Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris
We were captivated a few years ago by WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, a dynamic international survey examining the relationship between feminism and art, so were thrilled to hear the Seattle Art Museum would be the only North American venue to present Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris – and wondered if it could possibly compare, especially considering the works all hail from a single museum’s holdings. Elles tells the story of modern and contemporary art through the work of women artists and includes painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video and installation that demonstrates just how radical and important women’s participation was and continues to be in art – the exhibition spans almost a century with more than 125 artworks ranging in date from 1909 to 2007 by 75 female artists. Previously on view in Paris for almost 2 years, Elles significantly shifted discourse on modern and contemporary art by telling its history solely from the perspective of women.
Cleverly marketed focusing on paintings such as Suzanne Valadon’s reclining odalisque, La chambre bleue, and Romaine Brooks’ self-portrait, Au bord de la mer, the exhibition is boldly installed, intertwining modern with contemporary works – although visitors with a more conservative palette may have come to view modernist painting, they have no choice but to contend with gender-bending photography and jarring videos alongside more traditional formats. Although the show’s signature image, La chambre bleue, at cursory glance appears to be just another decorative representation of a reclining female, upon closer inspection it reveals the defiant attitude present in much of the work presented in Elles: the subject is mature, corporeal and painted with her books, a cigarette in her mouth and a knowing, withering look in her eye.
Thematically and loosely chronologically installed, naturally Elles explores themes around self-representation, womanhood as a social construct, and the body as contested terrain, presenting it as a battle ground where war is waged daily. Starting with a section titled “The Early Avant-Garde: Vision and Influence”, the show begins by examining women artists’ contributions to major movements of the first half of the 20th century and includes works such as Natalia Goncharova’s exuberant Dame au chapeau, 1913, a raucous self-portrait marrying elements of Futurism, Cubism, text and plumes as well as Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s, delicate, muted geometric forms in 1920 Dada. Questioning static conceptions of sexuality and gender through the representation of the body in “Get Your Woman On”, Claude Cahun’s gender-defying Autoportait (Self-Portrait) which presents the artist with a razed head, dressed in a suit, and accentuating her beak-like nose is shocking for its 1919 date – it is as staunchly defiant as any contemporary image. In the video The King, 1972, Eleanor Antin posits masculinity as a guise, applying a beard and stroking it proudly, smirking. Martha Rosler’s seminal Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, presents a deranged Stepford Wife in the kitchen, demonstrating the use of utensils from A-Z with violent, automatic actions, satirizing the domestic sphere. Sections on “Paris/New York” and “Paris in the 1920s and 1930s” contain imagery of the marginalized including cross-dressing performers by Lisette Model and Diane Arbus as well as Gisèle Freund’s portraits of her creative friends, including a commanding and seductive image of Simone de Beauvoir reclining with her books, wearing a skirt but also a shirt and tie – part odalisque, part intellectual.
The exhibition moves deftly through the major movements of the 20th century including the Bauhaus, Abstraction, and Surrealism which is well-represented with Germaine Dulac’s films juxtaposed beside Dorthea Tanning’s Portrait of a Family, 1954, in which a ghostly father figure without eyes hovers over his family’s table. A young girl in white sits gingerly, while the mother/wife serves the family dog – a bold statement on patriarchy. The Frame, 1938, by Frida Kahlo is a tiny, jewel-like self-portrait that is incredibly powerful despite its small scale, drawing the viewer in to appreciate its delicately painted surface. But Elles is particularly compelling where women engage with feminist critiques, rebelling against traditional representations of the body and externally imposed ideals of beauty. Videos such as Marina Ambramović, Art must be beautiful, Artist must be beautiful, 1975, with the artist almost violently brushing her hair, expressing a sort of latent anxiety about conforming to societal standards of beauty and Eleanor Antin’s Representational Painting, 1971, a silent video in which the artist paints her face as a canvas using the camera as a vanity mirror, remain gripping and incisive in their commentary some 40 years after they were made. Interlacing these decades-old, now iconic works with Cindy Sherman’s Untitled film stills and Rineke Dijkstra’s portrait of an awkward teen at the water’s edge along a beach, her posture recalling Botticelli’s Venus, breathes new life into works we’ve seen before and gives historical context to more contemporary examples of artists continuing to explore the political significance of the body.
Elles proved to be a stunning vehicle for the Centre Pompidou’s rich and extensive holdings. The exhibition particularly shines in its attempt to eradicate the divide between men and women, suggesting that these distinctions are no longer relevant since it is possible to share the history of art through the work of women exclusively. In this, Elles is as radical as the women artists it presents.