Between color volume, drippings and braiding

German women artists of the Informel after 1945

The following text is an abridged version of the essay ‘Zwischen Farbvolumen, Drippings und Geflecht. German Women Artists of Art Informel after 1945’ by Laura Rehme, from the catalog of the exhibition Action, Gesture, Color. Women artists and abstraction worldwide 1940 – 1970, 2023, S. 289-299.

There is a lot of (academic) reading material on Art Informel, abstract art in Germany after 1945, but reports on the role of women in the development of this art movement are rare.[1] But they did exist, the women artists whose work played a key role in the cultural reconstruction and search for identity in the country after the Second World War. In the exhibition Action, Gesture, Color we take the opportunity to fill this gap by presenting some German women artists of abstraction together with their international colleagues[2].

New in the West – Cultural life after 1945

At the end of the Second World War, not only cities and infrastructure lay in ruins. Poverty and the physical and psychological consequences of the war brought many to the end of their personal strength, and free cultural and social life had already been brought to an end by National Socialism. The previous art centers of the Weimar Republic had dissolved, as many artists had to do military service, fled abroad and into the underground or died. After the end of the war, some of the remaining artists wanted to break through the isolation of the Nazi era and resume international artistic exchange. The legacy of artistic modernism, which had been ostracized, abducted or destroyed by the National Socialists as “degenerate art”, was to be revived and continued. Women artists in particular wanted to play an active role in shaping the future of the country and preserve and expand the initial achievements of the women’s movements of the 1920s. The Allied occupying powers also specifically promoted cultural life because they saw it as a good way of counteracting the long-term cultural and political consequences of National Socialism in the population and replacing them with democratic values.

Shortly after the war, exhibitions of international art were realized,[3 ] such as the documenta in Kassel, which was launched in September 1955 by the art professor and designer Arnold Bode. The design of the first major international exhibition on German soil was primarily based on the idea that post-war art was a seamless continuation of pre-war modern art and that abstraction was the logical conclusion of this process. This approach was and is viewed critically, as is the associated conviction of a supposedly ideology-free abstraction as an international language and expression of democratic freedom.[4 ] Even though documenta was undoubtedly important for the reconstruction of the German cultural landscape as a whole, it did not offer visibility to German artists themselves.

Artists’ networks and galleries

This function was mainly assumed by the newly founded artists’ groups, art associations and galleries in many places (e.g. Der Junge Westen in Recklinghausen, the ZEN 49 group in Munich, Gruppe 53 in Düsseldorf and the Quadriga exhibition association in Frankfurt). With their aim of promoting contemporary art in all its facets and providing platforms for new artistic positions, they created the kind of free spaces that young and female artists in particular needed.[5 ] This diversified organizational structure can still be identified today as a special feature of the German cultural scene and the basis of its diversity. Although only a few women artists were members of the early groups themselves – Herta Junghanns-Grulich and Anneliese Külzer-Winter in Group 53 were an exception – they were repeatedly invited by the group to exhibit their works together with its members. Some of the four artists briefly presented below were also able to make their works visible in this way.

Sarah Schumann, Sigrid Kopfermann, Marie-Louise von Rogister and Hedwig Thun, together with many colleagues yet to be discovered, actively shaped the art scene in post-war Germany and the international image of abstract art. The exhibition Action, Gesture Color integrates her work into the community of international female artists. In the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, designed by Philip Johnson in 1968, the great diversity of artistic approaches to abstraction from the 1940s to 1970s unfolds in architecture from this period.

Sarah Schumann (née Maria Schirmer) organized her first exhibition in the Zimmergalerie Franck, which is associated with the Quadriga. At the age of just twenty, she presented her “shock collages”, in which she artistically processed the ambivalent war experiences of her childhood and youth. She remembers:

“Zimmergalerie says it all. It was a post-war phenomenon. It was a couple who had a good nose for art. And that’s exactly what the avant-garde looked like: poor, poor, in a room. I exhibited a lot, and there was always an anxiety about whether you would sell something, whether you could pay the next rent or not. […] The artists usually had a wife who was a teacher or doctor and could therefore support them financially. It didn’t really matter whether he earned or sold anything or not. My point is that it wasn’t easy, it was hard, life was difficult, it was a struggle just to survive.”[1]

Further exhibitions followed, including at the renowned Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal from 1961 to 1964 with Rolf Jährling. Schumann was given this opportunity by the former British consul, art critic and publicist John Anthony Thwaites. He was also the one who suggested that she adopt ‘Sarah Schumann’ as her artist’s name. Her contact with Thwaites enabled her to move to London after her failed marriage to the art dealer Hans Brockstedt, where she lived and worked from 1960 to 1963. Schumann later began a lifelong relationship with the feminist author Silvia Bovenschen[2]. The international exchange with the London art scene inspired her work and her works sold well in the British metropolis. Her early artistic work is characterized by gestural abstractions painted with egg tempera. In 1962, Schumann had her first solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London.

You can explore Sarah Schumann’s life stages further in our network graphic.

[1] Sarah Schumann, interview conducted by Franziska Leuthäußer, Berlin 19.9.2017, Café Germany. In conversation with the first art scene in the FRG, URL:

[2] Together with Bovenschen, Schumann is also committed to the visibility of female artists; together they are organizing the exhibition “Künstlerinnen International 1877-1977”, which is accompanied by a catalog of the same name and highlights the work of female artists and their significance for art history.

Earlier works by the artist, who was born in Berlin in 1923, show a luminous but bright color palette and an orderly structure and placement of the color surfaces, which evoke quite intentional references to nature and landscape. These early series of works are therefore called “forest pictures” or “Ibiza pictures”. Kopfermann is not primarily concerned with depicting the material features of a landscape, but with translating a landscape as a visual experience into an abstract visual language. Kopfermann herself writes about her painting process:

“What fascinates me about painting is the possibility of objectifying very subjective things – experiences, orders, risks. I enjoy being involved in a working process that holds me, that guides me and that I sometimes guide. […] The colors are the most important thing for me. They have body and they have space. The volume of the color is always determined by the color itself.”[1]

This becomes particularly clear in her “block paintings”. In the paintings of this series, larger and smaller dabs of color and areas are distributed like confetti on the picture support, hardly any depth is created, but the impression of a superordinate system is created by the adjoining of the individual areas. The “Blockbilder” brought Kopfermann international recognition early on: two of her works(Häufung and Groß und klein, both 1958) were exhibited at the 1959 Biennale de Jeunesse in Paris at the Musée d’art moderne,[2] for example. One of these was later included in the survey exhibition “Arte alemã desde 1945” at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.[3] Kopfermann had also already presented various series of works in Germany at this time. From 1956 to 1977 she became a member of various artists’ associations, such as the Deutscher Künstlerbund, the Darmstädter Sezession and the Westdeutscher Künstlerbund, and renowned art historians such as Wieland Schmied and Werner Schmalenbach wrote about her.

In the 1960s, Kopfermann received numerous commissions for art in public spaces. She designed church windows (e.g. in Minden, Lehrte, Northeim, Düsseldorf) and large-format wall works made of Resopal (laminated panels from furniture construction), e.g. for the elementary school in Hanover-Bothfeld (1965) or the community center in Düsseldorf-Reisholz (1976).

Here you can further explore Sigrid Kopfermann’s connections to the international world of abstract art of her time.

[1] Sigrid Kopfermann, “Wie ich mit der Farbe umgehehe”, in: Sigrid Kopfermann. Work biographyed. by Karl Ruhrberg, Bollmann Verlag, Düsseldorf 1991, p. 21.

[2] Image material via the Kopfermann-Fuhrmann Foundation website, URL:

[3] Sigrid Kopfermann, Balken, 1958, 78*100cm, printed (reversed) on p. 64, Cat. No 149, Arte alemã desde 1945, Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to the museum for providing the historical source material.

Born in Sarrebourg, Lorraine in 1899, the painter Marie-Louise von Rogister had a very special approach to abstraction. Like Kopfermann, she is one of the few female artists of her generation who was already represented in international exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s and thus played a decisive role in shaping the reception of German art abroad. Two of her works were exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1954 and another from the “Geflechtbilder” group – together with Kopfermann’s – in Rio de Janeiro in 1960[1]. The work shown in Bielefeld also In front of light gray. Bötersheim VIII (1959) belongs to this group of works, with which she achieved her artistic breakthrough. The pictures are characterized by crossed black line structures in the foreground, through which coloured surfaces shine through.

Like Kopfermann, von Rogister also takes a serial approach, repeatedly working on similar types of images and thus finding her way into gestural abstraction. Learning, knowledge exchange and further development characterize von Rogister’s biography: In 1959, Marie-Louise von Rogister was appointed as a lecturer at the Kassel University of Fine Arts through contact with her friend, the artist Fritz Winter, where she held teaching positions until the end of her life.

You can explore Marie-Louise von Rogister’s life further in our network graphic.

[1] Thanks to the documentation department and archives of both museums who supported me in my research.

When the Hermann Stenner Art Forum in Bielefeld dedicated a retrospective to the artist Hedwig Thun in spring 2022,[1] the painter, who was born in Detmold in 1892, was no longer a stranger to the city. Actually, because the subtitle of the exhibition (“A rediscovery”) reveals that the artist and her works share the fate of many female artists and have been forgotten for years. The Bielefeld School of Arts and Crafts had already presented works by the young artist in 1921. And in 1969 – one year after the opening of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld – a solo presentation of Thun’s late work followed in the museum’s so-called study gallery. The director at the time, Joachim Wolfgang von Moltke, took up a project of his predecessor Gustav Vriesen, who had already become aware of Hedwig Thun ten years earlier. In Action, Gesture, Color , two works from her late oeuvre will now come to the museum in 2023, bringing the exhibition history of the Kunsthalle full circle, so to speak.

After beginning her training at the Munich School of Arts and Crafts, Thun transferred to the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1931/1932, where she studied under Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers and Paul Klee. Kandinsky’s teaching in particular was to have a major influence on her artistic work. Although Thun did not paint completely abstractly in the 1920s and 1930s, her interest in color and expressive expression detached from form was already evident in her early works. In addition to smaller gallery exhibitions during these years in Bremen, Hamm, Hamburg and Dresden, some of her works were also presented at the well-known MoMA in New York City. Katherine Dreier, an American art collector, patron and member of the New York artists’ group Abstraction-Création, helped her get this opportunity. However, what had begun promisingly for Thun ended abruptly with the start of the Second World War.

The artist only began to paint again in the late 1940s. Initially, she returned to her geometric-abstract watercolors from the Bauhaus period. In the mid-1950s, she worked more freely, experimenting with various dripping techniques, such as in Signata (1959/1960). Here, black splashes of color flow into each other on a white background through a rotation of the picture support with line-like threads. Thun always uses larger canvases and applies oil paint impasto, i.e. in thick layers that overlap and thus form relief-like structures. With her informal paintings, Thun quickly reconnected with the art scene in the 1950s. Various institutions and galleries throughout Germany present their pictures. She was also recognized internationally again, as evidenced by her participation in the international art exhibition in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1963[2].

Here you can further explore Hedwig Thun’s connections to the world of abstract art of her time.

[1] Hedwig Thun. From Bauhaus to Art Informel. A rediscovery, Kunstforum Hermann Stenner Bielefeld, 10.4.-10.9.2022. Particular reference should be made to the accompanying exhibition catalog of the same name, which brings together important material on Hedwig Thun for the first time: Christiane Heuwinkel and Christoph Wagner (eds.), Hedwig Thun. From Bauhaus to Art Informel. A rediscoveryThanks to Christiane Heuwinkel for her kind support with the research.

[2] Christoph Wagner, “‘A puddle – what a work of art it can be’. Hedwig Thun, ‘painter amazon’ and artist of the Informel”, in: Heuwinkel/Wagner 2022, p. 79.

[1] Cf. also Christoph Zuschlag’s contribution, which still points to this research gap in 2021: “Informelle Kunst – Zur Einführung”, in: Positionen des deutschen Informel, ed. by Andrea Brandl, Schweinfurt 2021, p. 18.

[2] In order to ensure a balance of the numerous international positions, the selection of German women artists was limited within the framework of Action, Gesture, Color . In addition to the four positions selected for Bielefeld, the research included other German women painters: Ruth Schmidt-Stockhausen, Anneliese Külzer-Winter, Herta Junghanns-Grulich, Irmgard Wessel-Zumloh, Magda Hagstotz, Irma Hünerfauth, Hilla von Rebay, Helena Bucholz-Starck, Margherita Russo, Eleonora Rozaneck, Roswitha Lüder, Louise Rösler, and Erna Suhrborg. Like the four selected artists, they also made a significant contribution to the profiling of abstraction after 1945 through their work. It should also be explicitly mentioned that Action, Gesture, Color focuses on gestural-abstract painting; there are numerous other female artists for figurative representations, works on paper and in the field of textiles.

[3] A chronological list can be found in: Kay Heymer, Susanne Rennert, Beat Wismer, Le grand geste! Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism 1946-1964, Düsseldorf / Cologne 2010, pp. 193-223.

[4] Werner Haftmann, “Introduction – Painting after 1945”, in: II. documenta ’59, Cologne 1959, p. 12.

[5] For a summary of the significance of artists’ groups after 1945, see: Christoph Zuschlag, “Künstlergruppen nach 1945 in Deutschland”, in: Young West. On the way to the avant-gardeedited by Ferdinand Ulrich and Hans-Jürgen Schwalm, exhib. cat., Dortmund 2017, pp. 50-55, and on the significance of artists’ groups in modernism in general: Christoph Wilhelmi, Künstlergruppen, 3 vols., Stuttgart 1996, 2001, 2006.