The female German artists who conquered the global art scene

Habiba Insaf
Habiba Insaf - [email protected]
The female German artists who conquered the global art scene
Two women looking at "Portrait Marianne von Werefkin" in Frankfurt am Main in October 2015. Photo: DPA

We know a lot about men who were the Modern Masters of Germany but little about the women who rubbed shoulders with them to co-define modernity.


Who were the women who overcame personal and social limitations and fought for recognition and triumphed?

Though there are easily as many brilliant women artists as men, here’s the story of eight outstanding women artists from Germany:

Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)

King Philippe of Belgium (l) visits the Käthe Kollwitz Museum to see the artist's paintings on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War in November 2018. Photo: DPA

Painter, sculptor and printmaker, Käthe Kollwitz is one of the most well known female artists of Germany. She was the first woman to be elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. At a time when women had no access to education, Kollwitz studied at an art school in Berlin and later in Frankfurt. Her expressionist works portrayed the life of peasants, workers and women and delineated the ghastly effects of war.

In an era where abstraction and minimalism were fast becoming the authoritative medium of depiction, Kollwitz continued to work with figurative form in an expressionist style. Her engagement with socially critical themes brought her international fame and recognition.

Where to find her works:  Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum, Cologne, Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum, Berlin , Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, British Museum, UK, MoMA, New York , Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

If you are in UK, don’t miss the touring exhibition on Käthe Kollwitz at the British Museum, Young Gallery, Salisbury, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea and Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)

Two people look at Modersohn-Becker's famous "Self-portrait on the Sixth Wedding Anniversary" at the Bucerius Kunstforum in Hamburg in February 2017. Photo: DPA

At the turn of the 20th century when women were placed under strict social and professional confinement, Paula Modersohn-Becker dared to become an extraordinary painter who relentlessly pursued her dream despite living with a man who ridiculed her art and parents who thought she was neglecting her ‘wifely duties’.

Modersohn-Becker painted the life of women –the bond between a mother and child, the nurturing act of breastfeeding, women enjoying a quiet evening of leisure and the pangs of loneliness – with expressive brushstrokes and muted colours that granted her works unparalleled sensitivity and emotion.


She is today credited with being the first woman who painted a naked self portrait.  In an abbreviated career ending with her death at the age of 31 from postpartum ebolism, Modersohn-Becker’s contribution to modernism is at par with that of Gauguin or Picasso.

Where to find her works: Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen , MoMA, New York, Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Kiel, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, Museum Ludwig, Cologne

A special exhibition at the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal showing her portraits, self-portraits, still lives and landscapes is on till February 29th, 2019.

Gabriele Münter (1887-1962)

Three of Münter’s expressionist paintings on display in Stiftung Ahlers Pro Arte in Hannover in 2015: "Wind and Clouds", "Winter Landscape" und "The Yellow House" Photo: DPA

A leading proponent of German expressionism, it was in fact at Münter’s house that The Blue Rider movement, one of the two pioneering movements of German Expressionism that privileged colour and form to attain the spiritual value of art, was founded. Student, long-term partner and creative collaborator of Wassily Kandinsky, Münter was a versatile artist- a painter, photographer and graphic artist. She was a committed expressionist who boldly experimented with realism, abstraction and folk art. Her works, most notably her portraits and landscapes, are conspicuous by strong colour contrasts and reduction of forms.

Unfortunately her brilliance and stylistic complexity has often been overshadowed by needless focus on her relationship with Kandinsky.

Where to find her works: Lenbach House, Munich, Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal

A special exhibition commemorating Münter’s artistic contribution is on view at Museum Ludwig, Cologne until Jan­uary 13, 2019.

Hannah Höch (1889 – 1978)

Hannah Höch's "Symbolic Landscape III", as displayed at the Kunsthaus Apolda in July 2017. Photo: DPA

An artist who best embodied the playful, whimsical, radical new age ideas of the Dadaist was Hannah Höch - the only woman associated with the Berlin Dada group.  She is credited with inventing the ‘photomontage,’ a technique of image making by cutting, pasting, arranging and overlapping actual photographs or photographic reproductions from newspapers, magazines, other media and popular culture.

She was the lone woman whose large-scale photomontage Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany was exhibited at the First International Dada Fair, Berlin, 1920.

It is widely believed that despite her proficiency, the Dadaist were reluctant to accept her work and Höch was allowed to participate in the International Dada Fair only after Raoul Hausmann, a Berlin Dadaist and Höch’s partner, threatened to withdraw from the show if her works were not included.


During the Nazi period of censorship, her provocative works that depicted androgynous individuals, and questioned gender roles and political power were considered ‘degenerate’ and banned. She lived incognito in a cottage in Heiligensee, on the outskirts of Berlin and resurfaced after the end of the war.

Where to find her works: Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, MoMA, New York, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

Anni Albers (1899- 1994)

A tapestry of Albers as was on display in June in North Rhine-Westphalia in June in Düsseldorf. Photo: DPA

A pioneering German-born American textile artist, Albers was initially more interested in glass than cloth. At the radical Bauhaus design school, however, weaving was one of the few departments open to women besides pottery and bookbinding. Reluctant to join, she excelled nonetheless to redefine weaving with her bold, geometric, non-representational ‘pictorial weaving’ that served as functional fabrics as well as large aesthetic wall hangings.

In 1933, she and her artist husband Josef Albers, both being Jewish, fled Nazi Germany to teach at the Black Mountain College, North Carolina. Annie’s solo exhibition at Museum of Modern Art, New York made her the first textile designer to receive such high recognition.

Her oeuvre embraced binaries – textiles designed for mass production existed alongside unique exquisite weaves, handloom and power loom received equal attention, and both synthetic and organic materials were generously used. Alber’s art and writings have brought design history into the orbit of serious academic study.

Where to find her works: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, MoMo, New York, Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts, Tate Gallery, London.

A retrospective on her work at Tate Modern is on till January 27th, 2019

Charlotte Posenenske (1930-1985)   

Posenenske's '4 Square Tubes' on display in Siegen in 2005. Photo: DPA

Posenenske was a leading German artist of the 60’s whose work actively dialogued with the Minimalist and Conceptual art movements of its time. Predominantly working with industrial materials like corrugated cardboard, sheet metal, she created what is called modular sculpture- sculpture that can be adapted to the available space and appropriate context.

She took a radical democratic approach to production; creating works in series instead of a limited edition, and her innovative participatory intervention allowed her sculptures to be arranged, combined and assembled in various ways by the consumer, viewer or buyer. Art for her was the product of collaborative labour by the artist, the workers and the consumer.

In 1968, disillusioned by art’s inability to influence social change, she altogether stopped creating or exhibiting her art and refused to visit any exhibitions. She enrolled herself in the sociology department at Frankfurt University and pursued life as a social scientist.

Where to find her works: Konrad Fischer Galerie, Düsseldorf and Berlin, Tate Gallery, London, MoMA, New York, Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts, Dia: Beacon, New York

A retrospective of Posenenske’s work will be on view at Dia: Beacon from March 8th to September 9th, 2019, before embarking on a European tour at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (October 18th, 2019 – March 8th, 2020), Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen Düsseldorf (April 4th–August 2nd, 2020), and Mudam Luxembourg – Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (October 2nd, 2020–January 10th, 2021)

Isa Genzken (1948-)

Isa Genzken walks past the heads of Nefertiti with sunglasses she has created in the Martin-Gropius-Bau in March 2016. Photo: DPA

One of the most radical, inventive and influential female artist of recent times is Isa Genzken. In 1973, Genzken started art school in Düsseldorf, the centre of avant-garde artistic movement while also studying art history at the University of Cologne and working part-time as a model to pay her tuition fees. Experimenting with various mediums like sculpture, installation, film, video, painting, work on paper, collage, and photography, she has created a new language of art and redefined assemblage. Noted for her sculptural work that use mannequins, IKEA junk and bric-a-brac found objects, she is more interested in materiality than symbolism to evoke the relationship between the individual with the world.


She is credited with being one of the first artists to create sculptures designed on the computer.

Where to find her works: Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Galerie Buchholz Cologne/Berlin/New York, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Kiel,  Lenbach House, Munich, Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts, MoMA , New York.

Rosemarie Trockel (1952- )

Rosamarie Trockel at one of her exhibits in Levenkusen in April 2012. Photo: DPA

An artist and professor at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Rosemarie Trockel is known for her drawings, installations, videos, collage and ‘knit paintings’ - large-scale paintings created using industrial knitting machines. Her work marries Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art in unique and interesting ways to create subversive works that question ideas of femininity, politics, domesticity and eroticism. In 1994, she created a memorial in Frankfurt- Frankfurter Engel – dedicated to the homosexual people persecuted during the Nazi rule.

Where to find her works: Goetz Collection, Munich, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Tate Gallery, London, Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia


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