More than 100 years ago, in the spring of 1919, the first women were permitted to begin full degrees at the Berlin Akademie der Künste. The irreversible political upheavals that followed the First World War and the preceding years of dogged protest by female artists now allowed women in Berlin to also receive training as artists in an academic setting, and to stand as equals in the eyes of the art public. However, even before this milestone was reached, there were already women artists who had impressed audiences with their talent, and whose works had been acceded into renowned collections such as those of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie.
Prior to 1919, the Nationalgalerie’s collection of work by women artists comprised a total of 48 paintings by 31 painters, and 34 sculptural works by 10 sculptors. The special exhibition Fighting for Visibility: Women Artists in the Nationalgalerie Before 1919, which was shown at the Nationalgalerie from October 2019 to March 2020, showcased this group of works, making them – some of which had been subject to in-depth research for the first time as part of the project – available to a broader audience.
Key examples of these are the striking paintings of Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721–1782) or Caroline Barduas (1781–1864), whose portrait of Caspar David Friedrich was for a long time presumed to be a work by the great painter himself. The self-portrait by Sabine Lepsius (1864–1942), the Impressionistic works of Maria Slavona (1865–1931) or the striking painterly forms of Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907) bear witness to a growing confidence among these artists, and to their role in the evolution of modern painting.
Even more so than the painters, women sculptors had to wrestle with the prejudicial assumption that they were unsuited to their vocation as artists. But here, too, the works in the collection of the Nationalgalerie illustrate just how wrong this was: the German-American pioneering sculptor Elisabet Ney (1833–1907) produced a portrait of Bismarck as far back as 1867 that not only welcomed the guests of the Paris World’s Fair, but was also so admired by Bismarck himself that he turned down all subsequent requests to sit for a portrait.
Some of the paintings and sculptures that have been specially restored for this presentation had not been exhibited for decades, and were in need of significant conservation and restoration work. The generous support of the Aflried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung – to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude – has allowed the Alte Nationalgalerie to carry out conservation and restoration work on this significant collection of works by women artists from before 1919, ensuring they will be accessible to scholarship for a long time to come. Alongside extensive conservation work to ensure the integrity of the substances of the sculptural works, complex restoration measures were carried out on paintings and their decorative frames, which significantly improved the appearance and clarity of a number of the works. Additionally, numerous paintings had to be reframed.
The work on the 48 paintings and 34 sculptural works was largely carried out by the Alte Nationalgalerie’s own conservator-restorers, in collaboration with other branches of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, such as the Rathgen-Forschungslabor and the conservation and restoration department of the Skulpturensammlung at the Bodemuseum. The restoration of 29 paintings and 14 sculptures, as well as the fabrication of new frames and reconstruction of stylistically appropriate decorative frames was carried out by external specialists. Our thanks goes in particular to the following conservator-restorers and frame-makers: Markus Dengg, Franziska Ehrenberg, Martin Engel, Katharina Geipel, Ingo Gorny, Anke Klusmeier, Anja Lindner-Michael, Stefanie Lorenz, Christiane von Pannwitz, Kai Rötger, Ramona Roth, Johanna Thierse, Antonia Trost and Anja Wolf.
The conservation, restoration and reframing of these paintings and sculptural works represents a significant step towards reintroducing the works and biographies of women artists of the 19th century to the research community, and to promoting the presence of women in art-historical discourse. As well as this, the outcomes of the exhibition and research project Fighting for Visibility provide new impulses for the future of the collection display, and for the acquisition strategy of the Nationalgalerie moving forward.
Exhibition run: 11 October 2019 to 8 March 2020
Restoration timeframe: February to October 2019
Funded by: Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung
Contact, project management: Kristina Mösl, director of conservation and restoration at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin