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Female artists

November 16, 2011

The early 20th century produced many prominent artists who broke with conventions and set new trends. A new German exhibition called "The Other Side of the Moon" highlights the female artists who led the avant-garde.

Self-portrait by Claude Cahun, ca. 1928
Cahun - man or woman?Image: Jersey Heritage Trust

Her name was Claude Cahun and she was one of the brightest stars on the art scene of the time. As a writer and philosopher, she was well known in Parisian salons of the 1920s.

But she was also a photographer.

Her photographic work did not attract much attention at first, but today her self-portraits are considered among the most significant and radical images of female identity. From wild manes and fairytale costumers to shaved heads and boyish clothes, her images often leave you wondering about the gender of the person in the photo.

Cahun was born in 1894 in the French city of Nantes. Her parents were wealthy business people. She discovered the world of literature and theater early on and started managing a Parisian art salon at a young age. This is where she met Germaine Dulac, a prominent surrealist artist. In 1928, Dulac produced what is considered by many to be the first surrealist film: "The Seashell and the Clergyman."

Then there was Dora Maar - a painter, photographer and later Pablo Picasso's lover. She became known for her street photography of beggars and poor children.

International networks

A collage and photomontage by Hannah Höch, 1926-27
Höch is seen as one of the first photomontage artistsImage: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011

These artistic connections soon reached far beyond Paris. Travel became popular and it became important to maintain contacts. Gradually, artists' networks developed gradually and stretched from Berlin, Paris and Zurich to Amsterdam, Warsaw and Moscow.

Germany produced photomontage artist Hannah Höch, while painter and sculptor Sophie Taeuber-Arp hailed from Switzerland.

The connections also reached Eastern Europe. Russian-born artist Sonia Delaunay, whose textiles became famous, and Polish sculptor Katarzyna Kobro were part of another network that was based in Paris.

The three main artistic trends of the time came together in Paris.

The first was surrealism, which focused on the unconscious mind. It was accompanied by Dadaism, which poked fun at the alleged meaninglessness of the modern world. And at the same time, female artists in Eastern Europe were developing a new style called constructivism, which sees art as a tool for society.

Overcoming obstacles

Despite the recognition that the artists found, it was not easy for them to promote their work.

Susanne Meyer-Büser, the curator of the "The Other Side of the Moon" exhibition in Düsseldorf, says the small size of most of the artists' works was partly to blame.

Large pieces are indeed hard to find at the exhibition.

Instead, small pictures, portraits, marionettes and items of clothing fill the display cabinets. It is an intimate affair.

'Quatre espaces à croix bleue brisée' ('Four spaces with broken blue cross') by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, 1932
Taeuber-Arp's textile and graphic art from the 1920s is some of the most striking abstract workImage: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011

Nothing is loud or shrill. Muted colors cover the walls and mirrors, hands, and masks shape the themes to connect the artists on show.

Meyer-Büser says the artists were clearly influenced by the kind of artistic education that was available to women in the early 1900s. Up until 1919, women in Germany were not allowed to study at normal academies. They had to attended schools of arts and crafts and that led them to use a wide range of art media, including embroidery and film.

A chance for women to shine

Over 230 exhibits are on show in Düsseldorf.

Collecting them was no easy feat. Although the artists were prominent on the art scene of the early 20th century, many of their works disappeared after World War II and were only slowly recovered during the decades that followed.

"Men shaped the history of art for a long time," says Marion Ackermann, director of the North Rhine-Westphalia Art Collection. "And the heads of museums, who bought art according to a particular line."

The Other Side of the Moon exhibition is at least one step towards redressing the balance.

"Die andere Seite des Mondes. Künstlerinnen der Avantgarde" ("The Other Side of the Moon. Female Artists of the Avant-Garde") exhibition runs through January 15, 2012, in Düsseldorf.

Author: Gudrun Stegen / ew
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany