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A Feminist Art Tour of Washington

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Post asked art historians Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard to cite some of their feminist favorites on view locally. They define "feminist art" as works that present a female perspective by offering alternatives to stereotypes, challenging gender inequities or hierarchies of value, or simply by putting issues of gender and power into play.

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Judith Slaying Holofernes"

About 1612, in "Italian Women Artists From Renaissance to Baroque," an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through July 15.

A number of paintings in this exhibition will interest feminists, but the show-stopper is surely Artemisia Gentileschi's "Judith," from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Although many baroque artists, including women, depicted the biblical Judith, Gentileschi's stands out as a powerful and heroic woman who credibly decapitates a dangerous tyrant. In this dramatic painting, Judith and her equally engaged maidservant exemplify female solidarity and agency, and it has disturbed many viewers to see so realistic a depiction of females exercising power over a helpless male. But it's only fair to disrupt an art history that typically juxtaposes women with men or beds quite differently.

Edmonia Lewis, "Hagar"

1875, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Sculptures of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminist leaders can be seen at the Sewall-Belmont House, but there are not many statues in Washington that commemorate women. Edmonia Lewis's sculpture of the biblical Hagar, the cast-off Egyptian mother of Abraham's son Ishmael, embodies the artist's proclaimed "sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered." Lewis, who was American Indian and black, supported the feminist and abolitionist causes of her time and was among the intrepid American women sculptors who worked in Rome in the 19th century. Although Hagar is said to symbolize black Africa, Lewis depicts her in the neoclassical mode, in white marble and without African features. Pride in black physiognomy would come later, in art such as that of Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold.

Harriet Powers, "The Bible Quilt"

Circa 1886, National Museum of American History (currently on view at the National Air and Space Museum).

(Smithsonian National Museum Of American History)
After '70s feminists challenged the biased and exclusionary classifications of Western "high art," many types of women's traditional arts and handicrafts were reclaimed and newly named as "Art." Among them is this elaborately pieced and appliqued quilt, the first of only two known quilts by Harriet Powers, an emancipated slave who lived near Athens, Ga. She combined the quiltmaking traditions of the British settlers with practices that derive from African traditions and her African American experience. The quilt, called by Powers "a sermon in patchwork," probably served as a teaching tool rather than a bed covering. Its 11 blocks recount familiar Bible stories through boldly abstracted figures, animal motifs and celestial symbols that have been related to the ancient cosmological beliefs of the Dogon tribe of West Africa.

Miriam Schapiro, "Anna and David"

1987, 1525 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn.

(Rosslyn Business Improvement District)
This boldly colored, 35-foot-high painted aluminum sculpture consists of two monumental but buoyant dancing figures and embodies Schapiro's feminist vision of gender equality. Joined by their arms and legs and by the backward turn of their heads, Anna and David leap and strut in opposite directions, expressing the tensions as well as the complementary aspects of the relationship between the sexes. With its visually arresting color and spirited movement, Schapiro's colossal piece both energizes and subverts the static, impersonal corporate structures that surround it, and it is a prime example of the new generation of "user-friendly" public sculptures that emerged in the wake of the 1970s feminist art movement.

Romaine Brooks, "Self-Portrait"

1923, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

(Smithsonian American Art Museu)
Romaine Brooks was a self-identified lesbian artist working in Paris at a time when lesbian identity was being constructed, and when the New Woman experimented with androgynous or masculine dress. Brooks's self-presentation in an elegant black jacket and hat, tall and narrow against a sober gray and black background, a grisaille palette relieved only by a touch of red on her lips and her lapel, is a tacit critique of stereotypical feminine apparel and behavior, an audacious gesture of liberating feminism. Concealing as much as she reveals about herself, she appears not as a would-be man, but as a carefully designed androgyne with qualities of both sexes, calibrated according to the subtle codes of Sapphic society in formation.

Frida Kahlo, "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky"

1937, National Museum of Women in the Arts.

(National Museum of Women in the Arts)
This self-portrait is dedicated to the Russian communist leader who was given asylum in Mexico through the offices of Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, in the 1930s. Popular accounts of Kahlo, who is known for her hyper-real and surreal self-portraits, stress her crippling accident, miscarriages and anguished life with the philandering Rivera, defining her art as an expression of personal pain within a timeless framework of elemental female experience. Against such stereotyping, which effectively returns this now-famous painter to her female place, this self-portrait reminds us that Kahlo was a deeply committed political artist, a communist intellectual, whose work, often sharply critical of Western industrialized society, must also be understood within the framework of modern, international political history.

Alice Neel, "Self-Portrait"

1980, National Portrait Gallery.

(National Portrait Gallery)
Alice Neel's wonderfully exuberant nude self-portrait in old age is an in-your-face challenge to sexism and ageism. In the art history dominated by men, the female nude is young, beautiful and preferably recumbent. She is not to be confused with the artist who paints her, whose paintbrush is often a metaphor for his creative virility. Neel, a realist painter catapulted to fame by the feminist movement, is here both artist and subject. She steals the male artist's power of the gaze and authority of the brush, and mocks his obsession with female nudity by presenting her sagging, lumpy 80-year-old body as truer to reality and equally delectable from an aesthetic point of view. (Now traveling, the painting will return to Washington in the fall as part of the "Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution" show opening Sept. 21 at NMWA. In the meantime, take a look at Neel's portrait of the feminist activist Kate Millett, also in the National Portrait Gallery collection.)

May Stevens, "Soho Women Artists"

1977-78, National Museum of Women in the Arts.

(National Museum of Women in the Arts)
May Stevens, a leading American feminist artist since the 1970s, painted this life-size portrait of herself and New York feminist friends as a female version of male-network pictures such as Courbet's "The Artist's Studio." The portraits include many founding members of Heresies, an important feminist journal of the '80s: artists Harmony Hammond, Miriam Schapiro, Joyce Kozloff, Sarah Charlesworth, Louise Bourgeois and the critic Lucy Lippard. Like Courbet and Matisse, Stevens quotes fragments of her own paintings around the edges (one of them is her majestic "Artemisia Gentileschi," also at NMWA). She also includes a child, a girl's bicycle, a female elder and two older men from her neighborhood. It is an ideal community of women, joined by political commitment and embedded in the life cycle.

Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial ("The Wall")

1982, Henry Bacon Drive and Constitution Avenue NW. 

Feminism presents alternatives to patriarchal values. In a city filled with monuments that commemorate heroes on horseback, dying soldiers and lives sacrificed for causes said to be noble, the war memorial created by a young Asian American woman embraces values consistent with those of feminism. War is presented as a gash in the earth, an attack on the natural life cycle. Its combatants are memorialized as names alone, on a polished wall that offers no bromides, only reflections of ourselves. Although the memorial was designed to make no political statement, Lin's omission of heroic glorifications of war is a silent critique of bellicose governments, and her recitation of the individual names of the dead underlines the human cost of war rather than the abstractions that support it.

The Sewall-Belmont House and Museum

144 Constitution Ave. NE. The museum is open Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Visitation is by guided tour only.

Suffragists Elizabeth Colt, center, and Isabella Mott lead a picket line outside the White House in 1917. The photo is one of many chronicling the women's movement in the collection of the Sewall-Belmont House.
Suffragists Elizabeth Colt, center, and Isabella Mott lead a picket line outside the White House in 1917. The photo is one of many chronicling the women's movement in the collection of the Sewall-Belmont House.(Collections of The National Woman's Party, Sewall-Belmont House and Museum)
Protest marches and demonstrations can be considered a form of performance art, the aesthetic embodiment of political ideals. The Sewall-Belmont House, home of Alice Paul, feminist leader and author of the Equal Rights Amendment, holds a priceless collection of early 20th-century photographs and banners documenting the suffrage marches, parades and protests generated by the National Woman's Party in its campaign to gain the vote for women in America and promote the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Later feminists marched and demonstrated for the ERA in the 1970s, and may do so again, because the amendment has recently been reintroduced in state legislatures after languishing for 25 years.

"Feminism and Art History," "The Power of Feminist Art" and "Reclaiming Female Agency" are among the pioneering texts produced by Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, longtime professors of art history at American University. Those works, along with Broude's feminist studies of impressionism and Garrard's landmark research on baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, helped shape how scholars everywhere now look at pictures. They are co-curators of the exhibition "Claiming Space: The American Feminist Originators," opening at the American University museum in October.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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