A Chosen Story of Hidden Womanhood

On International Women’s day, 8th of March, Artipelag of Stockholm opened a new retrospective group exhibition, Signature Women, 100 years of Swedish Art Scene curated by Frida Andersson, Jessica Höglund, Bo Nilsson and Iselin Page. The exhibition presents nearly 350 artworks from Swedish or Sweden-based women from the 1910’s until today. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Artipelag has been temporarily closed since the 31 of March until further notice.

The exhibition is generously ambitious by the reason of its massive volume of artworks. Nearly 50 women artists are presented from the fields of architecture, design, photography, sculpture, media, ceramics, textile and painting. However, the exhibition does not contain bigger installations or performance.

Even though the variety of art pieces is huge, Artipelag has succeeded in making an aesthetically harmonious composition where artists have their well-deserved space. The exhibition begins with the presentation of early abstract artworks from the 1910s, such as the paintings of Hilma af Klint and Nell Walden, which are balanced with figure drawings of Vera Nilsson from the same decade. The massive textile works of Märta Måås-Fjetteström dominate the hall of the 1940s but the spectrum of the colours changes to the monochromatic contemporary paintings of Idun Baltzersen and cold sculptures of Åsa Jungnelius from the 2010s, and to the dream-like photographs of Tuija Lindström, whose works are hanged in the room of black-and-white photographs from the 1990s. However, already in the next room, the controversial but magical art sculptures from the 2000s, made by Klara Kristalova take the visitor to the world of magical tales and even terror. Every room builds its own world, where different women artists show their professional artistic approach.

Artipelag’s exhibition builds the perfect opportunity to talk about the woman in the art field.

Dorothee Richer presents in her article “Feminist Perspectives on Curating”, that gender equality starts with the calculations of percentages of artist representation. Even though gender is not a black-and-white question, by seeing the numbers, it is possible to understand the lack of representation of a certain gender.[1]

In the press preview of Signature Women, Nilsson tells that the initiation point of the exhibition was his understanding of how women artists are less presented throughout history when he was commissioned to propose Swedish artists in Kristiansand Kunsthall, Norway. The retrospective exhibition aims to highlight the women artists in Sweden from the past 100 years by giving them more visibility and that way, to even the inequal percentage division.

But is this enough?


Installation of the sculptures by Åsa Jungnelius (2013-2019) with the paintings by Idun Baltzersen (2019). Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger


On women in the art field

The general and unfortunate dilemma is that the woman artist is always interpreted through her femininity – even though she would not want to.

If the group exhibition presents only women artists but does not have a critical eye to the different representations of genders, it could create an elephant in a room. Also, still it seems that many institutions see necessary to present women artists in a separate, special and even marginal exhibitions instead of including them equally in the art historical representations.

In our society, the women artist cannot avoid being defined by her gender. On the other hand, as long as the problems around gender exist, they must be discussed.

In her book Gender Trouble (1990) Judith Butler divides sex and gender into two different categories. She defines gender as a performance of a role acted by an individual. Society is highly responsible for this social performance of gender, both the repetition of it and rebellion against normative expectations. This means that society constantly affects gender performance – including the performance of the artist and her artworks; by herself but also by the institution where the artist acts and exhibits her work.

Thus, gender equality is not only about percentages of representation. It involves the whole socio-cultural discourse about the roles of power and gender performance. Swedish gender studies researcher Vanja Hermele states that the fields of art and culture have tried to separate themselves from the general equality discourse, using an argument about freedom of expression. In that way, the fields have reinforced the masculine assignation of cultural heritage.[2] This leads to more concrete and practical problems such as the glass ceiling effect and the gender pay gap, at the same time when the numeral representation of women has increased.

Marko Gylén lists in his critique about Cindy Sherman the different shades of structural sexism which still actively exist in society:[3]

“In the end, the harassment-supported structures consist of the different aspects of the emphasizing the union of the same (male) gender and contrasting it conservatively towards others: the consumerization of the female body, mansplaining and all-male panels, dominion built by praise, silencing by victimizing, the gender pay gap, workplace cultures, cronyism, the power-structure-fading stories about the self-made people, heteronormativity. xenophobia, some structures in welfare and the current-like economy system which underlines and repeats the demand for some work and products.” [4]

Signature Women aims to claim that in recent years, women artists have gained more visibility than ever before. Nilsson uses an unofficial term the “Hilma af Klint effect”, meaning that historically unrecognized Swedish women artists are now lifted to the common knowledge, and the borders between marginality and normativity have faded.

However, Hilma af Klint can indeed be seen as having the fame of “The Marginal Female Artist” with capital letters. In many cases, she has been presented as an artist who breaks the traditional canon, and her marginality has been in the focus of interest. In February, Millesgården of Stockholm closed a group exhibition where af Klint was presented together with Tyra Kleen and Lucie Lagerbielke, presenting the spirituality of the women artists of the turn of the centuries – and now she is available again in Artipelag presented as the initiator of the normalization of women artists.

Hilma af Klint can be seen as an example of a woman artist squeezed into the role of a passive, marginal artist, who is constantly compared to the masculine “geniuses” of the time. It is assumed, that af Klint herself believed she painted through the guidance of spirits, therefore taking a passive role, but this role has not been questioned, and she has been left to be as a painter who repeated what she saw, even though she created as much as her masculine colleagues. However, as a woman her art has been marketed to be something “a woman should not have been doing at that time”.


Tuija Lindström: Maria with a log (1991). Photo: Hasselblad Foundation Göteborg


The Responsibility of Curators

Curatorial work is about building a story around a chosen artist, era or event. In group exhibitions, an individual artist plays usually a minor role as supporting the desired storyline when institutions place artists onto the pages of history.

As Signature Women ambitiously presents Swedish women artists throughout one hundred years, there is a danger that the presentation remains incomplete or messy. The exhibition is divided into different rooms by decades. However, the harsh division is softened by the thematical grouping of artworks and the aesthetically skilful installation plan.

In the press preview, it turned out that the term “signature” in the title is meant to mean the individual and personal artistic touch artists have.

This touch could be seen as referring to the different artistic styles and messages in the exhibition. The exhibition mixes the shining stars of the Swedish art scene, among them Tuija Lindström, Mamma Anderson and Vera Nilsson, and less known artists such as Siri Rathsman whose hand-coloured internationally influenced etchings from the 1930s capture attention as well as Christine Ödlund, whose dark theosophical influences are seen in her black-and-white photography.

Surprisingly, designers are presented side by side with artists who represent more “traditional” art styles. The cold fashion world lipstick sculptures of Åsa Jungnelius change flowingly to the humorous paintings of Marie-Louise Ekman.

Moreover, Signature Women points out the three general roles of the artist. These roles are examined during the spring over the course of three seminars moderated by Sofia Curman. The artists Mamma Andersson, Åsa Jungnelius, and Carolina Falkholt will be talking about the roles of the artist in modernism, the artist as an entrepreneur, and the artist in politics. Artipelag has initially planned to move the talks further into summer.

This mixture of artists supposedly presents the different ways of the practice in the art world, but the centre of the exhibition, womanhood, is paradoxically unspoken.

Group exhibitions have been always on the border of curatorial experimentation, where the story of the exhibition is in the central focus and it is controlled by the curator and the art institution, not by the artist. The art institution and the curator have a growing role in the spread of gender, ethnic and socioeconomic equality.

Signature Women shows that the issues of women in art are still not talked about enough.

In curatorial work, staring at statistics is not the final solution even though it is a good start. The issues of inequality are complex. In order to understand them, it is necessary to comprehend the unequal division of different kinds of power and roles of genders.


Text: Anni Reponen



  • Butler, Judith: Gender Trouble, Routledge, 1990
  • Hermele, Vanja: Konsten – så funkar det (inte), KRO, 2009
  • Richer, Dorothee: “Feminist Perspectives on Curating”, in On-Curating, Issue 29, (May 2016)

[1] Richer, Dorothee: “Feminist Perspectives on Curating”, in On-Curating, Issue 29, (May 2016), p.64

[2] Hermele, Vanja: Konsten – så funkar det (inte), KRO, 2009, p. 10

[3] Marko Gylén: ”Cindy Sherman sektioi katseen”, Mustekala, September 26th, 2018: https://mustekala.info/blogit/cindy-sherman-sektioi-katseen/

[4] Free translation by Anni Reponen