Sounds of Dissonance: Focussing on gender imbalance in the world of classical music composers and conductors: men overwhelmingly outnumber women

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Image courtesy (no restricted access) of the Music Division, The New York Public Library. “The Canadian journal of music” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1918-11. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8e9c13f0-acec-0133-bc08-00505686a51c

Let us be frank with one another and avoid pretension. Most of you probably consider yourself artistically enlightened; you regularly attend and read about visual and performing arts events. Your liberal minded soul embraces equal opportunity of choice for everyone, regardless of a person’s gender, sexual preference, colour, race or religion. No biases poison your heart.

Still, although undoubtedly you could name quite a number of contemporary male classical music composers and conductors, you might struggle to recall just a few contemporary female classical music composers and conductors; and, even if you’re avowedly religious, you could be at a loss to suggest living female composers noted for writing liturgical music. Don’t feel embarrassed if you are now fumbling with the Internet. Indeed, in The Guardian’s 100 Most Inspiring Women of 2011, marking the 100th International Women’s Day, not one composer was listed. The one conductor noted was Marin Alsop.

Admittedly, you would be able to mention names effortlessly if you are working in the classical music business industry, or engaged as a performer, conductor or composer. Moreover, you’re probably acutely aware of gender imbalance in the classical music milieu, and that this issue does not cause as much alarm as it deserves to within this world and among members of the public.

I became conscious of my ignorance – perhaps oblivion – when I went to a talk last year about a book called Sounds and Sweet Airs, which was presented by the author Anna Beer. The evening was organised by the UK Friends of the National Museum for Women in the Arts (of which I’m a steering committee member). The book focuses on eight historic female composers: Francesca Caccini (1587-1640), Barbara Strozzi (1619-1664), Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1675-1729), Marianna Martines (1744-1812), Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn (1805-1847), Clara Schumann (1819-1896), Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and Elizabeth Maconchy, (1907-1994).

Beer was inspired to write the book because many historic women composers have been dismissed (‘surely a man must have written this’), overlooked, forgotten and undocumented. (Is this because most musical historians are men?) She wanted to reclaim these women from history.

Social structure and cultural mores prevented many musically talented women in the past from seriously studying music, and, even if they could engage in musical scholarship leading to composition and conducting, they were denied the space, whether this be in a castle, cathedral, or concert hall, the authority and the opportunity to publish. Beer’s work is a means of enlightenment. There was no hint of anger in her presentation; she means to pay homage to historic female composers and explore the circumstances enabling them to flourish. Beer makes us feel ashamedly conscious of the fact that many of us have never asked questions about why there is such a paucity of women composers on historical record.

My conscience was also pricked when I began copy editing the far from dry, verging on the whimsical, and educative musical notes for the church I attend in central London. The writer, Nicholas Riddle, a music scholar – who chooses the compositions in collaboration with the Director of Music (DOM), Rupert Gough – happens to be at the head of a highly successful classical music publishing company (Edition Peters). Neither Nicholas nor the DOM seem sexist; yet rarely does a mass setting or related work by a female composer appear in the church music diary; obviously, it’s not within the music diarists’ consciences to address this situation, and, even if the church chose to only include mass settings by women, the choice is limited, as there are far fewer female historical and contemporary liturgical music composers than male. Moreover, the nature of the Anglo-Catholic liturgy and the liturgical season also thin the repertoire. Still, there’s room for a change in direction.

The Christian church has never been a harbinger of feminism; historically, men filled the choirs, played the organ, directed the music and led the services. One could have found a harpsichord or clavichord in the drawing room, for the women to play, but never an organ. A woman would have to venture out of the domestic sphere to learn to play and practise the organ; inevitably the instructor would be male. Would her family encourage this endeavour?

Composer and Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge, Graham Ross, notes that the “addition of female singers to our cathedral choirs and clergy is a (somewhat embarrassingly) recent phenomenon. In England, there has only really been a rebalancing of gender intake in the last 50 years in the Oxbridge Colleges, where perhaps a good proportion (thought not certainly all) of today’s liturgical composers have been educated”. In 2016, Ross appointed Eleanor Carter as Clare College’s first ever female organ scholar in its 700-year history. Of the 31 colleges at Cambridge, only seven have female DOMs.

Ideally, one would like to discover a published compilation of mass settings, liturgical and sacred music composed by women. This would increase the breadth of female role models in worship. There are an increasing number of women clerics ‘at the helm’; why not enable more compositions by women to be part of worship? Regardless, in a wider context, religious and secular, there are quite a number of widely acknowledged tomes noting women composers. (See below.)

Focusing on the ‘shortage’ of female role models in the educational and professional milieu of classical music composition and conducting reveals the extent to which women are under represented. The choice of reliable statistics is overwhelming. Visible role models are especially important to younger women who often lack the confidence to forge ahead against the odds.

According to a report by the Performing Rights Society (PRS) Foundation Women Make Music – Evaluation 2011-2016, “there are no compositions at any level in the music curriculum by women”. (The situation is meant to change.) At the Julliard School, of the five members of the composition faculty, one, Melinda Wagner, is female. At the Royal Academy of Music, out of eighteen members of the composition faculty, the one female is Tansy Davies, an Honorary Fellow. The head of conducting is a woman, Sian Edwards; another female staff member, out of seven, is Ruth Byrchmore. At the Royal College of Music, there are seventeen composition faculty members, only three of whom are female: Errolyn Wallen, the first black woman to have a work performed at the Proms, Alison Kaye and Enrica Sciandone. At the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, there are no women listed on the seven member composition faculty list. At the Conservatoire national supèrieur de musique et de danse de Paris (CNSNDP), out of thirty faculty members in the ‘joint’ composition and conducting department, there are three female members: Catherine Briere, Coralie Fayolle and Marie-Jeanne Serero, the latter two are composers.

Each year, since 1989, the organisation Women in Music has carried out a BBC Proms Survey. (The Proms is the largest music festival in the world.) One wishes one could find the figures incredulous. For example, this year, 7.5 % of the living composers whose work is featured are women. Of the conductors, 11 % are women. In 2006, the Proms didn’t include any women composers or women conductors. At a recent conference of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) in January, James Murphy, the managing director of the Southbank Sinfonia, gave a speech exploring why there are so few women conductors on show. He notes that of 61 full member orchestras in the ABO, collectively having over 100 titled roles for conductors, four of these positions are held by women. Just over five per cent of the British artist managers with five or more conductors on their books are women. Last year the Southbank Sinfonia invited an equal number of male and female conductors to conduct. Why can’t other major orchestras follow its lead?

What fuels bias against women composers and conductors coming to the fore are unyielding perceptions about the natures of men and women. A woman may grow up in a bias free home, but once she steps across the threshold, bias strikes as fast as a throbbing pulse. Riddle eloquently expresses this reality:

“People often see the composer as male by default, and so use male pronouns in general discussions about the art of music. It’s a battle still only half won, but ground is gradually being claimed. The same applies to conductors and directors of music. The world of music is still at the stage that companies were some years ago, when the unspoken thesis was that women would be too ‘weak’ as managers, or would lack ambition, or drive, or the capacity to take difficult decisions. Many aspects of musical performance are still obsessed with the fact that a composer, a conductor, or a director of music is in some sense ‘in control’, and unconsciously feel it’s somehow unwomanly to be exerting such control, or – for those with real problems in this area – some men just can’t reconcile the idea that they might from time to time be subservient in any sense to a woman and, as long as there are more of these men in charge, they consciously or unconsciously militate against this.”

In light of Riddle’s comments, I think of a Women’s Conducting Masterclass with Marin Alsop, which took place in January. Those attending had the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra in varied repertoire and conduct in a public performance. One of the participants, Natalia Raspopova, Assistant Conductor with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, reputedly commented, “generally speaking, women need to think much more about projecting power – perhaps that’s more natural to men”. In the past, notes the Guardian newspaper, Marin Alsop has suggested, “the challenges for women seem to be projecting strength unapologetically. Society interprets women’s gestures very differently, so that if women are exuding an aura of extreme confidence that can be deemed off putting, whereas it’s desirous for men”.

Unfortunately, it seems as though women need to feel entitled to take power. A composition has a kind of silent power, for conductors, musicians and singers are compelled to follow its direction, and still there are people all over the world, including women, who feel uneasy about women leading. Can we learn to be ‘gender neutral’ in the realm of classical music composing and conducting?

Initiatives encouraging women composers and conductors to come to and stay at the fore are very much a twenty first century phenomenon. In 2015 the Dallas Opera launched the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, an annual programme for six selected participants of a week long schedule of classes and coaching with renowned conductors, seminars about advancing one’s career prospects and opportunities to conduct the Dallas Opera Orchestra, and participate in a public concert. Women Conductors@Morley was founded in 2014 to offer courses for young women, aged 16-19, and full time students who wish to begin training, and also courses for female conductors to help them develop their technique. The Taki Concordia Fellowship, founded by Alsop in 2002, aims to “promote, present, and encourage talented women conductors at the beginning of their careers”. In 2016, the London Oriana Choir launched a venture for promoting British female composers called five15. This program involves commissioning five works from five emerging women composers over five years, which the choir will perform in the UK and abroad. A festival, competition, anthology, album and workshops are also part of the initiative.

Humankind has been creating music for centuries; how we direct and play with sound is part of people’s cultural, political and social identity. If the “custodians of classical music”, to use Murphy’s words, don’t give women the same opportunities bestowed upon men to conduct and compose for the public, to enhance our civilized identity, frankly, we’re “going to look like cave men”. Amen.

Jenny Kingsley ©

Useful links and discoveries:

http://www.womeninmusic.org.uk,

https://conductingmasterclass.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/the-linda-and-mitch-hart-institute-for-women-conductors-2017/,

https://www.morleycollege.ac.uk/,

http://www.londonoriana.com/women-composers-project

http://www.prsformusicfoundation.com/funding/women-make-music-2/ – this supports projects by women songwriters, composers, artists, bands and performers who are writing their own music.

For reference – Aaron Cohen’s International Encyclopaedia of Women Composers (1987), noting over 6000 women; The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (1994), in which there are 875 listings; The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, 1629 to the Present by Sophie Fuller (1995); Women Composers: Music Through the Ages, volume 1 and volumes following, Martha F Schleifer and Sylvia Glickman, G K Hall and Company, 1996 onwards.

Naming and faming, for a brief start:

Historic female composers – before 1700 many of the women who published music were nuns living in convents such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) and Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590-1662). Other names to note are Louise Farrenc (1804-75), Cécille Chaminade (1857-1944), Ethel Smyth (1858-1844), Amy Beach (1867-1944), Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53), Imogen Holst (1907-1984), and Minna Keal (1909-1999), who was 80 years old when her first orchestral work was performed at the Proms in 1889.

Projects highlighting historic women composers:

http://www.abo.org.uk/developing/sirens.aspx,

http://www.ambachecharitabletrust.org/

Contemporary female classical music composers, who also write liturgical music – Kerry Andrew (b. 1978), Sally Beamish (b. 1956), Judith Bingham (b.1952), Charlotte Bray (b. 1982), Maija Einfelde (b.1939), Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980), Jennifer Higdon (b.1962), Hanna Kendall (b.1984), Joanna Marsh (b.1970), Cecilia McDowall (b.1951), Roxanna Panufnik (b.1968), Karin Rehnqvist (b.1957), Agneta Sköld (b.1947), Judith Weir (b.1954), Ellen Taafe Zwilich (b. 1939).

Contemporary female conductors – Elim Chan (b.1986), Han-Na Chang (b.1982), Sian Edwards (b.1959), Laurence Equilbey (b.1962), JoAnn Faletta (b.1954), Alice Farnham (b.1939), Jane Glover (b.1949), Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (b.1986), Susanna Mälkki (b.1969), Odaline de la Martinez (b.1949), Alondra de la Parra (b.1980), Simone Young (b. 1961).

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Hooligan Sparrow: A film by Nanfu Wang, a Chinese documentary filmmaker

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Nanfu Wang, the director of Hooligan Sparrow. Photo courtesy of The Rights Practice.

Hooligan Sparrow is a harrowing documentary about sexual abuse in China. When she was making the film, Nanfu Wang lived under a constant state of fear. Jenny Kingsley explores Wang’s stunning achievement and how it came to be.

The documentary Hooligan Sparrow is not a beautiful film, of scenic, breath-taking splendour; there are no great moments of intimate, eye watering poignancy, though there are parts that will make you very, very angry, laugh and cheer. The story is disjointed; it chops and changes, seemingly convoluted at times, yet there is a presiding theme, which touches, if not infiltrates, the lives of women all over the world: female sexual exploitation for pleasure and money, in which men take the leading role with female supporters. An underlying theme, the abuse of human rights in China, is ever present.

Repressive regimes, such as that of China, tend to turn a blind eye to the horror of systematic sexual abuse (unless it is politically viable not to); campaigning against specific cases and in general invites harassment, interrogation and imprisonment. Fortunately, social media, the mobile and the digital camera are passages to justice. They cannot be silenced. Once cannot jam the digital camera permanently. Chinese Nanfu Wang’s film is situated in China. It focuses on an event, a women’s rights activist, Ye Haiyan (aka Hooligan Sparrow), an esteemed human rights lawyer, Wang Yu, and the interwoven issues of sexual exploitation and sex workers’ rights. Those putting the world to rights are persistently intimidated, threatened with abuse, abused and detained. Some of their family relatives are hounded as well.

We travel for the summer of 2013 with Wang, Sparrow, Yu and a group of activists to Hainan where there is news of a sex scandal. An elementary school principal brought several girls, aged 11 to 14, to a hotel to stay with a government official who raped them. The death penalty is the punishment for rape, while for child prostitution the sentence is five to fifteen years. Thus, if the rapists claim they paid their victims, they can ‘save their necks’ (death is by lethal injection or shooting). As one reviewer highlights, Yu, the human rights lawyer working with Sparrow, believes that “the government is so corrupt that it’s become fashionable to sexually abuse young girls, thanks to the child prostitution law loophole”. Wu believes the girls were bribed in this case. The men claimed they paid the girls, which justified the lighter sentences they received. Sparrow does not shy away from using provocative means to call attention to injustice, such as using her own nudity in videos and images, and offering sex for free to migrant workers to call attention to the appalling conditions for sex workers. We see her working steadfastly and boldly to highlight the alleged abuse of the girls. An image of her with a cheeky sign: “Hey, Principal, how about a night with me instead of those girls?” goes viral. The police and undercover agents begin a silencing campaign. They hire thugs to harass her, arrest her for assault when she is attacked and falsify evidence. She and her teenage daughter are evicted from their flat and hotels; eventually they are left homeless on the street. Despite the chaos, Sparrow is unflappable. She will not stop hammering more nails in the coffin of sexual exploitation. “You can kill me, but you can’t kill the truth, could be her motto.” It is not surprising that she is prohibited form leaving the country.

Another member of the cast, Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer, campaigns along with Sparrow, with equal fervour. Yu has been involved in cases concerning disability discrimination, religious freedom and the abuse of land rights. In June 2016, Yu was awarded the twenty-first prestigious Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize. (The first prize went to Nelson Mandela in 1985. Tarieux was a French lawyer and Republican statesman, a prominent Dreyfusard and international rights campaigner.) The award is hailed as “the most prestigious prize awarded to a lawyer in Europe”. Wu and her family are under constant surveillance.

In the film, Wu tries to ensure that the case is treated as rape. The parents of the girls are afraid of fighting with her because the government was intimidating them: keep quiet is the message. Some of the girls were so traumatised that they tried to commit suicide.

Nanfu Wang goes to extreme lengths to capture the story. Her camera is always under attack. She shot her film on a small DLSR camera, a point and shoot camera, and a tiny camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses. Some of the footage is confiscated; at one time her memory card was erased. Wang is reported as saying that her sense of paranoia became so strong “that it became comical…Several times while filming with Sparrow, I would hear a knock at the door and quickly hide my camera, but it would turn out to be people we knew, and we would all laugh”. The sense of fear lurking is heightened by the sharp, hounding intensity of the music composed by Chris Ruggiero. Some of the subjects who appeared in the film have been imprisoned or prevented from leaving China. The footage had to be smuggled out of the country. It can’t be helped that the weaving together of the jarring fragments of audio and footage give the film a rough quality. What is it like to film under a state of fear?

The documentary did not remain under cover. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016, and it has been shown at fifty festivals in twenty countries. It has won a highly respected Peabody award.

I saw the film recently when it was screened for the celebration of the fifteenth birthday of The Rights Practice (www.rights-practice.org), a charity promoting human rights in China. The organisation supports human rights defenders, advocates for fair trials, provides training for working in international human rights law and encourages public participation in policymaking, particularly among women and marginalised groups.

Wang’s film – her first feature – is a tribute to the charity’s goal, and is itself a remarkable achievement, at the least because of the odds against its unusual route to creation, and what it helped to highlight: the injustice of sexual exploitation and the abuse of human rights in China.

How Wang came to be a filmmaker is also an extraordinary accomplishment. She was born in a farming village in Jiangxi Province. When she was 12 her father died from ill health (he was only 33), and Wang had to abandon formal education in order to help support her family. Eventually, she had the opportunity to attend a vocational school in order to become a primary school teacher at sixteen. When she was 22, Nanfu was awarded a fellowship for a graduate programme at Shanghai University, where she studied English language and literature. There Wang realised that she wanted to tell the stories of people who were living on the margins of society, as she had done. Afterwards, she studied film and journalism in masters’ programmes at Ohio University and New York University. Nanfu Wang lives in New York. Her latest film is I Am Another You. The documentary is described as the story of Dylan Olsen, a man in his early twenties from a solidly middle class family, who defies conventional expectations of his background, and lives a nomadic life. Dylan reveals that “eating, happiness and community” are his goals. Yet, Dylan is not so contentedly carefree. Growing up in a Mormon community was not a life enhancing experience for him. He has been involved with drugs. As an empathic, sensitive person he can see “things other people can’t see”.

Through her work, Wang has shown that she sees “things other people can’t see”, literally and metaphorically. She sharpens our sensitivity and empathy towards the dispossessed, whether this is in a spiritual or political context. I can’t help feeling proud of her being a member of the ‘second sex’. Jenny Kingsley

Fashion with Compassion

Pupils at Shokoh School. Image courtesy of Pop Up 38

Pupils at Shokoh School. Image courtesy of Pop Up 38.

In Afghanistan, women are discouraged from higher education, but times are changing, as Jenny Kingsley discovers when she visits Pop Up 38, a shop selling vintage and contemporary clothes to raise funds for a co educational school in this struggling nation.

One is not likely to find an enterprise that is quite like Pop Up 38. Its history, raison d’etre and colourful tapestry of stock in trade are a tribute to female entrepreneurship, artistic talent and faith in humanity. In every square foot of merchandise there is a strong sense of compassion.

The story of the venture begins with Dr Howard Fyfe Harper who was born in New Zealand in 1930. After attending Auckland Grammar School, Harper tried his hand in the building and menswear trades before becoming a bible study student. At the age of 23 he sailed to Pakistan as a missionary. There he determined to train as a doctor when he realised that there was a desperate need for professional medical care in Central Asia. Harper was particularly appalled by the severe shortage of treatment for the leprosy patients in light of the horrific deformities they endured. In England, he prepared for his exams and gained relevant experience while also studying Islamic law and Urdu.

In 1960, Harper married Monika, a German nurse and Second World War refugee. Monika had worked at London’ renowned Moorfields Eye Hospital. She inspired her husband to specialise in eye surgery. The couple had three daughters, Naomi, Faith and Joy. The Harpers mainly lived in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan where Harper worked as a hospital eye surgeon and ophthalmologist, established eye camps, wrote textbooks and trained local doctors. In Afghanistan he established the Noor Eye Hospital. For about fifteen years the family was based in Kent so their daughters could attend secondary school and experience western culture.

The Harpers firmly believed in the life enhancing value of education and wished especially to leave an educational legacy to the people of Afghanistan, notably the displaced Hazara peoples for whom they nurtured a special affection. When a Hazara elder offered Harper a piece of land in 2008 upon which to build a school, Harper began raising funds for its construction and development; in the meanwhile the school prospered in rented accommodation. Alas, Harper did not live long enough to see his dream fully realised. After battling with liver cancer, Harper died in 2011, aged 80. He is honoured by both New Zealand and Afghanistan with awards for exemplary humanitarian service; and he was one of the first foreigners to hold an Afghani passport. In 2010, Faith Goldberg, his second daughter, who is also a doctor, published From Kabul with Love, an account of Harper’s extraordinary life, based on correspondence between him and Monika with his father.

After her father’s death, Naomi Brons-Harper, his first-born, determined to fulfill her father’s dream. With two good friends, Natalie Tubeilah-Hall and Leigh Sullivan, Naomi established Pop Up 38 in the vibrant King’s Cross area of London as a means of raising funds for the school. All three women have an extensive background in fashion and design; Leigh is also an artist and Natalie has worked as an investment banker for a leading merchant bank, so the partners certainly have the expertise to succeed. The shop sells a mixture of designer samples and vintage clothing; the traditional Afghan dresses and jewellery are especially intriguing.

The nature of the stock changes frequently. In the next several months, when you visit you could find clothes designed and donated by Ella Moss, Free People and Splendid, all unquestionably trendy labels.

You will also discover colourful and dazzling jewellery designed by Philippa Kunisch; some pieces are very delicate while others are more forceful and bold, using larger stones grouped together in concentrated patterns. One of her commissions was a collection for the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain in 2000 and 2001. Her jewellery has also appeared in British films, where it is worn by actresses such as Emma Watson, Joanna Lumley, Isabella Rossellini and Charlotte Rampling. Philippa graduated in Theatre Design from Central Saint Martin’s, after which she then designed sets and costumes for theatre, and later formed her own theatre company. When, over twenty years ago, Kunisch designed a few pieces of jewellery for herself, she felt inspired to design for the public.

Pop Up 38 also has its own fashion label featuring clothes and clutch bags created by a graduate of the London College of Fashion. Brightly coloured bunting is also on sale.

Word about the opening of POP UP 38 in 2012 spread quickly and profits from the sales, together with the prize money Harper received from his New Zealand award enabled the school to open its own premises on the outskirts of Kabul in 2012. The school is registered as a non-profit charity known as Lapis Lazuli Schools; the name of the school is Shokoh School. Floors have gradually been added, more equipment has been obtained, and the number of staff and pupils has increased since then.

Now in 2016, there are 620 pupils, aged from 5 – 18 years old; girls over the age of fourteen are taught on one floor, without boys. There are male and female teachers. The school hours are from 8.30 am until 3 pm; this is a note worthy factor as many schools in Afghanistan are only open for half a day or one sex is taught in the morning while the other is taught in the afternoon.

Shokoh School provides a hot lunch and mini buses for transport to and from home, which is especially important for the girls as many of them would be too intimidated to make their own way to and from school. An increasing number of pupils progress to university and winning scholarships. The school teaches the Afghan syllabus to pupils aged 5 to 16. Pupils also learn English; Farsi is their native language. The curriculum also features IGCSE courses in English, mathematics and science in conjunction with Cambridge University’s International Examinations programme, which includes A Levels.

Naomi Brons-Harper says that the children do not fully appreciate the value of play and the visual and performing arts. How can these subjects be fertile paths towards positions in academia, the civil service, business and finance, or qualifying subjects for studying to be a doctor or lawyer? Painting like an Impressionist will not lead to the presidency. It is hard to find art, music and drama teachers. However, the students do receive art and recorder lessons once a week, and they participate in weekly assemblies where they perform plays they have written in front of an audience of parents. And they do love acting, Naomi comments. Ironically applied art – the realm of fashion design – is the prime means of raising funds for the school.

The school is widely admired throughout the country for its high level of academic achievement and standards. The fee for each pupil is £450 British pounds sterling per annum; it covers tuition, books, uniform, lunch and transport. About 160 pupils are fully supported.

Lapis lazuli is one of the most coveted stones in use since ancient times. Its deep shimmering blue is believed to symbolise honour, wisdom, friendship and truth. It is thought to have a healing effect. The best raw stones are said to come from northeast Afghanistan. Lapis lazuli is a national treasure as undoubtedly is the school.

Article by Jenny Kingsley.

For further information about Pop Up 38 concerning location and opening hours, please visit popupshop38@gmail.com or call 07967 805097.

 

The Other Dickens: Discovering Catherine, an exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury.

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The young Catherine Dickens. Image © Charles Dickens Museum.

Jenny Kingsley visits an exhibition on Catherine Dickens, which runs until the 20 November 2016 at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. 

The memory of Catherine Dickens, the wife of the distinguished Charles, hides in the shadows of her great husband; her accomplishments are miniscule compared with his. Yet Catherine merits a place in history in light of the companionship the couple shared together when they lived as husband and wife. She was a loyal, supportive friend, the ‘model Victorian wife’, managing a welcoming, congenial household and all the while bearing ten children.

“As they grew into their marriage, [Catherine] held Dickens’ confidence, discussed his work, and very capably oversaw the housekeeping and social duties,” believed Dickens scholar Michael Slater (as noted by Susan Rossi-Wilcox in Dinner for Dickens).

“Mrs Dickens is a good specimen of a truly English woman; tall, large, and well developed, with a fine healthy colour, and an air of frankness, cheerfulness and reliability. A friend whispered to me that she was as observing and fond of humour as her husband,” remarked Harriet Beecher Stowe recollecting when she and her husband dined with the Dickens at their home.

Alas, when Charles left Catherine, after 22 years of marriage, for his young mistress, Ellen Ternan, he deliberately cast his wife in an unflattering light. No longer would Catherine play the supportive role Dickens had reputedly praised. Moreover, in league with Dickens, as Rossi-Wilcox suggests, “loyalists pounced on any evidence that would make Catherine appear as an albatross around the genius’s neck, and from whom he finally had to free himself. She has been faulted for being an incompetent homemaker, a lacklustre companion, and a poor mother by many, including Dickens himself ’’.

Undoubtedly, the unappealing picture Dickens sketched helped to save his reputation and justify his betrayal. The great and the good tend to ‘get away with murder’ because we stand in awe of their accomplishments.

The Other Dickens: Discovering Catherine, an exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum, corrects the displeasing image of this “good specimen of a truly English woman” (actually Catherine was Scottish by birth, but Stowe was not to know). It sets the biographical record straight; it debunks the myth.

The exhibition is curated by Professor Lillian Nayder, Professor of English at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, and based on her 2011 biography of Catherine, The Other Dickens. As Nayder explains: “when Charles and Catherine separated, he characterised her as an unnatural mother who shirked her maternal duties”. He had the connecting door between their bedroom and his dressing room boarded shut, so that he would have his own bedroom, and then formally separated from her, announcing in a newspaper advertisement in June 1858 that “some domestic trouble of mine of long standing” has been resolved.

“The break,” believes Nayder, “was a classic mid-life crisis. He was remarkably youthful still, and she had had 10 children and several miscarriages. It was a terrible thing. Several of the men in their circle had quietly maintained mistresses, but forcing his wife out of her home [Catherine agreed to leave the family home in London at Tavistock House to live in Gloucester Crescent] was an extraordinary act which Charles then had to do everything to justify in public and maintain his own reputation. She never defended herself, never wrote or said a word against him in public… his claims are readily disproven by Catherine’s behaviour, by the evident affection between her and her children and by Dickens’s own statements to the contrary about his wife”.

Dickens also promoted the publication of Catherine’s cookbook What Shall We Have for Dinner? – a collection of menus and recipes, some lavish and some quite practical with leftovers as ingredients. Several editions were published. The contributions reveal Catherine’s Scottish culinary heritage, and her taste for European and North American dishes, which was inspired by the couple’s travels abroad.

The exhibition showcases rarely seen exhibits concerning Catherine’s life, including personal items and letters, with well written informative panels. Excerpts from her last will and testament are written on the hallway walls. Some exhibits are featured in a special exhibitions room while others are placed in the permanent display rooms, which focus on Charles Dickens and the family. The Dickens family lived in the museum’s Georgian terraced house, 48 Doughty Street, from 1837 until 1839.

Among the displays is a handkerchief, which belonged to Catherine and may have been used to administer chloroform to her when she gave birth to her son Henry in 1849. Chloroform was a controversial subject at the time, being new to midwifery. The anaesthetic was also criticised on biblical grounds because it was believed that “pain in childbirth was part of Godly punishment for women”. It was Charles who insisted that chloroform be given to Catherine: “it spared her all the pain”.

We see Catherine’s own photographs of the Dickens’ children. Katey, Catherine’s second daughter, felt strongly that her mother had been ill regarded by her father. When Catherine was dying she gave Katey the letters she had received from Charles; she deposited them with the British Museum as her mother had wished. Catherine bequeathed the turquoise snake bracelet of hers on display to Katey. (Charles burned all of Catherine’s letters to him).

In one glass case there is a miniature of Charles Dickens on ivory with a lock of his hair pasted on the back, which Charles gave to Catherine upon their engagement. She in turn gave him the gold chain purse we see. The tortoise shell card case, placed nearby, with mother of pearl inlay, was Charles’s present to Catherine upon marriage.

Catherine was born in 1815 into an intellectual and cultured Scottish family living in Edinburgh. She was the eldest of ten children. Her father George practised as a lawyer and was the son of a prosperous Berwickshire farmer. George was a friend and confidante of Sir Walter Scott. In 1834, the family moved permanently to London where George worked as music critic; he is credited with several major books on music including Memoirs of the Opera in Italy, Germany and England.

George Hogarth and Charles Dickens became friends when they were both working on the Evening Chronicle, where George was co-editor. Charles met Catherine when he was invited to the Hogarth family home in Fulham. We know that Catherine was an avid reader, a good piano player and highly skilled in needlework. Catherine and Charles eventually started courting and the couple were married in 1836 at St Luke’s Church in Chelsea. From this day onwards, their initially contented married life was filled with social and literary engagements at home and abroad and the concerns of a busy and growing family household, all of which complemented, rather than hindered, the ever developing literary career of the great man.

During her marriage and thereafter Catherine enjoyed the company of the wives of her husband’s male friends, such as Nelly Lemon, the wife of Mark, the editor of Punch. She also befriended aspiring women writers and artists such as Abby Hutchinson, a well-regarded American singer. After the couple separated, Catherine continued to called herself Mrs Charles Dickens and follow her husband’s writing career. She wrote to his publishers asking for monthly instalments of his new novels.

We sense Catherine’s physical presence by listening to a series of six audio recordings placed throughout the house. Sound artist Felicity Ford created the sound trail. The middle class Scottish accent of Rachel Moffat, the voice actor who portrays Catherine, is quite convincing. We hear extracts of texts penned and read by Catherine, be they letters, recipes or children’s poetry, and music composed by her friends and her father. We listen to Catherine breathing, sniffling, turning pages, writing with an ink pen, counting out the squares of a needlepoint canvas and noting colours, such as honeysuckle yellow. Children chatting, birds chirping, clocks ticking, rain falling and horses’ hooves walking upon cobblestones evoke the sounds of Catherine’s every day. In the kitchen we hear metal upon metal, spoons mixing the batter for Eve’s Pudding.

The exhibition grants Catherine her own place in history. It rightly sheds light on her and also what life was like for many married middle class Victorian women who were Lady This or Mrs That but rarely Ms. In our time, Catherine would not be so accommodating; she might capitalise on his fame and become a celebrity chef.

Article by Jenny Kingsley.

For more detailed information, please visit:

http://dickensmuseum.com/blogs/exhibitions/100668038-the-other-dickens-discovering-catherine-dickens.

The house is decorated and furnished as the Dickens home might have looked, with memorabilia relating to Charles Dickens’ professional and personal life. Next door, in the adjoining house, are a gift shop and a pleasant café. Refer also to Lillian Nayder’s The Other Dickens – A Life of Catherine Dickens, Cornell University Press, 2011, and Dinner for Dickens – The Culinary History of Mrs. Charles Dickens’ Menu Books by Susan M Rossi-Wilcox, Prospect Books, 2005. This book includes a transcript of the 1852 edition of What Shall We Have For Dinner? by ‘Lady Maria Clutterbuck’, together with additional recipes in the appendix to the 1854 edition. The book was attributed to Lady Maria Clutterbuck, a pseudonym for Catherine, though the preface by Lady Clutterbuck in the 1852 edition is considered to have been written by Charles Dickens.

 

Women in the Theatre Industry – exploring gender imbalance.

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Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Publicity photograph of Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Adrienne Lecouvreur.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 8, 2016.

‘There have been times when I have gone into a meeting with a financier and it’s been a film about a woman and they say, can we write up the man because otherwise we won’t finance it…And I say “no”, it’s about a woman, the male part is the small part.’

Gemma Arterton, in The Telegraph online, 14 March 2016. Arterton has established an all women theatre company called Rebel Park.

Did you choose the last play you saw because it featured great roles for women, backstage and on, and men’s names were in the minority in the programme notes? Or was it the story, the actors, the playwright, or the reviews that caught your interest?

If you were motivated by gender equality on the list of credits it’s likely that you would have been disappointed. For most plays, historic and contemporary, are written, produced and staged by men, and feature more leading roles for men.

Recent research by the Guardian bears out the discrepancy in numbers. For example, in 2012, among ten prominent, subsidised ‘non-West End’ theatres in the UK (such as the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange Manchester), women made up 33% of the boards of directors, 36% of the artistic directors and the percentage of new plays by women staged in the sample theatres was 34.5%.

Gender inequality is also borne out by a recent British Theatre Consortium report on British theatre repertoire, which covers 273 theatres. In 2013, plays by women represented 31% of theatre productions, 24% of performances and 17% of total audiences, and, hence, this entailed shorter runs and, unsurprisingly, lower box office returns. ‘Even translations and adaptations, which are mostly commissioned (and thus in the theatre’s gift), showed the proportion of women authors lagging behind,’ noted John Morrison commenting on the report for the Writers’ Guild Theatre of Great Britain.

Certainly the imbalance is not due to lack of talent, or a shortage of female applicants for the top jobs; at least half of the drama school entrants are women. Considered reasons for the imbalance may be a subconscious prejudice against women by men given they are often the ones spearheading decisions to employ or not to employ; the perception that technical jobs are the province of men, given their physicality; stories exploring feminine issues are trivial; women ‘can’t do’ politics and comedy; lack of child care facilities and long working hours which jar with family life; and women’s lack of self confidence which affects their presentation and deflates their aspirations.

In an article in the News Statesman, Alexander Woolley notes that in 2009 ‘an American experiment, in which identical scripts were sent out to theatres, half with a female name at the top and half with a male name, showed that artistic directors and literary managers rated the apparently female-authored scripts less highly. Female directors and managers, incidentally, were found to be no less guilty than their male colleagues’.

Recent research by academics with Loughborough University focuses on the increasing interest in the social sciences in how creative work is gendered. The researchers point out that although creative work is perceived as socially progressive, women and other ‘social’ groups are in a minority in these fields and senior roles are filled mostly by men – certainly not a socially liberal status quo! The research suggests that ‘encouraging women into theatre work…can never in itself answer the call of those seeking gender equality in this industry [theatre], because even in a minority [at drama school] men can benefit from their perceived masculinity to get ahead, at the expense of women’.

Given that women make up the majority of theatre audiences, should we not stage plays that reflect women’s life experiences? If we accept that women and men do behave differently from one another, the theatre industry is missing out perspectives and talents that are uniquely and remarkably feminine. Our stories are not their stories. Our horizons are different, not better or worse, just different. Common sense dictates that a man could have written The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but the autobiographical basis of the story makes this unlikely. Part of the reason we are drawn to the play My Name is Rachel Corrie is because it is the story of a woman’s fight against injustice.

To thwart the status quo, Lucy Kerbel, an award winning theatre director, established Tonic Theatre in 2011. The organisation encourages the performing arts industry to promote gender equality. Lucy was inspired to establish the charity when she visited the Riksteatern headquarters in Stockholm. In an article in the Evening Standard, she noted how much the Swedish theatre industry is so much ‘more equal than ours. In the past ten years, Sweden has changed the face of its theatre. And both men and women call it a golden age for theatre, saying it’s opened the floodgates for new artists and creativity’.

Tonic Theatre’s first major initiative is Advance, a six month programme which works with the cohorts of theatrical establishments – such as the Almeida, the National Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Headlong – to help them address the imbalance. The project is supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Arts Council among others; the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama is a project partner. The companies explore where and why the barriers exist, and draw up plans to promote gender equality. The Gate Theatre explored why men are more naturally drawn to lighting and sound design. How can access to these roles be made more equal? Sheffield Theatres pledged ‘to employ an equal number of male and female actors throughout each season and ensure that female roles also have prominence and run against current stereotypes’. English Touring Theatre discovered that personal safety was a gender specific issue that should be addressed. Was the route between the theatre and where women were staying safe? Would women find the facilities appealing? The ‘digs’ list will answer these questions.

Kerble has also sought to raise awareness of great plays written by women by publishing 100 Great Plays for Women. Each play has a predominantly or entirely female cast. The repertoire ranges from ancient times (for example, The Assemblywomen by Aristophanes) to the present (for instance, Contractions by Mike Bartlett). For each play Lucy has written a paragraph about the story and an ‘introduction to the play, what it is that makes it brilliant, and worth considering for production today’. There are also ten plays for solo female performers. The book is a fine read; Lucy writes with clarity and insight; there’s no jargon.

With future generations of female actors and other ‘creatives’ in mind Tonic Theatre conducted research focusing on the opportunities for girls in youth drama. The work culminated in Lucy’s report: Swimming in the shallow end – Opportunities for girls in youth [females aged 11 – 25 year] drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them, plus a commissioned series (Platform) of ‘female heavy’ scripts especially suitable for younger women.

The artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice, is trying to put more women on the stage. Why can’t the Duke of Gloucester be a woman? she asks. But why do women have to take men’s parts to stand in the limelight? Perhaps the only male parts women should be taking are that of producer, director, stage, lighting and costume designer, so that when the curtain rises, women will no longer frequent the shade.

Article by Jenny Kingsley.

For more detailed information, please visit:

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/interactive/2012/dec/11/women-theatre-key-statistics

http://britishtheatreconference.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/British-Theatre-Repertoire-2013.pdf

Why do women playwrights lag behind?

http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/sbe/inspire-08/gender-inequality/

http://www.tonictheatre.co.uk

The Deviant Mannequin: Cindy Sherman’s Advertorial Fashion Photography, 1893 – 1994.

Nishana Sukul, PhD student at Edinburgh College of Art, reconsiders the work of the photographer Cindy Sherman. 

A believer in using the mass media to critique gender representations (as seen in her treatment of femininity portrayals in film in the Untitled Film Stills series), Cindy Sherman’s advertorial fashion photography can be seen as another example of her chameleonic and her postmodern fluidity of identity. She redefines dress in relation to the gendered body or should we reverse this idea, how the body is viewed as a figure representing the dress. The fashion industry can serve as useful backdrop for a discussion of gender representation, given that it is here that gender norms are created and circulated commercially.

Her fashion photographs can be instead seen as ‘anti-fashion’ statements by deconstructing conventionally ‘sales worthy’ images of femininity and replacing it with disjointed, uncanny and increasingly abject images. Predominately using herself as the model in these shoots, she is the deviant mannequin, refusing to conform to the prescribed norms. Despite never actually considering her work to be feminist or political statements, she has admitted to it being drawn from her observations ‘as a woman in this culture’. Sherman exploits the concept of the model constituting the ‘technical body of western consumer culture’ by subverting the characteristics of femininity which the fashion industry and modelling came to represent. Such characteristics include the importance of aesthetics and appearance; fetishisation of the body; youth equating feminine beauty; and the manipulation and moulding of the body. Her subversion of these characteristics can illustrate how she considers society’s struggle to acquire the ‘desires’ promised by the advertiser and instead results in awkward, ill-fitting versions of themselves.

Sherman’s earliest series of fashion photography serves to illustrate her subversive take. Presented in Interview magazine in 1983 as a commission from Dianne Benson to advertise new arrivals at her store, Sherman places a new spin on the merchandising of Comme des Garcons, Issey Miyake and Jean Paul Gaultier designs. The photographs represent awkward and unconventional models, uncomfortable either in the clothes, the cameras lens, or both. These disjointed and graceless images act as Sherman’s social commentary to reflect how society struggle to adhere and satisfy to the desired norm promoted by fashion advertising, a means of confirming their identity through a norm that is imposed upon them, never one that is one’s own. In feminist theory, Sherman’s 1983 series had preceded Judith Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble’, a theses exploring gender as a cultural construct. Nonetheless, despite her claims of not having a feminist agenda, these early fashion photographs are a forum focused largely on subverting the visual recognition mechanisms that the industry has used to categorise femininity in fashion. This not only serves as a postmodern outlook, but also acts to defeat a male constructed view of femininity engineered by the fashion industry at the time. Reception of this series of fashion photographs was positive from the industry, with Dianne publishing a selection for the brand’s campaign and it also leading to interest from French designer Dorothee Bis who viewed the adverts as ‘happy, goofy, funny’ pictures. Such an opinion of the series is highly contestable however, as the uncanny and deviant supersedes any light-humour, and even any elements of comedy are cast with a shadow of the tragic.

Untitled #120 (Los Angeles, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Figure 1) seeps inelegance with the model ungracefully squatting, the crotch opening of her body suit exposed. Her plastered finger can be suggestive of the social injury and scars on women inflicted by their failures in conforming to the desired norms, maybe touching upon issues such eating disorders, born out of negative self-image. She is also androgynous looking, maybe a comment on how attempts to reach the ideal can only result in failure, the asexuality of this image suggestive of the resulting void? The asexuality also counteracts with the notion of fashion photography being built on sexual stereotyping and sexist imagery. Furthermore, the androgyny is at odds with the male gaze, undermining the notion that women’s dress is solely about sexual allure. Typical of Sherman’s style, the photo captures her mid-narrative, perhaps in this case mid conversation. The ‘Untitled’ nature of her work furthers this, allowing the viewer to construct their own narrative of the photograph’s subject. This can be viewed to give a natural feel to the model’s behaviour, thereby overcoming the contrived quality of the ‘posed’ modelling in fashion photography. Yet the conflict of the awkwardness of her dress and demeanour undermines any sense of ease. Moreover a sense of the uncanny is furthered by the slightly deranged glaze in Sherman’s eyes, her white garments even being resonant of the uniform of the mentally institutionalized, thus being a poster girl for asylum chic. The madness in her eyes furthers the subversion of the male gaze in the internalization of the ‘penislike eye’; rather than an accepting and passive recipient of being looked at. The model is reacts with instability. This can be a visual representation of fashion media devised images of desired femininity only falsely fulfilling the female consumer; they are deluded into thinking that have attained the perfection promised by the advertiser. The photographic overexposure creates a washed out effect to the image, a haziness which can symbolise the vagueness as a result of pluralism in the postmodern identity. It is this concept of pluralism that Sherman wishes to remind us of in her work, the pluralism of femininity, it being a fragmentised idea which does not have a ‘grand narrative’ as its definition. In the context of high-fashion ads, we could argue that conformity to a prescribed look of femininity is the grand narrative. Hence should this pluralism not be respected, it can result in a dysfunction of identities as suggested by the general air of the uncanny of Untitled #120, a far cry from the desires created by the adverts to convert the buyer into a more perfect version of themselves. The haze and pallid quality of the image, coupled with the model’s white leotard and turban attire, is resonant of Deborah Turbeville’s Bath House series for Vogue in 1975 (New York, Staley-Wise Gallery, Figure 2). Despite the models of Turbeville being described as ambivalent, their faces conveying ‘dejection and boredom’ even as to ‘convey the pose in its failure’, they are clearly more elegant than Sherman’s mannequin of Untitled #120. Unlike the athletic and gazelle like graceful images of femininity that we see in Turbeville’s photograph, Sherman portrays herself in a boorish stance. The soft focus furthers the bluntness of her features in contrast to the chiselled creatures of Turbeville. In excerpts from Sherman’s notebooks accompanying the series, she states how she wishes to ‘attack’ the clothes of these high-end designers through using ugly people to model fashionable designs, even suggestive of ‘ugly girls playing dress-up with Mom’s clothing’ This greatly contrasts Turbeville’s models whose supple physiques create beauty in the clothes, turning simple clean lines of design into sought after objects of desire, an image is that of a perfect fit. Sherman’s is by contrast incongruent and even disturbing, serving to undermine the desirability of fashion advertorial to highlight their contrived nature.

The sense of awkwardness is continued in Untitled #122 (Los Angeles, The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Figure 3), where donned in an oversized blond wig, she models an ill-fitting Jean-Paul Gaultier suit. Staring downwards, she avoids the camera’s lens and flash, perhaps suggestive of how she wishes to escape the overwhelming glare of the fashion industry and its stereotypes. Her faceless body adds to this, reflecting how adhering to a prescribed look robs us of individual identity. Such a covering of her eyes can be seen as her portraying herself as blind; put in the context of the male gaze, how women are blind and thus powerless in creating their own femininity, but are instead have patriarchal ideals imposed upon them by the fashion industry. The pose is cumbersome and strained, furthered by the tension created by her clenched fists. The dark colour of the suit contributes to the air of heaviness, a vast contrast from the lithe models usually seen in fashion photography. The iconography of the suit can be relevant here to; it being a symbol of the corporate world, hence the overbearing power of fashion advertising in creating desires in women. The ill-fitting appearance of the garment further underlines how such desires are difficult to achieve in reality. In essence, the rigidity and tension conveyed here summates Sherman’s ‘love-hate’ relationship with fashion, resulting in the consumer being ‘a prisoner of that structure’. The undercurrents of constraint and entrapment of the image can allude to Foucault’s metaphor of the Panopticon. Foucault used the Panopticon structure as a metaphor for the carceral nature of modern society, with its bodies and behaviour being ‘normalized’ through the discipline of the ‘mindful body’, rather than that of the ‘fleshy body’. Discipline of the ‘mindful body’ can however be pleasurable, thus the influence of fashion may be contextualized into this. Phallic allusions can also be drawn from Sherman’s stiff upright pose, its verticality serving as a phallic signifier. This offers parallels to Surrealist photography, with the aid of the blonde wig suggesting similarities in form to Man Ray’s Woman With Long Hair (New York, Man Ray Trust, Figure 4). Untitled #122 is the Surrealist’s photo in reverse, a poorer, less sophisticated version of it albeit. However it can be argued that akin to the Surrealists, Sherman has formulated her own ‘informe’; an informe to defamiliarise the image of woman propagated by the fashion industry. Whilst Man Ray uses an oblique camera angle to defamiliarise the body, thus addressing photographic technique and the form of the image, Sherman instead alters the subject matter itself, in this case the model in the fashion ad, to deform the norms of femininity advocated by the industry. The unkempt blond wig worn by Sherman not only debases the haute couture design she wears, but also adds to the artifice of the image, the contrived nature of fashion photography being a theme that she highlights throughout the series. Furthermore the conflict of gender signifiers through the feminine wig and masculine suit combination can imply references to Rivere’s theory of womanliness as a masquerade. Her theory states that women working in masculine roles or those with ‘masculine ambition’ had to hide behind a ‘mask’ of femininity ‘both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the repercussions expected if she was found to possess it’.

Article by Nishana Sukul.

Lotte Laserstein (1898 – 1993) – An Artist Lost and Found.

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Lotte Laserstein, Self Portrait, 1950. Private Collection.

One of the first women to study art at the Berlin Academy, and a painter who favoured female models for their ability to holding long and difficult poses, we consider the life and legacy of the German – Swedish artist Lotte Laserstein. 

Lotte Laserstein was born in eastern Prussia on 28th November 1898. From the age of eleven she was determined to be an artist. In 1921, her wish was granted when she gained admission to the prestigious Berlin Academy of Arts. She studied there for six years under the painter-etcher Professor Erich Wolfsfeld, becoming his master pupil during her last two years. Through Wolfsfeld, Laserstein inherited the German realist tradition, which stretched from the nineteenth century artists Adolph Menzel and Wilhelm Leibl back as far as Hans Holbein. In 1925, Laserstein met Traute Rose, who would become a lifelong friend and favourite model, featuring in many of her paintings.

After graduating from the Academy in 1927, Laserstein opened her first studio and private school of painting. Quickly making a name for herself, she participated in more than twenty exhibitions and performed well in various competitions. In 1928, the City of Berlin purchased her painting Im Gasthaus (In the Tavern) which portrayed a ‘neue Frau’, or ‘new’ woman, sitting alone at a restaurant table with her hair bobbed in the fashionable masculine style of the day. In 1930, Laserstein produced her masterwork, Abend über Potsdam (Evening over Potsdam), which portrayed a group of friends, including Traute, sitting at table on a terrace overlooking the city. By 1931, Laserstein had her own one-woman show at Galerie Gurlitt.

From 1933 onwards, however, Laserstein’s public profile as an artist entered a period of decline. Declared three-quarters Jewish by the National Socialists, she was no longer able to exhibit in Berlin, and her memberships to art associations terminated. Even the purchase of paints and materials became troublesome. Finally, in 1935, the same year during which the Nuremburg laws came into force, Laserstein was forced to close her school of painting.

By the end of 1937, just as the Nazi regime officially drew the line between art that was ‘racially pure’ and art that was ‘degenerate’, Laserstein was offered a large exhibition at Stockholm’s Galerie Moderne. It was an occasion which provided the artist with a unforeseen opportunity to take many of her paintings and drawings out of Germany. Although the exhibition was not a financial success, Laserstein skill as a portrait painter did not go unnoticed. By March 1938 she had delivered twelve portraits, and in the following years, Laserstein continued to find success as a portraitist and painter of landscapes. And yet it was through her many striking self-portraits that Laserstein regained her true artistic freedom.

In 1954, Laserstein moved to Kalmar on the southeast coast. Some thirty two years later, during the summer of 1986, the English art dealer Caroline Stroude, who was researching for an exhibition on Wolfsfeld decided to visit his former master pupil in Kalmar. Upon seeing Laserstein huge collection of works drawn from her most productive period in the twenties and thirties, Stroude resolved to also devote a special exhibition to Laserstein. In 1987, this decision led to concurrent exhibitions at both Agnew’s and the Belgrave Gallery in London. The exhibitions proved such a success that Agnew’s decided to mount another exhibition in 1990, at which Laserstein’s works were shown together with those of Erich Wolfsfeld and her own pupil, Gottfried Meyer.

Laserstein died in Kalmar on 21st January 1993 at the age of 94. In the autumn of that same year Agnew’s held their third and final exhibition of her works, but that was not to be the end of Laserstein’s story. In fact, in 2003 / 2004, Das Verborgene Museum, in collaboration with Stadtmuseum Berlin, mounted a large retrospective of Laserstein’s works at the Ephraim-Palais Museum. The comprehensive German / English catalogue was compiled by the art historian Anna-Carola Krauße, who had made her own discovery of the artist in 1989. Suffice to say, the Berlin retrospective not only re-acquainted the German public with this ‘lost’ artist and her works, but it also established Laserstein reputation as one of the Weimar Republic’s outstanding woman painters.

In June of 2012, Laserstein’s painting Im Gasthaus turned up at an auction in Munich. Rather than being destroyed during the war, as Laserstein had formerly believed, the artwork had been declared degenerate. As such, it still had its own ‘entartete Kunst’ number (EK14607) inscribed on the back. Soon afterwards, it was sold to a private bidder. Next, in the same year, Laserstein’s Abend über Potsdam, which had been in the hands of a Private Collector since 1987, was sold at Sotheby’s to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie for a reported sum of £350,000. Both paintings subsequently featured in the exhibition Vienna – Berlin: The Art of Two Cities, held at the Berlinischen Galerie in 2013 / 2014 and at the Belvedere, Vienna, in 2014. Laserstein had, and has at last taken pride of place among the ranks of the most important artists of her generation.