The woman artist I most admire
To commemorate International Women’s Day on 8 March, we asked three Christie’s specialists to discuss the female artists whose work has made a particular impact on them. Their choices? Barbara Hepworth, Lalan, and Aloïse Corbaz
Rachel Hidderley on Barbara Hepworth
‘One of the things I love about Modern British art is that there is a wealth of well-regarded women artists, going right back to Gwen John at the beginning of the century,’ says Rachel Hidderley, Senior Director of Modern British Art at Christie’s in London. ‘Throughout the century you’re dealing with women artists who are producing at a consistently high level — encouraged by the emerging opportunities for women at this time — whose work contains a level of nuance you don’t always get with the male artists.’
Key among these for Hidderley is Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), whom she describes as ‘one of the leading British artists of the 20th century, as well as one of the greatest female artists’. Today, Hepworth’s reputation has never been greater. The presence of her art in the most distinguished galleries worldwide, as well as access to her garden and studio at Trewyn, large holdings of her work at Tate Britain, Tate St Ives, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and more recently, Hepworth Wakefield, keeps her in full view of a global audience.
If Hepworth is most celebrated for her large public sculptures of the 1950s, ‘there is something distinctive in every period of her work’, Hidderley says. This June, the Modern British Art sales at Christie’s in London will feature two works by Hepworth that underline her wide artistic range.
‘“Radial” keyed into Hepworth’s views of art as something that could give people hope for the future — that sense of people working together to bring about a better world’
Radial, from 1947, is from a small body of work in oil and pencil. ‘One of Hepworth’s daughters needed an operation,’ Hidderley explains, ‘and she realised that there was a wonderful community that came about when an operation was taking place, with surgeon and assistants linked by a higher common purpose. It keyed into her views of art as something that could give people hope for the future; that great sense of people working together to bring about a better world after what everyone had suffered in the Second World War.’
Cast in 1968, Hepworth’s hand-sized Sculpture with Colour, above, was based on a carved work conceived in 1940. At the time of its casting Hepworth was living in Cornwall, where she had moved to from London at the outbreak of the Second World War. ‘During the war, she was only able to create very small objects,’ says Hidderly. ‘After 1945, she began to cast small works in bronze.’
Her subsequent work was very much concerned with the sea and the sky, and the play of light on the landscape, the specialist says. ‘If she promoted herself much less, she did promote her ideas,’ Hidderley continues. ‘Ultimately this resulted in her becoming a well-known figure — she received acclaim across the globe and, in 1965 at the age of 62, was made a Dame of the British Empire.’
Joyce Chan on Lalan
‘When we talk about female artists, so often they are referred to as the “wife of” someone else,’ says Joyce Chan, Senior Specialist in Asian 20th Century Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong. This is certainly the case for Lalan, whose first husband was [Chinese-born French abstract painter] Zao Wou-Ki.
Lalan was born in 1921 in Guiyang, China, to literati parents who encouraged her to pursue music and calligraphy. She met Zao Wou-Ki in 1935, and the pair were married in Hong Kong in 1941. ‘In 1948, she and Zao moved to Paris together,’ says the specialist. ‘Lalan, in particular, was extremely avant-garde. She studied modern dance — she was inspired by Martha Graham — and even began exploring the electronic music that was just starting to be created at the time.’ In Paris she also discovered Lyrical Abstraction through artists such as Pierre Soulages.
‘It was very courageous of her to pursue her artistic dreams in this way,’ Chan says. ‘You have to remember that this was the late 1940s and early 1950s, and she was a Chinese woman living in Paris. But she continued to chase her own dreams and interests, and to pursue her work as a composer and choreographer.’
It was only later that the artist we know as ‘Lalan’ emerged — she did not begin painting until the late 1950s, following her divorce from Zao Wou-Ki and her second marriage to artist Marcel van Thienen. But across her artistic career, Lalan’s work constantly negotiated between abstract and figurative art, performance and two-dimensional, Eastern and Western influences. By the end of her life, she had mastered the balance between musical rhythm and physical control, spontaneity and randomness.
‘Somehow people always seem to think that Zao’s aesthetic inspired her paintings, but perhaps it was the other way around,’ continues Chan. ‘In fact, if we look at Zao’s paintings, we can clearly see some of the elements from Lalan’s own work. There’s no way to say who inspired whom.
‘In the last two to three years, we have seen increasing interest in Lalan’s work on the secondary market,’ Chan says. ‘In the past it’s been difficult to source her work, but as more examples emerge, the market’s knowledge and understanding is increasing.’ In 2017, her vast canvas, Untitled, executed in 1994 just one year prior to her sudden death in a car accident — was sold at Christie’s for HK$2,500,000 (around $320,000).
Cara Zimmerman on Aloïse Corbaz
‘I love promoting work by female artists, because they are so under-represented in my field,’ says Cara Zimmerman, specialist in American Folk Art and Outsider Art at Christie’s in New York. In the case of Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964), an important figure in Outsider Art, Zimmerman appreciates the chance ‘to present her work with the gravitas it deserves, highlighting her sophisticated compositions and her ability to create an incredibly rich body of work over several decades.’
Corbaz worked as a governess to the family of Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm II before being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1918. She spent the rest of her life in a Swiss asylum, where, encouraged by her doctors, she began to produce wildly coloured works on paper.
‘She was extremely prolific, and created this mythology which in many ways became all-consuming,’ says the specialist. ‘She drew fabulous figures of people in embraces; artists painting muses; courtly figures with their arms wrapped around each other.
‘The sort of mythologies Corbaz created are so often associated with men. Hers is a very intimate look at a type of epic narrative, and as a woman it speaks to me in a different way’
‘While she herself was relatively disenfranchised, her work influenced an entire generation of artists, including Jean Dubuffet and André Breton, and the development of Outsider Art as an area of scholarly inquiry.’
One figure who was central to the preservation of her work was Dr Jacqueline Porret-Forel. ‘Porret-Forel instantly appreciated Corbaz’s art and began to visit her in the asylum,’ Zimmerman says. ‘Eventually, she became the pre-eminent scholar of Corbaz’s work, and brought Corbaz to the attention of Dubuffet. So maybe it took another woman to spot a great female artist.’
Once Dubuffet became familiar with Corbaz’s work, she became the darling of the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, established by Dubuffet and Breton in 1948. Their passion for her work shaped the way in which subsequent collectors thought about Outsider Art. ‘She’s one of the few female artists — especially on the European side — for whom that is the case, and a lot of female collectors feel very strongly about including her in this narrative,’ observes the specialist.
While there has been a strong gallery market for Corbaz’s work since the 1970s, it is only relatively recently that her works have begun to receive equal attention on the secondary market. ‘So few of her works come up for auction that when they do, they are truly desired objects,’ Zimmerman says.
‘One of the things I so appreciate about Corbaz’s art,’ she continues, ‘is that the sort of vast mythologies she created are so often associated with men. Hers is a very intimate look at a kind of epic narrative, and as a woman it does speak to me in a different way.’
On 19 January this year Corbaz’s double-sided drawing on paper, Aristoloches (circa 1925-33), was offered in the Beyond Imagination: Outsider and Vernacular Art sale at Christie’s in New York. The drawing, which had been held in André Breton’s personal collection until he died, realised a record price for the artist when it sold for $137,500 — well in excess of its high estimate of $80,000.