With the dread of silence | Cultural Heritage. Goverment of Catalonia.


With the dread of silence

Breaking the silence, remembering those who have been forgotten, giving voice to women artists whose presence has been made invisible

La nit ha cobert la terra
amb son mantell de foscor
amb feresa de silenci
i amb feresa de remors
(Night has covered the earth
with its cloak of darkness
with the dread of silence
and the dread of rumbling sounds)
These lines from the poem LEstrella (The Star) by Dolors Monserdà were the inspiration for the title of the exhibition that the Museu dArt in Girona has dedicated to the women artists whose works found resonance for only ten years, between 1907 and 1917, through the pages of the magazine Feminal. The later silencing of their works is just now starting to be redressed.


Night has covered the earth with its cloak of darkness

As in the lines of the poem, a cloak of darkness has been covering the work of many women who once aspired to be full-time artists in a social context that was not in any way propitious for such aspirations. The society in which they lived provided neither access to studies nor contact with like-minded role models.

In the face of such obstacles, how was it possible to see the light? How could the fear of silence be overcome? The Museu dArt in Girona shines a ray of light on these questions with the exhibition, Feresa de silenci. Les artistes a la revista Feminal [The dread of silence. The women artists of the Feminal magazine] (1907-1917).

Cover of the 1st number of the Feminal magazine digitized by the Miguel de Cervantes Virtual Library

Feminal: a gleam of light in the darkness

Rediscovering all the artists that have been silenced and forgotten, even just in Catalonia, is a task that can only be achieved step by step. The small contribution to this task being made by Girona's Museu dArt is based on the magazine Feminal, the first Catalan magazine to be written and directed by women. It was published monthly between 1907 and 1917 as a supplement to the magazine La Ilustració Catalana. Directed by Carme Karr, the magazine was Catholic-leaning and addressed mainly well-to-do ladies, although it also defended the rights of all women to receive an education and it drew attention to role models in the fields of literature and the arts. It reflected the social state of affairs of its day, not only in Catalonia, but also in Europe, and had numerous contributors, writers and illustrators, some of whom were very well known, such as Caterina Albert (Víctor Català), Dolors Monserdà and the painter Lluïsa Vidal.

Practically every issue of the magazine contained articles about painting, either covering the artists' exhibitions being held at the time, or devoted to one particular woman artist. During the ten years Feminal was published, more than seventy women artists, from Catalonia and elsewhere in Europe, made an appearance on its pages. Most of them, it is true, were painters, but there were also women sculptors, poster artists and illustrators. Although they were fewer in number there were also women bookplate designers, enamellers and photographers. It is the story of all these women that the Museu dArt in Girona aims to rescue from the silence that has surrounded them. Has it been possible?

1. Caterina Albert's image / 2. Al costat del Paravent, Pilar Montaner

Making silence talk: a complicated and necessary initiative

Three years before opening the exhibition, the Museu dArt set itself the challenge of tracking down the artists who had appeared on the pages of Catalonia's first female and feminist magazine. Nothing was known about most of them, not even their names practically, and only a very small number of them appeared on any list or inventory of their works. The silence was deafening.

The task, expected to be long and arduous, fell to the art historian Elina Norandi who had already spent years conducting research and tracking down artists, especially those who lived at the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th. An adherent of a feminist view of art history, her research is based on the conviction that, in the difficult process of tracing artists, the criteria must be adapted to the circumstances of their careers. For Norandi it can not be forgotten that their endeavours took place in an environment that was very different to the one enjoyed by male artists, and neither should it be forgotten that the works of all these women were beset by incomprehension and disdain, and were even hidden. She wanted this silence to talk, but to awaken them from this nightmare implied a task worthy of a detective involved in undercover research. Finally, of the seventy names that came to light, it was possible to reveal the lives of only some thirty, along with some of their works, even if these were not their best or their most accomplished.

Norandi's methodology was rigorous. She collated prior studies that had been undertaken in other innovative research projects and, in parallel with this, she began to build on the scant information available about the artists until, in the end, she was able to trace a large number of diverse and varied works. Once that had been done it was still necessary to sift through all the documentation in order to compose a lucid narrative for the exhibition. The challenge was, therefore, a formidable one that consisted of finding a way to bring all this diversity together to produce a coherent visual narrative that any good exhibition must have.

1. C. H. Dufau / 2. Visitació Ubach / 3. Emilia Coranty

Multiple layers of silence, or how to add substance to a discussion from nothing

The silence traditional art history and criticism have imposed on the works and careers of most women artists is uneven, as is knowledge about their lives. The legacy we have received from them is therefore inconclusive and incomplete.

Given, and in spite of, there being such a miscellaneous assortment, it was necessary to construct a narrative that would bring all this heterogeneity together in a cohesive manner, as well as one that would satisfy individualised value judgements. A common thread to knit the argument together over the route of the exhibition from room to room, artist to artist, from work to work. But what could this unifying thread be? What is it that all this generation of artists have in common? The common thread is silence, the variety of silences and how these silences are being broken, little by little, almost without making a sound. The answer was therefore to organise and group the large variety of cases and lives according to three kinds of silence that befell them.

1. Esperant els nuvis, Pilar Montaner / 2. Pomera en flor, Juliette Wytsman / 3. Esport terrestre (bicicleta), Lola Anglada

Broken silences: this section is devoted to those artists whose works are beginning to be known thanks to modern historiographic research, such as Lluïsa Vidal, a painter now recognised by the art world on account of the work done by the art collector, Consol Oltra, and the recent exhibitions of her work. In this group we also find the illustrators Lola Anglada and Laura Albèniz, both of whom have been studied by Núria Rius Vernet, a pioneer in the study of Catalan women artists during the period prior to the Spanish Civil War. The lacemaking art of Aurora Gutiérrez Larraya and Adelaida Ferré has been studied by Joan Miquel Llodrà, and that of the watercolourist Pepita Teixidor has been studied by M. Isabel Gascón. Finally, the researchers Gloria Bosch and Susanna Portell have studied the pictorial works of the Polish woman Mela Muter, who was recently the subject of an exhibition at the Museu dArt in Girona.They are all artists who had the good fortune to devote themselves entirely to their art, either because their families supported them, or simply because they were women who did not feel the need to marry or to have children. In their youths they went to Paris where they had the opportunity to study and experiment with a way of life that was very different from that in their home country. The considerable number of their surviving works has clearly facilitated their study and later, their dissemination.

Murmurings in the silence: this section includes a large number of names of Catalan and other artists who are beginning to be spoken about because a process has commenced to trace and study their works. There is a long list and it includes, amongst others, Juliette Wystman, Suzanne Leloir, Antònia Ferreras, Visitació Ubach, Maria Azcué, Elvira Malagarriga, Rafaela Sánchez-Aroca, Emília Coranty, Frederica Bonay, Flora Geraldy, Maria Oller, Maria Rusiñol and Maria Lluïsa Güell. The latter was the daughter Count Güell and, on account of her social status, she could only paint in the confines of her home. It is true that many were the daughters of wives of artists who had to renounce their careers in favour of those of their fathers or husbands, and that decision having been made, they became the 'angel in the house' that society wanted them to be. 

Intimate silences: this last group covers those silences produced within the family setting in which it was the family that was responsible for conserving the works of their forbears. The exhibition includes three such cases: that of Pilar Montaner from Mallorca, that of Francisca Rius Sanuy, from Barcelona, and that of the Catalan artist Aurora Folquer to whom the Galeries Dalmau devoted an exhibition in 1913. Nevertheless, her work was recently rescued from a skip because she had no direct descendants to look after her paintings.

Tot un món ple de misteri s’aixeca d’un món que dorm (A whole world full of mystery rises from a sleeping world)

This line too comes from the poem by Dolors Monserdà and it serves to express the aim of the exhibition held at the Museu dArt in Girona, namely, to awaken that which has been too long asleep, to reveal the work of silenced artists to the world of art. How can it be that these artists do not form part of art history?

Many reasons could be proffered in answer that question but, without doubt, the main reason has been the perennial subordination of women that has, lamentably, endured throughout history. This male supremacy limited the artists' lives, which were restricted to the intimacy of the family setting. Their representation in exhibitions was limited, with the result that their work was not often the subject of favourable art criticism, and barely featured in studies of artistic works. Furthermore, their works had little market value, so it didn't matter much whether they were conserved or not.

Silences on silences. But these are silences that must now be interrupted, and this is precisely the impression the exhibition would like to make on visitors, because they might well ask themselves, "What would have things been like if all these women artists had the same opportunities as their male counterparts? And what would an egalitarian art history been like?" Wouldn't you like to know?

Exhibition at Museu d'Art de Girona