Of Women and their Invisibility in Histories of Abstraction: Vera Zilzer and Ingibjörg Bjarnason[1]

22 February 2023 - no responses

Author: Ayelen Pagnanelli


The lives of Ingibjörg Bjarnason (1901-1967) and Vera Zilzer (1927-2004), as different as they were, resemble those of many women artists. Young women who dived into the modern art scene, only to be erased from its history while their lives took them in different directions, often away from art. At the same time, displacements of the 20th century shaped the paths of mother and daughter: Bjarnason and Zilzer.

Vera Zilzer was part of the 1957 exhibition ¿Qué cosa es el coso? [What thing is the thing?] along with some other male artists in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There are no known photographic records of the works Zilzer presented there but the written accounts agree that they were works on paper made with automatic procedures, most probably appropriated from surrealist practices, carried out in groups, perhaps even under the influence of LSD.[2] This exhibition has been inscribed in the history of Argentine art as a turning point of the modernist paradigm.[3] ¿Qué cosa es el coso? constitutes an unavoidable precedent for understanding the artistic transformations of the period and yet, Zilzer is a ghostly presence in the histories of art, inhabiting, at most, the space of footnotes, just like her mother.

Born in Monaco in 1927, Vera Zilzer was the result of a relationship between two artists: Icelandic Ingibjörg St. H. Bjarnason[4] and Hungarian Gyula Zilzer;[5] who both lived in Paris and circulated in its modern art scene in the mid-1920s. Gyula Zilzer was a socialist printmaker of Jewish origin who first suffered anti-Semitic persecution in Hungary. His lithograph series, “Gaz,” from 1932, was prescient regarding the actions of Hitler and Mussolini in the death camps.[6] In 1932, he took refuge in the United States where he died in 1971, and did not have a close relationship with Vera Zilzer during her lifetime. As for Vera, being part Jewish against a background of growing anti-Semitism determined the fates of both her and her mother.[7] In the early thirties, she increasingly realized that her life and that of her daughter were in danger. They first left Paris for Iceland in 1933 and later, in 1939, when Iceland did not seem safe either, they fled to Buenos Aires.[8] Bjarnason lived in Argentina until her death in 1967.[9] In turn, this year would mark Zilzer’s departure from Argentina due to the repressive military Ongania government.

While in Argentina, Vera Zilzer studied art in Tucumán, in the north of Argentina, and in Buenos Aires where she was active in the modern art scene since the 1950s. Zilzer was an active printmaker as well as a painter, and exhibited through the mid 1950s to the late 1960s. She was part of the Salon de Arte Nuevo [New Art Salon], organized by Aldo Pellegrini – promoter of surrealism in Argentina – in a project that implied embracing forms of abstraction far from geometry, and surrealist methods.[10]  She was a mainstay of the scene and had gained critical recognition. In 1965 she participated in a collective exhibition where Oscar Masotta, art critic and theorist, a key figure in the 1960s wrote a text for the catalog. In it, Masotta placed Zilzer as an original artist, “she paints against. Firstly, against reality (…) she works against the current history of Argentine painting, against the movements that are contemporary to her”.[11] So, Masotta recognized Zilzer as an independent artist due to her unique poetic quests.

After these experiences as an artist in Buenos Aires, Zilzer continued her whole life close to art. Zilzer had a teaching position at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes Manuel Belgrano [Manuel Belgrano National School of Fine Arts] from which she was officially dismissed in 1967 during the Onganía dictatorship.[12]  Following this event, Zilzer moved to New York City where she got involved in art therapy becoming a professor in New York University. She continued to develop her methods in Turin, Italy becoming a pioneer in the field, and in 1997 she published a book dedicated to art therapy.[13] At the same time, she maintained an artistic practice, exhibited drawings in commercial art galleries in Turin. However, a retrospective exhibition of her work was never held, neither in Argentina nor in Italy, and her name remains unknown. Reflecting on Zilzer’s experience is particularly resonant given that there are echoes of her mother’s trajectory in Paris.

Born in 1901 and raised in Switzerland, Ingibjörg St. H. Bjarnason studied art in Berlin and, after divorcing her first husband, Theodor Stein, moved to Paris.[14] There, she got involved with the art world and produced abstract, non-figurative work. In 1929 she had a solo exhibition at the Povolotzky Gallery,[15] which supported non-figurative art.[16] Bjarnason lived at 5 Rue Kleber with her partner, the Belgian poet and artist Michel Seuphor, an influential figure on the Parisian scene.[17] Bjarnason was at the center of Cercle et Carré, the group formed by Seuphor and Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García in 1929. In fact, a large number of photographs of this group show her centrality, and she even appears in iconic images of Cercle et Carré. Bjarnason exhibited three works in the great exhibition in Paris that the group held in 1930, which included around 130 abstract artworks.[18] Unfortunately, of the works made by Bjarnason only one has survived: Untitled, in the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany.[19] It is a geometric composition with a careful balance of colors and figures; in the center a series of rectangles of different dark tones create the illusion of a cross to which a light triangle superimposes it.

Bjarnason stopped making artworks in Paris. Her correspondence from the time describes a hostile environment for her artistic development.[20] She turned to performing beauty treatments and founding the company “Vera Simillon” (a name she used in Paris),[21] which was active during the 1930s in Iceland. In Buenos Aires, she worked in the health sector, had no ties to the local art scene, and did not produce any artworks. None of the works she brought to Argentina have survived; apparently they were stolen from her home in Buenos Aires and their current whereabouts are unknown.[22] Bjarnason remained absent from the Cercle et Carré stories, and little has been written in the histories of European abstraction. Fortunately, in recent years there have been attempts to incorporate her both from women’s histories in Iceland and from feminist art histories.[23]

“Ingeborg Bjarnason, Denis Honegger, Manolita Pina de Torres, Joaquín Torres-García, Piet Mondrian, Florence Henri, Georges Vantongerloo y Madam Schall” at https://www.rouillac.com/fr/lot-197-72137-michel_seuphor_1901_1999le_groupe_cercle


Bjarnason was an artist involved in one of the most significant European avant gardes. Shortly thereafter, growing anti-Semitism forced her to move to Iceland with her young daughter and then to Argentina, where history would repeat itself. Vera Zilzer was part of the Buenos Aires art scene in the 1950s and 1960s participating in a groundbreaking exhibition, yet moved to the United States, driven out by a conservative, authoritarian dictatorship in Latin America. Bjarnason suffered invisibility on the Parisian scene and in Cercle et Carré. An erasure that her daughter, Vera Zilzer, would experience decades later with the Argentine scene and that echoes the trajectories of many women across the centuries.



[1] Translated and adapted from fragments of my upcoming PhD dissertation.

[2] Some mentioned that this was a collective endeavor, see Andrea Giunta, ‘Destrucción-creación en la vanguardia argentina del sesenta: entre arte destructivo y Ezeiza es Trelew. Arte y política. Mercados y violencia’, Razón y revolución 4 (1998): 3; Jorge Lopez Anaya, La vanguardia informalista (Buenos Aires: Alberto Sendrós, 2003), 24; Nelly Perazzo, El grupo informalista argentino (Buenos Aires, 1978).

[3] Andrea Giunta, Vanguardia, internacionalismo y política: Arte argentino en los años sesenta (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2015), 94; Marcelo Pacheco, ‘Arte pituco y arte post-histórico: Argentina 1957-1965’, in Heterotopías : medio siglo sin-lugar, 1918-1968 : Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2000), 184; Jóvenes y modernos de los años 50 : en diálogo con la colección Ignacio Pirovano (Buenos Aires: Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, 2012), 27.

[4] With the same name as her aunt, the first parliamentarian woman in Iceland.

[5] Dora Bjarnasson, Brot (Reikiavik: Benedikt, 2019), 91.

[6] Shaul Greenstein, ‘The Artist Who Forewarned the Dangers of the Nazis’, The Librarians (blog), accessed 15 July 2021, https://blog.nli.org.il/en/zilzer/.

[7] Bjarnason had become close to Judaism.

[8] Bjarnasson, Brot, 10.

[9] Bjarnasson, 148.

[10] María Amalia García, ‘Informalism between Surrealism and Concrete Art: Aldo Pellegrini and the Promotion of Modern Art in Buenos Aires during the 1950s’, in New Geographies of Abstract Art in Postwar Latin America, ed. Mariola V. Alvarez and Ana M. Franco (Nueva York: Routledge, 2019), 15.

[11] Oscar Masotta, ‘No Hay Mejor Manera de Caracterizar’, in Martha Gavensky, Bob Sinclair, Osvaldo Stimm, Vera Zilzer (Buenos Aires: Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, 1965).

[12] Boletín Oficial de La República Argentina, 1967, https://archive.org/details/Boletin_Oficial_Republica_Argentina_1ra_seccion_1967-08-04/page/n3/mode/2up?q=zilzer.

[13] Vera Zilzer, L’ombrello a colori: metodi, casi ed esperienze di arte-terapia (Milan: Angeli, 1997).

[14] Bjarnasson, Brot, 79.

[15] Maria Faxedas Brujats, ‘Women Artists of “Cercle et Carré”: Abstraction, Gender and Modernity’ 36 (1 January 2015): 37–46.

[16] Gladys C. Fabre, ‘Introducción: París 1930, el estado de las cosas’, in Arte abstracto, arte concreto : Cercle et carré, Paris, 1930 : IVAM Centre Julio González, 20 septiembre/2 diciembre 1990 (Valencia: IVAM Centre Julio González, 1990), 16.

[17] See Michel Seuphor’s letter in Bjarnasson, Brot, 247–48; Faxedas Brujats, ‘Women Artists of “Cercle et Carré”’, 38.

[18] ‘Cercle et Carre’, no. 2 (1930); Faxedas Brujats, ‘Women Artists of “Cercle et Carré”’.

[19] After the efforts of her niece, Dora Bjarnasson, to restore this artist to Icelandic history, the work was turned into a postage stamp in 2015 in that country.

[20] Bjarnasson, Brot, 105.

[21] Bjarnasson, 144.

[22] Dora Bjarnasson, Brot (Reikiavik: Benedikt, 2019), 158.

[23] Ulf Thomas Moberg, Nordisk konst i 1920-talets avantgarde: uppbrott och gränsöverskridande (Stockholm: Cinclus, 1995); Faxedas Brujats, ‘Women Artists of “Cercle et Carré”’.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The maximum upload file size: 15 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

scroll up