“NMWA was founded in 1981 with the singular mission to bring to light remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today. Through its programming, NMWA directly addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art, therefore assuring great women artists a place of honor now and into the future.”
I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) last week to view “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea, ” an exhibition of close to 70 works that trace the development of Marian imagery. I expected to see exquisite pieces from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They are there—Michaelangelo, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Della Robia, Fra Fillippo Lippi, who is one of my all-time faves, and more. The exhibition also includes textiles, prints, reliefs, stained glass, sculptures and paintings. There’s a nod to the north with six Durer woodcuts, and a grisaille on loan from the National Gallery of Art, in Washington. There’s also a Tiepolo on loan from the NGA, you know, the one with the baby that looks like a real baby.
As a modern woman and artist, I was curious to see if the museum would rise to the occasion and present works that were more contemporary as well and present a conversation about Mary, within the theological context as well as in a secular, social, and art historical one. NMWA has presented feminist artists, so why not present women theologians and feminist art historians on the topic as well? Let’s face it; we women are still dealing with the repercussions of Madonna-Whore syndrome in some way, shape or form in our daily lives as well as globally via media entertainment and advertising. It never seems to end. My expectations were dashed however, when I read the exhibition only considered works up to the 18th century, so as to compliment the architecture of the museum building. An odd explanation considering most of the exhibition space obliterates the architecture with standard gallery white walls and wall-to-wall carpeting.
Many of the works in the exhibition are breathtaking in their execution and should be viewed with an understanding of their art historical context and developments. There is very adequate explanation of the symbolism involved in the work of the eras, and how artists developed ways of depicting the Madonna and Child, but unfortunately, there was a lack of discussion of developments in artistic craft and technique.
Here also, was an opportunity for a museum that has focused on women artists in the past to continue its work as well, particularly since it just won the Simone de Beauvoir prize from France. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simone_de_Beauvoir_Prize . The de Beauvoir prize is ordinarily given to individuals for outstanding humanitarian service, not to institutions.
There are but four women artists in this exhibition, including Artemisia Gentileschi, which is not surprising given historical conditions and because only in the last 40 years have female Renaissance and medieval artists begun to receive their scholarly due. Gentileschi’s approach to Mary is humanist. I adore humanism. Mary is no longer enthroned, she is simply dressed on a plain chair, perched somewhat awkwardly in haste, perhaps interrupted from a chore by her hungry son, and naturally bears her breast to the Christ child.
For the museum to present a major exhibition on Marian imagery as a central theme and not include images beyond the 18th century and ignore more modern depictions by artists and women artists for that matter, is beyond my comprehension really. For the curator, Monsignor Timothy Verdon, to omit them, I completely understand.
Everything about this presentation seems to trumpet, “We’re showing images of the most amazing, strongest and iconic woman of all time and that does fit in with our mission!” No, you’ve strayed from your mission NMWA. I am deeply disappointed. You’ve shifted your emphasis from women as creators to woman as subject matter by mostly men as orchestrated by one of the most patriarchal institutions in history, and you’re getting an honor from the Simone de Beauvoir Foundation too, most probably based on work prior to this exhibition. Simone, if she knew, would be rolling over in her grave.
Picturing Mary is also accompanied by an on-line virtual exhibition A Global Icon: Mary in Context http://nmwa.org/global-icon with numerous fascinating works of Mary from the middle east, Asia, Central and South America and other cultures. There is a printed catalog available for sale.
The exhibition is on view through April 12 (through Easter).
The National Museum of Women in the Arts: 1250 New York Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20005
Charles Krause is at it again thank goodness. The DC gallery owner and former news correspondent, whose raison d’etre is to show artwork with political content, is focusing a spotlight this month on serious issues facing us all. Culled from what is now a national annual open call, the exhibition includes 61 works by 19 artists on a wide range of issues that are currently caught in a no man’s land of political blue-red gridlock.
Sometimes, politically inspired work becomes too literal or too-in-your-face in its approach, but with the daily plethora of pabulum that we are fed in all forms of media, it is no surprise that artists are often compelled to use a shock effect now and again to get our attention. There is no shortage of this in the current presentation, but for the most part, I was drawn to works that included other elements and approaches.
It isn’t easy to inject humor into serious content, but two artists stand out in the exhibition for the capacity to lighten up a bit. Anatol Zuckerman’s colorful Law and Order drawing, is a mixed media work on paper, with content highlighting a justice system that provides the best legal representation money can buy. The drawing, with figures and characters reminiscent of painter Richard Lindner and even the film “Yellow Submarine,” is a symmetrical composition that features a tower or monument of corrupt power caricatures, with a nude Lady Justice lying down on the job and appearing somewhat inebriated at the top. The work brings with it a dark humor that lingers.
Another work with a humorous vein is Tea for Two: The Koch Brothers’ Legacy by artist Kathleen Ramich. This is one of her signature sculptural light works cum conversation piece, incorporating a large illuminated red ‘T’ form with assembled and found objects that evoke and mock the influence of the Koch brothers and their Tea “Party.” Ramich’s work often incudes a biting humor and I couldn’t help laughing out loud at the centrally-placed mirror image, antique Germanic sweet mold, featuring two little boys sitting across from each other with eyes locked to infinity. More sweets for these sweeties? Please catch my sarcasm.
I was also taken by the subtle and sensitive figurative works of Jennie Neyer, who’s subject is a single homeless woman. She has been drawing this subject for 30 years. Neyer creates authentic and careful treatments of the woman that give one pause. In Homeless, a 30 x 40 inch oil pastel, a figure emerges in subtle tones and textures out of an ambiguous space and is rendered with a respect that defies objectification. As I write this blog, a bill waits before Congress that would include children who are homeless in the definition of “homeless.” Currently children are eliminated from any dialog. It is given a 3% chance for passage. The gridlock on social issues continues.
A human-scale assemblage sculpture by R.M. Croft titled Abandoned Litter commands attention in Krause’s back gallery. Mounted on the wall at an angle, it is at first glance, an interesting form that could relate to transport, yet not so and somewhat alien. Closer inspection reveals that it is comprised of crutches, canes, a beach chair frame, medical hardware, straps and tapes. The whole alludes to the tragedy faced by our wounded vets and the mass domestic gun violence that is now so commonplace in our country.
Peace is a notion that never even enters the discussion before Congress, as the two dominant parties blindly and blithely march to war, but artist Roy Utley has a solution. The Art of Peace is a conceptual work that applies a systematic approach and as such joins a host of contemporary artists who use unique diagrams, schematics, or Venn diagrams. Utley has created a schematic that will school the viewer from point A to point B and more, in how peace can be achieved by following a literal blueprint format with a near step-by-step diagram. The artist explains, it’s “a worldview system map fashioned as a digital logic circuit with feedback loops. It demonstrates a systemic approach to peace-building and conflict resolution theory and practice, critical thinking and positive psychology to shift our culture of war to a culture of peace.” Hint: You’ll need to brush up on your Jung, Gandhi and other heavy hitters.
As I publish this blog, the midterm election results are in this morning. There’s been a shift. Really? The roles are reversed so let the stonewalling and filibustering begin. Where will we be on the political spectrum in this country the next time Krause has a call for art? One thing for sure, there will be no lack of content.
Lines Drawn: America’s Artists Look Beyond the Politics of Red and Blue is on view through November 30.
CHARLES KRAUSE/REPORTING FINE ART Gallery is located at 1300 13th Street NW, corner of N, Suite 105, Washington DC 20005. The gallery is open every Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., without prior appointment. To make an appointment outside of these hours call: 202 638-3612 or please REQUEST A VISIT form at: http://www.charleskrausereporting.com/contact_us.as
Political and social issues in art have been around since the Greeks exalted multiple deities and the Romans put conquering Emperors on pedestals. With Christianity, came the Church with a capital ‘C’, that great supporter of artists and in the business of visually elevating God through aesthetically glorious visual spectacle. Where some would call it blessed, others might call it propaganda. Artists of the time were there to augment the secular and religious powers of the times and so secure their livelihoods.
Always an integral part of society, artists provided labor, talent, ideas, and craftsmanship. From illuminated manuscripts and Gothic cathedrals to the monuments and religious architectures of the East, Egypt, and Middle East, their contribution is clear. Their skills embellished the objects of everyday life, the religions of the day, and their talents amused and elevated the status of kings and emperors alike. For centuries they were brilliant illustrators of life and culture in the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age and the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Japanese 17th through 19th centuries.
It wasn’t until the 19th century however, when a Spanish painter named Francisco Goya painted his famous work The Third of May 1808, completed in1814, when a giant shift in visual art began. Goya’s piece, showing a man blindfolded in front of a firing squad at the moment of firing is widely considered the first to critique the horrors of war, and as such ushers in a modern age where the artist is freed to be overt portrayer and political commenter on global events. Goya’s print series The Disasters of War (1810-20), which are not for the faint of heart, became a springboard for countless artists of modern times, who dared to critique the social and political landscape. Goya paves the way for Edouard Manet’s The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1868-69) and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, (1934) depicting the destruction of an entire town at the hand of the fascist leader Francisco Franco.
In America, numerous European artists escaped the aftermaths of WWI and WWII and settled in New York City with the memories of global conflict still fresh. In the case of Arshile Gorky it was the memory of Armenian genocide and in Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali’s surreal landscapes that bear witness to devastation and human suffering.
War wasn’t the only topic for socially concerned artists. In this hemisphere, at the early part of the 20th century, Mexican artists David Siquieros and Diego Rivera were depicting the laborers, working poor and bloody histories of Mexico. Rivera’s murals were in demand and he created the Detroit Industry Murals depicting the skilled laborers of a then booming and cutting-edge car industry. His Rockefeller Center murals didn’t fair so well, when he centrally located a portrait of Lenin into a group of figures of celebrated leftists. The murals were censored and painted over in their Art Deco surroundings and survive only in the photographs of Swiss photographer Lucienne Bloch.
American artists working for the Works Projects Administration documented the crisis of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and regional aspects of American society. The works of Bronx-born artist Ralph Fasanella, recently celebrated in an exhibition at the National Museum of American Art, portrayed the “common man” and working conditions, as the artist himself was a laborer and labor organizer.
Fast forward to the 1960s, that decade of some of the most rapid change America has ever seen. Pop artists thrived while they depicted consumer goods and replicated mass production. Warhol is always noted for his soup cans, and his Hollywood idols–all accessible all of the time, but how familiar is his broader audience with his Electric Chairs prints?
In the late 1970s, an epidemic descended on the world and artists were some of the first to lose their friends and associates. Keith Haring in New York was one of the first to dedicate a significant number of works to the scourge of AIDS in his figurative and delightfully “animated style. Part graffiti artist Haring took his work to the streets for all to see, making his point on walls and on midtown sidewalks. Haring was on the front lines and died of AIDS.
Artists may focus on social issues as their life’s work and oeuvre as do contemporary artists Sue Coe, Leonardo Drew, Thomas Hirschhorn, Glenn Ligon, Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker and nearly countless others, or they may be moved to create a singular piece in response to specific events, as in an unusual work by Willem DeKooning. Known for his expressionistic figurative works of women and an overriding focus on the formal aspects of painting, it was discovered in the late 1990s that DeKooning was so affected by the assassination of John F. Kennedy he portrayed a reclining male figure with the recognizable face of the president.
Throughout history, artists with political leanings and concerns have been censored, jailed, mocked, blackmailed, blackballed and killed in attempts to silence their voices in times of political jockeying. Luckily, in most cases, the work and the artists survive. Work is shown in waves or cycles, and remembered or not as politics ebb, flow and change. Sometimes artists have couched their ideas and communication depending on the tenor of the times, but others are more direct. As with most things and in art there is a season, a time to reflect and a time to communicate, a time to evoke and a time to provoke, a time to debate and a time to “activate.”