Guerilla Girls

“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” a poster in the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) asks provocatively. This work, by the Guerrilla Girls, links statistics from the Metropolitan Museum itself to make its case: Less than 3% of artists in the Met’s Modern Art sections are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.

The Guerrilla Girls’ poster is one of the 130 works, by 75 women artists, comprising Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the exhibition that has taken over the Seattle Art Museum through January 13.

The Pompidou electrified the art world in 2009 when it replaced its entire on-view modern art collection with more than 1,000 works by women artists from 1905 on. The SAM exhibit is the distillation of that show (and is the only U.S. venue), supplemented with works (in a separate area) by female artists culled from the museum’s collection and works on loan from regional collectors.

The exhibit itself, while organized by general subjects, is about a redefinition of the history of art. Here we find Dora Maar as an artist, not Picasso’s muse, as she is generally known.  The Guerrilla Girls—“feminist masked avengers in the tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Wonder Woman and Batman . . . exposing sexism, racism and corruption  . . . with facts, humor and outrageous visuals” continues to be an active collective that makes clear the intersection of feminism and art.  

Feminism is a vitally important aspect of both the Seattle and the larger Pompidou exhibits.  Visitors leave newly aware of the scope of work by women artists and better able to recognize (and include) art by women in future exhibitions, books, and galleries. We must review the Guerrilla Girls’ statistics each year and expect progress. Women not only hold up at least half the sky, we are now challenged to produce, sell, and display at least half the worthwhile art.  These exhibitions help provide the tipping point.  We can move on.

American art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1970 question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” demonstrated that, historically, the opportunity to achieve artistic greatness has been reserved for males.  A follow-up conference at Princeton in 2001 revolved around Nochlin’s topic.  Her article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists; Thirty Years After” came out in the subsequent book. 

Louise Nevelson’s Reflections on a Waterfall II, a sculptural representation in the SAM exhibit, demonstrates visually what Virginia Woolf was talking about in her essay A Room of One’s Own, 1929.  Women artists need the means and the space to work.

There are too many of my favorites in the exhibit to enumerate, though I enjoyed viewing photographers Lisette Model and Diane Arbus, as well as meeting new-to-me artists like Suzanne Valadon and her 1923 Le Chambre Bleue, depicting a confident and colorful woman, reclining with her cigarette and her books.

791px-The_Blue_Room_by_Suzanne_ValadonLe Chambre Bleue, by Suzanne Valadon

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Queen Califia on her eagle throne at the center of Queen Califia’s Magic Circle, Kit Carson Park, Escondido, California. Photo: Toni Myers.

My personal favorite of the Elles artists is Niki de Saint Phalle. One of her earliest Nanas (larger-than-life archetypal-woman figures), “The Crucifixion,” dominates a wall at 8 feet x 4 feet.  Made of “miscellaneous objects,” it seems to demand that we come up with our own interpretations.  Her Nanas are reminiscent of ancient voluptuous female portrayals, and, to me, exemplify the “Women Take Over” aspect of Elles.  Saint Phalle was born in France, spent most of her first 20 years in New York City, and has sculpture and paintings in museums and parks around the world.  Her fanciful Stravinsky Fountain outside the Pompidou (with her partner Jean Tinguely) and her mosaic sculpture garden, Queen Califia’s Magic Circle, a hidden gem in Kit Carson Park, Escondido, California, are examples of her wildly colorful, independent, and diverse vision of the world.

Among the programs accompanying the Seattle exhibit is the “Wall of Women,” celebrating more than 800 local women. SAM members were invited to make a donation ($150 or more) in honor of remarkable women we know. Many locally famous names appear, as well as unsung heroes like my own honoree, LaVern Hager (below), now age 90, yet continuing to visit bedridden elders at a local retirement home and to make occasional visits to help out at a local food bank. She no longer has the stamina to take two buses three times a week to get there and to stand up for several hours serving food, but will continue to have an active role in the wellbeing of our community as long as she is able.  A remarkable woman!

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Honoree LaVern Hager at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Toni Myers.

It was a mob scene at the Wall’s opening (a surprise to the museum, since most fundraisers draw a select crowd) as we helped each other out by photographing honorees and celebrating everyone’s accomplishments. I gave LaVern a framed copy of her certificate so she can show off to her children, grandchildren, and great-grands.  She has displayed her creativity in needlework and inventive quilts; her daughter became a costume designer.

The book Women Artists elles@centre pompidou is published by both museums. The 2012 edition is available via the Seattle Art Museum shop at $45 (with everything from original Pompidou exhibit catalog).  The Paris edition is for sale online from Amazon secondary sellers.

While the Pompidou exhibit coordinator, Camille Morineau, states, in the catalog, that the representation of women versus men in museum collections is, ultimately, no longer important, we will continue to prove it. The two exhibitions are important milestones on this path.