January 11, 2016

"Storm Women" at the Schirn!

It seems like just a minute ago that we were ringing in the New Year with champagne and fireworks and here we are nearly halfway through January!  I started off 2016 with a quick trip to Frankfurt, Germany, to celebrate the 90th birthday of a very dear friend and colleague, and while there I visited the Schirn Kunsthalle to see their marvelous exhibition "Sturm Frauen" or "Storm Women".

In 1910, the German art critic and composer Herwarth Walden began publication of a magazine dedicated to Expressionist art.  He called it "Der Sturm" and indeed it did cause a storm within the art establishment of the day.  Hugely successful, Sturm expanded into a whole movement including an academy, performance center and a gallery, making it a cultural center not to be missed in Berlin.  Many now famous artists were promoted by Walden including Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky, but what made this enterprise truly remarkable was that over one quarter of the artists shown were women.

At the time, women were generally considered less intelligent and therefore less interesting then men and the idea of a worthwhile woman artist was absurd.  Herwarth Walden, a great fancier of women (he married four times), did not ascribe to this theory and he included works by women in almost every issue of the magazine or exhibition at the gallery.  Now, for the first time, the Schirn Kunsthalle is putting the spotlight on these "Storm Women" with a focus on eighteen of them, some major names and some lesser known but all got their start with Der Sturm.

Interestingly, many of these women were wives or lovers of artists and while they often had a distinctive style of their own, there are slight similarities to or influences of their partners' work.  Like, for example, Marcelle Cahn, whose work bears traces of Fernand Léger's Constructivism...

Marcelle Cahn "White Nudes", 1926

or Gabriele Münter who was married to Kandinsky...

"Landscape with Cottage in the Sunset", 1908

or Sonia Delaunay, who, together with her husband Robert, explored the theory of Simultanism...

Study for the cover of catalogue of the Stockholm exhibition "Self-Portrait", 1916

Some of the Storm Women worked in the performance arts, like Lavinia Schultz who designed and actually danced in these extravagant costumes.  The first body mask is for "Toboggan Dance", and the second is "Bibo", both created in 1924.

Probably more well known artists in the field include Natalia Gontcharova whose 1914 set design for the ballet "The Golden Cockerel" by Pushkin looks like a Russian fairy tale...

and Alexandra Exter whose wonderful marionettes were exhibited in The Sturm Gallery in 1926..

One artist whose work I was not familiar with but was very happy to discover was Marianne Van Werefkin.  Her intensive use of color ranged from the almost Belle Epoque feel of "Ballroom", 1908..

to the more ominous "Rag Picker" painted in 1917...

The history of Der Sturm reflects the history of Berlin from the pre and post World War I periods, through the Weimar Republic to the Great Depression.  By the time the Gallery closed and the magazine ceased publication, Herwarth Walden had produced over 200 avant garde exhibitions in Berlin and around the world, many of them centered around women.  In 1932 Walden moved to Russia to pursue a Communist ideal but he came to a sad end under the Stalinist regime in 1941.  Many of the artists he championed went on to great success, some died in obscurity, but all were offered an chance to shine in his unique Sturm universe.  "Sturm Frauen" is on view until February 7, 2016.

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