting the male artist and genre/canon hierarchies reflective of male dominance).

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A comparison of the work with Natoire’s The Life Class at the Academie Royale, Paris (1746) (above) reflects such influence. Here men are also presented as active participants requiring and sharing artistic skill and knowledge, while women are absent or only represented as decorative allegorical objects/sculptures. The representation of females in terms of beauty or mythological status interpreted for the presumed male consumer of art  is also reflected in Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-7) (below).

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Cort’s work may be considered therefore, as aiding in the creation of a gendered view of the artist and artistic practice and ideals of masculinity and femininity.

Although we may associate such enforced restrictions and detrimental norms on the female artist, and women more generally, as a thing of the past, such ideas have resonated through the centuries. In turn, even in our modern cultural landscape, women, including those who create art, still face many embedded gendered obstacles and inequalities.

 

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. 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 Mammen could quietly observe, sketch and present the vibrancy of a world inhabited by Jewish intellectuals, fellow artists, bohemians, performers and a flourishing lesbian scene, amidst the chaotic pleasures and passions of  the metropolis after dark.

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Mammen’s work 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 cliched sexualised presentation for the male gaze. Mammen’s watercolours often reflected a humorous narrative quality while portraying women simply enjoying the company of other women.

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The artist was involved in many art shows, including 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.

In her final years the artist looked back on her work…

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

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

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