Review of Shulamith Behr’s ‘Women Artists in Expressionism: From Empire to Emancipation’

By Christian Kile

The general view of Expressionism tends to be a male affair; the women of the movement did not enjoy the degree of institutional support their counterparts received during the 1920s, nonetheless they too were considered deserving of the term ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, and many of their works and writings were ruined or broken up during Allied bombing. Within the secessions and independent artists’ groups, movements which rejected traditional academic standards, it was rare for women to establish themselves. Käthe Kollwitz and Charlotte Berend-Corinth were the only two women to attain the status of men on the jury of the Berlin Succession.

Shulamith Behr’s Women Artists in Expressionism has evolved from her earlier publication, Women Expressionists [1], which “introduced a range of women artists with the realization that there were inevitable links, networking, and cultural exchanges to be forged in a major tome” (239). Here, in-depth chapters on Kollwitz, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Gabriele Münter aim to show these artists “in a new light” before considering lesser-known names and expanding beyond Germany to reveal links between Expressionists in the Netherlands and Scandinavia (20).

Between 1890 and 1920, whilst male insecurity made itself felt, the presence of women was increasingly marked in the arts; labelled as Malweiber, in “art and literary journals, they [women] were portrayed either as immodestly clad, albeit unbecoming, or as severely masculinized” (8). Besides this denigration, there seemed to be a sheer lack of ability to evaluate this new phenomenon of the woman artist. Women Artists in Expressionism centres on the period from around 1890 to 1924, spanning the late Wilhelmine to early Weimar period and aims to show the significance of women artists’ “to the shaping of Expressionist avant-garde culture” (20).

Neglected during her short life, Modersohn-Becker posthumously received Van Gogh-like comparisons from some critics: both artists’ works shared motifs; they both died early and experienced negligible sales and recognition from the public and artistic milieus in their lifetimes. Following a particularly scathing review Modersohn-Becker halted exhibiting in public and took part in only two more group exhibitions. Estimation of her work grew dramatically only after her death, “her images uncannily evoking the lost simplicity and harmony of the preindustrial idyll” (52).

Kollwitz is the most established artist with a chapter here, she “has become canonical, as well known as many male artists of the period, like Grosz or Dix” (55). However, despite distancing herself from Expressionism’s major figures, Ernst Barlach aside, through her images, often characterised by wretched maternal and proletarian suffering, it has been suggested that she is “mother” of the Expressionist movement, at 53 becoming the first woman nominated to the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts (55/79).

Active in the politics of artists’ associations, Kollwitz had a part in forming the Freier Verein der Berliner Künstler (Free Society of Berlin Artists), set up in response to an Edvard Munch exhibition that had been forcibly closed by an official body. She went on to exhibit with Munch and Max Liebermann. Criticism of her work as “immoral and anti-German, symptomatic of a larger malaise of cultural degeneracy” came from the conservative critic Ludwig Pietsch. With one of her portfolios entitled Ein Weberaufstand (A Weaver’s Rebellion) and her drawing series Bilder vom Elend (Pictures of Misery), images of “unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancy” no doubt contributed to this view (63/68).

Counting Freud and Rodin amongst her most revered figures, it was the latter’s “Promethean restlessness” on show at his house museum in Meudon that so struck her (72). Kollwitz remained unconvinced by elements within Expressionism and considered herself an “outsider” detached from the movement’s “discursive practices” (74). There is a tension here noted by Behr of Kollwitz: she embraced “modernity and radical politics on the one hand while rejecting modernism on the other” (74). According to Behr, it was Kollwitz’s will to locate “a medium that would satisfy the joint desiderata of moral duty and subjective agency”, which led her from etching and lithography to the woodcut; through which her response to the war came in the damning cycle Krieg, used by the pacifist movement around the anniversary of the declaration of World War I (80). Together with the print cycle Der Krieg by Dix, her portfolio was shown at Ernst Friedrich’s Anti-War Museum in Berlin.

Of aristocratic birth, Marianne Werefkin enjoyed “both private and academic tuition” together with the benefits of an artist mother and supportive father (91). On receipt of a pension Werefkin decided to move to Munich drawn by its international appeal for artists along with its salon life and “ambience in which incipient emancipation, progressive modernism, and the international (or foreign) fulminated against the local and the conservative” (95). She helped found the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Artists’ Association, 1909-1912) along with Gabriele Münter which provided more opportunities for women artists. This group was seceded by the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider, 1912-1914), a modernist movement that emphasised “spiritual and artistic renewal via the ‘primitivism’ of folk art” (113). Historically, Werefkin and Münter have tended to attract less attention than their better known partners: Alexej Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky, and a chapter gives a rigorous look at the women’s work, ideas and reception.

During Münter’s emigration to Sweden, she found her way into avant-garde circles and saw her work, increasingly portrait focussed, subject to the country’s prevalent critical criteria: “psychological interpretation of nation, style, and character” (129). On a series of works Behr remarks that Münter depicted her subjects as “new women”, engaged in aesthetic and intellectual pursuits generally allocated to male portraits (146).

Celebrated in her day but now relatively little known, the Dutch-born artist Jacoba van Heemskerck was “one of the few to emerge as a major abstractionist in the second decade of the twentieth century” (155). Turning away from the modernism of French and Dutch varieties, her ‘abstract spiritual’ works consisted of various materials from oils and mosaic through stained glass. This acknowledged theories of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), memorably expressed through Richard Wagner’s theory of synthesising the arts, and that of Adolf Behne and the Einheitskunstwerk (unified art work), said by the architectural historian Kai Gutschow to have “achieved a new art form through a common inner motivation and artistic principles” (181). For painted glass experimentation Van Heemskerck installed a firing oven in her studio whilst admiring and drawing on the writings of “the anarchist and fantasist” Paul Scheerbart (181).

The final chapter centres on the patronage, collecting and dealing of women. Rosa Schapire was “one of the first women to pursue the art-historical profession” (189). A critic and collector of Expressionist art, she championed the artist Schmidt-Rottluff and formed a collection of his work. Under the Third Reich her Jewishness, leftist politics and feminism grimly hampered her professional life, and in 1939 she left for London and a life of exile.

Johanna Ey became one of Germany’s foremost modern art dealers, beginning her enterprises by accepting artworks by students and staff from the Düsseldorf Art Academy at her own bakery café to sell. Eventually she gained establishment acceptance, becoming known as the “all-embracing, nurturing ‘Mutter'” (228).

Extremity is one of the overarching themes throughout Women Artists in Expressionism. Charting the various responses of women to politics, art, ideas and war, it acknowledges the great Jewish contribution to modernism just before that sense of assimilation was annihilated by the Nazis. For all the presence of salon affairs, it’s curious there is no mention of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, a highly divisive philosophical work of history which, appealing to an abnormally broad audience, reached a peak of debate in 1919, with its insight into the resurgence of primitive values. [2] Behr’s book does at times slip into verbosity: an oeuvre does not change but instead undergoes “stylistic diversification” and “gendered spectatorship serves to underscore their [women’s] socialization” (162/20). Nonetheless the book is well researched, providing an absorbing picture of some neglected figures and revealing the interminable discord between sexes.


[1] Shulamith Behr: Women Expressionists, Oxford 1988.

[2] H. Stuart Hughes: Oswald Spengler: A Critical Estimate, New York 1952, 89, 163-164.

Review of Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

By Christian Kile

Remembered especially for his graphic print work, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) remains one of the archetypal Renaissance figures and through his surviving records one of the best documented. Dürer’s Journeys accompanies two exhibitions, one planned for London’s National Gallery and one in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen under the German title “Dürer war hier. Eine Reise wird Legende.” [1] It comprises essays that follow Dürer’s path with a distinct focus on his 1520-1521 visit to the Low Countries. Two copies of his complete journal from this time are known to exist today; while the original was lost, these versions are said to be copied directly or at least taken from an earlier copy of this journal and present an exceptionally precise picture of Dürer’s dealings, artistic growth and beyond – even encompassing his physical condition, diet and banquet invitations.

Since the catalogue has such a conceptually cohesive and coherent form, and the contributions dovetail happily with each other, it – and probably the exhibition as well – can be seen as a unit. The authors emphasise the consummate entrepreneurship of Dürer, whose approach comes across as one of astute self-promotion and merciless aspiration: on his journey he brought a sizable number of his own prints which, judging from his records, he would sell or give away. It was through gifting his works that Dürer attempted to build links with powerful patrons, noting in his journal offerings of his prints made to Margaret of Austria – Regent of the Netherlands, her treasurer Jean de Marnix, as well as the exiled King Christian II of Denmark, a guest of Margaret’s court. He went as far as to design a house for Margaret’s physician, throwing in a Saint Jerome engraving for added measure. He must have been doing something right, for Dürer’s developing relationship with Margaret allowed him access to her personal living quarters that housed her art collection, which included Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

Before arriving in Antwerp his engravings and woodcuts were already in high demand by artists and would greatly contribute to the development of Netherlandish print making. 1497 saw contracts arranged for international distribution of Dürer’s work and when it came to marketing and selling his prints it was a family affair with the artist employing his wife and mother. With the wide dissemination of his prints through trade, awareness of his work increased hugely, enhanced by his famous commercial decision to brand the work with his initials. Motifs from these works influenced other leading artists of the time from Giovanni Bellini in Venice to Jan Gossaert in the Low Countries.

Certain essays provide a comprehensive insight into the social history of artists at that time: while still in the Low Countries Dürer was lauded in the cities he visited, celebrated by artists, invited to banquets and the recipient of much wine. That such a vast quantity of wine is noted in his journal is thought to indicate not only the lack of clean drinking water but also the artist’s standing, for wine, even amongst royalty was considered a significant gift. The painter Cornelis van Dalem installed a bust of Dürer on the façade of his home inscribed ‘GERMANORVM DECVS’ (the jewel of the Germans) and painted his own versions of the German’s engravings.

Between August 1520 and July 1521 in Antwerp Dürer produced an oil painting of Saint Jerome for his friend the trader and Roman Catholic Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada; this image spawned a demand for copies that found a large market within the city’s commercial hub. Gone are the saint’s traditional penitential symbols and red cardinal’s hat. Perhaps this reflects the influence of Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus whose concept of self-knowledge as consolation for a disturbed conscience may have been a reason for this change. Indeed, the painting of Saint Jerome may “be considered as a painted argument in their [Dürer and de Almada’s] intellectual exchange of ideas.” (261) Rightly then, it is one of the most important works presented and highlighted in the catalogue.

In the Low Countries an opportunity was spotted by Dürer to open up a market for large portrait drawings. At times these works were used as gifts and over eighty were made by the artist for clients and friends. Drawing rather than painting portraits did away with the many demands, such as studio space, oak panel supports, panel and pigment preparation with assistance and other materials – all of which would have been more challenging for a travelling artist. It was possible for Dürer to complete three such drawings in one night as against four or five days for a painted portrait. Aside from Lucas van Leyden, it seems no other artist seriously adopted this approach, perhaps because of the inevitable comparisons that would come with it: “The portrait drawings functioned within his [Dürer’s] check-and-balance system not simply as works of art that he was able to sell for money – although that most certainly happened – but also as tools to obtain services from those portrayed or in return for gifts or invitations.” (205)

Thoughts about Luther and the Reformation – as emphasised in one of the contributions – collide curiously with Dürer’s journal notes. There is an outpouring known as the Lutherklage (‘Lament on Luther’), passionately asserting its writer as a committed Lutheran. Following this outburst, the subject is not again mentioned. The sudden transition back to Dürer’s prosaic daily comings and goings is so abrupt that the Lament has been seen as an intervention by another hand. Jeroen Stumpel argues in his essay that although not composed by Dürer, it was absorbed into the journal by accident, or with the intention of presenting the artist as a Lutheran sympathiser. The writer is thought to be Jacob Probst, previously cloistered at Erfurt, where Luther had stayed, who became the prior of a convent of Augustinians near Dürer’s Antwerp home. In the Lament “(t)he rhetoric, the indignation, the despair, the theological references, the use of the Latin vocative […] are completely in line with Jacob Probst’s position, training and whereabouts at the given date.” (235)

The many descriptions of Dürer’s works throughout the volume often drag on and in view of the good quality images are unnecessary. What commands most interest is the life of the artist and his efforts to forge a career in the midst of the political intrigue and upheavals of the early Reformation. With Dürer’s independence, phenomenal commercial success and political acumen we can understand how he became what John Berger described as “the first, one-man, avant-garde.” [2] No less remarkable was his masterful sense of timing: he managed his departure from the Low Countries evading the imminent adverse reaction towards Lutheran supporters, some of whom had formed part of his circle.

One reason why the long-planned exhibition in Aachen and London is particularly timely and resonates so strongly with us is that Dürer laboured under a similar sense of impending calamity that we have been experiencing with the worldwide pandemic. In September 1494 there was an outbreak of the plague in his home city of Nuremberg and he may have gone to Venice during 1505-1507 to escape another. Further trials and tribulations he faced ranged from the petty, permits for various regions, and dealing with different currencies to the more serious, robbery attempts and the demands of journeying in changeable weather over harsh terrain on foot or by horse and boat. Yet, ultimately, this volume and exhibitions are a testament to Dürer’s enduring triumph for we continue to admire his work today.


[1] Peter van den Brink (ed.): Dürer war hier. Eine Reise wird Legende, Petersberg 2021.

[2] Tom Overton (ed.): John Berger, Portraits. John Berger on Artists, London 2015, 60.

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