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Women Pioneers of the Avant-Garde

Throughout Western history, women aspiring to an artistic career have faced significant challenges in the form of family pressures, social disapproval, and limited educational opportunities. As those barriers began to break down at the beginning of the twentieth century, many women were able to participate in the modernist artistic movements then emerging, and some played pioneering roles in these movements. Yet museums, the art market, and art historical scholarship have all recognized the achievements of women artists far less than their male counterparts. Consequently, many significant artists have been excluded entirely from the modernist canon. This is a situation curators and scholars are now working to change, as they seek to broaden the canon and create a more inclusive (and factual) understanding of the history of art. This essay illuminates the role women artists played in three modernist movements between 1900 and the 1950s: German Expressionism, Surrealism, and geometric abstraction (in particular, the group known as the American Abstract Artists).

German Expressionism

German Expressionism developed in the decade prior to World War I, with centers in Dresden, Munich, and Berlin. Characterized by simple forms, bright color, and a sense of spontaneity or emotionalism, the style was influenced by French Post-Impressionism and Jugendstil, a central European variant of Art Nouveau. Expressionist artists addressed the sweeping social, political, and technological changes of the early twentieth century in their work, often turning a critical lens on social corruption and hypocrisy. At the same time, Expressionism is often identified as an emotional style through which artists conveyed their inner feelings and fears. Despite its association with Germany, artists from many countries embraced Expressionism and contributed to its development. For example, Russian-born artists were central to the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, which flourished in Munich between 1911 and 1914. Women were also prominent participants in Expressionist circles, especially the Blaue Reiter.

Although Paula Modersohn-Becker died at age thirty, just as German Expressionism was emerging, her work was already showing signs of her affinity with the nascent movement. Modersohn-Becker is associated with the artists’ colony in Worspwede, a village on Germany’s North Sea Coast. She studied with the Worpswede painter Fritz Mackensen in 1898, and in 1901, married Otto Modersohn, another of the colony’s artists. But Modersohn-Becker quickly tired of the naturalistic style favored in Worspwede, and grew increasingly attracted to the modernist paintings she saw on trips to London and Paris. She was particularly drawn to the work of Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Edvard Munch, artists whose brilliant palettes and spontaneous brushwork also proved influential on the young German artists who developed the style now known as Expressionism. In this etching, the quickly rendered leaves and cross-hatched grasses reveal Modersohn-Becker’s growing inclination toward an expressionistic visual language.

One of the most prominent women associated with German Expressionism, Gabriele Münter studied initially in Munich, where she enrolled in 1902 in the Phalanxschule, an art school devoted to the principles of Jugendstil. Characterized by simplified line and pure color, Jugendstil was an important stylistic precursor to Expressionism, though with its emphasis on folkloric subject matter it expressed a more nostalgic ethos. Münter developed a romantic relationship with the school’s director, the Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky, and the couple traveled extensively between 1904 and 1908. They spent time in France in 1906–07, when Münter painted this oil sketch of an autumnal park near Paris. Her loose brushwork and brilliant color, inspired by French painting, informed the subsequent direction of her work upon the couple’s return to Munich. Along with Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Münter played a central role in the Blaue Reiter, which gained recognition as one of Germany’s most important Expressionist groups.


Centered in Paris around the poet André Breton in the 1920s and 1930s, Surrealism had an international reach, and its influence on art and literature has persisted into the present day. Inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis, Surrealist artists were deeply interested in the subconscious and developed artistic techniques—such as automatism (automatic drawing) and sgraffito (incising into a paint surface to reveal hidden layers)—to enable them to express suppressed emotions and activate the unconscious. Surrealist images often have dreamlike or fantastic qualities, frequently evoking a sense of disturbance. Women played a major role in the Surrealist movement and a few of them—Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, and Leonora Carrington, for example—are firmly established in the artistic canon. Others, such as Kay Sage and Alice Rahon, discussed below, are being rediscovered more slowly despite their significant artistic contributions. Women Surrealists frequently pushed the boundaries of their time, challenging established social and gender norms, and presenting perspectives on the female experience not previously portrayed in Western art.

After studies at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC, Kay Sage moved to Rome in 1920 to study at the American Academy. She married an Italian prince, Ranieri di San Faustino, in 1925 and remained in Rome until they divorced in 1935. In 1937 she moved to Paris, soon entering the Surrealist circle of André Breton. Sage’s paintings of the 1930s reveal the influence of the Italian artist Giorgio di Chirico, known for his mysterious architectural landscapes, and French painter Yves Tanguy, whose compositions often contain biomorphic forms occupying indefinable, sometimes ominous, spaces. Lost Record, painted in the year of Sage’s marriage to Tanguy, is a barren, desert-like landscape featuring three distinct forms: a vertical tree-like shape, an arch, and a biomorphic, hill-like protrusion. Her smooth brushwork and clean lines enhance the composition’s sense of stillness and silence.

Alice Rahon was drawn into the circle of Surrealist artists and writers in Paris in the early 1930s, and initially expressed her creativity as a poet. With her husband, the Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen, she traveled to Mexico in 1939. The couple decided to remain there following the outbreak of World War II, and Rahon became a Mexican citizen in 1946. In Mexico City, she was active in artistic, intellectual, and exile circles. With encouragement from fellow expatriate Surrealist artists Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, Rahon begin painting. She also became a close friend of the renowned Mexican modernist painters Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Rufino Tamayo. Like them, Rahon was inspired by the pre-Hispanic cultures of ancient Mexico. The imagery in Boîte á musique III evokes the hieroglyphs and carvings found on Mayan temples and pyramids. This is further emphasized through her technique of sgraffito, which involved incising lines into the painting’s surface of sand-infused oil paint to reveal contrasting layers of color below.

Geometric Abstraction

A hard-edged, geometric approach to abstraction arose in European modernist circles around World War I. Dutch De Stijl, Russian Constructivism, the German Bauhaus, and French Purism (an offshoot of Cubism) are connected by an emphasis on geometric form, straight lines, and pure color—though often contained within a restricted palette. For some artists, geometric abstraction enabled them to focus their attention entirely on aesthetic concerns, such as form, line, and color. For others, the non-objective nature of geometric abstraction evoked an undefinable spiritual realm of existence. Geometric abstraction attracted a significant following in the United States during the 1930s and early 1940s, especially as prominent European abstract artists, fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, settled in New York. Fernand Léger, Josef Albers, and Piet Mondrian (from France, Germany, and the Netherlands respectively), all proponents of geometric abstraction, had an especially profound influence on American art. A group called the American Abstract Artists was formed in 1936 to encourage the careers of artists devoted to the style. Women were active in the development and promotion of geometric abstraction in the United States. One of the most prominent supporters of the style in the United States during the World War II era was Hilla Rebay, a collector and advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, whose Museum of Non-Objective Art was the precursor to the Guggenheim Museum. The American Abstract Artists counted eight women among its founding members, and many more joined the organization at later dates.

Although better known for her Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950s, Perle Fine played an important role in the development of geometric abstraction in the 1930s and early 1940s as a member of the American Abstract Artists. Born in Boston, she enrolled in 1935 at the Art Students League in New York, where she studied with the German émigré painter and proponent of abstraction, Hans Hofmann. She soon discovered the work of Piet Mondrian and began painting compositions inspired by his work. Like Mondrian, Fine limited her palette to primary colors and geometric forms. Yet in paintings such as In Staccato, she employs diagonal lines and fragmented forms to evoke a sense of movement and energy that contrasts with Mondrian’s more placid, rectilinear compositions. Later in her career, in the 1960s and 1970s, Fine embraced a more austere form of geometric abstraction, placing her in alignment with Minimalism.

Like Perle Fine, Charmion von Wiegand drew inspiration from the work of Piet Mondrian, while bringing her own sensibilities to the realm of geometric abstraction. In the 1920s and 1930s, von Wiegand worked as a journalist in New York and as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. After returning to New York in 1932, she was drawn into the city’s avant-garde artistic circles while working as a critic and editor for art periodicals. She met Mondrian in 1941, the same year she joined the American Abstract Artists. Initially skeptical of his grid-like compositions, she ultimately embraced his spiritual approach to abstraction. Her own work, however, incorporates a much greater range of forms and colors. Von Wiegand’s commitment to geometric abstraction in an era dominated by Abstract Expressionism has contributed to her marginalization in the canon.

Jenny McComas
Curator of European and American Art

The IU Eskenazi Museum of Art would like to thank the Terra Foundation for American Art for their support and generosity of the museum's Curator of European and American Art.

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McComas, Jenny. "Women Pioneers of the Avant-Garde." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2021.

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