Romaine Brooks, Le Trajet, ca. 1911, oil on canvas, 115.2 x 191.4 cm, 45 3/8 x 75 3/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum
The inter-war period was a promising environment for the promotion of women on the cultural scene, and 1937 marked its apogee. That year two major events symbolised the promotion of women creators in the French capital: Femme artistes d’Europe (Women artists of Europe), exhibited at the Jeu de Paume from 11 to 28 February, and the Universal Exposition from 25 May to 25 November. However, this was not the first time that works by women were shown in Paris at major international events: for example, the Swedish painter Hanna Hirsch-Pauli (1862-1940) had presented her work at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, and the French artist Georges Achille-Fould (1865-1951) exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition.
Women Artists of Europe at the Jeu de Paume was one of the first international exhibitions entirely dedicated to women. In the selection made by Laure Albin Guillot (1879-1962), photographer and co-founder of the Société des Artistes Photographes, all disciplines blended together to reflect the plurality of practices paying tribute to the inventiveness of women creators. In painting, the modernity of Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) was seen in the similarity of her male and female nudes. Practitioners of Cubism such as Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) and Alice Halicka (1895-1975) further strengthened the group of painters. The sculptures of Chana Orloff (1888-1968), as well as the cinematographic rendering of the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) illustrated the involvement of women in contemporary artistic trends.
The Universal Exposition was organised in national pavilions dispersed throughout Paris so that each country could promote its technical and cultural innovations. First, women artists responded to commissions for the decoration of these sites, where the goal was to awaken patriotic sentiment: Marie Raymond (1908-1989) created a fresco for the regional pavilion of the Alpes-Maritimes, and Odette Pauvert (1876-1967) – already known for her decorative frescoes for schools – decorated two other pavilions. On the Champ de Mars the buildings of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union faced each other, the first marked by an imposing imperial eagle and the second proudly crowned by the couple of the Worker and the Kolkhozian. This sculpture by Vera Ignatevna Mukhina (1889-1953) became a recurring image of Eastern Bloc patriotism.
Female artists were also present at the various exhibitions organised during the event, although they remained in the minority compared to the men. Sculptor Germaine Richier (1902-1959) received several medals of honour for her allegory of the Mediterranean, and Polish-French artist Mela Muter (1876-1967) was awarded the gold medal for her expressionist work. Female artists were even invited to take part in event’s the organisation. L. Albin Guillot worked in tandem with Louis-Victor Emmanuel Sougez (1889-1972) to set up the Photographic Creation section.
This encouraging parenthesis for women artists closed rapidly. In the aftermath the Second World War it wasn’t until the 1970s, and more precisely 1975 – the UN-decreed International Women’s Year – that the work of women artists was shown in an exhibition of similar scale to that of 1937: Femmes au présent : Exposition internationale itinérante d’art contemporain (Women of today: International travelling exhibition of contemporary art, 1975-1976). It was only twenty years later that the first exhibition highlighting women artists’ political and feminist declarations was organised at the Magasin-Centre National d’art Contemporain in Grenoble: Vraiment: féminisme et art (1997).