- Töchter of Feminism:Germany and the Modern Woman Artist
It long ago caught my attention that in the early 20th century—a period in art when Paris reigned supreme—few modern women artists were French. Overwhelmingly, the women artists of this period were connected to Germany, rather than to Paris or London. This was so whether they were Expressionists, Cubists, Dadaists, Constructivists, or Surrealists [Figure 1].
Either these women were themselves native Germans, such as Käthe Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Hannah Höch, Gabriele Münter, Clara Rilke-Westhoff, and Renée Sintenis, or they were schooled in Germany, as were the Americans Florine Stettheimer, Katherine Dreier, and Louise Nevelson (all in Munich), the Ukrainian Sonia Terk-Delaunay (in Karlsruhe), and the Swiss Sophie Taeuber-Arp in (Munich and Hamburg) and Meret Oppenheim (in southern Germany, as well as Basel). The exceptions to the rule are the Russians and the French. Yet, the Russian Marianne Werefkin spent her professional life working in Munich; while Natalia Goncharova and Alexandra Exter were active in the exchanges in the 1920s between the Russian and German Constructivists. Even the French exceptions were not without German connections. The naïf Séraphine Louis (aka de Senlis) was working as a servant when, at age forty-two, she was discovered and promoted by the important German critic Wilhelm Uhde, the biographer of Henri Rousseau, modernism’s primitive painter par-excellence.1 And the influential German gallerists Alfred Flechtheim and Herman von Wedderkop delivered the French Cubist Marie Laurencin to a major German audience.
Not all early modernist women artists had a relationship to Germany. The notorious Suzanne Valadon had nothing to do with Germanay. Nor did the widely exhibited and reviewed Emilie Charmy (French) and Maria Blanchard (Spanish), both of whom are discussed by Gill Perry in Women Artists and the Parisian Avant Garde (1995). But the latter two are not found in the standard art historical surveys of modernism. What I want to investigate—and speculate on—is the relationship between Germany and those modern women artists who are in the canon.
Where to start? One obvious place may well be art school. Was girls’ art schooling at the turn of the century so different—so superior?—in Germany that it would account for the overwhelming place in the modernist sun for the women artists trained there? In fact, the German system at the time was more conservative than the systems in France and England. For one thing, it was not coeducational. “Female students will find no admission” is a literal translation of Schülerinnen finden keine Aufnahme, a notice advertised by the Royal Academy School for Fine Arts in a 1906 German school directory.2 As a consequence, schools for girls—“Ladies’ Academies” or Damen Akademie—were established by women artists themselves, organized together in the “Union of Women Artists” (Verein der Künstlerinnen). [End Page 43] These Damen Akademies gained recognition—and partial support—from the government; in effect, they became annexes to the all-male Royal Academy art schools in Berlin, Munich, Dusseldorf, and Karlsruhe. Royal Academicians often moonlighted teaching girls at Damen Akademies.
However, the training in these women-only art schools was expensive—more than six times what male students paid at the schools of the Royal Academy. Compared to the curriculum of the Royal Academy, that of the Damen Akademie was shorter and the study was less rigorous. Let me give an example related by a student and friend of Kollwitz of their experience in an anatomy class at the Damen Akademie in Berlin in the 1880s. “Instruction” consisted of a box full of bones passed around among the girls. They were never told which bones were which or how they fit together in a skeleton.3 Kollwitz, by her own accounting, mastered faces and hands—as naught else anatomically was available for her study.
When Paula Modersohn-Becker took an anatomy class at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1900, she exclaimed that anatomy was explained to her there as it never had been explained to her before: with diagrams, models, and drawings.4 Before she went to Paris, Becker, too, studied at...