Milada Maresova and the absence of women in Czech art history: the least well-known area of Czech modern art history regards the artwork and lives of Czech female artists.
Since 1989, the domestic history of art has been concerned with various problems which were previously inconvenient to academic discussions of socialist art history, or which were interpreted mainly through eyes tainted by vulgar cultural policies. In the last twenty years, Czech modern art has come under more scrutiny than almost ever before. Due to both publications and exhibitions, Czech modernist art is now a well-known phenomenon amidst the world's art community. Even so, some areas remain overlooked. Czech modern art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century continues to be associated with those artists who aligned themselves with mainstream schools of Western art, i.e., French. Furthermore, interwar Czech art is still primarily identified with the avant-garde experiment.
Amongst Czech art historians, however, there are those who consistently question these generalizations, and call attention to artwork that does not fit into this simplified paradigm. One such historian is Hana Rousova. In the 1980s, Rousova regularly focused on art that was overlooked due to links to so-called "traditionalism," or less well-known forms of abstract art. She also emphasized the artistic accomplishments of the nation's minorities--in particular, German and Jewish artists, who are oft en forgotten in the ethnically "clean" portrayal of Czech art history.
But the least well-known area of Czech modern art history regards the artwork and lives of Czech female artists, despite that fact they played an irreplaceable role in the development of Czech modern art, and that their names are not completely unknown. While there are some exceptions like Zdenka Braunerova, Toyen, and perhaps even Linky Prochazkova and Hana Wichterlova, there is a dearth of information about female Czech modern artists and their artwork. The literature and even lectures on Czech art history still predominantly focus on male artists. In the West, in comparison, discussions about female artists have been going on for thirty years. Given the numbers and achievements of our current female Czech artists, knowledge of their predecessors' achievements is important to know in order to understand their own influences and developments.
Ten years ago when I began my dissertation, I started researching gender issues in Czech modern art; I analyzed whether the traditional concepts of "womanhood" and "manhood" had created a gendered vision of contemporary art, and what effect these gender stereotypes have had on art education and art critique. I also investigated how gender prejudices determined whether something was perceived as modern and progressive (something worthy of interest), and or disqualified as not brave enough, backward, and conservative. I eventually came to the conclusion that the present anonymity which surrounds Czech female artists has not been derived from an absence of skill, but from the prejudices against their gender and the canonization of art history.
THE FIRST GENERATION OF ACADEMICALLY EDUCATED FEMALE ARTISTS
Of my discoveries, one female artist stood out in particular--Milada Maresova (1901-1987): a painter, sketch artist, illustrator, and occasional set designer. Who was Milada Maresova and why is she yet unknown? How did she gain recognition during the First Republic? At this time, while leftist ideas about individual liberation and gender equality did exist, another less-liberal attitude was held as well--as expressed in the words of nineteenth century poet Vaclav Nebesky, the attitude went as such: "a women is not born an artist, like a man is, because she herself is born a work of art, in both its form and content" and that she is "conservative out of her fear that life might lose its balance."
Maresova belonged to the first generation of women who benefited from the First Republic's liberal educational reforms. She was thereby able to study in a full academic program of art history. She began her studies at the School of Applied Arts in Prague in the Drawing and Painting School for Ladies. With the education reforms of 1918, she transferred, however, to the painter's studio of Vojtich Hynais at the Academy for Fine Arts. She studied alongside other female Czech artists like Vlasta Vostebalova, Helena Bochoakova, Charlotte Schrotterova, and Mary Durasova.
Maresova was fortunate to have the opportunity to study in higher education because she came from a conservative family, which adhered to an "old school" patriarchal ideology. Maresova's father only allowed her to study at the Academy of Fine Arts because he did not think it would lead to a career. Maresova, however, knew that her passion for art was no simple whim or brief interlude. She considered art, despite her father's prejudices, to be an autonomous professional career.
While at the Academy, she developed a unique and elaborate technique for painting on glass or on plastic foil. She would paint a design with four extensive cycles of minute detail, made up of pictures and collages, which became slides for projection. She drew and painted on transparencies, and she cut figures and scenes for stories from colored paper and foils. In between each transparent layer she placed other different materials. She then used these light infused paintings as references for her actual paintings. While Maresova did not use the transparencies as end products, her process reflects a certain avant-garde approach towards new concepts in visual arts.
In 1922, Maresova undertook a study tour in Germany, where she first became acquainted with modern art and German expressionism. Formerly accustomed to classical art forms, she began to consult the expressionist work of George Grosz and Otto Dix. The work of Kathe Kollwitz in particular left a great impression on her. Maresova began linking expressionism with realism; she did not want to create idealized creations of neoclassicism like the rest of her artistic peers. She was much more inclined to create artistic "short-cuts" which bordered on caricatures. She also imbued her work with her own social commentary on the world, and sought to portray everyday experiences through some magical dimension.
In 1923, Maresova received a fellowship placement in Paris, where she attended the lectures of Frantisek Kupky. The city on the Seine became a life long love. Her passionate preoccupation with everyday life in the French metropolis is evident in her early paintings and drawings (Paris Metro, 1923). One can easily trace Maresova's immersion into the pulsating city through these daily drawings. She captures the Parisians in their everyday routine perfectly--from the lively traffic on the boulevard, from the crowd of people milling through the metro, to the sedate atmosphere in the Parisian parks and gardens. While in Paris, Maresova became acquainted with exemplars of French modern art. The works of the naivete painter Henry Rousseau made the biggest impression on her.
PROFESSIONAL SOCIAL PAINTER
In 1924, Maresova decided to officially begin her professional career. Even her early works from 1923-1925 reveal her rare artistic talent and her ability to imbue art with personal perception and reflection. At this time, she thematically focused on the "big city" (Paris and Prague). She harmoniously depicted boulevards, nooks of inner city suburbs, cafes, parks, and gardens all under a human hustle and bustle enveloped by a wistful atmosphere (In the Park, Stefanik's bridge, Wenceslas square, Prague Cafe, 1924).
In contrast, her paintings of the countryside reflect a smothering and melancholic tone, while one can see the inner conflicts of humanity played out in the faces of her portraits. In Double Portrait, 1923, she depicts the conflict within the modern man: the conflict between wanting yet fearing the responsibility of freedom, between wanting to objectively look at reality or dream. As Maresova portrays, in the midst of hectic city life, the subject is left with no other course but to descend into loneliness. Only a year after embarking on her professional career, Maresova's work was exhibited in the Topieovi salon in Prague.
In the second half of the 1920s, she gradually left these atmospheric and dream-like scenes behind, and began to paint with a tone of civic and social enquiry. Her paintings from this era, Train Station, Swimming Pool, Charitable Bazaar (1927), Kids on Donkeys (1928), Orphanage (1929) and the missing Paris Street (1928), became the foundations of her exhibition at Aventin Palace in Prague in 1930. These paintings reflect her talent for caricature and hyperbole, and they communicate a satirical social commentary. This stylistic and metaphorical change is best captured in Charitable Bazaar, in which she captures the life of the Paris jet set. Below the glamorous and flashy surface of her dramatic and fashionable creations, she exposes the smallness, superficiality, and ridiculousness of Parisian life.
Maresova did, in fact, effectively use her art to advocate gender equality; she significantly contributed to the gender emancipation movement between the two wars. Like numerous other female artists from the First Republic, she confronted and sought to reverse the work of male painters who had idealized or demonized women in art. Instead of painting muses and mythical women like angels and vampires, Maresova and her peers painted real women (modern and independent, mothers and daughters, brides, widows, pregnant women, beggars, and grandmothers). Maresova was, however, less concerned with agitating for women's rights in general, than in detailing and portraying the personal "micro-stories" of individual women--tales of individual joys, hurts, traumas, weaknesses, and yearnings, and tales of interpersonal relationships between women and the rest of society.
In the beginning of the 1930s, Maresova returned to Paris for inspiration and began to elaborate her focus on ethnic minorities: Chinese Restaurant (1931), one of many ethnic restaurant paintings and Black Women, (1931) a depiction of black women immigrants from the French colonies. In her quill drawings from Paris, she captures the most varied tableaus of the Third World as circus attractions for white amusement. Her European influences aside, Maresova was greatly influenced by African and East Asian masks. She was most intrigued by their mythical stories and supposed magical powers.
During the First Republic, Maresova became a sought after illustrator, and drew particular joy from children's books. She collaborated with the leading Czech periodicals of the time, in which she illustrated fairytales and stories for adults, and drew caricatures and fashion sketches. She left her greatest mark, however, on the field of book illustrations. During the second half of the twenties, the leading Czech publishers of low-budget printing, Frantisek Topie, Vaclav Zikes, Arne Laurin, O. F. Babler and Josef Portman, showed great interest in her.
In the first half of the thirties, Maresova began employing her artwork as social commentary; she was inspired by conditions in the city fringes--the neglected workers' colonies, the dirty factory courts, the gypsy ghettos. Her paintings became windows into the lives of worn out, badly paid and unemployed workers, prostitutes, and other young men and women on the verge of destitution. Maresova portrayed life's periphery for what it was and not as an idyllic dream about the wonders of modern civilization or Sunday promenades under a parasol in the park. It was a scene of poverty and the unquenchable yearning for a better life.
Maresova was also involved in modern Czech theatre and collaborated throughout the thirties with other set designers in Paris. Her reputation for illustrations in children's books benefited her while she collaborated with Mila Mellanova, the founder of the first professional theatre for children and youth. The most interesting and most successful of Maresova's set designs was for Liliom, the celebrated play written by Ferenc Molnar (1940).
Following the Nazi's annexation of the Sudetenland, Maresova began to illustrate with the illegal magazine, In Battle, which was founded by Vojtich Preissig. In 1940, she was arrested and sentenced to twelve years of labor and ten years "loss of honor." During her time in the women's prison in Waldheim, she produced a number of stirring drawings. This collection reflects the sad and even grotesque everyday experiences and events which occurred between the four walls of the Waldheim prison--e. g., monotonous work drills, regular walks in the exercise yard, and portraits of her guards and her fellow inmates. Maresova published a war memoir in 1947, which detailed the three years she spent in the women's prison. This memoir will be published in 2009 by Academia.
A Different Perspective While Maresova continued to paint realistic themes throughout the inter-war years, she punctuated this work with more dream-like or magical scenes, and gradually moved towards the grotesque, during which period she painted exemplars of social commentary. She was, however, certainly not avant-garde; she was not an experimental artist or a revolutionary. German New Age influence resonates throughout her art, but her work is nonetheless recognized as more introverted. While she portrayed real life with all its beauty and banality, the optimistic mood of the avant-garde circles of the 1920s is not evident in her art. From the outset she created, in the words of Czech literary critic and writer Vaclav Tille, a "strange, sad and wistful, and very pessimistic mood."
In 1930, Karel Hornych wrote about her in Woman's World: "She ... draws inspiration from her predecessor Kathe Kollwitz; ... her themes are chosen from the difficulties of modern life and living in the periphery. And she draws and paints these themes just as life creates them. In that way, her paintings become both judge and jury at the same time." In the same vein, Bohumil Markalous commented: "There is no humor, only a tragic comedy, there is nothing to laugh about, only a painful irony ... it is born from the subconscious, from the deep shaky compassion of the artist."
The work of Milada Maresova is multi-faceted, and her role in critically reassessing the history of Czech modern art is completely necessary. It is evident that the Czech female artists of the interwar period brought not only distinctive themes to the First Republic's art scene, but above all, a different sensibility and a different outlook on reality.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Iggers, Wilma. Women of Prague: Ethnic Diversity and Social Change from the Eighteenth Century to the Present. (Berghahn Books, 1995).
Pachmanova, Martina. Invisible Woman: Anthology of Contemporary Texts on Feminism, History, and Visual Culture in the U. S. [Neviditelna Ziena: Antologie soueasneho americkeho mysleni o feminismu, dijinach a vizualiti]. (One Woman Press 2002).
Pachmanova, Martina. Mobile Fidelities: Conversations on Feminism, History, and Visuality. (Online publication www. ukonline. co. uk/n. paradoxa 2006).
Pachmanova, Martina. Unknown Territories of Czech Modern Art: Through the Looking Glass of Gender. [Neznama uzemi ceskeho moderniho umeni: Pod lupou genderu] (Argo, 2004).
Martina Pachmanova is an art historian, independent curator and writer. She is an Assistant Professor at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague.
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|Publication:||The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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