Greatest Female Artists of the 20th Century

A Personal Top Ten

Issues relating to gender resonate throughout the Arts. This can have a positive effect -where, for example, it highlights instances of inequality, prejudice and/or abuse. However, it should not have the opposite effect by defining, limiting or categorising the artist by placing undue emphasis on their sex.

We tend to avoid using the term “actress” because it implies that the subject is only capable of playing female roles. We have no equivalent term to describe the visual artist who happens to be female; this is a good thing.

I’ve tried to identify the greatest female artists of the 20th century, in my opinion, in recognition of International Women’s Day; my choices are based on these artists having had a significant influence on the development of Art in the 20th century. Their contribution stands in its own irrespective of gender. What is interesting (and a little disturbing) is the fact that when conducting research for this article I found that most sources felt obliged to include the following artists’ male partners in their biographies; not merely as an additional piece of information but as major or dominant creative influences.

Would this have been the case had these been male artists?

10. Margaret MacDonald (1865 – 1933)

Although it’s impossible to mention Margaret MacDonald without making reference to her more widely recognised husband, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, she should be regarded as an accomplished artist and designer in her own right. Margaret is known to have made significant contributions to work usually attributed exclusively with her husband including designs for the “House for an Art Lover” in 1900 and the Willow Tea Rooms in 1902. Margaret exhibited with Mackintosh at the Vienna Secession in 1900 where her work is known to have had an influence on a number of Secessionist artists including Gustav Klimt.

Opera of the Winds Margaret MacDonald

“Opera of the Winds” 1903

9.  Leonora Carrington (1917 – 2011)

Born in Lancashire, England to a wealth family, Leonora Carrington was a rebellious child who reacted against her privileged upbringing to pursue a career in art; until her death in 2011 she was the last remaining survivor of the original Surrealist group from the 1930’s. Her life was as turbulent as her work suggests; she endured opposition from her family, persecution by the Nazi’s, brutal psychiatric treatment and a difficult relationship with fellow artist Max Ernst. Carrington’s painting demonstrates an amalgamation of Celtic legend, fairy tales, Western and Eastern alchemy, Egyptian symbolism, Cabbalistic lore, and astrology, mixed in with a liberal amount of the Spanish Catholic and Native American traditions of her adopted country, Mexico.

And then we saw the daughter of the Minotaur Leonora Carrington

“And then we saw the daughter of the Minotaur” 1953

8.  Sonia Delaunay  (1885 –1979)

Sonia Delaunay was a multi-disciplined French artist who founded the art movement, Orphism, with her husband Robert Delaunay. Established in 1912, Orphism was a natural, tangential development from Cubism and Fauvism and centred on abstraction, geometric shapes and vivid colours; it is generally regarded as the artistic bridge between Cubism and Modern art. Delaunay was equally skilled in painting, set design and textile design and was the first living, female artist to be honoured with a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. (1964).

Sonia Delaunay Rythme Colore

 “Rythme Coloré” (Coloured Rhythm) 1946

Delaunay’s legacy also includes Geometric Abstraction; a form of Abstract Art based on the use of geometric forms placed in non-illusionistic space, combined into non-representational compositions… in other words, the polar opposite to naturalism and perspective. Geometric abstraction was practised by Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian among others. On a more esoteric level, she advocated the integration of furniture, fabrics, wall coverings, carpets and clothing in design.

Sonia Delaunay’s integrated approachDelaunay’s integrated approach

Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay; practice what you preach

7.  Frida Kahlo (1907 -1954)

There are many parallels between the lives and careers of Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington; both produced paintings which demonstrate surrealist influences, both worked in Mexico, were involved in difficult relationships with fellow artists and both celebrated the culture of the Native American. However, each produced a distinctive body of work that is instantly recognisable as theirs.

Many of the key features in Kahlo’s painting relate to her personal physical condition. Almost paralysed and prevented from full term pregnancy as the result of a traffic accident as a teenager, Kahlo learned to paint while recuperating.

Frida Kahlo Corset

Kahlo painting one of her plaster corsets

Due to the weakness of her spine, Frida Kahlo wore plaster corsets throughout her life. She decorated them with pasted scraps of fabric and drawings of tigers, monkeys, plumed birds, a blood-red hammer and sickle, and street cars – the vehicle involved in the accident when she was eighteen years old.

This led to a preoccupation with self-portraits many of which reflect Kahlo’s obsession with her physical and mental problems; she is uncompromising in her depictions of the female form and what it means to be female.  On a broader scale, Kahlo was a passionate Mexican nationalist and her work is imbued with references to Mexican culture and Native American traditions and folklore.

The Last Supper Kahlo

“The Last Supper” 1940

Kahlo is the first of our artists to actively address issues that relate directly to feminism in her work.

6. Barbara Hepworth (1903 – 1975)

Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture typifies what we now regard as Modernism. One of the few female artists to achieve global recognition in the mid-20th century during her life time, Hepworth was a leading figure in the artists’ colony which settled in St Ives, Cornwall during the Second World War and included luminaries such as Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson.

Barbara HepworthHepworth and “Reclining Form” 1961

Before the outbreak of war, in the early 1930’s, Hepworth had toured Europe with Nicholson, visiting the studios of Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp and Constantin Brancusi and making contact with the Abstraction Creation movement; a loose collective opposed to the doctrine of the Surrealists which consisted of such diverse talents as Kurt Schwitters, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Alberto Magnelli. Along with Nicholson, Paul Nash and the art critic Herbert Read, Hepworth founded the Unit One movement in 1933 which aimed to unite Abstraction and Surrealism in a unique form of British art.

Family of Man

“Family of Man” 1970

Although it lasted a mere two years, the group is regarded as influential in establishing London as a centre of Modernist and Abstract art and architecture in the mid-1930s. Among those involved were Henry Moore, Edward Burra, Frances Hodgkins and Edward Wadsworth.

5. Kathe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945)

A German painter, print maker and sculptor, Kathe Kollwitz’ work focussed on the human condition, in particular the plight of the less fortunate; victims of poverty, hunger and ultimately, war. Her initial work was conceived in a Naturalistic style through the media of drawing, etching, lithography and the woodcut but her output gradually became more graphic and Expressionistic to more accurately reflect her subject matter.

Kathe Kollwitz is recognised as one of the most important German artists of the 20th century, one who created timeless art works against a backdrop of personal sorrow and hardship.

Kathe Kollwitz Hospital Visit“Hospital Visit” 1928

Kathe Kollwitz The Survivors“The Survivors” 1923

4. Georgia O’Keefe  (1887 – 1986)

Georgia O'KeefeGeorgia O’Keefe in the desert, New Mexico

Regarded by many as the mother of American Modernism, O’Keefe first attracted the attention of the American art community in 1916 with her large format, close ups of enlarged flowers and blossoms and New York architecture. By 1929, she became another of the many artists who migrated to New Mexico – possibly as a result of The Great Depression which devastated the cities – and is known for her depictions of subject matter specific to the area.

Red Hills with flowers Georgia O'Keefe

Georgia O’Keefe “Red Hills with Flowers” 1937

3. Lyubov Popova (1889 – 1924)

Lyubov Popova was an avant-garde Russian artist who was active during the early 20th century, a painter and designer whose style encompassed Constructivism, Cubo-Futurism and Suprematism. Early in her career she associated with some of the leading figures in the emerging Russian art movement; in 1912 she worked in the Moscow studio known as “The Tower” with Ivan Aksenov and Vladimir Tatlin.

Lyubov Popova

Lyubov Popova

Across the period 1912–1913 Popova studied art with Nadezhda Udaltsova in Paris where she met Alexander Archipenko and Ossip Zadkine.

After returning to Russia, Popova worked again with Tatlin and Udaltsova and significantly with the Vesnin brothers who are acknowledged as the leading figures of Constructivist architecture, the dominant architectural school in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s. In 1914 she travelled in France and Italy where was present during the development of Cubism and Futurism.

Suprematist Design

Suprematist style design for an embroidery workshop 1921

During 1915 Popova developed her version of a non-objective art form which was based on the principles of icon painting and by 1916, she was calling these compositions, “Painterly Architectonics”.

Painterly Architectonics

“Painterly Architectonics” 1917

Popova became a member of “Supremus” group which was organised by Kasimir Malevich and she started teaching at the Free Art Studios and later at the Higher Art Technical Studios. By 1920 Popova was working at the Institute of Artistic Culture, a centre of Constructivist theories. The Constructivist influences in Popova’s painting increased, and her work evolved from the “Painterly Architectonics” of 1916 to “Painterly Constructions” in 1920 and “Painterly Force Constructions” by 1921.

Spatial force construction II

“Spatial force construction II” 1921

By the time she died in 1924, Popova was an established artist and designer who had made a major contribution to the development of Modernism in general and Russian Constructivism in particular.

2. Hannah Hoch (1889 – 1978)

Hannah Hoch was a German painter who developed an art form that came to be known as Photomontage and is only the second of our artists to be an acknowledged feminist. hannah Hoch

Hoch began her studies at the Städtischen Kunstgewerbe- und Handwerksschule Charlottenburg in 1912 but these were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. She then enrolled at the Lehranstalt des Kunstgewerbemuseums in Berlin, where she studied under Emil Orlik until 1920. Across 1915 -1922 she was in a relationship with Raoul Hausmann, the Austrian artist and writer whose experimental photographic collages, sound poetry and political, social and institutional critiques had a significant influence on the development of post war avant garde art.

Through Haussmann, Hoch came into contact with the literary and artistic circle that formed Dada in 1918 and would enjoy several equally important and influential friendships with fellow artists throughout her career, including those with Kurt Schwitters and Piet Mondrian.

Hannah Hoch Russian Dancer

Hannah Höch, Russische Tanzerin (Russian dancer), photomontage, 1928

However, it should be noted that while the Dadaists purported to be in favour of female emancipation, in practice they were reluctant to allow any woman, including Hoch, to become a recognised member of their group. However, the Dadaist movement was to spawn numerous exhibitions, multi-media events and demonstrations over the next four years and have a profound influence on almost every art movement that followed.

Sa-dandyDa-Dandy 1919

At the time, Hoch responded to the inequity of her situation by referencing the hypocrisy of German society and the Dadaists in her collage, “Da-Dandy”.

Hoch was an early feminist whose work exposed the myths and flaws inherent within the beauty culture as perpetrated by popular magazines aimed at the “new” German woman. Hoch was one of the first artists to expose the gulf that existed between portrayals of the ideal woman in the media and the reality of their situation and to question the notion that women were incomplete if they remained unmarried and childless.

women 21

‘Schnitt mit dem Kuchenmesser Dada Durch die Letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands.’ 1919 -1920  (“Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany”) 

Hannah Hoch challenged the popular perception that without the trappings of a traditional relationship, home and family women are not complete and have little control over their lives; a theme that still resonates today.

1.   Lee Miller (1907 -1977)

We are familiar with the term Renaissance Man but if the term had a female counterpart, it would surely be applicable to Lee Miller, a multi-talented but troubled individual whose life is integral to the story of Modern art and photography in the early to middle 20th century.

Lee Miller is probably best known for her contribution to the development of photography through her joint discovery of the Solarisation process with fellow photographer Man Ray in the 1920’s – although the phenomenon had been known to scientists prior to this as the Sabattier effect when applied to negatives. Essentially, Solarisation involves a partial or complete inversion of tones within a photographic print; dark becomes light and vice versa.

solarisation by man ray

Example of “Solarisation”; a portrait of Lee Miller by Man Ray

However, this represents a mere fraction of Miller’s career. Born in New York, she was a successful fashion model before leaving for Paris in the 1920’s where she became an accomplished fine art and fashion photographer, muse to Man Ray and regarded as a significant member of an artistic circle involving most of the major figures in Modern art including, Pablo Picasso, Paul Eluard and Jean Cocteau and frequently appeared in their work.

Hand and Fringe Paris

Hand and Fringe Paris 1929

At the outbreak of World War 2 Miller was the war correspondent for the magazine, “Vogue” for which she covered aspects of the conflict such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris and the discovery of the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.

women 34

Piano by Broadwood 1940

women 25

Law student Paris 1944

Post war, Miller settled in East Sussex and across the 1950’s and 1960’s, her home, Farley Farm House, became a hub for artists visiting Britain including Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst. In her later years, apart from taking the occasional assignment, Miller gave up photography to become … a gourmet cook.

Lee Miller exemplifies the concept of the modern woman; independent, confident, career focussed and accomplished, with her work unquestionably regarded as being equal to that of her male counterparts.

And this is the key point. The history of Art – and 20th century art in particular – is peppered with examples of female artists who have made major contributions to developing their particular disciplines, often in the face of prejudice, perceptions of their credibility and a lack of opportunity. Their experience should serve to remind us to consider the artist’s work first and their gender second…if at all.

4 thoughts on “Greatest Female Artists of the 20th Century

  1. Has anybody heard ever of Edith Telschow? She was a painter living in Wiesbaden after the war, before she lived in Berlin, I suppose. She was definitely born in the 19th century, probably nineties or even eighties. My mother, a musician, was a friend of her and I own two paintings from ‘Tante Edith’, an oil ‘Sunflowers’ and my favourite: a view on Venice Harbour.

    1. Just to add to my previous message about Tante Edith (Telschow): She was quite a Lady in my memory and I would like to know whether someone from Germany remembers her. Also: what value has an Aquarell of ‘Venice Harbour’ or an Oil of ‘Sunflowers in a Vase’ ?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *