There’s wild paint on display in London in Make modernism. The Royal Academy’s new exhibition on women artists working in Germany in the early 20e century offers a new perspective on some of the great modernist subjects – nightlife, the nude, the self. The work is extremely experimental – I’ve spent ages hovering up close, trying to figure out how the paint was applied – and a distinctive point of view.
Gabriele Münter depicts small children as complex beings full of thoughts and feelings. One grasps anxiously, another tilts his head, full of attitude. Paula Modersohn-Becker’s response to the elongated nudes of art history is to paint herself standing, naked but for a straw hat trailing orange ribbons – a color picked up in the fruit she is holding and the assertive triangle of his pubic hair. At Gabriele Werefkin’s Dancer Alexandre Sacharoff (1909), the gender-fluid performer emerges from fields of rising blue, her skin, pale as a duck’s egg, illuminated by the searing coral red of her eyes, lips and cheeks. Käthe Kollwitz translates studies of her own body writhing in sexual frenzy into a series of etchings showing skeletal death battling a grieving mother for the body of her child.
Make modernism is the work of British curator Dorothy Price, who researched, wrote and taught German modernism for, she admits, “all [my] adult life, basically. About 30 years ago, during his postgraduate research on the art and images of 1920s Berlin, Price realized that there was “a huge gap between the way the art history is constructed and taught in British academia and the existence of a whole world of women”. Even his own doctoral dissertation presented “a one-sided view of modernism; [didn’t] take into account female subjectivity. So she returned and began to explore the life and art of working women in Germany at the time. Recently appointed Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture at the Courtauld Institute in London, Price’s scholarship has enabled UK art history students to experience the work of important women artists, including Paula Modersohn-Becker.
With the exception of Käthe Kollwitz, the artists of Make modernism were rarely, if ever, shown in Britain. And as Price admits, the exhibition only “scratches the surface” of the subject. “It would be great if it inspired other institutions in this country to do monographic shows.”
In the opening gallery, Price positions his artists in a vibrant creative milieu, demonstrating how deeply involved they were in conversations about color, spirituality, psychoanalysis, and modern society. In an interior study, Gabriele Münter shows his partner Wassily Kandinsky looking over the bedspreads in an adjacent room. In another, he’s sitting at the kitchen table in his slippers, deep in conversation with artist Erma Bossi. Münter also paints Paul Klee in a deep blue armchair, his head positioned like an artifact from the folk art collection arranged on a shelf behind him.
As for the 2018 Barbican exhibition (unfortunately overloaded) Modern couples, Make modernism not only does it move away from the idea of the vanguard as a boys’ club, it also reminds us that ideas rarely emerge in isolation. Münter and Kandinsky didn’t just share a bed: they painted side by side, argued, conversed and hung out with artist friends.
What was the importance of these women in the evolution of the art of this period? “From my perspective, from what I’ve read and from their own words, none of this really could have happened without the women in the circle,” Price says. The influence was material as well as intellectual. “Münter financed Kandinsky, Marianne Werefkin financed [Alexej Von] Jawlensky. So [the avant-garde group] Der Blaue Reiter would not have been the same without Münter and Werefkin.
Living in apartments twinned with Jawlensky in Munich, Werefkin held artists’ salons where “ideas were discussed and fermented,” Price explains. “The idea of the Falange and Neue Künstlervereinigung [art groups] and all these avant-garde moments are born in the living room.
Werefkin, on the other hand, recorded her own ideas about art in an epistolary diary, published after her death in 1938 under the title Letters to a Stranger (Letters to a Stranger). “She talks a lot in terms of the spirituality of color,” Price notes. “It was in the early 1900s, before Kandinsky published About the spiritual in art (1912), where he obviously talks a lot about spirituality and color. The core of these ideas is already written in Werefkin’s journals. She records conversations with Kandinsky and rejecting her ideas a bit, so there is also an interesting gender politics around these diaries.
In addressing female subjectivity, Price was keen to include works suggesting female sexual desire “because we don’t often see that in modernism – we see a lot of male sexual desire”. Questioning the ways in which male desire manifests itself in the art of the time, the treatment of the young girl in this exhibition is particularly striking.
Ottilie Reylaender naked beta (c. 1900) depicts a chilly-looking 12-year-old girl dwarfed by the high-backed chair she is perched on. Outstretched and slightly crossed, its pale limbs emerge from the darkness of a wintry interior. As Price points out, Reylaender was a teenager herself at the time – only 17 or 18: “There’s not a huge age difference, probably about five years, between the model and the artist. There is therefore another type of relationship between the artist and the model. It’s a girl on the cusp of adulthood – Ottilie – painting a girl on the cusp of puberty. A really interesting dynamic.
Throughout the show, femininity is approached without sentimentality or modesty. The Werefkins Portrait of a young girl (1913) is imposing – with her eyes closed, she seems caught up in her private thoughts. At Modersohn-Becker Naked girl sitting with raised legs (circa 1904), the artist paints his daughter-in-law Elsbeth looking cold and a bit bored. The artist wrote about the embarrassment she felt paying local children to model for her when she lived in the artist colony in rural Worpswede. “In all depictions of the nude, there is a power relationship,” Price notes. “I think what’s interesting about the ones I show is that it’s not about a sexualized power relationship in the same way as, say, Gauguin or Munch. But it’s still a power relationship. And it’s a class one.
No one at this point would dispute the importance of spotlighting overlooked female artists. Taking the position of devil’s advocate, I ask Price what do these women really add to the history of modernism? She directs my attention to the central piece of the show, which explores intimacy. On the one hand, Kollwitz’s powerfully claustrophobic studies of maternal love and grief, and her own experience of illicit sexual pleasure. On the other, Modersohn-Becker brings the mannered poise of Renaissance saints to his treatment of solid flesh-and-blood women with dirty fingernails and red faces. The nude is re-imagined as a mother figure.
“We see the female perspective on modernity,” Price says simply. “I wanted to reflect on what the themes of modernism are, typically, and how they are then recalibrated if we look at them through the eyes of female artists.”
Making Modernism: Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 12 November 2022–12 February 2023
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