Women in Abstraction
Centre Pompidou, Paris 19 May – 23 August
In recent years, museums have embraced a trend for exhibitions devoted to overlooked female modernists. Capitalising on the resurgence of political feminism, these retrospectives have served as correctives to the hitherto maledominated timeline of twentieth-century art history, the best of them (most notably Tate Modern’s 2015 Sonia Delaunay show) setting a new standard for institutional surveys, and in a broader sense presenting instructive challenges to prior understandings of modernism. Into this lineage steps Women in Abstraction: a vast survey of women’s role in the development of abstract art, and one that can be read as an attempt to synthesise the disparate narratives proposed by earlier exhibitions into a definitive new interpretation of the canon. Beginning in the 1860s and finishing up, without explanation, in the 1980s, the show is structured as a series of thematic microexhibitions, with the odd space dedicated to the work of a single artist. It is an enormously ambitious undertaking, incorporating 500plus works by 106 artists.
The story starts in Victorian England, where the spiritualist Georgiana Houghton devoted herself to creating a body of watercolours that she claimed had been mediated to her by her artistic forebears. The works are presented on plinths, allowing us to see both the intricate, cosmic images and the contextual information that the artist jotted down on the reverse: ‘[I,] Correggio, have endeavoured through Georgiana’s hand, to represent The Eye of God’, begins one. This introduction to the nineteenth-century esoteric sets the scene for the emergence of theosophy, the occultist faith that so enraptured the likes of Kandinsky and Mondrian.
Yet before either of them was Hilma af Klint, the Swedish theosophist whose monolithic devotional paintings were arguably the first true works of abstraction. If you’ve ever encountered her art before, the examples of it on show here – for instance, the targetlike The Swan, No. 16 (1915) – will seem familiar, but previous arguments that af Klint was a savant working in isolation from the avant-garde are solidly rebutted; for one thing, we now know that Kandinsky admired her work and visited her at least once. Rather more interesting are a number of works by theosophist fellowtravellers, notably the Dutch mythographer Olga Fröbe-kapteyn, whose vividly coloured
works on paper from the 1920s appear to draw on Constructivism as a graphic reference for her imaginings.
What follows is a wild ride through the interwar period, taking in avant-garde dance, Delaunay and Sophie Taeuber-arp’s adventures in functional design, Vorticism and, most revelatory, a section devoted to the women abstractionists of revolutionary Russia. Varvara Stepanova in particular stands out for her proto-op art textile designs, while Alexandra Exter’s watercolour visions for theatre sets are as radically futuristic as anything from the period. If proceedings so far have been heavy on the decorative arts, it’s no coincidence: as we are consistently and convincingly reminded, women artists tended to be relegated to the institutional Siberia of craft. A section on the
Bauhaus, for instance, points out that of the departmental heads at the nominally genderequal school, only one – Gunta Stölzl – was a woman; her domain was the textile department.
By the time we reach 1939, the show still has two thirds left to run. Small wonder: postwar abstraction – previously an artistic language with relatively few practitioners that was, by its very nature, a radical statement – became the global lingua franca for contemporary art. For the curators, this poses a problem: there are suddenly too many players for the exhibition to maintain its previously slick coherence. Save for a couple of rooms – notably those that depart from Anglo-european-centrism, instead concentrating on movements in Lebanon, Japan, Korea and Brazil – the show becomes increasingly unfocused. Paradoxically, it also starts to feel like an exercise in box-ticking, as big names (Frankenthaler, Hepworth, Krasner, Clark, Martin, Riley, Bourgeois) are breathlessly crossed oª the checklist with second-rate and sometimes unrepresentative works.
There are many exceptions, but in general, proceedings get duller and more confused the closer we come to the present day. To complain that a survey like this one isn’t a diªerent exhibition entirely is bad form. Yet it’s di«cult not to come to the conclusion that Women in Abstraction would have benefitted from a tighter historical focus. If it tells us anything, it’s that the story of women’s involvement in abstract art is as disparate as abstraction itself; on this evidence, it is far too various to summarise in the space of a single exhibition. Digby Warde-aldam