Great lives are inspiring.
Great art is life changing.
The careers of the fifteen artists that follow run the gamut from conquering fame to utter obscurity, but each of these women has the story, and work, that can scramble and even redefine how we understand art and success.
It strikes me that we might need a little caveat here before getting started. Can we agree at the outset to lay down our qualms about Ye Olde Arte Hystore at the door of this book? Put them down. Walk away. Let us agree that together we shall fear no corsets, nor nursing saviours, nor men in top hats and cravats, nor vast expanses of peachy dimpled thighs.
Let us withhold judgment until we know more.
Last year, I read Nell Painter’s book Old In Art School and found I enjoyed reading about art. The OCW about Don Quixote examined a Velázquez painting (Las Meninas) in great detail as part of the discussion of the narrator/subject, and I found that fascinating. But then, whenever I tried to find an article on some artist, or a video on a style, I would lose interest almost immediately. Art has its own language and its own values (just like writing), and the sources I found just barreled ahead and started lecturing about what makes this part energetic and this part ominous and… well, I can take their word for it, but I can’t understand it.
But I keep trying. Towards the end of last year, I read The Millions “A Year in Reading” entry by Grace Loh Prasad (about whom I really know nothing, but I love these year-end briefs). This was the first book she described:
Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra
. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.
Grace Loh Prasad
Who doesn’t love a smart, badass friend. So I ordered it. And I have to agree: it’s a marvelously unstuffy book that talks about art in language I can understand, and even more importantly, talks about artists in ways that make me interested in their lives and work.
The artists discussed are all women, but there’s great diversity beyond that, in era, race/ethnicity, artistic medium and style, and life story. I was surprised to discover that I’d heard of a couple: I got interested in Kara Walker while reading Painter’s book, and Ana Mendieta showed up in an art mooc I took (and hated) back when I started doing moocs; I didn’t remember her name, but I did remember her siluetas, so the class wasn’t a complete loss.
I enjoy Quinn’s approach. It is, indeed, less stuffy than most, sometimes irreverent, sometimes poignant. She’s a good storyteller, whether she’s relaying an artist’s life, the story of a painting, or the moment she herself discovered the artist. The chapters are fairly short; it’s easy to read two or three in one sitting. I even started to understand some art, thanks to her inclusion of comparisons and contrasts; yes, this was another book I read at the computer so I could look up the works mentioned but not included.
The images are wonderful: full-color reproductions of several works by each artist. Each chapter begins with a full-page illustration of the artist by Lisa Congdon. It’s nice to have an image of the artist under discussion, and interesting to compare these with the self-portraits that sometimes show up in the chapter.
I kept trying to figure out a way to summarize the individual chapters without doing a full paragraph on each one, but they are all quite different and all deserve full attention. So forgive the length of this post; the book is nowhere near as cumbersome.
The first chapter about Artemisia Gentileschi shows how easily Quinn moves from art to biography to social commentary. It opens with a discussion of Gentileschi’s Judith Severing the Head of Holofernes, a Biblical story of a Jewish woman using what skills she has – seduction – to destroy the leader of the forces massing to slaughter her people. “The two women work in dispassionate exertion. They could be Julia Child and Alice Waters deboning a turkey.”
From there, she takes us to the rape of the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi at the hands of one of her art teachers, the legal climate in which the wrong was done, not to her, but to her father, and the trial her father brought against the rapist which involved obstetric examinations and, best of all, torturing Gentileschi with thumbscrews to ascertain the truthfulness of her version. As a result she was married off to another painter and ended up in Florence, which turned out to be good for her career. Quinn also discusses the poor renderings of female nudes by even such experts as Michelangelo, for lack of models. I hadn’t known this until I looked up his sculptures for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo as mentioned in the text. The other female hero Gentileschi paints is Susanna, another biblical rape story.
But the artistic centerpiece of the chapter is her Self-Portrait as La Pittura, the embodiment of the art of painting. Here she maintains the existing traditions as regards hair, jewelry, and dress, but does not include the usual gag in the mouth symbolizing the muteness of art. As Quinn puts it:
Artemisia Gentileschi was never quiet. She was instead the heroic center of her own art, fashioning a new language of womanhood, in action and in form.
Her heroic women are not man-eaters, but man-beaters. That’s one reason why her Judith Severing The Head Of Holofernes appalled so many for so long. Not only is a woman depicted performing a heinous act on a man, but also it’s a woman daring to depict it.
Artemesia refused the gag. And from four hundred years away she speaks to us still, saying: Dare to be great.
Judith Leyster’s chapter starts with an art gallery adventure. The Louvre acquired a painting by Franz Hals, only to discover upon cleaning that the signature was not Hals at all. At first it was thought to be the work of Hals’ brother, but it eventually was resolved that the then-unknown Leyster was the artist. Quinn quotes Germaine Greer’s observation: “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered.” Legal action and recompense followed quickly.
Her Self-Portrait is amusing for the paintbrush aimed at the crotch of the male musician she is shown painting, but more importantly, it’s been revealed through infrared examination that the figure was originally a woman, possibly a self-portrait within a self-portrait. “In other words, Leyster predicted her own erasure from the history of art.”
The chapter on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard traces her clever maneuvering through the years before and during the French Revolution
There was an 18th century version of trolling that supported an entire economy of the most vicious satire. As a woman artist, Labille-Guiard was an easy target.
….For women artists the leap from intimacy with a man to being an untalented slut has, in the public eye, never been a big one.
Slut or not, she was shrewd. With no husband to defend her, or support her financially, Labille-Guiard defended herself. Between 1782 and 1783 she showed six portraits of important male Academicians. It was a brilliant stroke, securing valuable eyewitnesses to her talent. If any man admired his portrait, he must admire Labille-Guiard’s ability as well.
When the winds shifted, she painted portraits of the power forwards of the Revolution. But she still had to burn one of her paintings, her greatest masterpiece. It’s here that I discovered the hierarchy of classical French painting: still life at the bottom, history painting (“big ass canvases with a story to tell” as Quinn puts it) at the top. There’s also a great deal of compositional strategy in this chapter: why what is behind the subject of a painting may be as important as the subject itself.
The story of Marie Denise Villers has two focal points and a wonderfully humorous accent. When Quinn was in grad school for art history, the objective was connoisseurship: “Basically: knowing who made what, just by looking at it. To be able to perceive, by attitude, gesture, mood, and style, what belongs to whom.” In a discussion with Professor Alfred Moir, this was developed and evolved:
“You know the problem with connoisseurship?”
I did not. I had no idea there was a problem with connoisseurship.
“It doesn’t take into account the artist waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger, as if to shake it in my face. “It doesn’t consider the really shitty day.”
….Later it would occur to me, what about the opposite? The Day When Everything Goes Right. The Fucking Excellent Day.
Turns out Villers had one of those when she painted Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Again, this turns into a comedy of errors: in 1917 the New York Met aquired a gift of what was thought to be a painting by Jques Louis David. In the 40s it was discovered this could not be a David, and by 1951 it was tentatively attributed to another woman painter. At this point critics came out of the woodwork to point out flaws which, when the painting bore the imprimatur of David, had been unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1996 that Villers was credited as the artist, by comparison with two of her other works.
And here the plot thickens. Quinn looks at those other works in detail, and proclaims them “bland” and lacking magic. I can’t really tell the difference. She goes to some trouble to show the difference in interpretation of the Portrait as painted by a man (sexual anxiety) and by a woman (artistic anxiety). But the point is that Villers and her student Charlotte happened at a special moment; soon thereafter France became far more restrictive to women, and, Quinn writes, “by 1804, Napoleon had shut down every avenue of official education and exhibition for women artists in France.”
So a singular moment in time is the secret of Villers’s marvelous, moving painting: two young women longing to make art found themselves in a brief period of opportunity, when instruction, exhibition, and even fame were possible.
And in that moment, perfection happened. A Fucking Excellent Day. Longing and kinship and ability became great art. A masterpiece.
I regret that I’m unable to see the perfection. But I’ll take her word for it.
Rosa Bonheur painted a very different subject: horses and bulls. It seems she was very popular towards the end of the 19th century, to the point of children playing with Rosa Bonheur dolls. She became friends with Buffalo Bill, meeting him when he was in Paris. And she was gay: Quinn compares her and her companion Natalie to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. She had an official permit for crossdressing – that is, wearing pants – at a time when only women who could defend the need for pants could legally wear them. A monument to her stands in France: not a sculpture of the artist, but of a bull like those she painted.
The only flaw in this book occurs in this chapter. Her painting, The Horse Fair, is spread across two pages, a necessary choice to see anything close to the details. But that means the gutter of the pages runs down the center, making the crucial central figure – the only non-mustachioed figure, thus possibly a woman, even a stand-in for Bonham – hard to see. Fortunately, the Internet offers numerous options.
With Edmonia Lewis, we get our first look at art outside of painting; that is, sculpture. And we happen upon another fascinating story of an outstanding piece of art being lost. The Death of Cleopatra had been missing for a century in the 1980s when curator Marilyn Robinson started looking for information on Lewis for her own work. She sent out (pre-internet) feelers.
A curator at the Metropolitan Museum of art, perhaps lingering over bagels and orange juice some lazy Sunday, happened to see it and recalled a recentish letter from one Frank Orland, a dentist/history buff from a Chicago suburb, who’d written to the Met looking for information on the very same Edmonia; he thought he might have something of hers. The museum curator, feeling generous, sat down the juice and contacted the number listed in the Times.
Richardson pounced on the lead. She called. And called. She left messages. They were not returned. So what would any academic on an independent scholar’s salary do? Damn straight – she got on a plane, then in a car, and then marched up Frank Orland’s front steps and rang his bell.
A now-pliant Orland led Richardson to a barren corridor in a nearby suburban shopping mall. Hardly the place one might expect to find, say, a monumental marble statue of an Egyptian Queen. …
Orland leaned into the storage room and flicked on the light.
There sat Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra, a regal monarch limp on her marble throne. Tragic, moving …and, noted Richardson, “surrounded by holiday decorations and papier mache turkeys and Christmas lights and Christmas elves.”
Richardson was shaking.
A celebrated work by one of nineteenth-century America’s most important sculptures, lost for a hundred years, was now quite suddenly found.
If a shopping mall storage room is an unusual place to find a marble sculpture, Edmonia Lewis might also be considered an unusual prospect for fine art. She was born of a Chippewa mother and Black father, orphaned at age nine, kicked out of several schools, and as the Civil War started, was beaten severely and left for dead in a field. Nevertheless, she persisted, and through William Lloyd Garrison, met a teacher and went to Rome.
In addition to the qualities of Lewis’s work, particularly her Hiawatha sculpture, Quinn discusses the implications of white marble. It was, in Lewis’s time simply what sculpture was made of, but in antiquity, the Greeks and Romans painted their statues. The worship of whiteness came later.
Paula Modersohn-Becker painted what Quinn calls the “first female nude self-portrait in Western history”, while Alice Neel may have painted the oldest nude self-portrait; she was eighty at the time. Given Neel’s early life – she was hospitalized for suicidal behaviors in her 30s, her first child died, and the second was taken by her husband when he abandoned her to live in Cuba, a lover burned and slashed hundreds of her works – it’s a triumph she made it to eighty, so as far as I’m concerned she can paint anything she wants. Her most notable work was of gay men and couples, mostly from the Warhol Factory.
Vanessa Bell painted her sister, Virginia Woolf, without a face, yet “captures something essential in her, opposed or a way of being in the world as distinctive as her facial features. …She ignored mere features, capturing her sister’s essence instead.” She did the original covers for Woolf’s books, including the highly phallic image for To the Lighthouse. She served as a sort of base for a couple of Woolf’s characters, including the painter Lily Brisco in Lighthouse.
The chapter on Lee Krasner spends a fair amount of time on her marriage to Jackson Pollock, and credits her with discovering him and introducing him to those who would support his rise to artistic stardom. Her own work seemed to get lost in the mix. The images presented in the book are all very different – from Self Portrait (1930) to Seated Nude (1940) to Composition (1949) to Milkweed (1955). Surprisingly, I like the later three works far better, and here’s where I try to grapple with the language of Abstract Expressionism:
Ab Ex as perfected by Pollock was all about doing. According to influential critic Harold Rosenberg, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Abstract art is sometimes described as a departure from reality, but a better way to say it might be that it seeks to express a different reality. The reality behind our visible world. …
You wouldn’t think of a jazz musician as a fraud trying to trick you into thinking noise was really music. No, because you feel music intuitively: your soul and spirit (and even body) understand its message. The same is true of abstract art if he will give it time and attention. It will work on you, if it’s good.
I’d never heard of Louise Bourgeois, but I recognized her Femme Maison works: literally, “housewife”, they are half woman, half house, and express a feminist reaction to the expectations women live under.
Bourgeois’s feminism may have been born at the dinner table where her father verbally abused her in front of whatever company happened to be there. As an example, take a look at the video
“Louise Bourgeois Peels a Tangerine”. She seems to have returned the disfavor, though much later, with her sculpture Fillette. It means “little girl” but the work is a 2-foot penis, looking remarkably like the preserved corpses I’ve viewed for anatomy moocs: brown/orange and rough. Robert Maplethorpe took an iconic photo of her holding the sculpture, “her right hand cupped beneath the glans penis as if it were the muzzle of a small dog… She might be any lady who lunches in midtown, one who doesn’t go anywhere without her little pet.” Quinn associates it with DaVinci’s Lady with Ermine, a painting from half a millennium prior which is also loaded with sexual symbolism.
While some of the women, particularly those from earlier centuries, were from artistic families yet never attained any kind of status in the art world, the opposite is the case with Ruth Asawa. Her father was a truck farmer in California; when she was sixteen, he was arrested and she was interned with so many other Japanese Americans in one of America’s most revolting acts. She found the benefit in it, however, since a casual school formed which included interned artists. She eventually went to a small teacher’s college, but found that, in her fourth year, she was not allowed to do the practicums required so she had to leave without her degree. She made some contacts through her sister, who was studying Spanish in Mexico, an found the Black Mountain College, an experimental school with a superstar roster of instructors including John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, who became her mentor. Her work includes wire art based on folk techniques she learned in Mexico, and more traditional fountains in San Francisco, where a High School for the Arts is named after her.
The chapter on Ana Mendieta begins with a scene from Law & Order:
In the hot early morning of September 8, 1985, a doorman working the night shift in Greenwich Village heard a woman’s voice pierce the night, screaming, “No, No, No, No,” then moments later, the sound of a large object striking somewhere nearby.
Artist Ana Mendieta, thirty-six years old and married less than a year to renowned sculptor Carl Andre, fifty-two, had just plummeted from the bedroom window of their nearby apartment – thirty-four stories – and died on impact.
Because Mendieta is known for the ethereal self-portraits-cum-crime-scene-outlines she called siluetas – and because the police took no photos – it’s tempting to imagine the scene. Rather than gruesome, I want to picture Mendieta as she was in her very first silueta: a naked body covered in white flowers, all ripeness and purity, associating her own procreative forces with the power of the Great Goddess.
….Even Andre doesn’t seem to know exactly what happened; over the years, he’s given three very different accounts. …A celebrated pioneer of minimalist sculpture, Andre and his brilliant career were affected not at all.
Quinn, fully aware of Andre’s sculpture, discovered Mendieta in 1992 at the Guggenheim opening in NY, where protesters objected to the white male palette (one woman, no artists of color) and the inclusion of the famous sculptor who many believed had murdered his wife.
Mendieta came to the US in 1961 from Cuba; she and her sister, young teens, lived in a series of temporary homes in Iowa. She is known for “earth art”: using the planet itself as a canvas:
Earth Art tended toward the massive and the masculine, requiring big machines and accompanying egos….If there were an ancient prototype for the new art, it would be Stonehenge way back in the Neolithic, impressive and lasting, at least in part because it’s just so damned big. The Neolithic inspiration for Mendieta runs more to the plastered skulls of Jericho and myriad great goddess images found all over the world.
As I mentioned, I was aware of Kara Walker from other sources. Her silhouettes, as Quinn notes, have the appearance of lighthearted gaiety on first glance, but when examined more closely, they contain a shocking – and damning – portrait of the sexual and physical exploitation of black people. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does,” Walker has explained.
But the chapter starts with a very different piece of art:
At the behest of Creative Time, Kara E. Walker has confected:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
An Homage to the unpaid and overworked
Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the
Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the
Domino Sugar Refining Plant.
It’s a giant sphinx-like sculpture made out of sugar, with a head fashioned to evoke a “mammy” with clearly black features, and, in the back, ten-foot-tall vulva protruding over curled toes. This is an artist who goes there. The sculpture combines the histories of whiteness, blackness, sexuality, industrialization, and capitalism, probably a few other things I’m not sophisticated enough to see. There’s a reason Walker won a MacArthur “genius” grant at twenty-seven.
In the final chapter, we learn of Susan O’Malley turning the pain of her mother’s degenerative illness into art by enlarging and mounting notes she wrote – “Love you Baby”. O’Malley’s specialty was textual art: the careful placement of words in surroundings that emphasize or contrast with the meaning. She created a series of nine signs for the Montalvo Arts Center, titled A Healing Walk: at various places on the trail there are wooden signs reading “You are Here, Awake and Alive,” “This Beautiful Moment”, and similar sentiments. Quinn compares it to Dante:
Nine was the number favored by Dante in structuring his Divine Comedy, which begins with a walk: In the middle of our lives / I found myself in a dark woods / the right road lost. Dante’s guide is the poet Virgil; in A Healing Walk, the artist O’Malley is ours. And just as Virgil takes Dante through Hell, then on a steep path up until they see the stars, O’Malley’s path culminates in the summit overlooking the quiet balm of the natural world.
I’m a little dubious of this interpretation overall, but some of the pieces indeed fit.
O’Malley died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight; the Montalvo Arts Center made her installation permanent.
Quinn finishes with a brief postscript:
Our story began with my finding sixteen women artists in the third edition of H. W. Janson’s seminal History of Art. I’ve presented fifteen here. Why one short?
I’ve left room for myself. For you. For anyone who wants it.
Insert yourself here.
….Hell, insert anything you like – poet, architect, filmmaker, actor, brain surgeon, astronaut – and run with it. Great lives in great works are endless: we just have to look for them. And of course create them.
I’m delighted to have found this book, a book that made the artists come alive for me, and that did, in spite of my lack of artistic comprehension, make sense of many aspects of art.
It turned out that Quinn, while studying art history and connoisseurship, came to be inspired most by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard in an unusual way. Her professor gave her an assignment of high honor, a request to authenticate a Labille-Guiard painting. “I had already decided to follow Labille-Guiard, not study her. I wanted to be like her, to explore what talent might lie inside me with passion and courage.” No, not painting; she left art to become a writer, which is how this book came to be, and probably why it is far more enjoyable for someone like me than the entries written by those who achieved full connoisseurship.