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Return ticket to Europe I, II,...*

Kaire Nurk (1/2018)

Kaire Nurk is asking relevant questions while recalling the revolutionary essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971) by the recently deceased Linda Nochlin (1931–2017).


10. XI 2017 – 15. IV 2018
Tartu Art Museum (Tartmus)
Julie Hagen-Schwarz. The First Estonian Female Artist
Curator: Merli-Triin Eiskop

27. XI 2014 – 1. III 2015
Tartu Art Museum (Tartus)
Malle Leis. Yellow Summer
Curator: Tiiu Talvistu

This essay is written in remembrance of one of the main theorists of academic feminism, Linda Nochlin, who passed away at the end of last year. Her essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists" (1971) functioned as a paradigmatic surprise. The discussion of why only male artists are in the art history picture, that had thus far tilted towards voluntarism, was put on its legs in Nochlin's version. The singular argument – the mystified "brilliant spirit" (that women just don't have?) – was replaced with objective institutional criticism in the framework of the patriarchal organization of life.

In the sense of a homage, let us join the American theoretician to take a look at the heroic life and art of two Estonian female artists, who have recently both had major survey shows in our art space. Which landmarks will be highlighted, what will start to seem important, decisive, formative? What could have been different, and why not?


I: Julie Hagen-Schwarz (1824–1902) – a success story?

I will look more carefully at Julie Hagen-Schwarz, since her story at Tartu Art Museum as the "first female artist of Estonia", along with her accompanying biography, was beautifully and easily understandable to audiences, and is well suited to illustrate the problem of Linda Nochlin's "great female artist".

Julie Hagen, who belonged to the so-called literary class of the Baltic Germans, had an educational journey that was a mixture of mid-19th century peculiarities and her status, on the one hand, and extraordinary coincidences and opportunities on the other. Typical for women artists of the era, her father was a painter (as well as director of the drawing school at the University of Tartu), and at that time it was only in home conditions that a girl could have access to artistic education.

But unlike any regular study, her father used modern teaching methods. Instead of drawing gypsum sculptures and cave paintings, she immediately started with nature studies, which appropriately for her age focused on flower compositions. This produced good results and in a short time she gained early fame as an artist. "Flowers in a Vase" (1845), exhibited at the Tartu Art Museum as the only still-life, shows her ability with colour, subtle perception of nuance and versatility as an artist.

Julie Hagen's "golden nugget of artistic genius" (Nochlin) revealed itself quite early, and subsequently launched many flywheels, but her entire development story and creative life is the most perfect and quite dramatic proof of Nochlin's institutional critique: in order to become a professional artist and reach the top – to become "big" – talent is not enough. It was necessary to break the existing gender barriers and be dedicated to the profession, which for a female artist would have also meant giving up the family.

His father's further efforts to ensure Julie's artistic professionalism can be regarded as extraordinary: he travelled to Dresden with her in 1848, where Julie had the opportunity to copy masterpieces of art history and work under the guidance of eminent painters. Although girls were not officially admitted to the Academy of Arts, she still had the opportunity to work in the atelier of the Dresden Art Academy professor Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein.

"But what if Picasso was born a girl? Would señor Ruiz have given the same amount of attention to the little Pablita and stimulated her need for achievement just as much?", asks Nochlin doubtfully in her much-quoted 1971 essay. An exceptional affirmative example is the Hagen father and daughter from the province of Dorpat (i.e. Tartu). The elder Hagen's enthusiasm in sending his daughter to the wide world is part of his own strive to overcome the separation of Baltic German culture from the motherland. For old Hagen, art had the status of a God, which provided the basis for this later statement by Julie: "Father never cared about me as daughter, he only cared about my pitiful art."1

Julie's art studies continued in 1848, under the patronage of relatives in Munich, at the atelier of Joseph Bernhard – he was the only one who taught women in Munich at that time. Julie's ability to work, her perseverance and talent were able to convince Bernhard to overlook some of the moral imperatives of that time and, for example, in secrecy allow her to work with nudes.

Undoubtedly, this was all highly unusual. To be born a girl at the beginning of the 19th century somewhere in Europe's periphery. To be young and alone in Europe, working from morning till evening, using the whole daylight of promise, tenaciously with art. And doing this in some surrogate version of the recognised academic institutions, and painting nudes in secret, which could have, perhaps, ensured growth towards the most acclaimed genres of painting.

There was another person who was part of this glorious bouquet of controversy, and perhaps the most colourful personality on the artistic road taken by Julie Hagen. It was Munich's popular artist Johann Moritz Rugendas, who had documented in drawing (over 3,000 units) the research trips to Latin America by the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Under his mentorship, Julie began to paint full-figure portraits and take part in exhibitions; she also went to the atelier of a well-known German painter August Riedel in Rome with the support of Rugendas.

In this way Julie Hagen managed to achieve access to the possibilities for painting and learning in Italy that were considered the highest level of academic art education by using the side roads of the academic system. It also must be mentioned that Julie's brother Alexander Hagen, who studied in Munich's Art Academy, is completely unknown as an artist to later generations. His work has been destroyed for various reasons and his short stay in Italy was paid for by her sister. A correspondence between Rugendas and Julie continued; Rugendas himself defined his position as Julie's replacement father. 

The works of the Rome period (1851–1854) are considered to be the best of Julie Hagen's work. In addition to bright colours in the luminous southern light, effective contrasts, colourful and romantic karlbrüllow-esque types, we see not only almost life-size figures in detailed backgrounds, but also dual-figure compositions. "An Italian Woman With a Vase" (1850s) is the most remarkable proof of Julie Hagen's aspirations. Although we do not actually know how far reaching the dreams were of the young female artist.



Julie Hagen-Schwarz (1824–1902)
An Italian Woman with A Vase (1857–1860)
oil on canvas, 139 x 98.5 cm
Tartu Art Museum




In this painting, we can sense the experience of studying nudes (it continued in Rome). What is surprising is the strong expression, even coquettishness, which could almost be called crossing the borders of morality for a female artist in those circumstances. We can also notice the irregularities in rendering the hands and certain crudeness and some proportional hesitation in the case of the bust, which can be explained in various ways, among others, as a result of the bohemian lifestyle and circumstances (including homesickness) as well as the youth of the artist. But what is impressive and provokes high expectations for the future is this apparent ability of fabulation and interest in it. There is reason to believe that by not only reproducing nature, Julie Hagen would have created more and more independent iconographic figural narratives if her Italian period had lasted.

However, Julie's father intervened in the liberal life of the freelance artists in Rome, who, after becoming aware of the situation in Rome, demanded his daughter return home as a protection from the "worst". "Fatherly male authority is primordial and absolute, who has the right to decide on the death penalty and the fate of his wife, children and all other subordinates." This necro-patriarchal concept of sovereignty is the oldest and most common way of exercising power (Paul B. Preciado), when quoting the latest critique on gender dominance.

Resolving the controversy between the role of the artist and the married woman will be central from now on (either as a marriage with a sculptor in Berlin or a scientist in Tartu). Julie tells her father the decision, the result of a combination of many family circumstances, as follows: "Fine, then I want to give you the greatest sacrifice that I ever can, I want to sacrifice my whole dream of a future. Now anything can happen or come – reward or punishment, I don't care!"2

Undoubtedly, the decisions of a barely 20-year-old Julie Hagen are directed by her father's pressure as well as the general mentality and that of the Baltic Germans as captured in the fiction of the era. Liina Lukas, Professor of Foreign Literature at the University of Tartu concludes in her doctoral monograph, "The family is in the world of the Baltic German narrative, the only possible happy method of personal fulfilment for a woman. In order to portray a working, independent woman, it is necessary to send her out of the Baltics, to a metropolis in Europe, Berlin or Munich."3 Julie Hagen knew both of these environments, and with Europe as an example, she believed she was able to combine these two incompatible challenges of the time.

In his last, unanswered letter from 1855, after Julie's marriage to Ludwig Schwarz, an astronomer of Tartu, a province of Europe, Rugendas shares his trembling emotions: "As a great female artist among those who are becoming great, you have... put yourself to place. You have been disarmed now, beaten and destroyed for all your life. You may continue to be a commercial artist – to survive. [---] you may be painting a lot of portraits and earn money – it will become boring for you, it will not satisfy your artistic mind, everything will turn out sad. Even if everything seems well-paid – it will be 30 silver pieces for the body of the Lord. Your heart and your soul will be condemned in this. Perhaps heart – heart can keep itself fresh from the food of grace. The joys of motherhood will be blessing to you – that I hope, wait, wish. Then, by God, a painter can become a happy mother. This is one of your goals, isn't it? So, let God give you happiness as a wife and a mother – and an even more philosophical view on fate and the world. [---] You have betrayed the high arts, I suppose I am the only one to complain about this all the time. [---] To paint like Correggio, like Claude Lorrain, like Riedel, one must continue to live under the Italian sky. One can feel like Raphael only among beautiful and great people."4

In 1858, Julie Hagen-Schwarz is one of the first women in the Russian Empire to become an academic in portrait painting – the highest genre for a female artist at that time. So, not in historical or mythological painting, which are actually at the top of the hierarchy of painting genres. To agree that the prediction by Rugendas was 100% accurate would be too much, perhaps? The exhibition at Tartu Art Museum, curated by young curator Merli-Triin Eiskop, presents the artistic road of Julie Hagen-Schwarz as an unmistakable success story. The karlbrüllow-esque so-called Italian genre was replaced with growing realism. The dramatic contradiction in Julie Hagen-Schwarz's biography is only slightly pointed out in the exhibition text.

Although we do not encounter genre scenes nor full figures, and portraits show only the bust without arms, and the painting style shows skilled economics, accustomed automatism of the hand in how to depict clothes and beard or hair with a few layers, we still encounter the depiction of deep and attentive looks and emotions in the faces. Is this where, perhaps, this "philosophical" should be borrowed from Rugendas, but using it in another connection, to characterize Julie's depth in depicting humankind? Would this also be the measure of the magnitude of her creative works from her Tartu period?

Undoubtedly, the best work in the exhibition is the portrait of her father "The Portrait of Artist August Hagen" (1873), which emits inexplicably many different and even opposing emotions, a mixture of satisfaction and yet the need to keep an eye on his emancipated daughter. The portrait of Julie's husband, "The Portrait of Mr. Schwarz" (1870), gives more of a glimpse of Rugendas' prediction – as a reflection in her husband's slightly tired, tortured and mute face.

In "Mrs. Ada Freymuth" (1885) the author has been fascinated by the vivid wisdom of life and self-belief, the young "Portrait of a Dame" (1863) still exudes Italian vitality and inner happiness (perhaps it is painted still based on Italian sketches?). However, a few portraits of the professors and the academic league reveal them being unaccustomed to swapping the traditional gender roles: under the objectifying gaze of the female artist, these respectable male models do not succeed in stoically establishing themselves. Therefore, the psychologism of the moment overshadows, revealing the deeper personality of the person. (While browsing the history books of portrait paintings, we occasionally encounter traces of posture in facial expressions, even in the case of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" (around 1503–06), there is much talk about the role of the background musicians who created the necessary mood for the model.)

It is impossible to assume anything certain about what Julie Hagen’s path as an artist would have been if she had stayed in Italy. Even there, she earned money from portrait commissions and probably would not have been able to avoid them. There is still the possibility of rich patrons. In Tartu, she had to work hard on many fronts; we know she completed around 500 portraits between 1872 to 1898, making an average of 1–2 portraits a month. Obviously, these numbers indicate, among other things, the growing needs of a family of four children.

And still, it is worth mentioning that Julie Hagen went home in 1854 because of homesickness and a desire to see her family, but planned only a short stay in her homeland. In her pocket she had a return ticket and a 3-year scholarship from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts to pursue studies in Italy. But she never used that return ticket. I wonder if it could still be in the archives of her relatives and family?

Julie Hagen-Scwarz's turbulent life and artistic practice makes it possible to observe how even under favourable conditions and joyous incidents, the female artist still falls into self-realization within the framework of the patriarchal relations referred to by Linda Nochlin, against which she had previously protested. This is the broader subject of confrontation between the individual and the institution.


II: Malle Leis (1940–2017) – the magnitude of the genre of flower paintings?

In the 20th century, after the victorious emancipation of women, Nochlin's problem of the "great female artist" changed, became insignificant, but it may not be completely off the agenda. In measuring the magnitude of the creative work of Malle Leis, the reference point seems to move as a red thread along the changing reception of the genre of flower painting.

In the context of this article, meaningful parallels with the fate of the flower motive used by Julie Hagen-Schwarz are used as the starting point. If Hagen-Schwarz avoided the indoor still-life even after the return to the dimly lit province, then this was mainly due to the hierarchy of genres at the time, which was based on Pliny ("still life is one of forms of ropographies (in Latin rhopos means trivial items, small things), because things are shown here that have no value or importance"5). The vector of the Hagen-Schwarz ideal was still aimed at as high an art as possible.

However, a few of her paintings ("Italian Woman With a Vase" and "The Portrait of a Dame") have elements of flora in the background, but what is really interesting here is that they are without blossoms. There are also no blossoms in her early flower work from 1845, two duplicating ferns in vases appear as an anarchic green environment. The second flower painting by Hagen, "Flowers" (1850), seems like an emotionlessly sketched "flying" bouquet of calla lilies, which has not been considered necessary to be developed further. At the same time, the paintings of Julie's father are full of blossoming flowers in vases, where some cut flowers have gone wandering, detaching themselves from the regulating shape of the vase. Perhaps we can consider Julie Hagen's "blossom negation" as an early opposition to her father? A subconscious impulse for the reversal of traditional gender specificity? Perhaps even more evident would be a comparison with the centrality and principle of symmetry in Georgia O'Keefe's 20th century flower paintings: Julie Hagen really paints a rebellion!? Unfortunately, we only know those paintings that have been preserved and the steps taken; we do not know the content and the character of the conversations that took place at Julie's house during the painting lessons over the years.

In her focus on blossoms, Leis is the complete opposite of Hagen-Schwarz. "Malle Leis has completely shamelessly painted still-lifes with flowers and depicted them on engravings throughout the Soviet era, and continued this during the sovereign Estonian (national) state [---]. She returns to her botanical images whenever she finds it necessary and does so without any discomfort. [---] When describing floral paintings, both the critics of the 19th century as well as [our] contemporary historians use precisely the same terminology, which gives them the secondary status of craftsmanship that is equated with hand-crafted, decorative and low-level intellectual demand."6

Bojana Pejić gives a comprehensive overview of the changes in the European-centred reception, in different contexts, of still-life and flower painting. With Leis, she considers the context of Socialist realism and the Soviet deficit, including the deficit of beauty. The position Leis takes is significantly supported and defined by belonging to the artistic group ANK '64, which included also male artists as the cultivators of the more traditional artistic humus layer; that is, the most authoritative subjects. Undoubtedly, if ANK '64 were a group of only female artists, it would be much harder to categorise its beauty-centred aesthetic code as political protest art.

However, still-life was quite common in 1960s Estonian art, also among male artists. Although still-lifes were largely supported by early 20th century modernism, mainly by the phenomenon of Pablo Picasso (Valdur Ohakas, Leppo Mikko, Lembit Saarts and others). The motifs of still-life can be found in the works of the group SOUP '69, Andres Tolts and Ando Keskküla – although in much more complicated genre accumulations. As an exception, the 1960s still-lifes by Olav Maran were motivated by his religious turn, which guided him towards the direct reproduction of divine creation.

However, where the flower and the still-life spread, was only one part of Estonian art production, the other half (which, at the moment, has been lost in the field of art history) was the ideological art of the Soviet Union. We are not able to perceive the flower paintings by Malle Leis today in full compliance, if we erase this other half from our memory. Activating this ideological background would probably turn the art of Malle Leis in the context of our highly sensitive EV100 campaign into a national-ideological heroism (which Pejić also considers, however, not claiming that Leis' artistic position is heroic).

Pejić's botanical excursion into the meaning of plants and flowers reflects the sexual fantasies of the centuries after Carl von Linné's "indiscriminately flying pollen".7 Based on the hippy era of the 1960s, which was the focus of Malle Leis' retrospective "Yellow Summer" (Kollane Suvi), curated by Tiiu Talvistu, the clause on sexual freedom and eroticism would be just one way of many to interpret the status of Leis' flower motifs. However, we must conclude that we do not have a definitive agreement or scientific knowledge of the different meanings of Malle Leis' flower motifs.

I wrote on Leis' retrospective: "To what extent is the abundance of the artist's flower and fruit world apart or in association with the inner being of her characters? (The critic's claims of "the joy of being" and "being closed off" are contradictory".) [---] Is there a system or a message in how flowers cover the human figures or are on the same canvas with the human figure in some other way? Is there a universal code? A classification of all the flower cases should be made. Here I have some pickings."8 It is completely possible that through Leis' flower motifs, present throughout her entire creative work, we can characterize, in depth, the ageing process of a person, a 20th century woman, the changing of emotional patterns through different periods of life?

Even if the meanings of Leis' flowers were ever accurately catalogued, even then this evaluation would be highly resistant to the possible deterioration of the Earth's ecological situation. But this would already mean a new and very powerful, fatal discourse, a reassessment of values, with the gender specificity becoming insignificant, withdrawing in front of much more decisive questions of the preservation of life. Until then we can discuss the size, which does not depend on how Leis avoids the flower motif by applying traditional genre canons, but first of all, on how she creates her own, new system of connections, "her unique art combinatoria"9– a new WHOLE, an IMAGE. For the most important is – the IMAGE. The greatest is – ART. Art as such. Bojana Pejić relates Leis to postmodernism, and so every kind of canon is mixed up to a greater or lesser extent and gradually loses its narrow artistic hierarchal importance. New hierarchies may, however, come, as suggested, from outside the arts.


* The third part of this overview (on Anu Põdra) will hopefully appear in the next issue of KUNST.EE. – K. N.

1 Compiled by Christien Conrad, Lost and Found. 1854. A revolutionary year in the letters of Julie Hagen. Tallinn: Estonian History Museum, 2013, p 13.

2 Ibid., p 46.

3 Liina Lukas, Baltisaksa kirjandusväli 1890–1918 (The Baltic German Literary Field 1890–1918). Tallinn: Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences; Tartu: University of Tartu, Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, 2006, pp 303–304.

4 Compiled by Christien Conrad, Losses and Findings, pp 61–63.

5 Bojana Pejić, Botanical Imagination. – Compiled by Tiiu Talvist, Malle Leis. – Tartu: Tartu Art Museum, 2015, pp 172–173.

6 Ibid., pp 179–180.

7 Ibid., p 183.

8 Kaire Nurk, Lootusetult loomulik Malle Leis. – Sirp, 20. II 2015.

9 Bojana Pejić, Botanical Imagination, p 187.


Kaire Nurk is an artist and an art teacher working in the field of philosophy, (art)history and art.

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