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Issue 7

Directors' Choice: Pick One Significant Work by a Woman Artist From Your Collection

20 Museum directors from major institutions around the world nominate a favourite work by a woman artist in their collection

in Features , Frieze Masters | 01 SEP 18

Art Institute of Chicago 

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon

Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Kunstmuseum Bern

Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York

Louvre Museum, Paris 

Magasin III, Stockholm

Museum Ludwig, Cologne

National Gallery, London

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare

National Portrait Gallery, London

Norval Foundation, Cape Town

Parrish Art Museum, Long Island

Tate Britain, London

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton

Eileen Agar, Angel of Anarchy, 1936–40, plaster, fabric, shells, beads, diamante stones and other materials,  57 × 46 × 32 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Eileen Agar and Tate Britain, London

Tate Britain, London - Eileen Agar, Angel of Anarchy, 1936–40

Alex Farquharson is director of Tate Britain, London, UK. 

I adore Eileen Agar’s Angel of Anarchy, a life-size female head entirely swathed in cloth, feathers and jewellery – a Giuseppe Arcimboldo painting come to life. Her skin is, by turn, Chinese silk and African bark cloth; she has extravagant feathers instead of hair and beads finished with cowrie shells curtain her temple. The black and green feathers are osprey and ostrich; according to A.S. Byatt, they once belonged to Agar’s sartorially eccentric Argentinian mother. It’s a Surrealist masterpiece, one that also speaks to our times: it anticipates, in its bodily metamorphoses and cultural syncretism, the fierce and erotic Afro-futuristic sea goddesses of Ellen Gallagher and Wangechi Mutu. Agar’s monstrously glamorous angel appears borne on a Wild Sargasso Sea from the Jazz Age. The eponymous anarchy, on the other hand, was probably meant in solidarity with the Republican side of the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War.

 Irma Stern, Berber Girl, 1945, oil on canvas, 53 × 44 cm. Courtesy: Homestead Collection, Norval Foundation, Cape Town

Norval Foundation, Cape Town - Irma Stern, Berber Girl, 1945

Elana Brundyn is director of the Norval Foundation, Cape Town, South Africa.

I react to Irma Stern’s bold use of colour, especially in Berber Girl. I normally don’t love colour and steer away from it, but there is something in the way that Stern uses it, specifically in this work, which attracts me.

During World War I, when her family travelled to Germany, Stern wrote in cold and dark Berlin about how she longed to be back in South Africa, with all of its colours and textures. It is clear to me that she thinks and dreams in colour.

Stern travelled extensively throughout her life and her art refuses easy identification with a particular country or movement. Her idiosyncratic, modern style brought her international acclaim and she is considered to be one of South Africa’s most important artists.

Deborah Bright, Untitled, from the series ‘Dream Girls’, 1989–90, gelatin silver print, 28 × 35 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York

Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York - Deborah Bright, ‘Dream Girls’, 1989–90

Gonzalo Casals is executive director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, USA.

The ‘Dream Girls’ series by Deborah Bright can be understood as a metaphor for queer reclamation. After creating more nuanced works around gender and power, Bright felt the need to insert her constructed, butch-girl image into film stills from iconic Hollywood movies with heterosexual narratives to evoke her own experience as a lesbian.

This exercise in queer utopia, where the past is altered to re-imagine a better future, allowed Bright to address lesbian visibility while disrupting existing narratives and commanding new ones that empower and mirror her community. ‘What amazed me’, Bright says, ‘was the strong resonance this work had for other lesbians and gay men who had similar movie memories and who could relate to the impulse to see oneself in the scene, seducing the object of desire or creating a triangle that disrupted the heterosexual narrative. The work had great appeal for feminist film scholars, too, who were preoccupied with the female gaze in the 1980s – lesbian film critics and filmmakers loved the series’ challenge to the heteronormative assumptions of Laura Mulvey and other (straight) feminist film scholars who positioned women as the objects of the male gaze rather than active subjects who were doing the gazing and imagining other stories than the film’s manufactured one!’

The inclusion of Bright’s work in our collection exemplifies our mission of reclaiming scholarship from a queer perspective and bringing visibility to artworks that speak to the experiences of LGBTQ communities – inspiring a queer future!

Agnes Nyanhongo, Foetus, 1985, serpentine, 93 × 70 × 18 cm. Courtesy: the artist and National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare

National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare - Agnes Nyanhongo, Foetus, 1985

Raphael Chikukwa is deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, Harare.

Agnes Nyanhongo is widely regarded as Zimbabwe’s most important female sculptor. Coming from one of the country’s most prominent artistic families, she has had an illustrious and prolific career and has been an inspiration to younger generations of women artists.

Her sculpture Foetus portrays an unborn child in minimal detail. It symbolizes conception: a significant part of human and animal life. The sensitivity with which Nyanhongo expresses her ideas and her respect for material are both apparent in her work.

Evoking potency and life, Foetus establishes an analogy with the female creative force. It masters Minimalism, occupying space with its fluid shape. This sculpture has, sadly, not been written about widely since its execution in 1985. It is high time that it is celebrated by a broader audience and that light is shed on this work of sheer ingenuity.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled, 1975–76, mirror, reverse-glass painting and plaster on wood, 81 × 71 × 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington - Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled, 1975–76

Melissa Chiu is director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, USA.  

I have selected Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s Untitled (1975–76), which we acquired in 2015 on the tail of our presentation of Shirin Neshat’s exhibition ‘Facing History’. It was a significant acquisition for the Hirshhorn Museum because it initiated a new focus on collecting around the idea of a global Modernism, leading to new research on artistic figures and movements that were previously overlooked. Farmanfarmaian is a major figure in Iran today, but she also spent a large part of her career in New York. Her mirror works have as much to do with abstraction as they do the intricate mirror mosaics in the mosques of Shiraz.

Laura Knight, Self-Portrait (Laura Knight with Model, Ella Louise Naper), 1913, oil on canvas, 1.5 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the Estate of Dame Laura Knight and National Portrait Gallery, London. 

National Portrait Gallery, London Laura Knight, Self-Portrait (Laura Knight with Model, Ella Louise Naper), 1913

Nicholas Cullinan is director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

This painting is so powerful that it stops me in my tracks no matter how many times I have seen it. Here, Laura Knight depicts herself in the act of painting her fellow artist Ella Louise Naper and, for me, it’s the bravura mise-en-abyme composition and bold colours that really make it sing. Knight had been barred from attending male-only life-painting classes. She went on to become the first artist to be made a dame, in 1929, and the first woman to be elected a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1936.

Paula Rego, Salazar a vomitar a pátria (Salazar Vomiting the Homeland), 1960, oil on canvas, 95 × 120 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon 

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon -Paula Rego, Salazar a vomitar a pátria (Salazar Vomiting the Homeland), 1960

Penelope Curtis is director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.

Portugal has notably strong examples of women artists, from Maria Helena Vieira da Silva to the numerous figures working in the years around the 1974 Carnation Revolution. I have chosen this early, powerful piece by Paula Rego, Salazar a vomitar a pátria (Salazar Vomiting the Homeland), both because it is a reminder of why the artist left Portugal and the repressive dictatorial regime of the Estado Novo (New State, in power 1926–74) and because it is so different from the work for which she is known in the UK. Rego always remembered her father telling her that Portugal was no place for women: the country only passed full female suffrage in 1976.

Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem- Judith Leyster, Portrait of an Unknown Woman, 1635

Ann Demeester is director of the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands.

Women painters in the 17th century were, as we all know, an exception to the rule, which hardly comes as a surprise if we take the social structures of the time into consideration. Judith Leyster was an absolute outlier and one of the most significant female artists from that period. In 1633, she was the first woman admitted to the Haarlem painters’ guild and was declared a master painter, which gave her the right to open her own studio and take pupils. It makes you wonder how this must have felt and functioned for both Leyster and her colleagues.

She probably learned the painter’s craft from Frans de Grebber and Frans Hals. Her paintings are closely related to those of Hals; just like him, Leyster painted both accurately and with loose strokes. It is certainly established that they knew one another: Leyster was a witness at the baptism of one of Hals’s children in 1631. Could Hals have learned something from her, too? I like to believe that there was a two-way influence.

We do not know who the woman depicted in this painting is. Her smile and gaze, which suggest a certain familiarity, lead us to suspect that she was related to the artist, or at least a close acquaintance. Her clothing – austere with expensive accents like the ruff and lace cuffs – make clear that she was a member of the bourgeoisie, like Leyster herself. Stripped of these attributes, the portrait has an androgynous feel.

Leyster was fairly active until she married Jan Miense Molenaer in 1636. He was also a painter, but, in my opinion, considerably less gifted than Leyster. With her wedding, her work also ceased; she had a large family to look after and probably did not want to compete with her husband. Leyster’s work was then forgotten and, for a long time, many of her paintings, including this portrait, were incorrectly attributed to Hals.

Maria Sol Escobar, La visita (The Visit), 1964, painted wood and diverse materials, 153 × 226 cm. Courtesy: Museum Ludwig, Cologne; photograph: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln/Britta Schlier

Museum Ludwig, Cologne - Maria Sol Escobar, La visita (The Visit), 1964

Yilmaz Dziewior is director of Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany.

One of my favourite pieces in the collection of the Museum Ludwig is La visita (The Visit) by Maria Sol Escobar, who is better known as Marisol, her Spanish nickname. The sculpture consists of three female figures sitting on a sofa and a child standing next to it holding an apple; it is humorous and, at the same time, full of tension – the four characters could easily have jumped out of a play by Samuel Beckett. The piece has been in our collection since the museum’s inauguration in 1976. We recently acquired two early paintings by Teresa Burga from the 1960s as well as Marta Minujín’s Mi colchón (My Mattress, 1962) – together, they give an expanded narration of the idea of Pop Art, which took place not only in North America and Europe, but also in Latin America and other regions.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1615-17, oil on canvas, 71 × 72 cm. Courtesy: The National Gallery, London

National Gallery, London - Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c.1615–17

Dr Gabriele Finaldi is director of the National Gallery, London, UK.

Artemisia Gentileschi is a gutsy, powerful painter. In 17th-century Italy, art was a man’s world. She sought fame as a painter of ambitious history pictures and, against all the odds, achieved it. The National Gallery’s newly acquired work shows Saint Catherine: the fourth-century princess and scholar who took on 100 pagan philosophers in a public disputation and won. She was subsequently tortured on a spiked wheel and then beheaded. Gentileschi could hardly not identify with this femme forte and gives the saint her own features. Surprisingly, this is the first work by Gentileschi in a public collection in the UK and the first by a woman painter to enter the National Gallery’s collection since 1974.

Rosalba Carriera, A Young Lady with a Parrot, c.1730, pastel on blue-laid paper, 60 × 50 cm. Courtesy: Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago - Rosalba Carriera, A Young Lady with a Parrot, c.1730

James Rondeau is president and Eloise W. Martin director of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA.

This supremely stunning pastel portrait and its creator are remarkable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Rosalba Carriera is one of very few early-modern women artists to have achieved international attention and praise during her lifetime. She was revered and sought after by patrons in her native Italy, as well as in Germany, Britain and France. She portrayed numerous family members of the royal courts, including a young Louis XV of France. She was the first woman to be accepted into the academies of Bologna, Paris and Rome – an exceptional honour for any artist at the time. Rosalba’s innovative approach to pastel has been credited with elevating the medium to the level of fine art, leading it to become one of the most popular art forms of the Rococo period. She was the first artist to readily use stumping, rubbing, a dry brush and even her fingers to soften and enhance the features of her pastel figures. The graceful yet playful and provocative nature of A Young Lady with a Parrot – seemingly a cross between allegory and portraiture – combined with its rich yet suffused chromatic effects, are all hallmarks of Rosalba’s style and would become traits of the period. Pretty great.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1554, oil on wood, 20 × 13 cm. Courtesy: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna - Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1554

Sabine Haag is general director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Women artists among the Old Masters are rare. That is hardly a surprise. Sofonisba Anguissola, however, was born into the Italian nobility. She and her six sisters were raised as though they were boys, encouraged to pursue their individual talents. This upbringing may explain her unusual career in the context of the 16th century. Her connections enabled her to become a lady-in-waiting and painting instructor at the Spanish court, after she was already considered to be an important artist at the early age of 15. In her numerous self-portraits, some executed at a very young age, she invariably pictures herself attired in a high-necked gown, as in this work. Here, Sofonisba is about 19 years old.

Barbara Hepworth, The Family of Man, 1970, bronze, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton - Barbara Hepworth, The Family of Man, 1970

Clare Lilley is director of programme of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, UK.

One of the largest sculptures that Barbara Hepworth completed before her death in 1975, The Family of Man is also known as Nine Figures on a Hill. Yorkshire Sculpture Park is one of only two places in the world where the group can be seen in its entirety. Towards the bottom of a hill, it begins with Young Girl, ending near the top with Ultimate Form. Hepworth lived through two world wars, counted many refugee artists as her friends and was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Labour Party. She cared passionately that postwar Europe forge international structures to ensure peace and The Family of Man is an expression of her belief in community and her desire for tolerance. The nine sculptures have the quietly compelling presence of prehistoric standing stones as well as a warmth and intimacy that I attribute to her experience as a woman and a mother – particularly a mother who grieved a lost child. Recently restored, these sublime sentinels – changing daily under the Yorkshire sky and with the seasons – give me both huge pleasure and continued hope for our collective humanity.

Félicie de Fauveau (sculptor) and Hippolyte de Fauveau (her brother, who contributed to the polychromy), Santa Reparata (Saint Reparata), 1855-65, terracotta, 90 × 33 cm. Courtesy: Louvre Museum, Paris

Louvre Museum, Paris - Félicie de Fauveau (sculptor) and Hippolyte de Fauveau (her brother, who contributed to the polychromy), Santa Reparata (Saint Reparata), 1855–65

Jean-Luc Martinez is president-director of the Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

This March, the Louvre Museum acquired an elegant sculpture of Saint Reparata, which dates back to the 19th century. Saint Reparata, virgin and martyr, was prayed to for protection against cholera and the plague and became the patron saint of the cities of Florence and Nice. This acquisition strengthens our presentation of the Romantic period in the Louvre Museum’s sculpture department. It is also an opportunity to bring the work of Félicie de Fauveau to public attention, who was in her time a fabulous artistic and political figure admired by Alexandre Dumas and Stendhal.

A monarchist and legitimist supporting the eldest branch of the Bourbon dynasty, in 1832 she took part in the attempted Vendée uprising against King Louis-Philippe as a horsewoman; she lived the rest of her life in exile in Florence. It was in Tuscany that she realized this innovative work, influenced by the most important Florentine masters and her fascination with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Indeed, this uncommon heroine, free and uncompromising, driven by a chivalrous ideal, devoted her life to art with no regard for convention and counts among the major French romantic sculptors.

Ann-Sofi Sidén, Who Told the Chambermaid?, 1998, video installation ith mixed media, 240 × 390 × 30 cm. Courtesy: Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art, Stockholm

Magasin III, Stockholm - Ann-Sofi Sidén, Who Told the Chambermaid?, 1998

Tessa Praun is director and chief curator of Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art, Stockholm, Sweden.

This work by Swedish artist Ann-Sofi Sidén has many of the aspects I am drawn to as someone looking at art and as a curator. In its mundane approach, it both dismisses and pulls the viewer in. Through its many layers, this work continues to address current questions of integrity and power structures 20 years after its creation.

On a set of shelves, 17 surveillance monitors are placed on top of or crammed between towels, toilet paper, bed linens, blankets and cleaning products. The black and white video was recorded in a hotel and combines authentic and fictitious material. The people in the hotel synchronously move through the images on the monitors. A person leaving a room in one scene suddenly shows up in a corridor in another. In one room, we get a clear reference to art history and Marcel Duchamp as we see a naked woman and a fully dressed man playing chess – ‘which,’ as the artist says, ‘might make the other [scenes] feel more real’.

The narrative is unclear. In the 18-hour footage (of which I have watched every minute!) there is a sense of insecurity: Who is looking at whom? Who is in control and who is under control? It is this ambiguous psychological dimension that makes the work so intriguing.

Françoise Gilot, Les Yeux bleus (Blue eyes), 1956, oil on canvas, 75 × 50 cm. Courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. 

National Gallery of Victoria, Melboune - Françoise Gilot, Les Yeux Bleus (Blue Eyes), 1956

Tony Ellwood is director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. 

I’d like to nominate Françoise Gilot. We recently acquired a work by her and I believe that she is an underappreciated artist, despite a long and ongoing career that began in Paris in the 1940s.

During her decade-long relationship with Pablo Picasso, Gilot changed her artistic style – relying on imagination rather than observation. But, after they separated, she returned to working from nature and with models. 

In 1956 she painted the classical dancer Germaine Brooks, who she depicts seated on a chair in a neutral space with a thin red skirting board. Her hands are clasped around her left knee and her piercing blue eyes anchor the composition. While Brooks often posed for Gilot in ballet costume, here she wears everyday attire that captures perfectly the spirit of modernity in 1950s Paris.

Alice Aycock, The Celestial City Game, 1988, black ink and watercolour on paper, 1.5 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Parrish Art Museum, Long Island 

Parrish Art Museum, Long Island - Alice Aycock, The Celestial City Game, 1988

Terrie Sultan is director of the Parrish Art Museum, Long Island, USA.

For more than 40 years, Alice Aycock has created art that expresses the cross-overs and contradictions between fantasy and science, abstract thought and bodily sensation. Known primarily for her room-filling installations and massive, outdoor sculptures, Aycock uses drawing as a laboratory for developing the multi-layered density of her three-dimensional work. She is an artist who thinks on paper and her spectacular drawings are equal parts engineering plan and science-fiction imagining. Her practice also anticipates how systems-based drawing has become an increasingly important avenue for today’s emerging artists.

The Parrish Art Museum acquired the large-scale drawing The Celestial City Game in 2009, before the 2013 exhibition ‘Alice Aycock Drawings: Some Stories Are Worth Repeating’. It is a significant part of our collection, being a major work by an important artist that illustrates how drawings by sculptors are integral to their creativity.

I first experienced Aycock’s work in 1979, new to my career and just beginning to explore my curatorial vision. I was deeply moved by her exhibition at John Weber Gallery, captivated by her pure, white forms that looked like a cross between three-dimensional axonometric drawings and the ghosts of arcade games. Twenty-nine years later, I had the opportunity to finally meet her at an exhibition opening at the Parrish Art Museum, where her work was on display. We have stayed in close contact for a decade now and the museum has acquired several additional works to further represent her distinguished career.

The Celestial City Game is a prime example of Aycock’s drawings: an amalgam of rigorous structural drafting and sheer, unadulterated fantasy. Over two metres wide, it is based on the city of Jerusalem, with snakes and ladders in a central chequerboard, surrounded by a city plan derived from the eighth-century manuscript, the Morgan Beatus. Rendered in vivid red, gold and blue, the tilted perspective of the square pattern, like a flattened building, visually torques in space. The result is a kind of cross-cultural mandala – the cosmos as a landing pad for imaginative perception.

Vanessa Bell, A Conversation, 1913-16, oil on canvas, 87 × 81 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Vanessa Bell and The Courtauld Gallery, London

Courtauld Institute of Art, London -Vanessa Bell, A Conversation, 1913–16

Deborah Swallow is director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK.

Vanessa Bell’s A Conversation is, for me, one of the most memorable paintings in the Courtauld Gallery’s collection. It is bold and daring in colour and form but mysterious and intriguing in its subject: three women engrossed in a deep conversation, where ideas are being formed and stories told. It is one of the great modern paintings made in the UK in the years around World War I. The fact that it was created by a woman in an avant-garde art world composed largely of men makes it all the more remarkable. But, as with most periods of art history, the closer you look, the more remarkable women you find at work. Since the 1970s, gender studies and feminist discourse have played an important part in pushing forward art-historical research, and the seeds of independent thought sown by the likes of Bell and her contemporaries are now flourishing – not least through the work of our alumnae and faculty, as in Jo Applin’s recent Lee Lozano: Not Working (2018).

Whenever I look at A Conversation, I like to think about Bell’s famous sister, Virginia Woolf, being moved to ask: ‘I wonder if I could write [the painting] in prose?’ She recognized it immediately as a piece with many stories to tell. Such stories continue to evolve as time passes, thought changes and each new viewer comes to the work of earlier generations with a different gaze. That can only be a good thing.

Jenny Holzer, Installation for Bilbao, from the 'Truism' series, 1997, electronic LED signs, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao - Jenny Holzer, Installation for Bilbao, from the ‘Truisms’ series, 1997

Juan Ignacio Vidarte is director of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.

I remember meeting Jenny Holzer in February 1997, when she came to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to finalize her proposal for Installation for Bilbao in time for the museum’s grand opening that autumn. It was a thrill to see how the artist created the work in dialogue with Gallery 101, one of the most unique exhibition spaces in the building. Holzer’s ‘Truisms’ shoot up from the atrium to the second floor, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the space. Her vivid messages, displayed on blue and red LED signs, have always captured my attention: short sentences flowing in a cadence – ‘I say the word, I say your name, I cover you, I shelter you […]’ – in Basque, Spanish and English. This is certainly one of my favourite artworks in the museum’s collection and I find it extraordinary that, after 20 years, it still has such a strong impact on me.

Meret Oppenheim, The Green Spectator (One Who Watches While Somone Dies), 1933/59, lime wood preparedd in oil and copper sheet, 116 × 49 × 15 cm. Courtesy: Kunstmuseum Bern

Kunstmuseum Bern - Meret Oppenheim, The Green Spectator (One Who Watches While Someone Dies), 1933/59

Nina Zimmer is director of the Kunstmuseum Bern and Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland.

Meret Oppenheim’s deep attachment to nature, which she saw as suffused with bipolar vital forces, was a source of inspiration throughout her life. Regenerative processes, the cycle of life and death, humanity’s integration in the temporal and cosmic scheme – such themes are addressed in an early group of drawings in the Kunstmuseum Bern’s collection from which, in 1959, Oppenheim developed a key work for understanding her approach to nature: the sculpture The Green Spectator (One Who Watches While Someone Dies). The eponymous, 1933 ink drawing shows a column-like figure gazing at the silhouette of a larger figure, its head and back cut off by the edge of the paper. Oppenheim’s penchant for sinisterly enigmatic subjects during her early years in the Surrealist circle in Paris is evident. At the same time, the work can be seen as a premonition of the terrible events of World War II.

In two further ink drawings from that same year, both titled The Green Spectator, Oppenheim addressed the titular character in sculptural terms. From the narrative content of the first drawing, she abstracted a monumental form. Its rigorous symmetry and frontality, closely anticipates the life-size sculpture of painted limewood and sheet copper that she was to execute 26 years later. The figure’s extremities are eliminated in the sculpture; naturalistic details, such as the feet suggested on the square plinth, are simplified; the upper body, catching the light so as to appear brighter, is reduced to a hollowed-out shape recalling a ribcage; and the face is stylized as a flat surface with eyes in the form of spirals and protrusions resembling ears. By contrast, the profile possesses a vibrant, organic quality also present in one of the drawings.

In 1978, Oppenheim produced a larger version for the sculpture park of the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg. It was executed in serpentine stone with a gilded face – materials that the artist, by her own account, had envisaged before she made the wooden version. This group of works, spanning 45 years, testifies to a constant factor in an oeuvre notable for its stylistic variety and – in the words of the art historian and curator Jean-Christophe Ammann – a ‘discontinuity of appearance’: Oppenheim’s way of developing themes adopted, for the most part, early in her career over longer periods of time. As the artist explained in retrospect: ‘The Green Spectator refers to nature and its indifference when life expires.’ Transcending the fate of the individual, the figure encapsulates the bipolar forces of life and death, male and female, the spiritual and the material. As the art historian Isabel Schulz has shown, in the artist’s view, death is overcome by the cyclical return of life, embodied in the sculpture’s spiral-shaped eyes. This snake-like motif evokes eternity and rebirth and, thus, the primal principle of life. Oppenheim went beyond a purely symbolic representation of nature by incorporating wood and copper and applying dark green oil paint to the wood with tufts of moss to imitate the texture of stone. She donated the three drawings to the Kunstmuseum Bern when we purchased the sculpture in 1981.

Main image: Laura Knight, Self-Portrait (Laura Knight with Model, Ella Louise Naper), 1913, oil on canvas, 1.5 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the Estate of Dame Laura Knight and National Portrait Gallery, London