Following the visual traces of the 20th century along a precious combination of female artists and themes of the sacred. The past century has overturned the canonical models of figuration, while opening up the work to meaning of dreams and the surreal, to abstractions and avant-garde experiments. Against this backdrop, the Sacred also changed its aesthetic appearance, moving away from the religious figuration of past centuries and ceasing to practice the biblical themes that had characterised art until the mid-19th century. The 20th century was in fact articulated as a reckless and revolutionary journey, a complex encounter between memory and modernity. The women who crossed the threshold of the new were courageous forebears with an unusual outlook, who were both autonomous and non-conforming to the dominance of male society. The six women artists we discuss here left an extraordinary mark on their time, a singular imprint that makes their works a rare and precious heritage. They are peaceful warriors who have created a unique idea of the Sacred, devising abstract metaphors, while emphasizing plant forms, painting landscapes of the mind, and who used their bodies as if they were paint, by mixing materials into new spiritual allegories. Paintings, sculptures and photographs that do not follow the narratives of the Gospels, the iconographies of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the scenes of saints and martyrs. In talking about sacred themes in the 20th century means, on the contrary, to practice modernity with the available tools and imagery of media in society. Unlike their male counterparts, women artists have created and do create more miraculous worlds, which modulate color with unique sensitivity, while focusing on fantastic details that often escape men. Because women look at the world with their eyes but also with an inner eye that gives unusual shape to spiritual energies.
Hilma Af Klint
The Revelation of the Abstract
The Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), was rediscovered in 1986. In her one thousand two hundred art works, she represented a historical singularity in both form and content. It is important to highlight for example, the 193 paintings that would have decorated a utopian temple. These canvases –some of which of monumental formats, are full of radiant figures, and divided between organic and geometric elements, with color symbols (yellow for the masculine, blue for the feminine), with wide-ranging perspectives (from the micro of the atom to the macro of the universe) and contrasts between black and white, or empty spaces and full of painterly figures. The 200 paintings of “Primordial Chaos” were watercolors depicting an esoteric world that narrated the symbolic breadths of the spiritual, which transferred a vision of the transcendent into geometric metaphors. When seen again today, they recall Kandinskji’s work but with a sacral quid that recalls the cult of the sun, the astrological position of the planets, Tibetan mandalas, and certain cosmic visions of St. Paul. Standing before these ‘alien’ visions, we understand that life on the planet is only a small part of the universal language.
Rainbows of the Universe
Sonia Terk (1885-1979), who was Ukrainian by birth but Parisian by adoption, married the artist Robert Delaunay. Together, living in both France and Spain, they experimented with new boundaries for abstract painting. The Delaunays and Apollinaire founded Orphism in 1912, a movement of thought for a fluid painting of cosmic forms, amidst chromatic lyricisms that seemed like star dances within northern lights. Sonia, who had the time to fight for the rights of women artists, invented fabrics, clothes and tapestries that were inspired by her paintings. Her works follow a futurist dynamism where everything seemed to be in constant pulsation, as if an otherworldly force governed the creative ritual. Sonia Delaunay confirms a significant fact: that the works of great women artists capture the aesthetic freedom of the absolute, of something that, like pregnancy, generates renewed versions of the living. If art is the invention of an idea about the world, women's art is the creation of a world full of new ideas.
Georgia O’ Keeffe
The American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), wife of photographer Alfred Stieglitz commenced her career as an art teacher. She found in the desert landscapes of New Mexico her revelatory chimera. From 1929, she began to frequent that parched landscape -which was far from the glories of New York-, and became a source of meditations on plant life that would represent, in her pictorial journey, the tactile ecstasy of the otherworldly. Her paintings include giant flower like planets, with leaves that look like silky clouds, and paradisiacal landscapes that are mystical echoes in her lysergic swirls. There is a harmonious chord between a resilient nature and the elevation of an otherworldliness, as if the desert perceived biblical echoes of the Middle East, of the mysticism that hovers in the silences, of an elevation of a gaze to the lights within the living. Proof that the sacred manifests itself wherever the inventive eye catches angles beyond the visible.
The shroud of great mothers
Marisa Merz, wife of artist Mario Merz, was the only female artist in the Arte Povera movement (founded by Germano Celant that, since the late 1960s, elaborated works with everday materials). Marisa Merz (Turin, 1926-2019) embodied a simple but radical pictorial idea of research using minimal aspects, for a sacred spirit within the female face. Her heads with fragile lines, dreamlike tenacious ghosts, seem to come from ancient caves where women healed bodies and cured the spirit. Those little panaceas are archetypes of origins, an echo that spans centuries and brings us back to the Mertian shrouds of universal mothers. Even the small sculptures reason with the raw essentiality of fluid hand drawings, expanding the silent presence of her floating souls, imbued with energetic materials such as wax, copper and gold, destined for the recollection of the gaze, for a transcendence that makes the face a small doorway to the sacred.
The sacred wounds
Born to an Italian father and an Austrian mother, Gina Pane (opposite, photo Wikimedia Commons) trained in Paris and became, during the 1970s, a unique reference in the genre of Body Art. With her radical performances, she investigated the relationship between body and nature, going so far as to wound herself with rose thorns while wearing a symbolic white dress. Her works confirm her uncompromising allegorical power and include the welded iron box that concealed a drawing within. This was among the most alchemical and sacred works of the twentieth century. In substance, this was a mysterious cult that bound the vision of the drawing to the geological consummation of metal. Her’s was an extreme act that elucidates the fertile link between the female body and the utopia of symbolic actions; generative daughters of a mystical procession, beyond the earthly, toward that suspended time in which the sacred finds its aesthetic apotheosis in performance.
We conclude this brief overview with Shirin Neshat (1957). Iranian by birth but American by adoption, Neshat is an artist and filmmaker who symbolizes a moral reflection on the role of women in Islamic culture. Her figurative model, playing on the scale of contrasts (black/white, full/empty, high/low, one/many), strikes the eyes and touches the feelings with immediate and radiant empathy. We think of the Farsi poems that become calligraphy on the female face, like a sacred tattoo that expands, in the black and white photographic print, the cathartic power of Persian women writers. In her videos and films, metaphors become images of painterly perfection, where the intensity of the message emerges from the cathartic connection between women in chadors and desert landscape. Truly an incredible journey inside collective History, between myths and legends, into the heart of a feminine revolution that speaks with the universal synthesis of sacred apparitions.
by Gianluca Marziani
Critic and curator of contemporary art.