“Women take over” reads one banner outside the Seattle Art Museum. Others are printed with a single name on each side: Diane. Cindy. Mona. Inside the front door, Agnès Thurnauer’s Life-size portraits plays with gender: “Annie Warhol,” “Francine Bacon,” “La Corbusier” read the enormous painted lapel buttons. And upstairs, art – more than 150 works – created by women. In the modern and contemporary galleries right now, you won’t find a single painting, sculpture or installation made by a man. Down have come works by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning, replaced by the likes of Frida Kahlo, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner. The women have indeed taken over. At least for now.
Two exhibitions – Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris (or Elles: Pompidou) and a made-in-Seattle complement, Elles: SAM – celebrate the work of female artists and, more to the point, provide critical illumination of the gender imbalance in visual art institutions.
Camille Morineau, chief curator of the Paris exhibition, pointed this out in her catalogue essay: In May 2009, 100 per cent of the works in her Elles exhibit were made by women, but art by women comprised only 18 per cent of the museum’s full collection.
“The [Elles] event is the bold inversion that this statistic underscores, compared to the sad litany of percentages that has punctuated every celebration of International Women’s Day ever since I have been reading newspapers,” Morineau writes, going on to cite examples of gender inequality in the workforce and academic life.
These works of art have come a long way, baby, to take up residence in Seattle – the show’s only North American stop – and the show gets the sometimes heated conversation started here. It’s a grand gesture, but is it the right one? A few months after the enormous Centre Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris received its gender makeover, Germaine Greer wrote a critique that, if not entirely scathing, was totally dismissive.
“The effect of offering a sampler of the work of 200 women is to diminish the achievement of all of them,” Greer wrote in a January, 2010, Guardian piece about the Paris show. “By lumping the major with the minor, and by showing only minor works of major figures, elles@centrepompidou managed to convince too many visitors to the exhibition that there was such a thing as women’s art and that women artists were going nowhere. Wrong, on both counts.”
Walking through the exhibition in Seattle, this is not the impression left by what is, yes, a very broad survey. It’s not that there’s such a thing as “women’s art,” but that over the last century women have been making art that to varying degrees has been overlooked, and in many cases has lacked the exposure that male artists received.
Is it so wrong, then, to make a bold statement by sweeping the men from the galleries and replacing them – temporarily – with works by women? And in this way to examine the 20th century through this altered lens?
“The big impact for me is to see it really as a historical development, to have this long view, to be able to look at the many and incredibly diverse contributions that women have made even just through the 100 years and also to see how the conversation is shifting in a subtle way,” said Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, during a recent tour of the exhibitions.
Elles: Pompidou covers the period from 1900 – the year of the founding of the Women’s International Art Club in Paris – to 2007, when, for the first time, women artists represented 50 per cent of exhibitors at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. Elles includes works by 75 women, including those banner artists – Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman and Mona Hatoum.
The exhibition is organized by theme rather than chronology, with areas such as “Get Your Woman On” (dealing with gender identity) and “Genital Panic” (dealing with the charged gender politics of the 1960s and 1970s; this section takes its name from a now mythic 1968 performance in a Munich porn theatre by artist Valie Export).
The show is confrontational and aggressive at times – but also coy and playful. It makes you laugh and it makes you uncomfortable. It certainly makes you think.
“It could have been a different exhibition if we talked only about how oppressed women artists were in the early 20 th century,” says Marisa C. Sanchez, SAM’s former associate curator who worked with the Pompidou centre to put together the Seattle show (and who is now a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia). “We kind of took the other route to say: This is the contribution of women artists in the early 20 th century. Yes they might have been up against these things, but this is the work that they did. The possibilities were there. It was that they saw them and worked and worked and worked towards creating new ground at every turn.”