Attractive and ordinary

Exhibition presents women in the oeuvre of European graphic artists of the 19th and 20th centuries

According to Roman author Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century AD, the earliest painting known to mankind was done by a woman. Her name was Dibutades and she traced the lines of her sailor lover's shadow as thrown on the wall of her home. The female presence, this elusive and boundless energy occupying a distinct space in art, is now showcased in a way that is different from the Dibutades story, thanks to The Woman in the Oeuvre of European Graphic Artists of the 19th and 20th Centuries - an exhibition at the National Art Gallery “Square 500” in Sofia.

The female image, alluring and ordinary, is revealed as reflected in its own influence. The female spirit, as captured by the prints, is complex and meaningful, indistinguishable from the real one. What is more, women have always been a part of the institutions of the artistic world, constantly involved in the process - both as artists and models, muses stirring impulses and motives. Gender-related challenges and prejudices arose as a result of their presence. They were also obstructed from realising their calling.

The exhibition shows less-familiar, long-forgotten and even never-before-shown drawings from the foreign collection of the National Art Gallery. Building on the angelic nature of women's spiritual and corporeal power, during the examined period the concept of the female image was expanded with aspects like dark spontaneity and unbridled eroticism, vulgarity, narcissism and mystique. Simultaneously, artists started depicting more normal and real-life women, as they saw them on the streets or in the farm fields. Women in painting increasingly became a vast category of reflection, an abstract with a curious and complex humanising impact: sometimes incredibly dramatic and other times taking on unsuspected or simply rare forms of the beautiful, the peculiar, the admirable and the imagination-stirring.

The lithography representing a variation on the Liberty Leading the People painting by Eugene Delacroix reminds us of French poet Charles Baudelaire's description of the artist: “a volcanic crater artistically concealed beneath bouquets of flowers”. The several works from Francisco Goya's famous cycles Los caprichos and Los desastres de la guerra emanate a brutal, ominous and strange metaphysical power. The prints of Kathe Kollwitz, Jean-Louis Forain, Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, Paul Albert Besnard and Jean Jansem stand out with generalisations about the relevant historical period, including through personal experiences, values and social attitudes.

The women depicted by them are the ones who faced the hardest moments of their time: war, poverty, misery and homelessness, jobless husbands, slaving work, widowhood, sexual assault and seeing their children starve. Yet, even in their deepest despair, they kept providing support for others and fighting for their own survival. They are suffering, but not humiliated; subjected to violence, but not weak. The approach of a number of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy, Fernand Leger, Georges Rouault, Marcel Gromaire, Marino Marini and Fausto Pirandello is unusual and obviously different from the way women used to be depicted. They are known for innovative methods of presenting shapes, no matter how baffling to many of their contemporaries.

Naturally, some artists left their mark on the theme by also commenting on fundamental existential questions like faith, the prevailing intellectual paradigm, the dynamics between men and women, the problem of age, maturing and moral norms. Such a trend can be observed in the prints of Gabriele Mucchi, Jiri Anderle and Albin Brunovsky.

One of the goals of the exhibition is to juxtapose various artistic views, revealing their diversity and interconnectedness, as well as to remind the world of some serious highlights, including never-before-shown ones, from the National Art Gallery's print collection.

The exposition can be visited until 5 January 2020.

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