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The forces that would have her disappear

Sanna Lipponen (1/2020)

Sanna Lipponen analyses the largest museum exposition of artworks by Estonian female artists who were active between the mid-19th century and the 1950s.


6. XII 2019–26. IV 2020
Kumu Art Museum, Large Hall
Artists: Julie Hagen Schwarz, Sally von Kügelgen, Karin Luts, Natalie Mei, Lydia Mei, Aino Bach, Olga Terri, Maria Wiik, Helene Schjerfbeck, Sigrid Schauman, Elga Sesemann, Ellen Thesleff, Tove Jansson, Tuulikki Pietilä and others
Curators: Tiina Abel, Anu Allas (Kumu Art Museum)
Adviser: Anu Utriainen (Ateneum Art Museum)

"I think a lot about that obliteration. Or rather that obliteration keeps showing up. I have a friend whose family tree has been tracked back a thousand years, but no women exist on it. She just discovered that she herself did not exist, but her brothers did. Her mother did not exist, and nor did her father's mother. Or her mother's father. There were no grandmothers. Fathers have sons and grandsons and so the lineage goes, with the name passed on; the tree branches, and the longer it goes on the more people are missing: sisters, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great-grand-mothers, a vast population made to disappear on paper and in history."1 This is a passage from Rebecca Solnit's essay "Grandmother Spider" (2014) on the obliteration and exclusion characteristic of patriarchal history writing. The male-to-male lineage described is a startling image. It may look like a whole tree, but it is at best half a tree. How thick and heavy with branches would it be in its entirety?

The canon of Western art history is very similar to that tree. It is full of great men after great men. Few women have found their place among the branches. The exhibition "Creating the Self: Emancipating Woman in Estonian and Finnish Art" shown by Kumu, in cooperation with the Ateneum Art Museum, unveils a different kind of tree – one made up of works by Estonian and Finnish women artists and reminding us that they really existed, worked, made art, were part of the art world, although for many reasons this was particularly challenging for women. Each of them is part of art history, although too many of them have been left out or excluded from it, even forgotten.

The scope of the exhibition curated by Tiina Abel and Anu Allas is breath-taking, with very many works on display. While the bundling of women artists based on their supposed gender is problematic in many ways, the exhibition and the underlying extensive research on Estonian women artists is a significant achievement in terms of revealing the circumstances, expectations and attitudes that seek to attach women to family life instead of an artistic one, and in terms of showing how women's opportunities for education, travel, networking and being recognised as an artist have been clearly inferior to those of their male counterparts. In addition, the similarities and differences between women in the Baltic and Nordic regions become apparent.

Indeed, what makes the exhibition unprecedented is its scope in space and time, as it stretches from the mid-19th century to the late 1950s. Alongside paintings, the exhibition includes drawings, small sculptures, ceramic objects, photographs and videos, even tobacco advertisements. Thanks to the exhibition architecture, the enormous volume of works does not feel cluttered or heavy. The grouping of works by era and theme is done in a pedagogically clever way, at the same time bringing works from different artists into dialogue with one another.

In terms of their technical level, the paintings range from highly sophisticated to clearly weaker works. The themes include landscapes from home and elsewhere in Europe, daily chores, lush flower arrangements and rich interiors. The exhibition is brimming not only with works by female artists but also women portrayed in artworks. In addition to numerous self-portraits, the artists have depicted women around them: friends, sisters, daughters, mothers and grandmothers. Women of different ages posing, women reading, women doing crafts, women looking in the mirror, women mourning, women smoking tobacco and women walking in the street – paintings that open up to the private life of women and the changes in women's lives and status during different periods. Also revealed are the structures that have squashed women's social, professional and artistic freedoms.

The same structures have put together and held up the canon of art history; and the same structures have kept women out of it. The production of women artists has not even necessarily been considered worthy of preservation: many artists who are known but without a single surviving work to be found are absent from this exhibition. Despite its abundance, the exhibition still raises many "what ifs": What if all these and many other women could have received the education they wanted? What if they could have dedicated themselves to their careers as artists? What if the lost works by women artists had been preserved? What would this exhibition look like then? What if these women artists had been a recognised and significant part of art history all along? What would the world look like now?

At the same time, however, it is important that this exhibition and these works exist. Art history is not a constant monolith, but is constantly being rewritten. This exhibition is rewriting it. And the growing interest in women artists is empowering. For example, the well-known Finnish artists Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) and Tove Jansson (1914–2001), who are also featured in this exhibition, will have their own films this year. What is more, the recent Schjerfbeck show, "Through My Travels I Found Myself – Helene Schjerfbeck", at Helsinki's Ateneum became the most popular exhibition in terms of daily visitors, surpassing even Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)!




"Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt,"2 writes Rebecca Solnit.

Rephrasing Solnit, the exhibition "Creating the Self: Emancipating Woman in Estonian and Finnish Art" and each works in it is already a victory. I think this as I look at Sally von Kügelgen's (1860–1928) skilful paintings and charcoal drawings of naked men with their genitals wrapped in cloth. The thing is that, painting nude models was forbidden for women in European art schools in the 19th century, which makes the 1880s paintings and drawings by Kügelgen, who studied in Saint Petersburg, truly extraordinary. I also think this as I look at the "Self-portrait in a Straw Hat" (1850s) by Julie Hagen Schwarz (1824–1902) and something in her face, the straight look in her eyes, makes me forget that this is just oil on canvas. And to be honest, I cannot help thinking this as I look at Karin Luts' (1904–1993) original stylised paintings with women in dark clothes marching down the street like a six-headed machine in "Composition [Six Figures]" (1939) or the armour-clad figures mutilating babies that appear to be floating in the air with their limbs spread in "Massacre of the Innocents" (1928).

It is a victory that so many of these artists observed and captured the people, lives and spaces around them. Lydia Mei's (1896–1965) arrangements give a recognisable and engaging shape to 1920s and 1930s objects: black-and-white photographs on a table, red silk ribbons, letters and warn gloves. In her interiors, empty rooms are filled with light and a dense atmosphere. They fascinatingly overlap in endless successive spaces, doorways and windows.



Lydia Mei
Woman with a
oil on canvas
Art Museum of
Photo by
Stanislav Stepashko



Even copies made by women artists are a victory. I admire the way they have embraced the particular technique and gaze of well-known (male) artists. Rather than the model depicted, they have looked closely at the painting itself – accepted it, studied it and assimilated it. And then gone on to make completely different paintings where the brush strokes and movements are their own, as is the perspective and the subject.

Although the space open to them has been limited in many ways and on many levels, female artists have taken their own space, and painted their own space, their world, bringing it forth one brush stroke at a time. They have established their own agency – educated and expressed themselves despite the challenges. Every work in this exhibition is proof of that.


1 Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014, pp 70–71.

2 Ibid., p 78.


Sanna Lipponen is an independent art critic. She has worked for different art organisations in Helsinki and cofounded EDIT, an online publication focused on contemporary art (



Quote corner: 

"When I heard that Kumu was putting together the thematic overview exhibition "Creating the Self: Emancipating Woman in Estonian and Finnish Art" [---], I automatically thought it would commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first exhibition of Estonian women artists, organised by Alfred Vaga in Tallinn Art Hall in October 1939 [---]. But I was wrong; there is not a single word about the 1939 exhibition in the wall text or the catalogue for "Self-Creation" [---]. Karin Luts, who had risen to the forefront of the most renowned women artists by 1939, is a symbolic link between the two exhibitions with her strong substance and originality; she is the only Estonian woman artist with a personal space dedicated to her. Another artist from Estonia who deserves this due to her exceptional education and status as an academy member is the Baltic German artist Julie Hagen-Schwarz, whose stature in the context of the social recognition of women artists in Estonia and Europe in the second half of the 19th century has grown significantly over the past 30 years. Hagen-Schwarz was not brought into the right sort of light until 1990 when Epp Preem, a researcher at the Tartu Art Museum, put together an exhibition and catalogue – another piece of pioneering work that is not mentioned in the "Self-Creation" catalogue, [---] so it is easy to get the feeling that the current researchers are the first to have reached this topic and invented the wheel. [---] These issues already began to be actively raised in the early 1990s, and, unlike in many Western metropolises, the works of women artists have always been featured in Estonian art history writing and permanent museum exhibitions. It would not be fair to say that the work of women artists has been somehow marginalised or undervalued in putting together museum exhibitions."

Harry Liivrand, Eesti-Soome naiskunstnikud Kumus. Kiitust ja küsimusi. – Eesti Päevaleht 10. II 2020.


"Do I as the writer – a middle-aged white man – broaden or restrict the space for interpretation? Does this article create a platform for women artists or instead domesticate them, ultimately trimming the claws of radicalism, subverting it to the male gaze, plus achieving a political halo that pleases the writer? What does the concept of the woman artist even mean? Or should it be defined at all? Isn't the category of "women artists" already fascist, classifying women as a specific type of artist and framing their existence with a vaguely patronising attitude that seeks not to abolish their Otherness but rather to construct it? [---] Moreover, is it not time to give up the concept of women artists? Does it exist? What is it? Who really needs it and why?"

Eero Epner, Isesuse kehtestamine. – Sirp 10. I 2020.

"[---] ever since the dawn of art history, there have always been highly acclaimed and sought-after women artists whose work has been excluded from history writing as soon as they died. What is more, the work of women artists began to be undervalued precisely around the turn of the 20th century – at a time when the women's movement was first making progress. So, some men must have had a greater need to secure their positions at the time. As gender equality in education, if nowhere else, can be said, with various concessions, to have lasted for a century in Estonia and a couple of decades more in Finland, the social backwardness of the earlier period of gender inequality during the Industrial Revolution stand out very clearly in the exhibition."

Rebeka Põldsam, Sajanditaguste naiste vimkade väljapanek. – Eesti Ekspress/Areen 18. XII 2019.

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