The men-first attitude prevalent in art in the early 20th century was encapsulated in the career of Marianne Werefkin. She was born in Russia in 1860 and, as the daughter of a distinguished military official, inhabited the upper echelons of society. Nevertheless, she trained as a painter with Ilya Repin, the leading artist practising there at the time, and won the nickname “the Russian Rembrandt”. In 1892 she met another painter, Alexej von Jawlensky, and a few years later they moved to Munich. On arrival in Germany, however, Werefkin suddenly stopped painting. She put her work aside and dedicated herself – and her finances – to furthering Jawlensky’s career. He was the important one. It was a decade before she started painting for herself again.
Being a woman painter at the time, even a privileged one such as Werefkin, meant overcoming difficulties their male peers did not have to confront. Husbands, lovers and children vied for attention; many of Europe’s painting academies – especially the life classes – were closed to women; exhibition opportunities were limited; collectors were wary.
“Making Modernism”, a wonderfully enlightening show at the Royal Academy, looks at a group of female painters who nevertheless forged independent careers and made a distinctive contribution to the development of modern art in Germany in the first decades of the century. The exhibition concentrates on four women in particular who were associated with expressionism: Werefkin, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gabriele Münter and Käthe Kollwitz. All are rare sightings in this country and most of the 68 works on show have never been seen here before. It is a revealing exhibition, and not just for the novelty of the exhibits.
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These artists did not try to emphasise the fact that they were women and took on many of the same subjects as their male equivalents, such as self-portraits (which Kollwitz called “a visual form of soliloquy”), still lifes, interior scenes and city life. Through them, a women’s-eye perspective of the world gradually emerged.
Münter’s interiors don’t only show what was traditionally the female realm but include vivid portraits of fellow artists such as Wassily Kandinsky (her fiancé) and Paul Klee. The men are at their ease or in lively conversation – these are images of life and art as a shared enterprise. So too are Modersohn-Becker’s still lifes, such as one dated 1906 and showing oranges and a bowl of goldfish. It is not simply a set piece but a reaction to Cézanne, just as her Nude Girl with Flower Vases from the following year is a reaction to Gauguin.
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If these demonstrated that the women were au fait with avant-garde art in Paris they also revealed a willingness to engage pictorially with modern life itself. In 1912, for example, Münter, a keen photographer, painted a close-cropped pile of shopping in the lap of a woman on a tram and later the portrait of an unnamed black woman, part of the increasing racial mixture in Germany’s cities at the time. Werefkin showed a circus ring being prepared for a performance and the drudgery of women walking home heavily burdened along a gaslit street in Vilnius.
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Where Kollwitz and Modersohn-Becker were noticeably different from the men, however, was in their portrayals of the female body and infants. In 1906, Modersohn-Becker started painting nude self-portraits, the first by a woman in Western art, and in doing so wrenched the old genre away from the male gaze. When she added children, as in Mother with Child on Her Arm, Nude II (1906), she updated the Madonna and child genre too. She stands unapologetically monumental; her melding of the unidealised body and the maternal is deeply affecting and transmits the physical and emotional experience of motherhood in a way no man could.
This was also the time when there was a new focus on children, not least in the writings of Sigmund Freud, and Modersohn-Becker made a series of works showing infants not as autonomous creatures but as vulnerable and dependent – cradled, suckling or, in the case of a naked three-year-old girl seated with her legs pulled defensively up, profoundly apprehensive.
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It was Kollwitz, though, who best transmitted the love and sometimes grief of being a mother. She was a committed socialist who painted working women not, she said, out of compassion but because she found something in their lives “beautiful”. Traditional beauty is nevertheless rare in her large etchings, drawings and woodcuts. What is there is the fierceness of love and loss: a woman rocks in bestial agony at the death of her child, another holds her baby in all-consuming protection, even her lovers cling together in desperation.
Modernism was about confronting the uncomfortable, too, and this exhibition demonstrates that all these women did that, each in their own way – but none as viscerally as Käthe Kollwitz.
Royal Academy, London W1
Runs until 12 February 2023