Marta Pan, Lentilles flottantes, 1994, casted resin, Ø 210 cm x 105 cm, Ø 82.7 x 41.4 in., Courtesy Galerie Mitterrand, © Fondation Marta Pan-André Wogenscky
Camille Claudel (1864-1943) appears to be the embodiment of French female sculptors, yet she was not the exception to the rule, as women have sculpted and continue to sculpt today. Sculpture is a costly, technical and psychical practice, yet that has not stopped women from investing in it. At the beginning of the twentieth century financial pressures pushed female creators to sell their works by engaging with fashionable trends such as bestiaries, as was the case for Jane Poupelet (1874-1932) and Renée Sintenis (1888-1965), who made reputations for themselves in the art world.
Certain women took up chisels to respond to official commissions that allowed them to work with large-scale stones and to durably inscribe their works into public space. In Buenos Aires the Fuente de las Nereidas (1903) was made by Lola Mora (1867-1936), one of the best-known female Argentinian sculptors. Symbol of the Stalinist regime, erected for the USSR Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman by Vera Ignatyevna Mukhina (1889-1953) is also a good example of a monumental and public sculpture realised by a woman. In these exercises, some women compete with men, such as Anna Semyonovna Golubkina (1864-1927) as she sculpted one of the doors of the Muscovite opera house in a clear response to the Gates of Hell of her French master Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). (It was also through representing important personalities of their time that these sculptors became well-known: A. Golubkina realised a portrait gallery amongst including poet and writer Andrei Bely (1907). As for Ausgusta Sauvage (1892-1962), she sculpted in clay the illustrious faces of the African American community.
Women artists also initiated a reflection on the artworks’ environment. Germaine Richier (1902-1959) maintained a classical approach to the body and played with the plinth, which became its constituent element. At the same time, Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) was interested in the ovoid forms she fashioned from industrial materials. This innovation changed the artist’s relationship to the material: stone was cut, plastic was bent, steel was twisted. Artworks adapted and responded to the spaces in which they were installed. Marta Pan (1923-2008) played with double reflections in water and metal, whereas Saloua Raouda Choucair (1916-2017) realised sculptures that could be transposed into various materials – wood, stone, metal, terracotta and fiberglass – and whose scale ranged from the minuscule to the monumental.
Questions about form and the body have inhabited both modern and contemporary women sculptors who have made it a powerful tool for dissent. This can be seen not only in the work of Tayeba Begum Lipi (b. 1969), who projected her own face onto mannequins wearing niqabs and chadors in her installation Toys Are Watching Toys (2002) to denounce the Islamisation of Bangladeshi society. It is also evident in the work of Berlinde de Bruyckere (b. 1964), where suffering bodies made of pale wax are adorned with elements of Christian iconography, such as the long hair of Mary Magdalene.
Recently, the work of Marie Orensanz (b. 1936) has benefited from renewed recognition as she was awarded the AWARE 2020 Outstanding Merit Prize. Today the work of female sculptors have recognition and have been celebrated in exhibitions such as Sculpture’Elles : Les sculpteurs femme du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours (2011) at the Musée des Années 30 in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, as well as in Anne Rivière’s publication Dictionnaire des sculptrices en France (2018) that inventories the work of many women artists who remain little known.