In a 1913 photo of Swedish artist Siri Derkert, she stands in a Montparnasse studio with an easel behind her, a live husky to her left and a toy monkey affixed to her right shoe. The image is a powerful one, depicting a young, spirited woman making paintings aimed at the lively, male-dominated art community of Paris. Over the next 60 years of her life and career, Derkert would move between Paris, Algeria, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, amassing a body of work that responded primarily to her position as a woman in the early 1900s, and her increasing concern for the plight of the environment. Both themes were controversial, anti-à la mode, and ahead of her time.
A recent exhibition at Stockholm’s Andréhn-Schiptjenko centered on Derkert’s work from the 1950s and ’60s, when she fused art-making with her ardent opinions on feminism. At the time, Derkert was in the process of creating her best-known works—The Female Pillar (1958) and Carvings in Natural Concrete (1961–1965)—both housed in Stockholm metro stations. The two massive public murals combine carvings that depict Derkert’s heroes (pioneers of women’s rights and free thought like Sappho, Virginia Woolf, and Simone de Beauvoir) with semi-abstract illustrations of women engaging openly in everyday activities. They resemble sprawling prehistoric petroglyphs, magnified notebook scribbles, and impassioned, impromptu graffiti.
As Derkert conceptualized the two public projects, she experimented with and assembled her signature motifs on smaller, discrete works that made up the exhibition. A group of substantial concrete reliefs, inlaid with carefully arranged steel bands, dominated the show. Carved patterns and molded figures build into a cast of symbolic runes across the rough surfaces of these works. By etching female forms, trees, and birds firmly into stone, Derkert immortalizes ideas of women’s rights, environmental responsibility, and freedom. Propped against the walls, the individual tablets feel like remnants of Derkert’s murals—scions, or perhaps seeds, of her larger-scale works and overarching ethos.
As a foil to the universal, ageless quality of the concrete reliefs, Derkert’s drawings are intimate and spontaneous. Like pages torn from a visual diary, they depict the group of women Derkert met at Fogelstad Women’s School in the 1950s. Together, the friends studied philosophy, formed a choir, and fought vehemently for suffrage—activities played out in energetic sketches of women in solidarity, at play and in protest.