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Making Modernism

  • Art
  • Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Marianne von Werefkin, ‘Zirkus (vor der Vorstellung)’
Marianne von Werefkin, ‘Zirkus (vor der Vorstellung)’, 1910. | Photograph: Peter Hinschläger

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Simple acts can be the most radical. And in turn-of-the-last-century Germany, being a woman and painting a self-portrait was about as radical as you could get.

Four pairs of eyes greet you as you walk into this exhibition, mostly staring boldly, defiantly, beautifully right out of the canvases. They’re the eyes of Kathë Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter, Marianne Werefkin and Paula Modersohn-Becker, four women who knew better than most that being experimental modern painters in 1900 Germany was radical. 

They lived with relative creative freedom to begin with, going to artist colonies, hanging out with people like Paul Klee, shacking up with Wassily Kandinsky (Münter’s other half for a while). But their lives were blocked, hamstrung and curtailed by societal expectations of women. When you think the works look a bit ropey or unfinished, remember that women couldn’t attend art academies. When there’s a ten-year gap between paintings, remember that these women couldn’t just be artists, they had to be wives and they had to be mothers.

Early portraits are bold and fierce. Then Münter and Werefkin capture interior scenes with naive, primary-colour innocence; intimate moments with lovers or private evenings with friends, all caught quickly, simply. But lovers and soirées soon get replaced with parental responsibilities and spousal obligations. 

Four women who knew that being experimental modern painters was radical

The paintings of children in the first room here are dark and tense. Münter’s blue-eyed boy appears shaking with fear; Werefkin’s pallid twins are being held by deathly, miserable women; Kollwitz depicts the unbearable grief of a mother cradling a dead child in shadowy monochrome; Modersohn-Becker’s ‘Girl with Child’ pulsates with sadness. The freedom of art and youth is clashing with the pressures of life right in front of you; it’s uneasy, painful, heart-wrenching.

The middle gallery is dedicated to Kollwitz and Modersohn-Becker’s images of motherhood and children. Kollwitz is all brutal black and white crosshatched torment. Mothers cradle dead children or clench them tightly and passionately. They’re images of sadness and mourning and love. Modersohn-Becker’s works are less pained: stark, symbolic visions of a mother’s adoration, unapologetic depictions of womanhood that look about 70 years ahead of their time.

Wings get spread a little more in the final room. Werefkin paints ultra-saturated street and café scenes; Münter paints bold interiors and landscapes. You can sense freedom coming back into the fold. 

But one artist dominates the show. Modersohn-Becker’s presence is special. From the first of her works here – a ballsy, chin-out, cocky self-portrait – you know she’s different. Her paintings are bold and unfussy. She combines flat backgrounds with stark, full-frontal, big-lined, bug-eyed figures. She has such a distinct, immediate aesthetic, such a singular atmosphere and aura to her work. She eclipses everything else here, it’s stunning.

And she did it all in such a short period of time. She left her husband in 1906 and moved to Paris to paint. They reconciled, and she gave birth to their child in 1907, but died of an embolism soon after, aged just 31.

It sums up this whole show, really. The story here is one of artistic potential being slowly snuffed out by society. No one here got to fulfil their true visions: all were held back. That’s why in its own quiet, reserved way, everything here truly is radical.

Written by
Eddy Frankel


Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
Tube: Piccadilly Circus

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