A century ago, you couldn't escape all the bull roar on what it meant to be a man, my son, with Jack London and Teddy Roosevelt rampaging through war, peace and wilderness--the whole Cold Shower and Dumbbell School of manliness and Arrow-collar profiles.
Nowadays--for the whole last third of this century--it's been women's turn, and the roaring has been about femininity, feminism, females. So it's no surprise that the National Museum of Women in the Arts would hang a show called "Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century," with 81 photographs by 80 female photographers collected by psychotherapist Helen Kornblum, who "has an abiding concern for the broader topic of women's issues in our time," according to the catalogue.
This is a fine show of a lot of wonderful pictures. But before you've even gotten to see them, you say to yourself: Oy vey. You're mistaken in your fears, as it happens, but who could blame you? Survey shows are lame enough, and lamer still are stunts like showing only one work by each artist, and then loading the catalogue with gender analysis.
Not that the catalogue doesn't have good, if obvious, points to make. Essayist Olivia Lahs-Gonzales writes: "Women have a unique experience in the world and of the world." Indeed.
And yes, female photographers have been overlooked by collectors and art historians. However, given the fame of Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Gertrude Kasebier, Dorothea Lange, Annie Leibovitz, Mary Ellen Mark and Marian Post Wolcott, all of whom appear here, even a polemicist would have a hard time complaining about the obscuring of female photographers by patriarchal hegemonic discourse, etc., etc.
This kind of language does creep into the show occasionally, as in one wall text observation that the "triangular dynamic of the delineator (photographer/artist), the observed (subject) and the observer (consumer/viewer) leaves no opportunity for a woman's definition of herself."
More important is: What about the pictures? Are they any good?
Yes, they're very good. And if you can get away from the chin music about triangular dynamics, you can see them jumping off the wall as graphic truths about reality, the human nervous system, cultural archetypes, beauty, horror, our animal lives as humans and our human lives as animals. And humanity's life as women, which is different than its life as men.
Besides thinking about women's issues, Kornblum has collected pictures that are beautiful, to use a word that may be coming back into fashion. They have form, contrast, balance, surprise, grace, wholeness and impact. They gather your awareness into a center, and the best of them are universes in themselves.
Joan Myers's dented "Pan and Cup" is more than a document of battered lives at a World War II Japanese internment camp. And even without the rush of nostalgia for Alfred Stieglitz's great New York gallery, Dorothy Norman's "Walls, an American Place," shot in an empty room full of art history, is a fine example of the most fundamental subject of black-and-white photography, which is light and darkness.
How did Nell Dorr get that soft-pencily grace in the shifts from light to shadow in "Mother and Child (Happiness)"?
How does Diane Arbus find doom and horror in the same subject of mother and child, entitled "Loser at a Diaper Derby"?
Here's Marion Post Wolcott's powerful, confident and womanly Vermont woman in a housedress, addressing a town meeting. She and her audience seem to be not just lit but dug up and dusted off by Wolcott's flash, like some archaeological archetype. A "womanly" woman--interesting how, nowadays, the word has been consigned to the same dustbin of political awkwardness as "manly."
Here we wander away from formal considerations and into the subjects.
These pictures are about being, not doing; about women as objects and commodities rather than workers, mothers, bearers of culture, producers and organizers of human reality.
Women and girls sit, stand, wait and stare. Mannequins, costumes and masks hide humanity. Alma Lavenson vanishes in the infinite recesses of the "Self-Portrait" that shows her hands focusing a tripod-mounted camera taking a picture of her hands focusing the camera. Nan Goldin offers the alienated, preoccupied, bored and irritated "Gina at Bruce's Dinner Party, NYC," all by her heavy-lidded lipsticked self.
In one of the show's rare pictures of a male, Annie Leibovitz gives us "Jerry Garcia, NYC" in a hotel accompanied only by his guitar and his reflection in a big mirror. Inge Morath's "Siesta of a Lottery Ticket Vendor," in Madrid, shows a woman sitting next to a building with a newspaper covering her face. Ruth Orkin's "American Girl in Italy" endures the leers and whistles of a street full of men.
These women are. Few of them do, unless you count taking a photograph or posing for one.
Such terrible solitude! What happened to all of the sloganeering about how sisterhood is powerful with its sharing and caring and consensus politics? This show rejects that line, showing women alone (except for the women taking their pictures), and straddling lines between private and public lives, nature and pose, self and mirror, self and others.
Carrie Mae Weems has a woman and a girl putting on lipstick in portable mirrors ("Untitled," from the "Kitchen Table" series). Together in their aloneness, two females in private communicate. So many mirrors! So many women facing away from the camera to be unseen at all! And so many double exposures here, as if reality is never more absolute than the next layer or retake.
Sandy Skoglund shows woman as public, low-culture commodity in a photograph of bikinied Barbie dolls lying on a beach of french fries.
The loneliest picture of all may be the view of a featureless roadside in Barbara Ess's "Untitled." She looks at the Great Nothing that presents itself so often to long-distance drivers and the clinically depressed in America. The vision here appears as a fuzzy hole in a rectangle of blackness that seems to put the photographer inside something, a car, maybe, and the landscape outside this car, with an uncrossable distance between car and landscape, inside and outside.
Menace abounds. Soldiers search Martha Rosler's "Red Stripe Kitchen" in her Vietnam-era series, "Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful." Flor Garduno's "The Woman" holds a bundle of dead lizards that evoke primal horror of woman as witch or princess of the primeval, notions that were banned as male stereotype at one point, then revived at another, if memory serves. Elsewhere: Hands drip. Mouths drip. Age withers. Custom stales. The late and beautiful Hannah Wilke betrays her own beauty in a self-portrait with hair rollers and a face speckled with chewing gum shaped like vulvas.
The catalogue says: "Referring at once to scarification as practiced in Africa and its relationship to Western rituals of beauty, the gum forms also refer to the atrocities committed by Nazis on the bodies of Jewish women."
Maybe so, but let's have the picture speak for itself. It may once have succeeded as propaganda--as a confrontation with the mutilation of women--but now, as a work of art, it goes beyond confrontation to become a cruelty worked upon the viewer. It either condescends to people who don't take it seriously or pains the people who do, while amusing those who are in on the joke that it's really propaganda.
No big deal. The combined efforts of hooey-mongers can't obscure the fact that there are fine, beautiful, mysterious and thrilling pictures here that transcend gender-game tricks to reveal themselves as--dare we say it--art that happens to be by and about women.
Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through Jan. 9.