Julia Secklehner

On the values of positioning women artists against the extraordinary – Věra Jičínská

Julia Secklehner

On the values of positioning women artists against the extraordinary – Věra Jičínská

This review was originally published in the Czech translation in Art and Antiques, July 2023.

How do we add “new” artists to the history of modern art without making them more than an add-on to an endless list of representatives? Věra Jičínská at the Gallery of Moder Art in Hradec Kráolvé, curated by Martina Pachmanová, tackles this question by introducing the work of a painter, graphic artist, journalist, photographer and ceramicist, who, as the introduction states, has been “unjustly overlooked” from Czech modern art.

And yet, the exhibition is careful to frame this show as more than just a biographical overview of another woman artist, who travelled extensively and explored a range of different media. In order to avoid the pitfalls of an all too simplistic biographic “rediscovery”, the exhibition is structured thematically, including topics such as “Women’s art between the wars”, “Dance”, “Modernity and the exotic” and “The female nude, mother and artist”.

The show is well-structured for the two, narrow long rooms which host it. A panel at the entrance introduces basic biographical details and offers an initial framing for visitors, which stress Jičínská’s role as a modern woman who engaged with many practices typically connected with modernity: flaneuring in the metropolis, photography, an interest in non-European cultures, entertainment and show culture, as well as the printed press. Living in different places around Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Britain and France, and travelling extensively, Jičínská thus features not so much as a “unique” artist, but rather stands for a particular type of the modern woman artist, who juggled a multi-faceted career.

Věra Jičínská, exhibition view. Modern Aret Gallery Hradec Králové, 2023, foto: Miroslav Podhrázský.

The most controversial aspect of the exhibition no doubt is Jičínská’s fascination with the “exotic”, which would have benefitted from some more unpacking. This section, which viewers encounter to the right upon entering the first room, introduces numerous portraits of women of colour, in folk dress and from ethnic minorities, Roma communities near Pécs and in Russia in particular. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Pachmanová stresses the fact that Jičínská had a strongly romanticised conception of the Roma and non-European cultures, so that her engagement should be viewed predominantly on an artistic level. This leaves open the question as to what extent Jičínská’s work, along that with many other Central European artists, should be viewed more critically in light of their reproduction of stereotypes, which they encountered through publication as well as visits to colonial empires. In the exhibition itself, this question becomes even more pertinent: since there is little wall text to contextualise the section, there is a danger of presenting the portraits on display merely as a collection of “exotic” faces, while little is known about their context or the lives of the sitters. Indeed, the only person mentioned by name is a black woman, Mathilde, who sat for the artist on numerous occasions in Paris. Adding to this the fact that a small cabinet includes displays such as Baluba dance masks from Kongo, which Jičínská collected and sketched, a more critical approach to the entanglements of modern art with the colonial project would have been welcomed.

To a certain extent, this issue could be extended to the section on dance, where aside from a focus on the dancer Lydia Wisiak, a series of oil paintings shows Indian dance practices by the famous dancer and choreographer Uday Shan-Kar, who was active in England and France in the 1920s and 30s. Based on Jičínská’s stay in Paris and her engagement with entertainment and non-European cultures, therefore, the artist’s positioning as representative of Central European modernity could have opened new insights into how women artists engaged with more problematic aspects of modern culture.

There is another aspect to be added here about dance and the “exotic”, which leads through the exhibition overall: the strong focus on women and women’s experiences. On a visual level, this is apparent from the predominantly female portraits and nudes, including images of pregnancy, both of Mathilde and the artist herself. Conceptually, women’s experiences of modernity lead through all the different themes, starting with Jičínská’s participation in the exhibition of Czech women artists at the Salon des Independents in Paris in 1925. The display also shows selected works by other Czech artists such as Anna Macková and Minka Podhajská in this context, thus framing Jičínská’s work as part of a new generation of women artists closely connected with modern art in the first Czechoslovak Republic. Close-by in the exhibition, a recording of excerpts from the artist’s diary adds personal insights into her life, bridging the gap between the public and the private, which many women artists at the time still had to grapple with. As the introduction to the exhibition explains, Jičínská “was repeatedly reminded by family, society, and critics that women’s role in life was first and foremost associated with motherhood, and that the legitimization of women’s art was bound to this aspect of womanhood”. The display addresses the implications of this throughout with the focus on female subjects, which together construct a “female gaze” on modernity.

Overall, the exhibition is strongly framed by social topics, which help do away with the fact that many of the artworks on display are, though well executed, rather conventional if put into a bigger panorama of modern Central European painting. Perhaps this stems from the mixture of Cubism, Purism, and Neoclassicism that Jičínská worked in, or the strong focus on traditional subjects, particularly portraiture and the female nude. That being said, there are some notable works on display, especially in the sections on journalism and Jičínská’s explorations of light and shade. The painting Journalist (1932), for example, displayed next to a series of articles the artist wrote for the popular press in Czech as well as in German, shows a woman writing from a frontal vantage point, which foregrounds her hand, putting ink to paper, while the face remains anonymous and abstracted. Meanwhile, a nocturnal painting of multi-storey housing, which shows the different activities of its inhabitants lit through their windows reveals life behind closed doors. This voyeuristic insight links the section on “light and shade” with the theme of public and private life in a composition, which makes the latter stand out much more prominently.

Finally, Jičínská’s photographs also deserve a word of mention, even though they feature more as a “hobby” compared to her work as a painter, ceramicist and writer. The photographs featured vary from documentary images from the artist’s travels to experiments that try to adapt a modernist visual language. Based on the fact that Jičínská’s mother, Gisela Jičínská, was a keen and talented amateur photographer, the section is framed as a matrilineal practice, in which the daughter adopted and redeveloped the mother’s craft in parallel to her other activities. Not least, some photographs also feature in other sections of the exhibition, showing how Jičínská’s photographs informed her paintings, while reminding viewers that the camera was an essential tool in the life of the modern woman, used as much for personal memory as for creative explorations.

Ultimately, the wide insight that the exhibition gives into Jičínská’s multi-faceted work is an engaging example of how a monographic show can be used to introduce new narratives to the history of modern art in Central Europe. It applies a strongly gendered perspective, however, without trying too forcefully. In doing so, it avoids the replication of stereotypes about the “New Woman” as a successful media concept. Indeed, instead of highlighting the extraordinary, Věra Jičínská rather positions its artist as exemplary for many women artists of her time, which is not only a refreshing statement against the notion of artists as “exceptional”, a view still deeply ingrained in art historical narratives of the region. More than that, Věra Jičínská shows that shifting our focus on women artists who worked at the pulse of their time still were not free from the constraints of their gender and cultural background. In many ways, this is a productive perspective to build on.

The exhibition is accompanied by the publication:

Martina Pachmanová, Věra Jičínská, Galerie moderního umění v Hradci Králové, 2023 (in Czech).