“I predict an hour when the term ‘Women in Art’ will be as strange sounding a topic,” declared the great American painter, Cecilia Beaux, “as the title ‘Men in Art’ would be now.”
Cecilia Beaux’s prophetic remark was made back in 1915. Even with the seismic changes in the art world caused by Modernism, it was still a foregone conclusion for much of the twentieth century that any reference to the status of a woman in the arts would be prefaced by either the word “woman” or “female.”
Ironically, the hour that Beaux predicted may finally have arrived with the presentation of two exhibitions by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Both exhibits prominently include “woman” or “female” in their titles. But the effect of viewing these splendid exhibits is to realize that gender may influence the subject matter of art or help shape the perspective of a painter or sculptor. But an artist’s sex does not determine her – or his – talent. Together these PAFA exhibits certainly showcase a vast range of talent.
The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making their World and Modern Women at PAFA: From Cassatt to O’Keeffe display art by women artists from Victorian times to the present day. Of the two exhibits, the first is the more noteworthy because the works it presents were all amassed by a visionary collector, Linda Lee Alter.
It is often forgotten that women have been among the most significant patrons of the art of their own times. From Isabella d’Este during the Renaissance to Louisine Havermayer, the American feminist who championed the work of the Impressionists, female collectors have helped nurture the creative arts. The Linda Lee Alter collection, a distinguished body of nearly 500 works which she bequeathed to PAFA in 2010, certainly merits inclusion in such exalted company.
The paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, ceramics and fabric art, on view in The Female Gaze, were collected by Linda Lee Alter. A talented artist in her own right, Alter has a discerning eye for selecting significant expressions of female creativity. These works of art document the dynamic burst of energy by women artists during the twentieth century and are a visual counterpart to the feminist movement, one of the key events of modern history. All the works in the Alter collection were created by women artists active in the United States from the early 20th century to the present day.
Alter’s collection includes works which evoke the feminist movement and “women’s themes” like the brilliant sculptures by Viola Frey, send-ups of “1950’s Moms.” Other works, like the striking landscapes by Diane Burko, confound the image that women artists are obsessed by a limited subset of self-referential themes.
Women artists, in fact, have shared in the heroic side of art throughout history. Margaret Bourke White, Tina Modotti, Lee Miller are just a few of the women artists who figured prominently – and courageously – in the saga of twentieth century art. Joan Brown, whose magnificent self-portrait serves as the signature work for The Female Gaze, proved that women artists in more recent times have not been studio-bound “shrinking violets” either. Brown, (1938–1990), a San Francisco artist with a reverence for Eastern spirituality, died tragically while working on a major art project in India.
The role of women in the arts is an issue with renewed resonance thanks to the PAFA exhibit. In his all-too brief comment on The Female Gaze, the art critic for the New York Times, Ken Johnson, posed the question why women artists do not earn “big bucks” like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. While acknowledging the effect of sexism on market prices, Johnson asked, “But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make? Anyone with a theory about that will have a good opportunity to test it at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.”
Women artists have struggled for recognition for centuries. But even when supremely talented individuals like Cecilia Beaux or Mary Cassatt achieved recognition in art textbooks, it was seldom more than a brief mention. As late as the 1970’s, the male-oriented status quo completely dominated the art scene. During the 1980’s, Alter began collecting the work of women artists because she “realized the extent to which women’s art continued to be invisible in museums and galleries.”
What was also missing was the sensibility and perception that women bring to the arts that differs from that of male artists. Women’s faces and bodies have been the subject of male artists from time immemorial. Thematic treatment has ranged from pedestal-perched goddesses, chaste virgins and loving mothers to women as frankly-depicted sex objects. But how many representations of pregnant women – as individuals, as well as mothers-to-be – have been created by male artists?
One of the key pieces of the Alter Collection is Alice Neel’s oil on canvas, Claudia Bach Pregnant, painted in 1975. Born in 1900, Neel had a long career as a realist painter. But it was not until the 1970’s, the decade when the feminist movement started to gain momentum, that Neel began to gather popular acclaim. Neel was the subject of an important retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the year before she painted this picture.
Claudia Bach Pregnant was one of a series of portraits of nude women in advanced pregnancy that Neel painted. This particular painting is of special interest because the protagonist is posed in a similar way to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), Goya’s Nude Maja (1797-1800) and Manet’s Olympia (1863), all of which are the epitome of the male idea of female sensuality and manly arousal. In Neel’s painting, the sitter’s beauty is not compromised by her pregnant condition and makes no concessions to male desires. Claudia Bach is alive with the promise of new life, which in turn is an expression of her own individuality and of her place in the world.
By the time she died in 1984, Alice Neel had achieved a remarkable – and belated – degree of recognition for her work. In doing so, she had helped women artists to express their own individuality and to secure their place in the world of art – just as she done in her portrait of Claudia Bach.
Given the social ferment that marked the feminist movement, it was perhaps inevitable that a number of the works in the Alter collection would reflect the politicized climate from the 1970’s onward. Sue Coe’s satirical depiction of Anita Hill being burned at the stake before a U.S. Senate subcommittee is one such work. Despite the passion and skill evident in this 1991 drawing, Coe’s Thank You America is totally rooted in the 1990’s cause célèbre involving alleged sexual harassment of Hill by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas earlier in his career. Scathingly effective at the time of its creation, Coe’s work is now hard to disentangle from the politics of that era. Lacking a sense of universality, it struggles as an independent work of art.
A far more subtle work dealing with the oppression of women is Visage II, a 2004 painting by the Chinese-born artist, Hung Liu. Born in 1948, Hung Liu spent the years of the Cultural Revolution working in the wheat fields with China’s peasants. It was during that period that she began sketching and photographing. Following the relaxation of the creative tyranny of the Cultural Revolution, Hung Liu studied art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and at the University of California at San Diego. Upon returning to China in 1991, Hung Liu discovered a photo archive of young prostitutes from the turn of the twentieth century. The photos were a counterpart to pictures of the “mail-order brides” of Chinese emigrants to the United States. Only these unfortunate young women could expect little but lives of sexual slavery.
Hung Liu, who is now a U.S. citizen living in Oakland, California, uses these vintage photos as inspiration for large, arresting portraits. These remarkable works, of which Visage II is an excellent example, immediately draw attention from across the gallery. Using vivid color tones for the foundation layers of her paintings, Hung Liu, then dilutes her paints with linseed oil and allows these to drip down the canvas, muting the colors and washing away or blurring details. It is as if the tears of the long-dead women have somehow re-emerged, streaking down over the bogus costumes and settings in which they had been posed for “sale.”
Once glimpsed, it is hard to get the faces of these tragic women out of one’s mind. In a statement of her artistic intent, Hung Liu stated that “The oil washes and drips that seep through my paintings contribute to a sense of loss while dissolving the historical authenticity of the photographs I paint from. Color is a way of making contact with subjects that are fading into the gray tones of history.”
Visage II is thus a timeless work of art effecting communion with past generations of women who have suffered and endured. It has an unsettling polemical comment to make on the international trafficking of women, reminding us of this equally repellent feature of the contemporary world.
The Art by Women Collection at PAFA is a testament of Alter’s vision as a collector and of the diversity and strength of art created by women. No collection of modern American art is really complete without a piece by Louise Nevelson and Alter purchased a 1972 creation, South Floral to represent this great American artist. Nevelson’s career spanned the years from the WPA during the Depression to the post-war boom years, during much of which she was still a struggling artist–teacher. Her explorations in three dimensional forms ranged from intricate painted-wood sculptures like South Floral to the monumental outdoor pieces of her later years.
Louise Nevelson inspired many young women in their art careers, but she is also a link to the great past of American women in the arts. The Female Gaze previewed at PAFA in November 2012 and PAFA opened a second, complementary exhibit in January 2013 that traces the long history of artistic endeavor by American women. The exhibit is aptly named Modern Women at PAFA, because many of the great women artists in America studied at PAFA, Cecilia Beaux and Mary Cassatt among them.
Cassatt’s oil on canvas from around 1891, Baby on Mother’s Arm, may seem like the kind of art that most people associate with women: maternal, reassuring, unchallenging to society and tradition. But it needs to be remembered that the trail-blazing Cassatt transferred her own emotional urges into her art at the expense of her personal, private life. Her paintings were her “children” and generations of American artists and art lovers, female and male, are the direct beneficiaries of her devotion to art.
Together, these two exhibits establish the vital role of American women artists within the whole canon of American art. American women in the arts have never constituted a “special studies department” remote from Main Street USA and the dramatic life stories of the American people. With Linda Lee Altar’s collection and the masterpieces of Cassatt, Beaux and O’Keeffe to inspire us, PAFA has gone a long way to insuring that this will always be so.
The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World appears at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 North Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19102 (November 17 – April 7, 2013)
Modern Women at PAFA: From Cassatt to O’Keeffe appears at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 North Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19102 (January 12 – September 1, 2013)