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The Danish Women Artists’ Retrospective Exhibition in Copenhagen, 1920

26.11.2021 |

Anna Ancher, Sunlight in the blue room, 1891, Skagens Kunstmuseer – Art Museums of Skagen

Since the 1960s and 1970s there has been a growing tendency to produce exhibitions featuring exclusively female artists as a feminist mode of curating, in order to address the imbalance and gender discrimination in the art world and to highlight marginalised artists who have been forgotten or left out of history.

Although this approach is a recent phenomenon that emerged with the so-called second-wave feminism of the 1970s and the emergence of curation as a critical and investigative field, there are, in fact, important examples of women’s political and feminist-oriented exhibitions much earlier. Already in 1920 the Danish Women Artists’ Retrospective Exhibition (Kvindelige Kunstneres Retrospektive Udstilling) was organised and presented by ambitious and enterprising women at The Free Exhibition (Den Frie Udstilling) organisation in Copenhagen, with the aim of highlighting and documenting the work of female artists.

The Danish Women Artists’ Retrospective Exhibition in Copenhagen, 1920 - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Christine Løvmand, Flower Piece, 1841, Statens Museum for Kunst – National Gallery of Denmark

Women-only exhibitions have brought critical attention and have been and still are the subject of many debates about feminist curation. These debates centre around whether it is counterproductive to view artists through the lens of gender, or whether such an approach is necessary for achieving equal visibility for female artists. Historically, however, feminist curation and the sole focus on women artists have been important tools for creating a platform where the female artists could present their art.

The Women Artists’ Retrospective Exhibition was an initiative of the Danish Women’s Artist Association (Kvindelige Kunstneres Samfund), one of the world’s oldest professional associations for women artists. It was founded in 1916, when the political landscape in Denmark had shifted – the women’s movement had gained ground and women had obtained the right to vote the year before. The time had now come for equality in the field of art as well.

It was only in the late nineteenth century that women had been given the opportunity to improve their skills and educate themselves as artists at art schools. And although several female artists around the time of the establishment of the Women’s Artist Association took an active role in the Danish art scene, participated in exhibitions, and received attention in press reviews, the local art world was still dominated by men. Women were even excluded from several established artist organisations.

The initiators of the Women’s Artist Association were the painters Marie Henriques (1866-1944) and Helvig Kinch (1872-1956), and the sculptor Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen (1863-1945). The purpose of the association was to fight for female artists to have the same opportunities and rights as their male colleagues. More specifically, the aim was to gain more influence at the most important art educational institution of the time, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Women gained access to education at the academy in 1888, but they had far from achieved full equality with their male colleagues; indeed, they were kept out of the decision-making processes of the academy and thus had no political influence.1 Therefore, the ambition of the Women’s Artist Association was to campaign to have female artists represented on committees, juries and in the powerful council that headed the academy, which all primarily consisted of men. At that time, the path for entering the art scene and gaining visibility was most often through being accepted into censored exhibitions, and the association therefore wanted to gain influence and strengthen exhibition opportunities for female artists by having women represented on the significant censorship and exhibition committees.2

Although exhibition planning was not initially a direct focus of the association, nevertheless one of its first major initiatives was to arrange the exhibition, and such projects have been an important part of its mission ever since. The aim was for women artists to present their work on their own terms and to ensure visibility.

As early as it was, the exhibition was not the first in Denmark to present exclusively female artists (earlier in 1891, 1911 and 1912 a few small shows had been held, and in 1895 the large Women’s Exhibition of Past and Present (Kvindernes Udstilling fra Fortid og Nutid) was held in Copenhagen as a follow-up to the World’s Fair in Chicago 1893). But the Women Artist’s Retrospective Exhibition was the largest and most unified exhibition of Danish women’s art.

With works from 1740 until 1920, it was an attempt to cover Danish women’s art of the previous two hundred years. The ambitious and large-scale exhibition that presented as many as 199 artists with a total of 590 artworks consisting of paintings, sculptures, prints and crafts, took place from 18 September to 14 October 1920. Among the exhibiting artists, 30 deceased artists from different time periods were represented with 79 works, while 511 works were by contemporary women artists, and so the show was divided into two sections.

The exhibition was organised by chairman of the association Marie Henriques and a committee set up for the purpose, consisting of the artists Helvig Kinch, Berta Dorph (1875-1960), Marie Sandholt (1872-1942), Olga Jensen (1877-1949), Nanna Johansen (1888-1964) and Agnes Lunn (1850-1941).

The Danish Women Artists’ Retrospective Exhibition in Copenhagen, 1920 - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Anthonie Christensen, Poppies, 1892, Statens Museum for Kunst – National Gallery of Denmark

L’Association des artistes femmes est fondée par les peintres Marie Henriques (1866-1944) et Helvig Kinch (1872-1956), ainsi que la sculptrice Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen (1863-1945). L’association lutte pour que les artistes femmes obtiennent les mêmes opportunités et droits que leurs confrères. Plus spécifiquement, son but est d’accroître son influence au sein de l’une des plus importantes écoles d’art de l’époque, l’Académie royale des beaux-arts du Danemark. Même si cette institution a ouvert ses portes aux femmes en 1888, ces dernières sont encore loin d’être les égales des hommes. En effet, elles ne jouent aucun rôle dans les prises de décision académiques et ne disposent par conséquent d’aucun pouvoir réel dans l’école.1

Ainsi, l’Association des artistes femmes a pour ambition d’introduire des femmes artistes dans les comités, les jurys et au cœur du puissant conseil qui dirige l’Académie, où siègent principalement des hommes. À cette époque, l’un des moyens les plus efficaces d’accéder au monde de l’art et d’y acquérir une certaine reconnaissance consiste à participer aux expositions censurées. Aussi l’Association cherche-t-elle donc à étendre son influence et à offrir aux femmes artistes davantage d’occasions de montrer leur travail en les intégrant aux commissions chargées des expositions et de la censure.2

Bien que l’organisation de tels évènements ne soit pas l’occupation principale de l’Association, l’une de ses premières initiatives est néanmoins de mettre sur pied cette exposition d’artistes femmes. Des projets de cette nature deviennent dès lors l’un des axes majeurs de sa mission, dans la mesure où son objectif est de permettre aux artistes femmes de présenter leurs créations selon leurs propres modalités et de leur assurer une meilleure visibilité.

Malgré sa date précoce, l’exposition n’est pas la première du genre au Danemark. Quelques expositions plus petites consacrées aux femmes ont lieu en 1891, 1911 et 1912, ainsi que l’Exposition des femmes du passé et du présent (Kvindernes Udstilling fra Fortid og Nutid) événement d’envergure organisé à Copenhague en 1895 à la suite de la Foire internationale de Chicago en 1893. Cependant, parmi ces manifestations consacrées à l’art féminin, la Rétrospective des artistes femmes est alors la plus importante et la plus cohérente.

Ambitieuse et de grande ampleur, l’exposition s’attache à couvrir l’art féminin danois des deux siècles précédents, forte d’une sélection d’œuvres datées de 1740 à 1920. Elle se tient du 18 septembre au 14 octobre 1920 et couvre la production de 199 artistes dans les domaines de la peinture, de la sculpture, de l’estampe et de l’artisanat d’art. Parmi les 590 œuvres présentées, 79 ont été produites par des artistes décédées et d’époques diverses, tandis que les 511 autres sont le fait d’artistes contemporaines. Cette distinction donne à l’exposition sa structure bipartite.

L’événement est organisé par la présidente de l’Association, Marie Henriques, accompagnée d’un comité créé pour l’occasion et constitué des artistes Helvig Kinch, Berta Dorph (1875-1960), Marie Sandholt (1872-1942), Olga Jensen (1877-1949), Nanna Johansen (1888-1964) et Agnes Lunn (1850-1941).

The Danish Women Artists’ Retrospective Exhibition in Copenhagen, 1920 - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Ludovica Thornam, The Artist Vilhelm Kyhn, 1868-1896, Statens Museum for Kunst – National Gallery of Denmark

The older section presented landscapes and animal paintings, portraits by the artists Elisabeth Jerichau Baumann (1819-1881) and Ludovica Thornam (1853-1896), and still-life paintings with flowers by Hermania Neergaard (1799-1875) and Julie Hamann (1842-1916), including the work Blooming Iris [Blomstrende iris] (1897), among other works.

The Danish Women Artists’ Retrospective Exhibition in Copenhagen, 1920 - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Anna Ancher, Two Old People Plucking Gulls, 1883, The Hirschsprung Collection

The newer section presented seascapes by Louise Bonfils (1856-1933), one of Denmark’s
only female marine artists, porcelain by the potter and artist Harriet Bing (1863-1919), and modernist paintings by Ebba Carstensen (1885-1967) and Astrid Holm (1876-1937). It also included portraits by Bertha Wegmann (1846-1926) and paintings from the Modern Breakthrough movement such as Solskin i den blå stue [Sunlight in the blue room, 1891] and To gamle, der plukker måger [Two old people plucking gulls, c. 1883] by Anna Ancher (1859-1935).

The catalogue is indispensable in understanding the exhibition as feminist curating. It begins by stating that next to men, there have always been women who took part in the struggle to become professional artists,3 followed by several international examples, such as Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) and Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807). The intention of the exhibition is not directly stated, but the introductory words and the following biographical sections about the deceased artists testify to the fact that the organisers believed that female artists had not received the adequate and deserved representation, either historically in the established art canon or while they were alive, and it demonstrates a desire to pay tribute to and create awareness about Danish women artists.

Although the historical part of the exhibition did not take up nearly as much space as the new part, it did play an important role, as the show’s title indicates. The focus on contemporary artists was natural. The section was open to both members and non-members of the association, and so a range of works were displayed.

With almost six hundred catalogue entries, the exhibition required a great deal of planning and research, and the organisers reviewed several museum collections and catalogues to gather material.4 This indicates a strong desire to create a thorough overview of women’s art through time as well as to ensure the deceased female artists a permanent place in Danish art history. Though noted in the catalogue, it is clear that it was not possible to find information about all the artists, which, ironically, highlights the need for such an exhibition.

Well received and with a solid attendance, the exhibition was generally praised by critics. One emphasised the quality of several of the works on display – by the artists Sophie Holten (1858-1930) and Edma Stage (1859-1958), among others – and expressed her astonishment at the fact that the names of the artists did not receive more attention; that they had been forgotten. Another noted that it was only on occasions like the exhibition that one realised the importance of women artists to Danish art.

The exhibition revealed that inequality in the art world was not a question of content or quality, but of lack of visibility. However, the works in the show did not sell well, and the Women’s Artist Association ended up with a small financial loss. Today many of the participating artists are more or less unknown to the wider public, but few are represented in museums and public collections, and a large part of the artworks have still not been located. Despite the great effort, there is still a long way to go to cement female artists’ place in the master narrative of art. But this exhibition was a step in the right direction. And it was a necessity at a time when female artists lacked professional communities and exhibition opportunities on an equal footing with men. Seen from today’s perspective, it can be said to be an expression of feminist curating, long before the concept was formed.

The Danish Women Artists’ Retrospective Exhibition in Copenhagen, 1920 - AWARE Artistes femmes / women artists

Bertha Wegmann, Portrait of the Swedish painter Jeanna Bauck, 1887, The Hirschsprung Collection

Le catalogue est indispensable à la compréhension de l’approche féministe du commissariat de l’exposition. Dans son introduction, il affirme que les femmes ont toujours été présentes, aux côtés des hommes, dans la lutte pour la professionnalisation des artistes,3 et cite à cet effet plusieurs exemples à travers le monde, telles l’Italienne Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) ou l’Autrichienne Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807). L’objectif de l’exposition n’est pas explicitement formulé, mais ces propos d’introduction et les sections biographiques consacrées aux artistes décédées témoignent du fait que les femmes n’ont pas été suffisamment représentées et reconnues pour leurs talents, tant du point de vue de l’histoire officielle que de leur vivant. Les organisatrices expriment ainsi leur volonté de rendre hommage aux artistes danoises et de sensibiliser le public à leur existence.

Si la partie historique de l’exposition n’est pas aussi volumineuse que son pendant relatif à ma modernité, elle joue néanmoins un rôle important, comme l’indique l’intitulé de l’événement. L’attention portée aux artistes contemporaines est toute naturelle. La section qui leur est dédiée étant ouverte aux membres de l’Association comme aux non-membres, un large éventail d’œuvres est exposé.

Avec son catalogue de près de 600 références, l’exposition nécessite une solide organisation et de nombreuses recherches préalables. Les organisatrices consultent donc les collections et catalogues de plusieurs musées afin de procéder à leur sélection. Cette approche témoigne de leur volonté affirmée d’offrir une vue d’ensemble de l’art féminin à travers les âges et d’assurer à leurs prédécesseures une place dans l’histoire de l’art danois. Si le catalogue apporte un éclairage sur nombre d’entre elles, il est cependant évident que les informations sur d’autres restent introuvables, ce qui, ironiquement, souligne la nécessité d’une telle exposition.

L’événement bénéficie d’un accueil positif, attire un large public et reçoit des avis généralement favorables de la part des critiques. L’une d’entre elles loue la qualité de plusieurs œuvres – notamment celles de Sophie Holten (1858-1930) et d’Edma Stage (1859-1958) – et s’étonne que ces artistes n’aient pas été davantage remarquées ou qu’elles soient tombées dans l’oubli. Une autre critique note que seul ce genre d’occasion permet de prendre la pleine mesure de l’importance des artistes femmes dans l’art danois.

L’exposition révèle que les inégalités dans le monde de l’art ne sont en aucun cas dues au contenu ou à la qualité des œuvres, mais bien au manque de visibilité de leurs créatrices. Toutefois, les œuvres exposées se vendent mal et l’Association des artistes femmes subit une certaine perte financière. Aujourd’hui, nombre des participantes sont relativement inconnues du grand public. Seules quelques-unes d’entre elles sont exposées dans les musées et collections publiques et une part importante des œuvres restent introuvables. Malgré les efforts fournis, un long chemin reste à parcourir pour cimenter la place des femmes dans les récits officiels de l’histoire de l’art. Cette exposition fait en tout cas un pas dans la bonne direction, et elle est plus que nécessaire à une époque où les artistes femmes manquent de communautés professionnelles et d’occasions d’exposer égales à celles dont jouissent les hommes. Du point de vue actuel, elle peut être considérée de nos jours comme l’expression d’une approche curatoriale féministe, et ce bien avant l’apparition même du concept.

1
Marie Laulund, “Pionergenerationen,” in 100 års øjeblikke – Kvindelige Kunstneres Samfund, ed. Charlotte Glahn &and Nina Marie Poulsen (Copenhagen: SAXO, 2014), pp. 28-29.

2
Ellen Tange, “Kvindernes fremtidige kunsthistorie”, in ibid., p. 304.

3
Kvindelige Kunstneres Retrospektive Udstilling (exh. cat. Copenhagen: København, 1920).

4
Tange, “Kvindernes fremtidige kunsthistorie”, p. 304.

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