Marthe Donas – The Forgotten Avant-Gardist

Abstract Composition VI,1920

Born into a wealthy Antwerp family Marthe Donas defied her authoritarian father to study art, breaking off an arranged marriage to do so. Mingling with the elite of the avant-garde art world in Paris during World War One she was advised that she was too much of an artist to keep a woman’s name and thus adopted the pseudonym Tour Donas.  She went on to exhibit  widely throughout  Europe with La Section D’Or, was given a major show at Berlin’s Der Sturm Gallery, the most famous avant-garde gallery of the era, and featured heavily in The Second International Congress of Modern Art in Antwerp in 1922. However, a combination of ill health and financial problems forced her to abandon art in the late 1920s and despite a return to her craft in the late 1940s, she sunk into obscurity.  A major retrospective in her home country earlier this year sought to give her long overdue recognition and the publication of the first monograph in English may finally bring her work to a wider audience.

Plunging through a glass floor to land at the feet of the Belgian King is a somewhat drastic way to decide that you are going to follow your dreams but that is what it took for Marthe Donas to finally defy her controlling father and become an artist.

Donas had shown an early talent for drawing which she developed at a small private drawing school for middle class girls. However when she later enrolled at the academy in Antwerp, her father took a dislike to the bohemian atmosphere and nude models and forbade her from going to exhibitions or having a teacher.  Showing a tenacity which would serve her well throughout the years the young Donas rented a cottage and arranged secret lessons, but it appears that her father found out and once again thwarted her plans.

Perhaps realising that it was impossible to fully contain her artistic desires he appears to have later relented a little and allowed her to take lessons with Frans Van Kuyck, an Antwerp municipal councillor who was on the board of several museums. Her engagement to a nice young man from a suitable background must have reassured him that she was destined to follow a path suited to someone of her sex and class.

Neither Monsieur Donas, nor Marthe, could have seen how the ceremonial visit of King Albert to Antwerp’s Stock Exchange would change the course of her life forever. Crowded into the building with hundreds of other people the adventurous Marthe sought to get a better view and, finding an unlocked door, ascended to a higher story. Failing to notice the glass floor she plunged straight through it onto the floor below. Miraculously she survived, albeit with a head injury and two broken wrists, but fearing it was an anarchist attack, reports of the incident reached papers as far away as Berlin and reverberated for weeks.

Marthe swiftly grasped the opportunity for self promotion that the incident offered and made sure that reports mentioned that she was a painter and a pupil of Van Kuyck. Her greatest concern, she told one reporter, was whether she would be able to paint again.

Her prolonged convalescence gave her time to think and once she had recovered she broke off her engagement and braved her father’s wrath to re-enrol at the academy, ‘regardless of what others may think.’

Her studies there were to be short-lived however. The outbreak of World War One forced the family to flee to The Netherlands from where Marthe and sister Laure went on to Ireland.

In Dublin Marthe continued to draw and studied stained glass, eventually being taken on by Sarah Purser’s studio, An Tur Gloine. A notable figure in the city’s art world, Purser had known Degas in Paris and held famous Second Tuesday salons which brought together Irish aristocratic and literary circles. Purser’s reminisces were to have a significant influence on Marthe. When The Easter Rising of 1916 forced the sisters to flee once more, Laure back to The Netherlands and Marthe to Eastbourne, the young artist was determined to reach the fabled city. When she discovered that, despite the war, the mail boat from Newhaven to Dieppe was still sailing she secured a passage and headed for Paris.

Marthe Donas in her Paris studio, 1920
Marthe Donas in her Paris studio, 1920

Once there she found a studio in Montparnasse and enrolled at the Academie Ronson in 1917. It was while studying at the academy that she came across an exhibition by Andre Lhote which completely won her over to cubism. Despite exhibitions in Belgium, she had previously been completely unaware of the movement. Lhote, now better known as an art theorist, was at the time a highly rated artist and teacher. Donas became his pupil that same year. Tamara de Lempicka followed suit shortly after.

Lhote’s ‘visual rhyming,’ his mirroring of lines or forms to achieve a balanced composition, would become a recurring element of Marthe’s work. His insistence that modern painting maintain a link with the classical – the subject was always recognizable in his Cubist work – was also to prove an influence on her. Apart from a few purely abstract works in 1918-21, Marthe herself was reluctant, until the late 1950s, to entirely forego the link with reality. Her remarkable sense of colour also came from Lhote and was to be heightened when she came into contact with another great influence in her life, Alexander Archipenko.

Archipenko, a sculptor trained in Kiev and Moscow had left Tsarist Russia in 1909 for Paris. Once there he had rapidly been taken up by the artists colony La Ruche and befriended by Picasso, Leger, Gaudier Breska and Modigiliani. By the time he met Marthe he was considered to be to sculpture what Picasso was to painting.

It is unclear exactly how he and Marthe first met but it is likely to have been when they were both in the South of France. Money had been a huge problem for Marthe in Paris, not helped by her father’s apparent refusal to forward her savings, and she had been obliged to earn a living via an aristocratic woman who invited her to Nice in exchange for painting lessons.

It was in Nice that Archipenko developed the sculpto-paintings for which he would become famous. The inclusion of paper, wood, tin and mirrors gave the works a highly innovative 3D effect and Marthe  would go on to assimilate  their influence  in a highly personal way. In Tête cubiste and Rieuse for example she incorporated strips of metal, drawn exquisitely in pencil. The motif recurs again in La Musique and Le livre d’images.

Tête cubiste
Tête cubiste, 1921

However, beyond the role of teacher and, it would appear, lover, it was to be as a promoter that Archipenko would exert his greatest influence on her career.  Helped, and no doubt encouraged, by Marthe, it was he who he would launch her into the international world of art.

Post World War One, artistic life in Paris was springing back to life and Archipenko decided, along with the painter Léopold Survage to set up a society with a view to organising the world of art independently of salons and dealers. They named it Section D’Or after a pre-war exhibition organised by Apollinaire. The internationally composed group aimed to form collaborative links with other artists and organise exhibitions abroad.

At the time numerous art magazines were being created and it was essential for an artist to be featured in them if they were to be successful. Doubtless due to Archipenko’s  fervent networking Marthe was to be featured in five of them; the Dutch De Stijl and Meccano, the German Der Sturm, Italian Noi and Belgian Selection.

It was not as Marthe Donas that she was featured however. When Mondrian turned up at her address looking for his old friend Diego Riviera, he was informed by the concierge that the studio was now inhabited by one Tour Donas, ‘a woman. ‘Precisely the kind of intrigue they go in for here,’ he was to write to Theo van Doesburg, chief editor of De Stijl.

Mondrian gathered from Riviera, who did not know Marthe personally, that Archipenko was launching her as a man in order to make a better impression. Riviera said the response was likely to be less favourable if it were known that she was a woman and although Mondrian felt it was  dishonest he added tellingly, ‘and that is probably correct.’

Although there were a large number of female artists in Paris at the time, and the circles they moved in meant they were closely involved in the artistic innovations of the time, it remained hard for them to make a genuine breakthrough.  The prevailing attitude of the time was that artistic genius was the preserve of men. Avant-garde art in particular was considered too intellectual and rational for women who were seen as more sensitive, practical and realistic. It’s really quite astonishing how avant-garde male artists, bohemian figures who reacted so fervently against the constraints of bourgeois society, still tended to view their female contemporaries more as lovers and muses than artistic equals.

Abstract Composition VI,1920
Abstract Composition VI,1920

Added to this was the fact that dealers, and their clients, considered female artists not only less inspired but also likely to go off and marry and have children, which would of course mean that they would  have to abandon their art. This made them unattractive to promote.

It is perhaps not surprising that various female artists decided to adapt male pseudonyms. Even Tamara de Lempicka used the male variant of her name, Lempitzky, in her earlier works. Thus from the summer of 1919 Marthe became Tour Donas.

La Section D’Or’s first exhibition opened at the Galerie de le Boetie in Paris in March 1920 but garnered very little press coverage. That that there was remarked scathingly on the inclusion of so many artists of Slavic origin. A more positive reaction came from van Doesburg who enthusiastically declared it, ‘an event the like of which Paris has not seen in ages.’  It was at this exhibition that he met Archipenko and Donas for the first time. They evidently got on well as he began planning a travelling exhibition of their work and would write favourably of them in his magazine. It appears that he was particularly taken by Donas as he began using postcards of her work in correspondence. As this was the primary mode of communication in artistic circles of the time it was a highly effective method of promoting work.

At the same time Archipenko was also in contact with the influential German promoter Hewarth Walden. Walden ran the Der Sturm gallery and published a magazine of the same name. Archipenko was hoping that he would become Section D’Or’s representative in Germany in the way that van Doesburg had become in the Netherlands.

His charm obviously worked as it would lead to possibly the most important exhibition of Donas’s career. Initially planned as a joint exhibition with Archipenko, Donas instead shared the bill with Nell Walden, Hewarth’s wife, as Arhipenko had been give an entire portion at the Venice Biennale and did not have enough works to also show in Berlin.

Walden was probably aware by now that Donas was a woman despite the fact that Archipenko had initially referred to Tour as a ‘he.’ It was common knowledge in the intellectual art world even if the truth of her sex was being kept from the general public.

Der Sturm, in contrast with other commercial galleries exhibited a surprising number of women artists. Nell claimed that Hewarth had confided in her that he found woman to be superior as they were more versatile and sensitive than men, and much more open to innovation. It was highly likely that Nell, a formidable woman who was a successful journalist as well as an artist, played a role too.

Hewarth Walden, owner of the Der Sturm gallery in Berlin
Hewarth Walden, owner of the Der Sturm gallery in Berlin

A total of 37 works by Donas were displayed and were enthusiastically acclaimed by the influential critic Adolf Behne who referred to them as, ‘extraordinarily charming, full of cheerful playfulness with which one could easily fall in love.’

The following year she featured heavily in the Sturm Ausstellung , the gallery’s regular exhibition. Donas had clearly assimilated the contemporary trend for machine like figures championed by the likes of Le Corbusier and Léger; her Buste de Femme was composed of drawn metal sheets with holes symbolising breasts. This was favourably commented upon, but once again it was her use of colour that drew the most interest, causing one critic to lament that German artists urgently needed to seek instruction in how to use it.

Buste de Femme
Buste de Femme, 1919, signed with Marthe’s pseudonym, Tour Donas

That same year Walden put La Tango on the front cover of Der Sturm, making Donas the first Belgian artist to receive this honour. The year after he took the highly unusual step of including a colour reproduction of Femme avec un vase and when he published his 3rd edition of Einblick in Kunst in 1924 he reproduced three of her paintings.

The German exhibitions may have given her recognition but they were financially disastrous, the collapse of the German mark meant that she was left with virtually nothing from the sale of her works.

However, although she may not have financially benefited from it, the sale of her work to Katherine Dreir, the politically engaged American artist, led to her first exposure in the U.S. Dreir had teamed up with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray in 1920 to found Societé Anonyme in order to educate critics, writers and artists about the latest movements. Dreir was convinced that Donas was the first female abstract painter and although this was in fact wrong, her view shows quite how innovative her work was at the time. The works that Dreir purchased were exhibited at the group exhibition which inaugurated Societé Anonyme’s new premises. Once more it was Donas’ colour harmonies which drew the attention of the critics.

Back in Europe La Section D’Or’s tour of the Netherlands had been a modest success with van Doesburg particularly pleased with the turn out at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. The group had then gone on to have a major presence at an important exhibition of contemporary art in Geneva. Judging from contemporary photographs Donas’ works, now lost, were given a prominent position, dominating the centre of the upper balcony which had been given over to the group’s work.

Self Portrait, 1921
Self Portrait, 1921

Shortly after this, however, Donas’ relationship with Archipenko appears to have come to an end. He fell madly in love with the German sculptor Angelika Schmitz and the couple married barely four weeks after their first meeting. Archipenko’s life now centred on Berlin where he founded a sculpture college. In 1923 he left for New York and lived in America for the rest of his life.

At the same time Donas had begun to suffer from the ill health which would plague her for the rest of the decade. Having no safety net and no money she was forced to return to Antwerp.

Here she made contacted with the Belgian avant-garde and managed to be featured prominently in the Second Congress for Modern Art in Antwerp in 1922. She made a point of submitting her very latest works now primarily labelled Compositions and followed by a series of Roman numerals.  This suggests she was associating herself with pure plasticism, the Belgian equivalent of international constructivism. But it was to be her last notable success before circumstances forced her to abandon painting.

The same year she married Henri Franck, the nephew of her first teacher in Antwerp, Mare van Meir, and five years her junior. The couple would end up living with Madame van Meir and her sister. For the independent Donas, this must have been challenging.  She continued to paint but it is noticeable that her themes became more traditional, perhaps due to the reaction of her new family to her more abstract works, and the results were often uneven.

Nature Morte M, 1918-19, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
Nature Morte M, 1918-19, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

In Spring 1926 she had her first major Belgian retrospective  but little is known of its reception and when she exhibited with the Cercle Artistique it became evident that to major figures in the Belgian art world she was completely unknown. Margueritte Devigne, later director of the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Brussels, thought her work, ‘fresh and attractive,’ but was evidently unaware of her earlier profile.

By 1925 Section D’Or had begun to wind down and Donas was not included in the final exhibition. She continued to show at the Salon des Independents from 1925-29 but by the late 1920s there was little or no interest in abstract art in Belgium. By 1927 she had more or less stopped painting.

‘Between 1927 and 1947 I was obliged to abandon painting for lack of time and a reversal of fortune. There was little appreciation of avant garde art in our country at that time and no support for women artists,’ she wrote years later.

Added to financial problems, war and frequent change of address was the unexpected necessity of bringing up a child. Donas found that she was pregnant shortly before her 45th birthday and gave birth to a daughter whom she named Francine. She drew her child frequently and with obvious affection but despite her best attempts, Donas turned out not to be the maternal type.

It is perhaps no surprise that her return to painting coincided with Francine reaching the independent age of 16. Two years later, when she decided to enter a convent, Donas made her public comeback in an exhibition at the Galerie Apollo in Brussels.

The critical response was favourable. Paul Casso, a leading art critic, noted in his review for Le Soir that she was a true, essentially female, artist and was pleased to note that she had returned to figuration.

Donas continued to paint and exhibit throughout the 1950s but repeated moves had a detrimental effect on her art and her oeuvre is decidedly mixed at this period.

In the late 1950s she met Maurits Blicke who was to be her most important promoter in the 1960s. A one time head of the Belgian radio and TV department he was sympathetic to the early avant-garde and published the first important article on Donas’ career in De Periscoop in 1959.

It was fortunate that the late 1950 saw a revival of interest in the pioneers of abstraction in Belgium. At the instigation of the younger generation of artists who wanted to pay tribute to their forbears Blicke helped organise a major retrospective titled ‘The First Abstract Artists in Belgium: Tribute to the Pioneers,’ held in 1959 in Antwerp. Donas was prominently featured and considered it a success.

The following year Donas staged a complete overview of her work at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Paris and asked Blicke to write the introduction to the catalogue. It was well received in the press, Leon-Louis Sosset, writing in Les Beaux Arts, was full of praise for her first period and sympathetic to the second.

Donas in the 1960s
Donas in the 1960s

Even greater recognition was to come when she was included in an exhibition at the Staatlichen Museen in Berlin dedicated to Hewarth Walden and Der Sturm. It must have been gratifying in the extreme to be included along with Archipenko, Chagall, Delauney, Kandinsky, Klée, Léger and Macke all of whom were now major names in modern art.

Although Donas was again dogged by health and financial problems, another retrospective organised by Blicke at the Schleiper gallery in 1961 drew large crowds and led the reviewer of La Dèrniere Heure to wonder why this, ‘grande dame de la peinture,’ had never been given the place she deserved in Belgian art history.

Despite Donas’ personal successes there was still little interest in the historical avant garde in Belgian museums at the time. It was only through the efforts of people like Blicke that it was being gradually rediscovered. Slowly her work began to be purchased by museums.

Right to the end of her career Donas continued to experiment. She had abandoned figuration completely in 1958 and was now painting in a strictly linear manner. Blicke admired her spirit but it was notable that in a 1964 exhibition the only piece he actively praised was an older work.

In 1966 her health deteriorated to the extent that she had to enter a nursing home and she died in January the following year. Among her papers was a sheet in which she had written, most likely towards the end of her life: ‘For a woman to achieve the goals of art is a luxury that few have the leisure to allow themselves. Little thought is given to the painful effort or courage a woman requires to dare express the new things her sensibility brings forth, away from the easy, commonplace path of the herd.’

Marthe Donas: A Woman Artist in the Avant-Garde by Peter J.H. Pauwels is published by Ludion

Leave a Reply

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