An exhibition of one’s own

Phoebe Day 

In feminist art theory, the one-woman retrospective is a contentious issue. Whereas some feminist art historians believe that the format enables women artists who have been excluded from the patriarchal western canon to be reassessed, others believe that it is a mistake to try to accommodate women artists into a format designed to celebrate ‘Great Men.’ Whatever side of the debate you are on, 2018 was undoubtedly a great year for retrospectives of modern and contemporary women artists. Here is a brief summary of my five favourite one-woman exhibitions from 2018, and the five that that I am most looking forward to in 2019.

Exhibitions you (may have) missed in 2018:

1. Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, V&A, London

Instead of focusing on Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, this unorthodox exhibition explored how the painter fashioned her iconic image. The exhibition was based on Kahlo’s extraordinary collection of possessions and clothes that was unearthed in 2004, fifty years after her death, in the bathroom of the Casa Azul – her home in Mexico City – now known as the Frida Kahlo Museum. Despite its popularity, the exhibition was not without controversy. Some critics have accused the curators of fetishizing Kahlo’s disability – she was disabled by childhood polio and a bus crash when she was an adolescent – and of conflating her artwork with her biography. Others have praised the curators for foregrounding Kahlo’s disability.

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Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo with Olmec Figurine, 1939. Source: V&A

2. Anni Albers, Tate Modern, London

Whereas the Kahlo exhibition explored a well-known artist through a new lens, this exhibition introduced us to an historically marginalised artist. Although Anni Albers has posthumously been overshadowed by her husband, the abstract painter Josef Albers, she was his artistic equal during her lifetime. Her tactile, chromatic, and geometric weavings blurred the boundaries between traditional craft and fine art. During the 1920s, Albers studied and taught the weaving workshop at the radical Bauhaus art school in Weimar. When the Bauhaus closed under pressure from the Nazi Party in 1933, the Albers couple moved to North Carolina and joined the first generation of teachers at the Black Mountain College, another radical art school.

3. Tacita Dean: Still Life, Portrait, Landscape, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy, London

2018 was a good year for the British artist Tacita Dean, who curated a three-part meditation on the genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life at three major London art galleries. The centrepiece of Landscape was Antigone, Dean’s new 35mm film which was shown as two simultaneous cinemascope projections. This experimental, multi-layered film is best explained as a meditation on Dean’s relationship with her sister, the eponymous Antigone. The film was inspired by the undramatized action between Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, in which Antigone leads her blind and lame father, Oedipus, through the wilderness. Much of the film follows Oedipus, who is played by the actor Stephen Dillane, as he wanders alone through disparate deserted landscapes, blinded by tinted glasses made for viewing the eclipse.

4. Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, The Hepworth Wakefield, Wakefield

This was the first exhibition to focus on the British photographer Lee Miller’s involvement with surrealist circles in Britain in the late 1930s. This is surprising since, together with her husband Roland Penrose, she played a pivotal role in organising the International Surrealism Exhibition that took place in London in 1936. In my favourite of Miller’s photographs from the exhibition, two glamorous women model fire masks on the steps of an air-raid shelter during the blitz. This photograph, which Miller took for American Vogue, demonstrates her ability to blur the boundaries between documentary and fantasy to create disquieting images.

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Lee Miller, Women in fire masks, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, 1941. Source: The Guardian

5. Egon Schiele/Francesca Woodman: Life in Motion, Tate Liverpool

Although this juxtaposition of Egon Schiele’s erotic paintings and Francesca Woodman’s intimate photographs was not wholly successful, I am always grateful for an opportunity to see Woodman’s work. Woodman was a precociously talented photographer who died by suicide in 1981 when she was only twenty-two. Her blurred black-and-white photographs capture women, either herself or female models, in a surreal world of deserted, decaying interiors.

Exhibitions you shouldn’t miss in 2019:

1. Louise Bourgeois, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 22 January 2019-24 March 2019

This exhibition is intended as an introduction to the French artist Louise Bourgeois’ diverse oeuvre. Through her semi-autobiographical paintings, sculptures, installations, and prints, Bourgeois unravelled the complexities of familial relationships.

2. Dorothea Tanning, Tate Modern, London, 27 February-9 June 2019

If you visit one exhibition in 2019 then I recommend that you visit this one, though  I admit that I am slightly biased because this exhibition is co-curated by Dr Alyce Mahon, who is one of my supervisors at Cambridge. This is the first large-scale exhibition of the American surrealist Dorothea Tanning’s paintings and sculptures for over twenty-five years. Tanning became involved with the surrealists when they moved from Paris to New York in the 1930s and, in 1946, she married the surrealist artist Max Ernst. The exhibition will not only include Tanning’s early surrealist paintings, but her ballet designs, uncanny fabric sculptures, installations, and poems amongst other lesser known works.

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Dorothea Tanning, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1943. Source: Tate Modern

3. Emma Kunz, Serpentine Galleries, London, 23 March-19 May 2019

Like Anni Albers, I had never heard of the Swiss artist Emma Kunz before the Serpentine Galleries announced this exhibition. Although Kunz was known as a natural healer during her lifetime, the she has posthumously been celebrated for the spiritual, geometric drawings which she created using graph paper, pencils, and oil pastels.

4. Natalia Goncharova, Tate Modern, London, 6 June-8 September 2019

This exhibition promises to be the largest ever UK retrospective of the Ukrainian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. The exhibition will include Goncharova’s set and costume designs for the Ballets Russes, fashion designs, and avant-garde films alongside her paintings.

5. Dora Maar, Tate Modern, London, 20 November 2019-15 March 2020

Dora Maar is often referred to as one of Picasso’s lovers and muses, despite the fact that she was a talented photographer in her own right. This exhibition, which will be the largest ever UK retrospective of Maar, restores her photomontages to their rightful place in the narrative of surrealism.

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Dora Maar, Untitled, Untitled, c.1940. Source:

(Cover art piece by Louise Bourgeois. Source: 

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