Making Modernism review – four female pioneers up close and personal | Modernism

HHead in hand, Käthe Kollwitz leans toward you in the dark. Her face is so beautifully drawn that you feel the nerve and bone beneath the life-worn surface. There are the sunken eyes and upturned nose familiar from over 100 self-portraits, but this one presses so close to the viewer that it’s as if Kollwitz had walked straight across the picture plane and breathed in the same air – a life size image, and fully as deep.

Kollwitz (1867-1945) is the most famous of the four artists brought together in Making Modernism at the Royal Academy. Yet even it – for all its graphic genius, working entirely in democratic drawing and printing, cheaper to buy, easier to transport than any painting – is somewhat stingy in museums around the world.

More people have seen Paula Modersohn-Becker’s work in reproduction – particularly her 1906 vintage nude self-portrait – than they have ever seen in person. Their fellow German Gabriele Münter is the forgotten member of the Blue Rider band, and Russia’s Marianne Werefkin is perhaps the least known of all the founding expressionists whose contribution to German modernism is the subject of this show.

Self-portrait of Käthe Kollwitz, 1934. © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

So why are these artists (and a handful of others) locked away in three small rooms at the rear of the RA while William Kentridge has the grand canyon of the 13 main galleries upstairs? And how can such a constrained display cost £17 a head: an exorbitant price for knowledge? The curators very skilfully weaved the works by theme – self-portrait, mothers and children, society, etc. – but their excellent catalog suggests that they could have filled the halls on several occasions, especially with personal exhibitions.

Who, for example, has ever painted quite like Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)? Her photos of her, breaking away from a bourgeois marriage at the turn of the century, standing naked with one hand on her swollen belly (she was not yet pregnant) or filling the frame with her face with huge eyes, frontal like a portrait of the Fayoum, are all sensuous strength and certainty.

She stands before a decor of Parisian facades, a dense and dark face haloed in their silvery gray, as if she had enlisted the whole city to her cause. She paints a mother swinging a child in the crook of her arm, both naked, each holding a fruit that rhymes with the redness of a cheek, the shape of a breast, the well-being of a round body in her healthy skin.

There is a wonderful image here of two female hands clutching a chamomile flower that defies all feminine conventions of the time: the flower and the hands have a compact sturdiness – a natural strength – that is anything but delicate.

Paula Modersohn-Becker's mother with a child on her arm, Nu II, autumn 1906.
Paula Modersohn-Becker’s mother with a child on her arm, Nu II, autumn 1906. Museum Ostwall, Dortmunder

Even in no more than 20 paintings, you feel his restless energy going through continuous experiences. The surfaces are superimposed, knotted, smoothed and caressed, the warm paste matching the living bodies. A portrait of a young Italian girl is painted like a great Italian fresco – the pure outlines of a Piero della Francesca, let’s say – except that the pigment overflows, blossoms like substantial flesh.

Modersohn-Becker gave birth to a daughter in 1907 and was bedridden for the next 18 days. As soon as she was allowed to get up, she fell dead from an embolism. Seven hundred works remain, most in a dedicated museum in Bremen, so this is a vital chance to see his paintings in the UK. If she had lived, the history of art would not have been the same.

His contemporary Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) traveled three continents, spoke five languages ​​and was an early adopter of the Kodak camera. She paints in lush strokes of brilliant color, often quite flat – as with her Blue Rider landscapes – but always with a direct and even joyous candor.

Here are his portraits of friends at home. Her lover Wassily Kandinsky: bare knees, wearing what look like leggings, half awake in bed or chatting on the tea table. Her sandals are placed on the ground near a cheerful carpet of rags; and here are the same sandals worn this time by Paul Klee, his square head surrounded by framed folk art on the wall.

Something of Münter’s spirit is surely apparent in a close-up of shopping on the lap of a passenger seated opposite – bright parcels, a geranium, a bag embroidered with a sparkling yellow lemon. The witty title she gives to this transport of a painting is Still life in the tram.

Gabriele Münter, Still Life in the Tram (After Shopping), c.  1912.
Still Life on the Tram (After Shopping), c1912 by Gabriele Münter. Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich © DACS 2022

His friend Marianne Werefkin goes even further in humor. His 1909 portrait of four drinkers, sullen-faced and resentful over absinthe, is like a Picasso dispatch from the Blue Period. A resentful couple on a bench, seemingly oblivious to the mountains around them, are titled The life behind them.

Werefkin (1860-1938), who lived with painter Alexei Jawlensky until he left her for governess, seems to paint from an explicitly feminist point of view. At least that’s how one might interpret her images of women dressed in black in the mountains of southern Switzerland where she eventually made her home. Laden with babies, firewood, baskets of food, buckets of water – all the things in life – they make their way through the steep streets. There is only once a man in sight.

The curators allowed a subtle counterpoint between the work of Werefkin Twins – two nannies with arsenical green faces, paying no attention to their childish burdens – and the sublime drawing of the same title by Kollwitz. Done on tracing paper as crumpled as the sheet they may once have stood on, this pencil drawing of identical twins records both their closeness, the bodies almost united into one, and the double grip of their sleeping heads . The eye moves back and forth between them like a parent, noticing every similarity and difference.

Käthe Kollwitz's twins, 1923. © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln
Käthe Kollwitz’s twins, 1923. © Käthe Kollwitz Museum Köln

If there is a common trait between these artists, it is this feeling of closeness, of intimacy, of intimacy. This can be seen in particular in the astonishing tenderness of Kollwitz’s maternal drawings. A woman presses a baby to her face, a newborn baby not much bigger than the size of her own head, as if it were cherished in her mind. Another cradles a dead child, his face buried in his poor young body. Never let Me Go.

Most exquisite is a pencil drawing of a mother’s hands holding her child’s head. The hands are gently shaped to wrap around the head as instinctively as her body once did, carrying the child before it was born. The child is ethereal, eyes closed as if asleep, even dead. Kollwitz experienced poverty, hunger, and infant mortality firsthand, having lived through two world wars. Her son died in the first, her grandson in the second. “Drawing,” she writes, of her incomparable art, “is the only thing that makes my life bearable.”

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