REVIEW. Making modernism


Musings on Making Modernism


Paula Modersohn-Becker, Kӓthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin on view at the RA.

In an exhibition exploring work devoted to a pioneering collective of German women, we explore their creative freedom that visually spoke to others lack thereof.

You can feel through the sparks of confidence within the affronting portraits that there’s this weight, a pain even. Whilst they may uphold long necks, disarmingly regal stares and even quiet whispers of seduction – these women also offer something much deeper, a melancholic solitude that we can perhaps confide in. 

There is also a remarkable touch of gender fluidity coursing through the figurative works and not to mention some celebrity sightings posing as subjects – cc Kandinsky and Paul Klee. 

(a personal fav)

Upon entrance you immediately start to absorb the mass scorn of expressions that penetrate the space. Whilst some pieces provoke an irrevocable reflection onto ones self, others are simply engulfing in their dazzling portrayals of modernity. This echoes an observation I heard from Jenna Gribbon recently … 

You enter a small painting with your mind 

And a big painting with your body

This really resonates with this collection in pertaining to the varied range in scale. Whilst some feel more a psychological study in their subtlety and cropped size, others feel, often presenting the domestic interior, to place us within these environments. 

Collectively, they are all suggestive to this surrender, to responsibility, to motherhood, to domesticity. But through this iconoclastic form that we identify with and align to the core branches of modernism; whether that be the Gauguin-esque abruptness in Modersohn-Becker’s faces, or even Reylaender’s deeply unsettling nude portraits of adolescence, that could recall that of Egon Schiele. Through this parallel, the selected works also feel like a portal into their rebellion, they pose as a refusal to conformity. These women are aligning themselves to their male counterparts and staking their claim that they were there too.  

Channelling that familiarity poised through a women’s perspective also brings a new level of relatability to the period. Whilst women in their domestic interior is a well trodden path within the western cannon – this particular take is so radical, but also so familiar, and understood. 

It reminds us that in this remarkable swathe of creative exploration, largely stamped by male input, there is also a deeply translatable energy on the painstaking realities of being a woman. It speaks to human experience, it speaks to loss, domestic life, desire, and body politics. We can only be grateful that this radical crew denied their path to present such staunchly, unapologetic depictions of womanhood.  

– Imogen Haisman


Royal Academy, London


12 November 2022 — 12 February 2023


1900s, Germany

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