“The Other Half of the Avant-Garde”

“The Other Half of the Avant-Garde” is a show dedicated to the women artists operating within the avant-garde movements from 1910 to 1940. The show gathered together more than a hundred artists about whom, with few exceptions, very little—often nothing—is known. “It’s a flooded universe,” said Lea Vergine, the curator of the exhibition. That it is also a hidden universe is beyond doubt, as was proven by the difficulty that Vergine met researching and assembling the works. Many were kept in the heirs’ collections, others in museum storage. From a historical point of view, the real value of this show is that it brought to light a considerable amount of unknown work, permitting theoretically a necessary art historical revision concerning the female contribution to earlier movements of the avant-garde. However, by isolating this work from its social context, that is, from the movements in their entirety, one risks creating a “ghetto”; the approach becomes limited and contrived by neglecting to consider all natural and historical components.

It is sad (and this is also pointed out in the catalogue) to have to read the civil statuses of these artists (she was wife to . . . she was sister to . . . ).

The show is divided into different sections according to the movements of the avant-garde in chronological order: Blaue Reiter, Plastic values/anti-900, Cubism/PostCubism, Futurism/Cubofuturism/Suprematism, Vorticism, Le Cercle et le Carré, Dada, Bauhaus, Abstract Art, New Objectivity and Surrealism. If we analyze the four hundred works running through the twenty-two rooms of the royal palace in Milan, we can see, among the glut of mediocre works, some expressions of great sensibility or high emotion, like the symbolic and oneiric visions by Marianne von Verefkin, the subtle and transparent watercolors of Carol Rama and the abstract light sculptures by Isabelle Waldberg. However, even this work suffers when contrasted with the works of those artists who have played a more known role within the individual movements surveyed. Not unexpectedly, those works which have weight in the show belong to those artists like Goncharova, Popova, Meret Oppenheim, Florence Henri, Sonia Delaunay, Alexandra Exter, Gabrielle Münter, Vera Pestel, Lea Grundig and Georgia O’Keeffe. The focus should be shifted away from a quantitative and statistical analysis of the female presences in the movements to concentrate on their specific contributions.

Notwithstanding, the show’s objective is still valid and there is merit in having proposed all this new material. To conclude, its limit is the isolation of these works from their larger context. It should have been possible to see the real creative vein of these women and their total contributions. If this had been the approach, we would have really been able to see “the other half,” not “another avant-garde.”

Isabella Puliafito