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Seattle’s Elles exhibitions banish men - and put women on the walls

"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.

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"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.

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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."

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.

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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.

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