Women have served as eternal muse for artists throughout history, inspiring the likes of Salvador Dali, Matisse, Johannes Vermeer and countless others. So prevalent is the female figure even in contemporary art, that in 2000, Miroslav Lipina opened a gallery just for the topic.
Galerie La Femme, a tiny, two-room art space on Bilkova street in Old Town, is crammed with work by both emerging and esteemed local Czech artists that pays homage to femininity, among a range of other topics. Here, as the name implies, women are portrayed in every corner available through paint and canvas, clay, bronze and other materials.
“Women always were a big inspiration for artists,” explains Lipina through translated Czech. “When you see art history, masterpieces are based on women.”
It’s true—take Edouard Manet’s controversial “Olympia” or Johannes Vermeer’s iconic “The Girl With the Pearl Earring.” And though the French may have coined the phrase “Cherchez la femme,” or “look for the woman,” this Czech gallery brings it to life.
In a series of new, untitled works by Michaela Žemličková, the female figure is rendered with the single stroke of a black line; one figure playing the violin, another lounging inside a martini glass. These may be displayed in the same space as “Eva, who surrenders,” a new, six-foot tall bronze sculpture by famous artist and Medal of Merit award winner Olbram Zoubek that depicts a woman curving forward to look down at her feet.
In keeping with its focus on the female figure, most of the art at Galerie La Femme doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Don’t be surprised if you’re met with female breasts, behinds and, well, you get the idea. In Antonín Černý’s “Poctivá pětka” (“Honest Five”), a new painting in the gallery, the viewer is confronted head-on with a side view of a woman’s breast—part of the gallery’s upcoming exhibition “La Dolce Vita,” which opens March 8.
But despite its title, Galerie La Femme doesn’t just focus on women. Over the 17 years since its opening, the gallery has expanded its reach to welcome other themes, and even hosts foreign art symposiums in places as far as Brazil, Ecuador and Canada. “It would be a pity to limit paintings only to one topic,” Lipina explains.
The gallery also plays a direct part in the creation of art through its “Homework” project. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Galerie La Femme offers artists a yearly homework assignment, in which they create a work of art based on a specific theme.
The first assignment, “A Small Homage to One Photograph,” began in 2003 and challenged artists to pay homage to a single photograph of a woman looking out of a window (Jan Lipina’s 1977 “Looking Westward”). Galerie La Femme received some 60 submissions.
The gallery has held 22 Homework exhibitions since, often drawing themes from important events or anniversaries, like the anniversary of the creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Other times, artists are asked to draw inspiration from a famous figure, like French singer and actress Edith Piaf, who was the focus of a Homework exhibition in 2003.
But this year, curator Olga Václavková admits that the theme—”La Dolce Vita,” or the “Sweet Life”—was chosen rather “prosaically.”
“When I was thinking about the topic, I had big sweet tooth,” Václavková says. “So I thought about sweet things, then it occurred to me the topic ‘Dolce Vita.’”
She admits, though, that the “La Dolce Vita” assignment does get some inspiration from Federico Fellini’s 1960 film of the same title.
So far, submissions include a collage-like piece juxtaposing female figures and guitars (Bohumil Eliáš Jr.), a surreal painting that involves a horse made out of bread and a figure wearing what appears to be the Leaning Tower of Pisa as a hat (Zdeněk Janda), and of course, this month’s cover (Milan Hencl). The full exhibit is on view March 8 through March 31.
Interestingly, Lipina got his own start in the art world not as an artist or curator, but as a mechanical engineer. After moving to Prague in 1979, Lipina found a job installing exhibitions at a gallery in the city.
“I always liked art and cultural things a lot,” Lipina says. “I wanted to work in some cultural field… I found many friends among artists and installed and produced many exhibitions.”
Opportunity came in 2000, when one of Lipina’s colleagues mentioned that a nearby gallery was going to close. Lipina took over, and Galerie La Femme was born.
While small, Lipina says the cosy, intimate space serves as an asset. With such limited area to exhibit art, each artist and their work is carefully chosen, and visitors feel more connected to the owner.
“When visitors come to us, they feel family and a kind atmosphere,” Lipina adds. “We like to talk with our visitors, to share with them an interest in paintings.”
In a sense, Galerie La Femme is a family. Lipina’s right hand in the gallery is his daughter, Mona, who as an artist herself creates unusual sculptures of nature and animals.
“We do really like our job, this art and meeting with our visitors at our gallery,” Lipina says. “That is why they also like to return, to see us again.”