After World War I ended, the majority of European societies had to deal with numerous social and political consequences of the harsh atrocities. Suddenly the 1920s took a different turn and became saturated with the demands for more freedom, especially in relation to gender equality. The image of the new woman was formed as an emancipatory model for women's liberation. Freed from the social constraints, the new woman was able to dispose sex appeal, wear trousers, drink, smoke, and express herself the way she desires.
This novel image was a result of modernity which enabled not only women but queer and people of color as well to represent themselves as they are. On the wave of new and rather radical tendencies in the visual arts, this particular model of behavior was explored and practiced very much by a new generation of female artists.
Alongside the art scene of the Weimar Republic and a couple of other environments, the Parisian district of Montparnasse was a hub where women artists came to prominence and were respected along with their male peers.
Namely, during the 18th century, this part of Paris was named Mount Parnassus after the Greek poets; however, it wasn’t until the 1910s when the artists migrated to this district that was an alternative to the lavish Montmartre district. Although economically less stable than the previous generation that enjoyed the merits of privileges, the migrant painters, sculptors, writers, poets, and composers gravitating around Montparnasse created an incredibly creative atmosphere (especially at an artist residence called La Ruche) despite the enormous poverty.
In such atmosphere, women arose with dignity, gained critical acclaim, and left incredible legacies. To revisit some of their practices, we selected six most prolific female artists who made quite the name of themselves and marked this particular art community as a place of freedom and solidarity.
Editors’ Tip: Women of the 1920s: Style, Glamour, and the Avant-Garde
It was a time of unimagined new freedoms. From the cafés of Paris to Hollywood's silver screen, women were exploring new modes of expression and new lifestyles. In countless aspects of life, they dared to challenge accepted notions of a “fairer sex,” and opened new doors for the generations to come. Exploring the lives of seventeen artists, writers, designers, dancers, adventurers, and athletes, this splendidly illustrated book brings together dozens of photographs with an engaging text. In these pages, readers will meet such iconoclastic women as the lively satirist Dorothy Parker, the avant-garde muse and artist Kiki de Montparnasse, and aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, whose stories continue to offer inspiration for our time. Women of the 1920s is a daring and stylish addition to any bookshelf of women's history.
Featured image: Natalia Gonchareva - Cyclist, 1913. Oil on canvas. 78 cm (30.7 in) x 105 cm (41.3 in). Collection Russian Museum. Image creative commons.
The first woman artist of 1920s Montparnasse on our top list is the legendary Sonia Delaunay. This prolific figure of Russian descent was a genuine experimenter whose work spanned from painting to textile and set design. She was formally trained in Russia and Germany before moving to France where she ultimately came to prominence.
Delaunay was the co-founder of the Orphism art movement along with her husband Robert Delaunay and other artists. Celebrated for her unique usage of vibrant colors and geometric shapes, the artist is often noted as one of the forerunners of geometric abstraction.
Featured image: Sonia Delaunay wearing Casa Sonia creations, Madrid, c.1918-20. Image creative commons.
Another relevant female painter active in Montparnasse during the 1920s was the renowned Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, known for her highly sophisticated Art Deco portraits of high-class society.
Coming from an affluent family she was not a stranger to a comfortable lifestyle and education. After the October revolution in 1917, her family sought refuge in Paris, where Lempicka studied at Académie de la Grande Chaumière with Maurice Denis and then with André Lhote and at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts. By fusing late Cubism and the Neoclassical style, Lempicka developed an authentic aesthetic that reflected the bohemian splendor of the artistic and social life of Paris between the Wars.
Featured image: Tamara De Lempicka - Self Portrait, Winchester Galleries, Victoria, British Columbia - Serigraph, 80.6 × 62.2 cm. Image via Flickr.
Natalia Goncharova was a leading proponent of the early Russian avant-garde artist whose multidisciplinary work challenged the traditional preconceptions about the notion and function of art in (modern) society. Along with her partner and equally relevant avant-garde practitioner, Mikhail Larionov, she founded the Jack of Diamonds art group (which included Kasimir Malevich and the French Cubists), and the more radical Donkey's Tail, and a few years later Rayonism (a stylistic persuasion after Marinetti's Futurism). In 1921 the two moved to Paris and lived there until her death in 1962.
Goncharova's influence was grand in the pre-revolutionary period in Russia, despite being observed with skepticism, and today is celebrated for the apparent radicalism and modernist interpretation of Slavic heritage.
Featured image: Natalia Goncharova - Rayonist Lilies, 1913. Oil on canvas, 91 × 75 cm (35.8 × 29.5 in). Collection of Perm Art Museum. Image creative commons.
Vera Rockline started her career in Moscow, where she became an apprentice at the studio of the renowned avant-garde figure Aleksandra Ekster in Kiev. There she learned about Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso who influenced greatly her painterly style.
In 1919 she left Russia and immigrated to France. The following year Rockline settled with her husband in Paris, nearby the iconic Montmartre. Her work was a combination of Cubism and Impressionism and was adorned by the celebrated French fashion mage Paul Poiret.
Featured image: Vera Rockline - Self-portrait, 1922. Image creative commons.
A Parisian born painter and printmaker, Marie Laurencin was an important figure in the Parisian avant-garde as a proponent of the Cubists. Initially, she studied porcelain, but then switched to painting after enrolling the Académie Humbert. She continually exhibited her works side to side with Picasso, Delaunay, Picabia, and Metzinger at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne, while being a romantic companion and a muse to the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and part of the community gathered around the American expatriate and famed lesbian writer Natalie Clifford Barney.
During the First World War, the artist fled from France to Spain with her German-born husband, Baron Otto von Waëtjen. In 1920 the two divorced, and Laurencin returned to Paris, where she gained fame until the economic depression of the 1930s. She lived in Paris until her death in 1956.
Featured image: Marie Laurencin - Les Désguisés, 1926. Collection of Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA. Image creative commons.
The last woman artist active in the 1920s Montparnasse on our list is Marie Vassilieff. Raised in an affluent Russian family which supported her to pursue a medical career, she started studying art at the Academy in St. Petersburg. At the age of twenty-three, Vassilieff moved to Paris and quickly became part of the artistic community in Montparnasse.
Vassilieff worked as a correspondent for several Russian newspapers, while studying painting under Henri Matisse and attending classes at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. In 1908 she launched the Académie Russe (Russian Academy), which was renamed the following year into the Académie Vassilieff. Four years later she opened an atelier of her own in Montparnasse which became a meeting point for the leading artists at the time such as Erik Satie, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, others used to hang out. During the 1920s and 1930s, Vasilieff's style evolved as it embraced Surrealism and the Metaphysical school.
Featured image: Amedeo Modigliani - Portrait of Marie Vassilieff, circa 1918. Image creative commons.