Being seen and appreciated – finding their way again after 100 years

 March 11, 2020

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Mädchen mit Blütenkranz im Haar, um 1901 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jörg P. Anders

As more museums start to focus on showcasing women artists, the more women artists of the past are reappearing, with a story to tell behind the painting or the sculpture. One of these museums with a rare exhibition entitled “Fighting for visibility”, grants visibility exactly after 100 years that the first women were allowed to begin to study art at the Art Academy in Berlin.

The originality of the exhibition at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany lies in the fact that not only a huge collection of artworks is displayed (60 pieces by 33 women painters and 10 women sculptors), but that it showcases a story of fight for expression of each one of the artist.

The fight goes much beyond their visibility as artists. It reflects their individual voices as women at their time, who wanted to follow their passion, who strived to be accepted as equal counterparts to their male colleagues, keen on studying art and being acknowledged as professional artists.

The exhibition shows the different ways that women artists faced the challenges of their time and of making it into the art world before 1919, achieving to have their artworks in the collection of the Nationalgalerie. What strikes as a unique fact is that despite the increase of research on women artists worldwide, it is not possible to determine exactly how much have women artists contributed to the artistic contribution of the 19th century.

Many women artists are known only by name; their biographies have fallen into obscurity and their works have been lost. Even today, many questions remain unanswered” states the exhibition’s wall texts at the Nationalgalerie.

Dora Hitz, Kirschenernte, vor 1905 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Reinhard Saczewski
Dora Hitz, Kirschenernte, vor 1905 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Reinhard Saczewski

The loss of artworks were due mainly to the wartime circumstances during the Second World War and because of systematic confiscations due to the “Degenerate Art” campaign by the Nazis. Through the years many artworks created by women artists were lost and then slowly forgotten. It is only thanks to others, such as patrons and generous gifts and donations that slowly artworks could be discovered afterwards.

By discovering the past artworks, interesting stories appeared that show that there were various supporters of women artists even before 1919. Often women artists supported the younger generation of women, who were at the beginning of their artistic paths. The support at times also came in the form of financial sponsorship as well as donations. Interestingly, there were even men who acted as advocates for women artists and their careers.

The exhibition and its title “Fight for Visibility” gives light to the question as to why it is so important that artworks of more women artists are shown.

It becomes clear in this debate that exhibitions have a prominent significance in the fight for visibility, for they often entail prestigious purchases by the exhibiting institutions, thus increasing the public visibility of the artistic oeuvre“ can be read in the exhibition supported catalogue ‘Fighting for Visibility: Women Artists in the Nationalgalerie Before 1919’."

Ausstellungsansicht: Kampf um Sichtbarkeit. Künstlerinnen der Nationalgalerie vor 1919 Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin 2019 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Foto: Andres Kilger
Ausstellungsansicht: Kampf um Sichtbarkeit. Künstlerinnen der Nationalgalerie vor 1919 Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin 2019 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Foto: Andres Kilger
Sabine Lepsius, Selbstbildnis, 1885 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jörg P. Anders
Sabine Lepsius, Selbstbildnis, 1885 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jörg P. Anders

The showing of artworks continues to be a key role today too, it reflects the appreciation of the arts and gives opportunity to be viewed and eventually to be purchased. The journey of the artist and artwork is in essence still the same today.

Reading through the exhibition catalogue, it is worthwhile to mention the surprising fact of how many women artists of the nineteenth century were represented at Berlin’s “academic” exhibitions.

Alone in the years from 1893 up to and including 1918, over 920 different women artists took part in the Große Berliner Kunstausstellungen. This is an average of over ninety women artists annually!” states the catalogue.

These numbers are astounding because they show how women were not prohibited from building their career as artists. However, they had to go through it through challenges and had a much harder path to make themselves seen and visible.

Käthe Kollwitz, Liebespaar II, 1913 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Roland März
Käthe Kollwitz, Liebespaar II, 1913 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Roland März
Renée Sintenis, Kleines Selbstbildnis, 1916/1917, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Bernd Sinterhauf / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019
Renée Sintenis, Kleines Selbstbildnis, 1916/1917, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Bernd Sinterhauf / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019

The present exhibition at the Nationalgalerie focusing on women artists, is not the first one. The very first show ever organized around women artists by a museum was in 1975, in East Berlin at the Nationalgalerie. Its title was “German Visual Women Artists from the Age of Goethe to the Present”. During that time it was not much noticed because of the political circumstances, but it was still a big step and achievement.

The questions that these and similar exhibitions raise, is whether focusing on only women artists create further separation, distinguishing between the genders and representing them in a different light. On the other hand where there is still a gender gap in gallery representation, exhibition, sales and actual prices, such exhibitions in museums can provide clarity and light to the issue itself.

Furthermore, such shows at more traditional and solid institutions like at museums, can actually open up more doors and possibilities. Especially, since they provide a doorway to the younger generations too, who can take in more from these places, since rarely do educational sources focus specifically on women artists.

The number of such exhibitions make a difference, not only for the showcasing of the artworks itself but mostly revealing the stories that lie behind each one of them. The stories tell us about the individual artist and their journeys, their motivations and intentions. They also provide examples for other public institutions to follow, which the art world is in real need of.

Maria von Parmentier, Der Hafen von Dieppe, vor 1878 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Andres Kilger
Maria von Parmentier, Der Hafen von Dieppe, vor 1878 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Andres Kilger

In a recent article, Stefan Heidenreich and Magnus Resch appealed to the opening up of the art world and making public art institutions more democratic.

We now inhabit a world where virtually limitless tailored content is available, yet we have completely overlooked a stubbornly unchanging part of cultural life. The art world hasn’t changed. Curators still decide what will be shown in exhibitions while museums, at best, count the visitors” declare the two authors.

They continue their call to museums:

Museums: Reinvigorate your empty, white cubes! Be brave: That new audience you’ve been seeking for years is on your doorstep. Museums can collaborate to create not just an environment, but a new experience in which the viewers give meaning to art: You just have to allow them to participate. Unaccountable art history graduates working in a self-referential industry have defined what art is for too long. It’s the choice of the many voices that matters. Listen to them! Give them a space!

As the fight for visibility continues, so does the way we see artists who are still underrepresented. The appearance of exhibitions that focus on them will hopefully create new perceptions, bringing more people closer to art and more art closer to people.

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