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

 ?? ?? Saloua Raouda Choucair, Fractional Module (detail), 1947–51. Photo: . Courtesy Galerie Saleh Barakat. © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation
Saloua Raouda Choucair, Fractional Module (detail), 1947–51. Photo: . Courtesy Galerie Saleh Barakat. © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation
 ?? ?? Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 16, Group €/ƒ„…, 1915.
Photo: Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy the Hilma af Klint Foundation
Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 16, Group €/ƒ„…, 1915. Photo: Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Courtesy the Hilma af Klint Foundation

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom