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Abstraction: A Man’s Affair?
Major Questions in Art History
08.05.2020 | Nina Meisel

Bridget Riley, For Genji, 1995/1996, oil on linen canvas, 165 x 228.6 cm, © Rights reserved, © Cnap, © Photo: Ville de Grenoble / Musée de Grenoble-J.L. Lacroix

Abstraction was the artistic revolution of the 20th century. Influenced by the development of quantum physics and heir to Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, it emerged as the main innovation of the era. The movement revitalised traditional codes of painting and sculpture by dismantling the image in order to sacralise pure form and colour. In the history of art origins of abstraction coincide with the production of Untitled by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) in 1910, and later by young artists such as František Kupka (1871-1957), Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) who progressively abandoned the representation of reality to retain only its essence and emotion. According to art historical narratives, women artists were said to not have grasped the codes of this movement. However, Swedish painter Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) abandoned figurative compositions as early as 1905. Her work was only rediscovered in 1986 during the exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 at LACMA in Los Angeles, where she was presented as a pioneer of abstraction. Her mystical painting as well as the meditative practice of Agnes Martin (1912-2004) are testament to the relentless research on the essentialisation of the artistic gesture.

Certain women artists, like their male counterparts, used colour to explore representation of form. Painter and sculptor Marlow Mosse (1890-1958) played with orthogonal and diagonal lines, which she duplicated in 1930 before finally detaching herself to experiment with lightness and reliefs in white. Aurélie Nemours (1910-2005) was also a monochrome painter who preferred white to bright colours. The pictorial research of Italian artist Carla Accardi (1924-2014), a proponent of realistic figuration, transcended colour by first deepening her study of black and white before turning to fluorescent colours in the 1970s.

Lebanese artist Saloua Rauoda Choucair (1916-2017) linked her artistic quest with Sufi Islamic traditions. For her, the absence of figuration was what brought the work to the essence of thought. In this pictorial revolution the pursuit for form constituted a movement apart: geometric abstraction in which women artists fully took part. Of Romanian origins, Natalia Dumistresco (1915-1997) played with geometry, round, square and other contrasting lines to offer kaleidoscopic visions. Through photography, assemblage and drawing, Bĕla Kolářová (1923-2010) questioned the structures of objects that she diverted from their original function. She invented her own means of creation, including the artificial negative where the image was born solely through the use of a darkroom. Vera Molnár (b. 1924), a Hungarian kinetic artist, carried out artistic experiments using computers.

This “half suicidal of the creative genius of this century,” as Lea Vergine wrote, has only been rediscovered belatedly. Recent exhibitions have paid homage to these women abstractionists, such as Empathy and Abstraction: Modernist Women in Germany at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in Bielideld in 2015 and 2016; Making Space: Women Artists ad Postwar Abstraction in 2017 at the MoMa in New York; or even more recently Femmes années 50 : Au fil de l’abstraction, peinture et sculpture at the Musée Soulage in Rodez, France in 2020.

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