I felt very priviliged to have Peter Pauwels as my personal guide to the Marthe Donas exhibition in MSK in Ghent. For more than ten years this man has studied the persona and the work of Donas. As a result, he published 'Marthe Donas, A woman artist in the Avant-garde' (Ludion) and he was able to work on 'Marthe Donas, De Belgische avant-gardiste', an exhibition of her work, together with Catherine de Zegher, the director of the Ghent MSK, who's known to be a promotor of female (and especially forgotten) artists. After the tour, I asked Pauwels why he had given Donas all this attention in the first place? He came up with a wonderful story, telling me about how some of her works had always been in the art collection of his grandparents. He grew up with her work. Even as a young boy, he stared at some of her intricate colour combinations and art works.
Of course, you've never heard about Marthe Donas. Who has? Donas shot to fame in the 1920s as a painter and a colorist, but not before she changed her name into Tour Donas - people even thought she was a man. Her artistic network included Modigliani, Theo Van Doesburg, Mondrian and Alexander Archipenko, who was her lover and who strongly influenced her.
Marthe Donas was born in Antwerp in a very well-off family. As a young woman, she started taking art classes, but her father was against her studying at the Antwerp academy. It took her some years before she was ready to make a choice for art: she left Antwerp for Paris and there came into contact with Cubism and a rather bohemian lifestyle. In Nice, she met Alexander Archipenko, who at that time was as important to sculpture as Picasso was to painting. Their relationship and their working together resulted in some of her best works.
Back in Paris, in 1919, Donas had her studio in Montparnasse and befriended De Stijl artists, such as Mondrian and Van Doesburg. Her work already travelled Europe at that time, and not only were there exhibitions (in the Berlin gallery Der Sturm, to name a very important one), there were even publications in many leading art magazines.
For about ten years, Donas painted and painted, leaving behind a phenomenal oeuvre that was almost completely forgotten afterwards. Isn't it amazing to know that such work can be forgotten?
When the love between Archipenko and Donas is finally over, it's as if her eye for colours leaves her and her lust for life stops. Donas marries someone else and leaves Paris for Belgium, where she lives rather isolated (and ill). She renews her connection to the avant-garde around 1927, but abandons painting a year later. I guess she felt frustrated, having become a mother and housewife in the meantime, and knowing what the implications were, especially to the outside world.
She picked up her brushes again in the late 1940s, but the work she produced was completely different. To us, it looks less interesting, to her, it was the best ever. Donas became restless, in her private life, and in her art. She was rarely satisfied. Towards the end of her life, some of her work was sold to museums or disappeared into private collections - she herself started painting over work that she disliked, which is a pity.
Marthe Donas will always be a prominent woman artist in the Modernist tradition, but her name is often forgotten in big exhibitions. Luckily for her, some women have always tried to help her maintain her status. Katherine Dreier in the 1920s was one of them (she bought her work for Société Anonyme) so did Herta Wescher and Marguerite Tuijn. Kristien Boon wrote a first book on her, and now of course, there's Catherine de Zegher, the director of the Ghent MSK, who had the guts to dedicate an entire solo exhibition to her work. A must see!
Donas, de Belgische avant-gardiste, until the 5th of June in MSK Gent.