Take Suzanne Valadon. Born in 1865, she worked as a model for artists such as Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Always watching and learning, she became a noted painter herself (Degas was a fan) and was the first female painter to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Her talent for taking the existing language of art and inverting it for her own purposes is on bold display in Elles: Pompidou in her 1923 master work La Chambre bleue.
Photos by Dora Maar offer a new perspective on the woman best known as Picasso’s muse and, ultimately, discarded lover, her image (and name) familiar from his works such as Dora Maar with Cat and Guernica, in which she was the inspiration for the weeping woman. Maar was an accomplished photographer who documented the development of Guernica (her photographs were seen in the recent Picasso show at the Art Gallery of Ontario). Here, in Elles, she is celebrated not as someone who inspired art, but as someone who made it.
The Guerrilla Girls took the art world to task in the 1980s by pointing out gender inequality at both large public institutions and small commercial galleries. One wall in Seattle is installed with representations of several of their works, including the 1988 poster The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, a list of advantages that includes “Working without the pressure of success,” “Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty,” and “Being included in revised versions of art history.” Ah, the irony.
Manchanda began developing the Seattle component as a local complement to the Pompidou show shortly after she arrived at SAM in the summer of 2011. Among the highlights of Elles: SAM are two works which riff off masterpieces made by, well, masters. Krasner’s Night Watch, 1960, borrows its name from Rembrandt’s seminal 1642 painting. And Mary Beth Edelson’s Some Living American Woman Artists, her feminist take on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, casts Georgia O’Keeffe as Jesus, with apostles including Krasner, Louise Bourgeois and Yoko Ono. Manchanda points out that a third of the artists depicted have work currently installed at SAM for these exhibitions.
(A glaring omission here is Emily Carr; Manchanda laments the fact the collection does not include a single work of Carr’s.)
Still, the Guardian was as unimpressed with Seattle’s installment as with the Pompidou’s. In a blog post sub-titled (in part) “a bad way to make a good point,” art critic Jonathan Jones called the Seattle endeavour “clumsy” and a “stunt.” Rather than clear the likes of Pollock from the place, he asked, why not instead show his work side by side with Krasner’s? “Pollock’s genius was real, if fragile: To sideline him is foolish. A museum that owns a Pollock and chooses not to display it is making a mistake. Bury excellence and you end up denying the power of art. That helps no artist.”
If this is a stunt (a term that belittles the intentions of the curators, if not the work of the artists), it is surely a worthy one. This may come off as a well-plotted provocation, but this is a story that needs to be told, and a radical gesture such as installing an entire museum’s modern and contemporary galleries – a huge endeavour in both Paris and Seattle – with work by women is an appropriately in-your-face way to tell it.
Besides, Pollock’s Sea Change was actually removed for restoration before the Elles installation and will be back on the walls next year. And yes, it’ll be great for visitors to see it again.
But after Elles, maybe we’ll see more from Krasner too – and more from Hannah Wilke, Adrian Piper, Marthe Wéry. By reminding us of the imbalance, this show may bring us closer to fixing it.
“It’s galvanized people,” says Manchanda. “If anything, I hope people come and start a conversation about what’s relevant, what’s important. And that would be one of the most tremendous outcomes for me: If it makes people more aware or if people were prompted the next time they go into an exhibition to pay attention to who’s on the wall – is it a man or a woman?”
Elles: Pompidou is at SAM until Jan 13; Elles: SAM is installed until Feb 17.