Making Modernism: pioneering women take centre stage


Striking and transgressive, the Royal Academy’s ‘Making Modernism’ exhibition illuminates the lesser-known lives and talents of four female German expressionist artists.

Paula Modersohn-Becker makes defiant eye contact with you as she stands tall, chin up, eyebrows raised with the façade of the tall Parisian buildings fall behind her. Her Self-portrait (c. 1900), with muted blue tones, is utterly compelling. Perhaps in this painting, Modersohn-Becker depicts herself confronting the city of artistic prospects she has moved to at the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, as the novelist Rachel Cusk remarks, Modersohn-Becker “could be her own model and paint herself both as an artistic and a societal breakthrough”.

Through characterising and defining herself as a person, in her home and her new city, she not only averts the male gaze but also responds to the suffrage movements cropping up throughout Europe with the future of positive female social change feeling ever closer. This painting was in the first room of the exhibition space which had notably darker lighting to engender a sense of stepping into the illusive past lives of these women. The artworks were positioned to lend an intimacy to the viewing experience, counteracting the high ceilings and large space, with the pieces lowly hung.

Illuminates the lesser-known lives and talents of four female German expressionist artists

The second room’s deep red walls showcased more paintings by Modersohn-Becker’s and prints by Kollwitz, depicting the rawness of motherhood and female sexuality. The red toned walls created a womb-like atmosphere, evoking a stirring and visceral response to the pieces. Memorialising the female body and the female role of motherhood in art undoubtedly attributes more significance to it.

The exclusively feminine experience of motherhood banishes men from fully identifying with these pieces. So, these women generated a distinctly female artistic perspective in their patriarchal society. Moreover, through these portrayals, these women radically combined their role as mothers with their careers as artists, to negotiate their place within the rapidly shifting gender relations of the early twentieth century.

A distinctly female artistic perspective in their patriarchal society

The last room brought attention to small details of modern life, with thematic focus on places and still life. A particularly arresting painting is by Gabriele Münter, Still Life on the Tram (c. 1912). It depicts a close-up of a woman from her chest to her knees, as she sits on a tram holding her bag and shopping goods. This scene says so much through so little; the goods being held point to Europe’s growing consumerism, while the tram nods to the rapid technological transportational developments that changed the dynamics of modern life, both consequences of the Industrial Revolution.

Moreover, the female subject is travelling perhaps independently, so the painting touches on the growing freedom for European women towards the beginning of the new century. Through this painting, Münter articulates the everyday life for a woman in twentieth century Europe whilst enriching and imbuing this mundanity with rich turquoise, as well as vibrant greens, blues, and pinks. This vivacious colour palette lends a lively brightness to the painting, suggesting an animated and fleeting nature to the scene.

Influences of renowned male artists throughout the exhibition are hard to miss

There are skewed, vivid bedroom scenes reminiscent of Van Gogh, and the seemingly Impressionistic, Parisian theatre depictions are conspicuously like that of Renoir. Although this might counteract the true freshness of these women’s perspectives on Modernism, they have nevertheless made their own marks on a male-dominated artistic dialogue.

The artistic influences of Van Gogh and Renoir were so etched into public consciousness at the time, having their own take on these styles and movements was, and still is, significant. This elucidates the women as part of a “lively cosmopolitan exchange of ideas”, as Sarah Lea, the exhibition’s curator, puts it. Through continuing to showcase these unmissable, trailblazing artists today, new light can be shed on the gravitas of their visual voices.

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