Visibility

"Kampf Um Sichtbarkeit"

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

(Until March 8, 2020)

A major survey of women artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries is currently on exhibit at the Old National Gallery in Berlin. Titled “Struggle for Visibility,” the aim of the exhibit is to highlight a wide array of artists whose lives and works demonstrate aspects of this struggle. The exhibit includes works that have been in the holdings of the museum’s permanent collection for quite some time and others that were purchased specifically for this exhibition. Not only was the breadth and depth of the exhibit laudable but also the commentary that provided the necessary curatorial perspective on various aspects of the ‘struggle,’ including the lack of formal education, limited access to resources, and restricted opportunities to exhibit. Although I expected to be confronted by dozens of unfamiliar names while traversing the exhibit, I was still not expecting to be overwhelmed by the level of craft and unique artistic vision of so many.

High points for me were: “Cherry Harvest” (~1905) by Dora Hitz, “Mission Festival” (1918) by Gertrud Suelzer, Marie Spieler's Self Portrait, and Augusta von Zitzewitz's portrait of Jules Pascin (1913). Hitz’s canvas seems to locate a unique Impressionist style midway between Renoir and Cezanne with the rounded, cheerful figures of Renoir achieved through the broad brushstrokes of later artists such as Van Gogh. I found “Mission Festival” by Gertrud Suelzer to be a phenomenal composition that also portrayed a unique subject, a prayer gathering. While the title might imply a festive occasion, the mystical, sombre nature of the communal gathering is emphasized here with the shade of trees serving as a place of worship.  Carefully placed bits of white – in book pages or bonnets or tablecloths – organize and balance the composition. The artist seems place herself beyond the gathering as an outsider looking on, and she also highlights two other observers in bright sunlight on a hill just beyond the meeting place.

The exhibit emphasizes many artists’ struggles to operate fully within the realm of men and to be accepted by the establishment. And yet several works belie this struggle, including several of the portraits at the outset of the exhibit. The fact that such figures as the composer Carl Maria von Weber and the painter Caspar David Friedrich were willing to sit for their portraits by Caroline Bardua points to the high regard in which she was held as an artist.

While the commentary provided poignant evidence for the ‘struggle for visibility’ by women artists of this period, I found the exhibit served as an invitation to celebrate and discover new artists rather than lament their neglect and lack of visibility.

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