What the Venice Biennale Exhibition Highlights about the Legacies of Late Women Artists

Charlotte Jansen
Mar 24, 2022 9:17PM
Dorothea Tanning
Philosophie en plein air (Fresh-air Philosophy), 1969

It’s become accepted that the art world loves very old ladies and very young men. Yet given the events of the past five years, it seems that tastes have shifted, as late women artists are increasingly under the spotlight. Take, for example, the major monographic museum shows on 20th-century pioneers, including Tate Modern’s recent surveys of Dorothea Tanning, Dora Maar, and Anni Albers; and MoMA and MoMA PS1’s recent exhibitions of Sophie Taueber-Arp, Niki de Saint Phalle, Tarsila do Amaral, Carolee Schneemann, and Louise Bourgeois, as well as the forthcoming Meret Oppenheim retrospective.

Notable, too, is the soaring secondary market for late women artists’ long-underrecognized oeuvres: Leonor Fini’s Autoportrait Au Scorpion (1938) set the artist’s auction record at Sotheby’s in 2021 when it sold for $2.32 million; and a new record was also achieved for Louise Nevelson last year, when the 1977 sculpture Floating Cloud VII sold for $1.35 million at Christie’s.

Leonor Fini
Armoire anthropomorphe (Anthropomorphic Wardrobe), 1939
Weinstein Gallery

The tide is changing when it comes to the cultural and economic value of work by late women artists—but the change isn’t only due to the machinations of a trend-led art market. There’s a push to rewrite the legacies of women artists that have, until recently, been underscored by the tired narrative that they have been overlooked and misunderstood because of their gender.

At the International Art Exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale this year (open to the public from April 23rd through November 27th), titled “The Milk of Dreams” and curated by Cecilia Alemani, almost half of the 213 featured artists are deceased women. The show features the work of Western Surrealists, avant-garde artists, and bohemians of the early 20th century—including Taeuber-Arp, Nevelson, Fini, Ithell Colquhoun, Eileen Agar, and Claude Cahun, among others—as well as their free-thinking successors of the second half of the century, such as Saint Phalle, Birgit Jürgenssen, Ruth Asawa, and Minnie Evans. The mammoth exhibition, divided into five sections, marries artists of different backgrounds, affiliations, artmaking methods, generations, and genders. Alemani has set out to create a non-linear historical narrative “that is not built around systems of direct inheritance or conflict but around forms of symbiosis, solidarity and sisterhood,” she stated.

“The Milk of Dreams” takes its title from a book by artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who is associated with Surrealism and whose works were often concerned with the ways we could be liberated from the material confines of our human existence. Carrington, who died in 2011, also features in the exhibition. Her proposition for escaping the patriarchy? Refuse to participate in it.

One particular passage from Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet (1974) is chillingly prescient when read today, as the effects of patriarchy reverberate globally: One character observes, “It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government’! The word, I expect, frightens people. It is a form of planetary hypnosis, and very unhealthy.”

The premise of “The Milk of Dreams” exhibition subtly suggests the bonds forged by sex and social position, though it seems to steer the focus instead towards the radical philosophy, prolific production, and bold imagination that those artists who are forced to inhabit the periperhy often develop and share. This rich and radical imaginary is, perhaps, the corollary of existing—by force or by choice—outside the confines of societal norms.

The exhibition includes, for example, works by the Bauhaus photographer Gertrud Arndt, who photographed architecture and buildings after she was unable to make progress in her career as an architect. She enrolled at the Weimar school, where women were not permitted to enter most workshops, and is best known now for a series of exploratory, masked self-portraits. Much later, those works were identified as early precursors to the many artists who have since used the camera and costume to probe identity, sex, and social expectations. Arndt received no recognition for her work during her lifetime, and abandoned photography altogether sometime in the mid 1940s.

A more unusual inclusion in the “The Milk of Dreams” is the French novelist and playwright Rachilde, an agent provacteur who scandalized Europe with her erotic and pornographic writing in the late 19th century. Her novels featured sexually empowered and sadistic female protagonists. Identifying as adrongynous and aligned with the Decadent movement, Rachilde (a nom de plume adopted when the writer embarked on her career at the age of 15) penned a monograph, Why I Am Not a Feminist in 1928. Rachilde’s inclusion in this exhibition shows how gender can be a starting point to interrogate the structures and injustices of society.

The prospect of “The Milk of Dreams” opens up new conversations and prisms of understanding that aren’t predicated on the identity of the artists. The show allows for more fluid connections between artists that exhibitions emphasizing women artists often overlook, namely through the inclusion of other genders (notably, less than 10% of the artists included in the exhibition identify as men) and artists like Rachilde, who remained ferociously independent of the feminist movement. Far from feeling peripheral, though, many of the featured late women artists were adamantly, vividly at the center of their own world. As Leonor Fini once said, “I have always loved, and lived, my own theater.”

Leonor Fini
L'Alcove (Self-portrait with Nico Papatakis), 1941
Weinstein Gallery

Many of the early avant-garde women artists of “The Milk of Dreams” lived and died with little to no success when measured by mainstream standards. Take, for example, Carol Rama, who died impecunious in 2015, aged 97, though her work has since been featured in 11 solo shows at major galleries and museums; and Ruth Asawa, whose estate has been represented by David Zwirner since 2017, and has been featured in numerous institutional and gallery shows since then, in addition to steady auction appearances.

Importantly, often these artists made an emphatic choice to not live or work according to the expectations of the patriarchal system. Dorothea Tanning, also in the lineup of “The Milk of Dreams” and currently featured in a solo exhibition “Doesn’t the Paint Say It All?” at Kasmin, once famously stated, “Women artists. There is no such thing—or person.” Tanning’s estate rejects inclusion in exhibitions or texts centered on “women artists.” Tanning herself clearly understood how the term could be a distraction and a way of keeping women separate from the default male understanding of the world.

Carol Rama
Spazio anche più che tempo, 1970

On March 17th, LGDR Paris opened a new solo exhibition on Rama’s work curated by Mark Godfrey. Godfrey indicated that, contrary to the way artists and especially women and their work are often framed, Rama wilfully wanted to remain outside of the system. “Carol Rama insistently retained her artistic independence, and after the 1950s did not wish to be seen as part of an artistic group,” he said. “This meant she was not as recognised outside Italy as other artists living and working in her city, Turin, even though she had social and artistic links to figures as famous as Man Ray, Andy Warhol, and Meret Oppenheim. Her work is increasingly interesting to artists and curators of younger generations because of her material creativity and the complex ways that she engaged with the world outside her studio.”

The art market also seems to be acknowledging the pushback against the “woman artist” label. Recently, Sotheby’s held its second “(Women) Artists” auction, which was online from March 17th through 23rd and extended to an in-person exhibition in London. Sotheby’s contemporary art specialist Marina Ruiz Colomer notes that artists such as Fini and Tanning, both of whom will be in “The Milk of Dreams” and had works sold in the inaugural “(Women) Artists” sale last year, are now viewed as key players of the Surrealism movement and the shape of art in the 20th century broadly. However, “their auction prices have been far from their male counterparts until recently,” she said. The “(Women) Artists” sale was set up to redress the imbalance of artists who have been historically marginalized or categorized by gender.

Dorothea Tanning
Ignoti nulla cupido, 1960

“We have indeed seen an increase in demand and appreciation for artists who are either in the final years of their career or who have passed away,” Ruiz Colomer added. “The market likes to ‘discover’ artists who have been traditionally undervalued or ignored—and I say discover in quotation marks because these are artists who were always there and who have been working or worked for long periods of time, but who were never given the attention they deserved. Female artists should not be pigeonholed nor segregated, and this is precisely why we hold these sales that appear to be doing exactly that—in order to turn the tables and open up this debate. Yes, these artists are women, but more importantly, they are artists.”

One of the major exhibitions of 2021 surveying the legacy of Eileen Agar took place at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Agar, who forged a new visual language by synthesizing Cubism and Surrealism, appears in “The Milk of Dreams” and concurrently in the major exhibition “Surrealism Beyond Borders” organized by Tate Modern and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The latter show also includes Carrington, Colquhoun, and Cahun, among many others.)

Eileen Agar
Tropic of Music, 1969
Alon Zakaim Fine Art

Laura Smith, curator of the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition, finds Agar’s reemergence into the mainstream conscience poignant. “At a time when the rise of right-wing populism and our destruction of the natural world are increasingly dangerous, I think museums, at a minimum, should be able to hold a mirror to contemporary problems,” she said. While historic exhibitions might not be an obvious way to speak about the present, shifting focus away from the status of sex is vital to preserving what is truly important about these artists.

Smith pointed to Agar’s legacy as a particularly compelling one to revisit today: “An anti-fascist, a pacifist, and a Surrealist, Agar’s delight in nature and her feminist approach to making work informed her ambition to develop a universal visual language that she didn’t waver from for her entire career—and that is something that we can all learn from in this very particular moment.”

Charlotte Jansen