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Situating Helene Funke’s Dancers (1907-08) within the Canonical Trajectory of Modern Art

Written by: Teilo Dyfed Evans


Helene Funke (b. Chemnitz, 1896 – 1957) is regarded as one of the most radically avant-garde painters of Vienna (1), and is among the greatest of expressionist and innovative artists of the Austrian Secession. Yet despite offering an alternative to the Art Nouveau style advocated throughout fin-de-siècle Vienna, Funke and her female contemporaries are so often omitted from modern feminist discourses on the movement – devoid of acknowledgment, for example, in the scholarship of Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock. Funke’s Dancers is a work which showcases the artist’s ability to disseminate advancements in French Post-Impressionism among the ‘Vienna moderns’ (2); synthesizing Fauvist developments into her own technique (3), while rejecting Impressionism, naturalism and Art Nouveau design, in favour of new forms of expression (4).



Dancers takes as its subject, a group of four youthful ballet dancers, all of whom are female, and dressed in silvery white tutus and leotards. Painted in Paris, it encompasses the fact that as an art form, fin-de-siècle ballet was both transgressive and normative, as it was considered a realm in which traditional gendered ideologies were both substantiated and changed (5). By depicting the ballet, Funke is re-considering a subject which Degas had deemed a ‘working-class profession,’ and ‘an art form in decline,’ only two decades previously; attaching to it a sense of femininity within a male-dominated sphere.


In Vienna, Klimt and his peers promoted a somewhat more allegorical brand of modernism (6) in their approach to do depicting the female form, who as a ‘subject for admiration, representation and decoration, assumed a prominent position in the art of the fin-de-siècle period’ (7). Funke’s ‘frill, add-on, non-essential and feminine’ Dancers (8) challenge this notion, and perhaps more broadly, reflect the fact that Vienna itself was a hub of contradictions whose women’s movement lagged behind others and whose citizens elected an anti-Semitic mayor (9). Yet moreover, it has been suggested that the poor reception of Dancers relates to the fact that it showcases Funke’s artistic essence as if having ‘opened its eyes to see everywhere a soulful representation of what it is to be human’ (10). Actively seeking to confront the viewer’s psyche with a depiction of working women which is authentic and realistic, Funke overthrows Klimt and Schiele’s misogynistic ideals – as seen in some of their female portraiture. By positioning her Dancers as individuals who occur to be awkward, pensive, bored and fatigued, Funke effectively refers to the Vienna moderns’ interest in psychological interiority (11), evoking an immense sense of angst and anticipation within the composition. She thus interweaves early-twentieth-century French culture with Austria’s inherent interest in psychology, in order to appropriate a mélange of influences within the same painting.



Stylistically, Dancers fuses a range of technique and composition; demonstrating Funke’s active intellect and willingness to experiment (12) within a Parisian context. By observing a range of influences, Funke employs thick brushstrokes, colour dissonances and intriguing perspectives, in order to assert her dominance and desire to integrate, as a female artist, into the cultural milieu of the metropolis. Her canvas is aesthetically daring, and paints a recognizable subject in a way that calls attention to the internal pictorial syntax of her composition within the pan-European canon of Art History. As a member of the Fauve group, Funke experiments extensively with colour and light, which becomes primarily evident in her exploration of the figures’ attire in the Dancers. Her striking use of white – applied via thick brushstrokes which allude to Cézanne’s Still Life with Fruit Dish (1879-80) – dramatically contrasts with the painting’s background, so that the viewer’s gaze is centred upon the prime subject of the composition. This use of white alludes furthermore, to notions of purity and youth, and therefore becomes paradoxical if we are to situate the Dancers within the context in which they are working, and within a context in which they are depicted outside of their comfort zone; often doubling up as prostitutes in the compositions of Degas. Funke also interestingly plays with the decorative withing this composition; hinting at Matisse’s interior scenes at the turn of the twentieth-century. Using her distinctive brushstroke to produce and include floral motifs that are ‘imposing figures of expression’ (13), she replicates Matisse’s style, but also refers to her own relationship with nature, and interest in folklore – something which she would later explore upon her return to Vienna in 1911. By stylistically embodying the language of both Matisse and Cézanne, Funke demonstrates how her work merits more recognition within the history of modernist artistic and aesthetic developments in Europe (15), and beyond.



It is highly likely that Funke would have encountered Picasso’s scandalous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), while inhabiting a five-floor building whose ground floor was occupied by Gertrude and Leo Stein in Paris (15). Its relation to the Dancers is striking. Firstly, Funke’s awkwardly situated figures embody similar arm gestures and poses (16), to those of Picasso’s Demoiselles, and although not as overtly sexualised, she certainly invokes the postures, gazes, and angles championed in Picasso’s painting. By doing so, she further projects the discomfort felt by the ballet dancers – both mentally, via their fatigued, pensive faces, and physically, via their uneasy postures; her fascination with ‘jutting elbows’ and ‘awkward limbs,’ as if directly replicating Picasso’s technique with her individual artistic touch. Secondly, Funke re-appropriates Picasso’s subject matter in this composition. Picasso’s Demoiselles are prostitutes, whose immediacy, directness, and stares, invite the spectator in (17). They openly recall the question of the female gaze throughout the history of art; openly glaring back at the male viewer in order to question both his agency and integrity. So by replicating them in Dancers, Funke aptly attempts to investigate the relationship and power dynamic between female subject and male viewer, albeit celebrating the female in a cultural, rather than sexual sense. Dancers thus becomes a work which addresses Anna Chave’s concern with the kind of relationship women are able to have with a re-sexualised Demoiselles, which is so explicitly aimed at male spectators (18).



Funke explores the notion of the gaze even further, utilising it to her advantage in her portrayal of a bourgeois Parisian venue, by fusing a variety of French concepts and influences in order to overthrow modernist conventions back in Vienna. Another of her paintings – In the Loge (1904-07), plays with looking games (19) – likewise the Dancers – in the ways in which it responds to Renoir’s La Loge (1876). In her rendition of the subject, Funke retains the female figure whose open gaze stares at the audience; replacing Renoir’s male, with two females who replicate the concept of the gaze behind her. Emphasising her innovative role as a female artist, Funke, in Dancers and In the Loge, like Mary Cassatt, in Woman in Black at the Opera (1878), overtly questions Griselda Pollock’s views on the woman’s ‘inability’ to portray ‘mastering’ gazes or looking games within spaces of femininity which so often regulate their lives (20). Indeed, her authentic treatment of the female at the theatre, demonstrates her understanding of visual jokes, as she encompasses her own commentary on spectatorship and gender in the Dancers.


It would appear that recent focus and scholarship on Klimt in Art History, has been to the detriment of other Secessionists (21) – particularly to female artists such as Helene Funke, who operated in and around Vienna at the turn of the twentieth-century. As a multifaceted artist working within the context of an international orbit, Funke actively attempts, in Dancers, to debunk the myth that ‘men act, (and) women appear’ (22). By idiosyncratically fusing Post-Impressionist French influences with both the European culture of dance, and her own Austrian heritage, Funke presents us with a masterpiece which advertently contrasts; both stylistically and thematically, with the artistic outputs of major Secessionist figures, such as Klimt and Schiele. Despite the fact that there is little literature written on her life and work, Funke’s Dancers exists as living proof that Funke, due to her gender, has been ‘ghettoized,’ (23) but definitely not ‘silenced,’ (24) from the Secessionist movement in Vienna, and more significantly, from the canonical trajectory of modern art.


Footnotes


  1. Julie M. Johnson, Rediscovering Helene Funke: The Invisible Foremother, Indiana, 2012, p.177

  2. Megan Brandow-Faller, Review of the Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900 by Julie M. Johnson, Philadelphia, 2013, p.60

  3. Julie M. Johnson, 2012, p.177

  4. Evelyn Kain, Stephanie Hollenstein: Painter, Patriot, Paradox, Philadelphia, 2001, p.31

  5. Ilyana Karthas, The Politics of Gender and the Revival of Ballet in Early Twentieth Century France, Oxford, 2012, p.967

  6. Julie M. Johnson, 2012, p.178

  7. Jan Thompson, The Role of the Woman in the Iconography of Art Nouveau, New York, 1971-72, p.158

  8. Julie M. Johnson, 2012, p.192

  9. Ibid., p.197-8

  10. Frantz Ottmann, Herbstbogen der Wiener Kunst-Ausstellungen 1948, California, 1949, pp.95-98

  11. Megan Brandow-Faller, 2013, p.58

  12. Julie M. Johnson, 2012, p.181

  13. Ibid., p.188

  14. Gill Perry, Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Manchester, 1995, p.49

  15. Tamara Loitfellner, Zu den Frauenbildern Helene Funkes, Linz, 2007, p.174

  16. Julie M. Johnson, 2012, p.185

  17. Christopher Green, An Introduction to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Cambridge, 2001, p.2

  18. Anna Chave, New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Gender, Race, and the Origins of Cubism, New York, 1994, pp.596-611

  19. Julie M. Johnson, 2012, p.186

  20. Griselda Pollock, Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity, Michigan, 1988, p.265

  21. Jeremy Howard, Art Nouveau: International and National Styles in Europe, Manchester, 1996, p.72

  22. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London, 1972, p.47

  23. Megan Brandow-Faller, 2013, p.58

  24. Julie Johnson, 2012, p.198

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