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Shulamith Behr: Women Artists in Expressionism. From Empire to Emancipation, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press 2022, 229 S., ISBN 978-0-6910-4462-0, USD 65,00
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Christian Kile
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Shulamith Behr: Women Artists in Expressionism

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The general view of Expressionism tends to be a male affair; the women of the movement did not enjoy the degree of institutional support their counterparts received during the 1920s, nonetheless they too were considered deserving of the term 'degenerate' by the Nazis, and many of their works and writings were ruined or broken up during Allied bombing. Within the secessions and independent artists' groups, movements which rejected traditional academic standards, it was rare for women to establish themselves. Käthe Kollwitz and Charlotte Berend-Corinth were the only two women to attain the status of men on the jury of the Berlin Succession.

Shulamith Behr's Women Artists in Expressionism has evolved from her earlier publication, Women Expressionists [1], which "introduced a range of women artists with the realization that there were inevitable links, networking, and cultural exchanges to be forged in a major tome" (239). Here, in-depth chapters on Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Gabriele Münter aim to show these artists "in a new light" before considering lesser-known names and expanding beyond Germany to reveal links between Expressionists in the Netherlands and Scandinavia (20).

Between 1890 and 1920, whilst male insecurity made itself felt, the presence of women was increasingly marked in the arts; labelled as Malweiber, in "art and literary journals, they [women] were portrayed either as immodestly clad, albeit unbecoming, or as severely masculinized" (8). Besides this denigration, there seemed to be a sheer lack of ability to evaluate this new phenomenon of the woman artist. Women Artists in Expressionism centres on the period from around 1890 to 1924, spanning the late Wilhelmine to early Weimar period and aims to show the significance of women artists' "to the shaping of Expressionist avant-garde culture" (20).

Neglected during her short life, Modersohn-Becker posthumously received Van Gogh-like comparisons from some critics: both artists' works shared motifs; they both died early and experienced negligible sales and recognition from the public and artistic milieus in their lifetimes. Following a particularly scathing review Modersohn-Becker halted exhibiting in public and took part in only two more group exhibitions. Estimation of her work grew dramatically only after her death, "her images uncannily evoking the lost simplicity and harmony of the preindustrial idyll" (52).

Kollwitz is the most established artist with a chapter here, she "has become canonical, as well known as many male artists of the period, like Grosz or Dix" (55). However, despite distancing herself from Expressionism's major figures, Ernst Barlach aside, through her images, often characterised by wretched maternal and proletarian suffering, it has been suggested that she is "mother" of the Expressionist movement, at 53 becoming the first woman nominated to the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts (55/79).

Active in the politics of artists' associations, Kollwitz had a part in forming the Freier Verein der Berliner Künstler (Free Society of Berlin Artists), set up in response to an Edvard Munch exhibition that had been forcibly closed by an official body. She went on to exhibit with Munch and Max Liebermann. Criticism of her work as "immoral and anti-German, symptomatic of a larger malaise of cultural degeneracy" came from the conservative critic Ludwig Pietsch. With one of her portfolios entitled Ein Weberaufstand (A Weaver's Rebellion) and her drawing series Bilder vom Elend (Pictures of Misery), images of "unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancy" no doubt contributed to this view (63/68).

Counting Freud and Rodin amongst her most revered figures, it was the latter's "Promethean restlessness" on show at his house museum in Meudon that so struck her (72). Kollwitz remained unconvinced by elements within Expressionism and considered herself an "outsider" detached from the movement's "discursive practices" (74). There is a tension here noted by Behr of Kollwitz: she embraced "modernity and radical politics on the one hand while rejecting modernism on the other" (74). According to Behr, it was Kollwitz's will to locate "a medium that would satisfy the joint desiderata of moral duty and subjective agency", which led her from etching and lithography to the woodcut; through which her response to the war came in the damning cycle Krieg, used by the pacifist movement around the anniversary of the declaration of World War I (80). Together with the print cycle Der Krieg by Dix, her portfolio was shown at Ernst Friedrich's Anti-War Museum in Berlin.

Of aristocratic birth, Marianne Werefkin enjoyed "both private and academic tuition" together with the benefits of an artist mother and supportive father (91). On receipt of a pension Werefkin decided to move to Munich drawn by its international appeal for artists along with its salon life and "ambience in which incipient emancipation, progressive modernism, and the international (or foreign) fulminated against the local and the conservative" (95). She helped found the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Artists' Association, 1909-1912) along with Gabriele Münter which provided more opportunities for women artists. This group was seceded by the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider, 1912-1914), a modernist movement that emphasised "spiritual and artistic renewal via the 'primitivism' of folk art" (113). Historically, Werefkin and Münter have tended to attract less attention than their better known partners: Alexej Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky, and a chapter gives a rigorous look at the women's work, ideas and reception.

During Münter's emigration to Sweden, she found her way into avant-garde circles and saw her work, increasingly portrait focussed, subject to the country's prevalent critical criteria: "psychological interpretation of nation, style, and character" (129). On a series of works Behr remarks that Münter depicted her subjects as "new women", engaged in aesthetic and intellectual pursuits generally allocated to male portraits (146).

Celebrated in her day but now relatively little known, the Dutch-born artist Jacoba van Heemskerck was "one of the few to emerge as a major abstractionist in the second decade of the twentieth century" (155). Turning away from the modernism of French and Dutch varieties, her 'abstract spiritual' works consisted of various materials from oils and mosaic through stained glass. This acknowledged theories of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), memorably expressed through Richard Wagner's theory of synthesising the arts, and that of Adolf Behne and the Einheitskunstwerk (unified art work), said by the architectural historian Kai Gutschow to have "achieved a new art form through a common inner motivation and artistic principles" (181). For painted glass experimentation Van Heemskerck installed a firing oven in her studio whilst admiring and drawing on the writings of "the anarchist and fantasist" Paul Scheerbart (181).

The final chapter centres on the patronage, collecting and dealing of women. Rosa Schapire was "one of the first women to pursue the art-historical profession" (189). A critic and collector of Expressionist art, she championed the artist Schmidt-Rottluff and formed a collection of his work. Under the Third Reich her Jewishness, leftist politics and feminism grimly hampered her professional life, and in 1939 she left for London and a life of exile.

Johanna Ey became one of Germany's foremost modern art dealers, beginning her enterprises by accepting artworks by students and staff from the Düsseldorf Art Academy at her own bakery café to sell. Eventually she gained establishment acceptance, becoming known as the "all-embracing, nurturing 'Mutter'" (228).

Extremity is one of the overarching themes throughout Women Artists in Expressionism. Charting the various responses of women to politics, art, ideas and war, it acknowledges the great Jewish contribution to modernism just before that sense of assimilation was annihilated by the Nazis. For all the presence of salon affairs, it's curious there is no mention of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West, a highly divisive philosophical work of history which, appealing to an abnormally broad audience, reached a peak of debate in 1919, with its insight into the resurgence of primitive values. [2] Behr's book does at times slip into verbosity: an oeuvre does not change but instead undergoes "stylistic diversification" and "gendered spectatorship serves to underscore their [women's] socialization" (162/20). Nonetheless the book is well researched, providing an absorbing picture of some neglected figures and revealing the interminable discord between sexes.


[1] Shulamith Behr: Women Expressionists, Oxford 1988.

[2] H. Stuart Hughes: Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate, New York 1952, 89, 163-164.

Christian Kile