Opening Friday: Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling

Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling presents the artist’s monumental cedar wood carvings alongside newer works for the very first time. The poetic and expressive sculptures, which also utilize leather, linen, and other organic materials, reveal the process by which von Rydingsvard gives outward visual form to her innermost ideas and emotions.

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On view March 22–July 28, 2019, The Contour of Feeling marks the most ambitious von Rydingsvard exhibition to date in the United States and her first solo exhibition in Washington, D.C. Featuring 26 sculptures, a wall installation, and nine works on paper, the exhibition is guest-curated by Mark Rosenthal, formerly curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and organized by the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, where it was on view from April 27 to August 26, 2018.

A woman stares up at a large and towering cedar sculpture that features a very tall base, perhaps 12 ft, with an extending smaller piece on the left that seems to hang down slightly, resembling the unevenness/organic makeup of a tree base.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, For Natasha, 2015; Cedar and graphite, 9 ft. 1 in. x 6 ft. 7 in. x 3 ft. 6 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Michael Bodycomb

The daughter of a woodcutter from a long line of peasant farmers, von Rydingsvard spent several of her early years in the wooden barracks of refugee camps in Germany at the end of World War II. While von Rydingsvard resists biographical readings of her works, she speaks of those critical years as woven into her subconscious or instinct, which in turn leaves an imprint on her art.

The Contour of Feeling centers on the creative flourishing of the artist’s recent career, anchored by a number of her early masterpieces. Among these is Untitled (nine cones) (1976), von Rydingsvard’s first major work in cedar and the earliest work on view in this exhibition. Subtle references to her family history are seen in Zakopane (1987), a wall installation of 22 fused vertical units with hollow vessels at the base. The sculpture commands the viewer’s attention with an altar-like presence that simultaneously recalls the tools used for labor by Polish peasants.

Von Rydingsvard’s oeuvre also includes smaller works on handmade linen paper which are infused with surprising materials like knotted silk from a red scarf, tangles of thread, paper pulp, hair, lace, graphite and pigment. The collaged materials extend the boundaries of the paper, giving the delicate two-dimensional works a sculptural presence. The more intimate side of von Rydingsvard’s art is also evident in a wall installation that features her little nothings (2000-15), small objects collected and created by the artist, including strands of her brother’s hair, fragments of cedar, knitting and linen, and personal photographs.

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Zakopane

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Zakopane, 1987; Cedar and paint, 11 ft. 6 in. x 22 ft. x 3 ft.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Scratch II

Ursula von Rydingsvard, SCRATCH II, 2015; Cedar and graphite, 10 ft. 1 in. x 6 ft. 3 in. x 4 ft. 11 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

Ursula von Rydingsvard - thread terror

Ursula von Rydingsvard, thread terror, 2016; Cedar and graphite, 8 ft. 10 in. x 8 ft. 5 in. x 1 ft. 1 in.; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Jerry L. Thompson

Ursula von Rydingsvard - Red Wool

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Untitled, 2016; Thread, wool, and pigment on linen handmade paper, 38 x 22 in.; Produced at Dieu Donné, New York; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Etienne Frossard

Ursula von Rydingsvard - little nothings

Ursula von Rydingsvard, little nothings, 2000–15; Items including cedar objects, drawings on paper, copper wires, photographs, tools, threads, and lace, dimensions variable; © Ursula von Rydingsvard, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.; Photo by Carlos Avendaño

The Contour of Feeling illuminates the “interior Ursula,” as evidenced by the exhibition’s title, which was inspired by a line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Fourth Duino Elegy”: “We don’t know the contour of feeling; we only know what molds it from without.” Like Rilke’s poem, von Rydingsvard’s art expresses a persistent search for deeper truths. In her relentless quest to visually render her emotions and feelings, von Rydingsvard states that she makes art to “get answers to questions for which I know there are no answers” and “mostly, to survive.”

5 Fast Facts: Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses

As part of NMWA’s #5WomenArtists campaign, impress your friends with five fast facts about Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses (1860–1961), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

Grandma Moses pictured in a 1953 edition of the New York World-Telegram and Sun newspaper

Grandma Moses pictured in a 1953 edition of the New York World-Telegram and Sun newspaper; Photo by newspaper staff photographer Roger Higgins. [Public domain]

1. Make it Work

As a self-taught artist working in rural New York, Moses lacked access to high-quality art materials in the early part of her career. Without any small brushes, she used matches and pins to paint details such as eyes and mouths.

2. What’s in a Name?

When Moses first began exhibiting her work, she was simply referred to as Mrs. Moses. An art critic noted in a 1940 New York Herald Tribune review that her neighbors called her Grandma Moses, and the name stuck. Moses had nine grandchildren and over thirty great-grandchildren.

3. Winter Wonderland

In many of her winter landscape paintings, Moses sprinkled glitter over the snow. Though some critics called her amateurish for using a nontraditional material, she refused to stop, as she thought glitter captured the appearance of snow shimmering in sunlight.

4. Moses Mania

Moses’s nostalgic depictions of rural America were widely reproduced. Her paintings were licensed by Hallmark, which sold 16 million greeting cards featuring her paintings in 1947 alone. One could buy fabric and plates printed with images of her paintings, and even a record called “The Grandma Moses Suite.”

A painting of a scenic rural landscape

Grandma Moses, Calhoun, 1955; Oil on pressed wood, 16 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Grandma Moses Properties

5. Telling Her Story

Moses published her autobiography My Life’s History in 1952 at 92 years old. In one chapter, she expressed her distaste for the restrictions placed on her because of her gender, writing, “Many a time I had to rock the cradle; I liked it, but I had rather been outdoors with my brothers.”

—Allison Burns was the summer 2018 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Magdalena Abakanowicz

As part of NMWA’s #5WomenArtists campaign, impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

A large red, circular, sculpture of textured cloth hangs from the ceiling of a gallery.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red, 1969, pictured in NMWA’s 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition; sisal weaving on metal support; Collection of the Museum Bellerive, Zurich

1. The Horrors of War

When she was only nine years old, Abakanowicz’s beloved surroundings in Poland became a war zone under Nazi occupation during World War II. She witnessed her mother being shot in the arm by German soldiers. Throughout her career, she would be driven by a universal truth: “Humans could accomplish so much while also being responsible for their own fall.”

2. Breakthrough

After starting her career as a painter in the 1950s, Abakanowicz moved on to textiles, winning the Grand Prix of the São Paulo Biennial in 1965 for her first major body of work, Abakans (ca. 1960s)—large-scale, three-dimensional, soft sculptures. Using her memories of nature and war, Abakanowicz astonished her audiences with these “complicated, huge, magical forms.”

3. One with Nature

Natural elements, miniature and massive, inspired Abakanowicz. While making the gouache Fish (1955–56), she recalls being “provoked by an inexplicable inner process, a force only apparently understood.” Works like Bois-le-Duc (1970–71) evoke monumental tree trunks and may reflect her whimsical inquisitiveness as a youth exploring Polish forests.

4. Humanizing War

Continually influenced by the effects of war, Abakanowicz began scaling her work down to human proportions. In 4 Seated Figures (2002), part of NMWA’s collection, a row of androgynous figures appear hollow, exposed, and fragmented. Using rough burlap to portray a worn exterior, she evokes the vulnerability of victims of war.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

5. Public Art 

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, a public art space featuring contemporary works by women artists, featured Abakanowicz’s figurative sculptures from September 2014 to September 2015. Her work Agora (2004–2006), an installation of 106 headless and armless iron sculptures, is on permanent loan in Chicago’s Grant Park from the Polish Ministry of Culture.

—Olivia Lussi was the fall 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b.1940), whose work Indian, Indio, Indigenous (1992) is on view in NMWA’s newly reinstalled collection galleries.

1. Cultural Arts Worker

Smith describes herself as a “cultural arts worker” and uses her art to raise awareness of the maltreatment of the Native American community, both historically and today. She uses a combination of traditional tribal motifs and contemporary symbols to call attention to issues regarding human rights, consumerism, and the environment.

A large-scale collage including striped and polka-dotted fabrics; the masthead of Smith's reservation newspaper, Char-Koosta; parts of a U.S. map; and a comic strip. These collaged elements are juxtaposed with blocks of stained or roughly brushed and dripped paint.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Indian, Indio, Indigenous, 1992; Oil and collage on canvas, 60 x 100 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

2. Power in Numbers

Since the 1970s, Smith has curated exhibitions highlighting Native women artists to counteract art world gender imbalance. She recalled that “one woman… laid [an exhibition] catalog against her cheek and cried, she had no idea there were so many Native women artists out there and she no longer felt alone.”

A painted image of a bird with some stick figure faces drawn in the background, the words "Batteries Not Included" are typewritten vertically on the left side. The colors are terracotta neutrals -- brown, tan, red, and orange, with a bit of blue on the bird.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Four Directions, 1994; Lithograph with linocut collage, 48 1/4 x 34 x 1 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Anastasia Pfarr; © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

3. Going Green

Smith has described her work as “Nomad Art,” which embodies the ideals of Nomadic life: take only what you need from the earth and respect the materials that you use. Many of her artworks include biodegradable materials like rice glue, charcoal, and rag paper.

4. Horse Power

Horses are a common motif in Smith’s works. This imagery was influenced by her father’s role as a horse trader and rodeo rider in the Pacific Northwest and California. Horses run through Smith’s works such as Trick Rider (1999) and War Horse in Babylon (2005).

5. Pioneering Change

As one of the first Native women to be recognized as a renowned modern and contemporary artist, Smith has stated that “[Her] generation is the first to break the ‘buckskin ceiling.’”

—Erin Allen is the winter/spring 2019 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard”: Barbara Kruger’s Imagery and Hollywood’s Gender Inequity

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin penned the essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The now-famous piece interrogated the systematic obstacles that have prevented women from succeeding in the arts. This year, on the heels of the 2019 Oscar nominations—in which no women directors were nominated—a similar question arises: why have there been no great women directors? In 91 years of Oscar history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won. The lack of recognition reveals the systematic gender bias prevalent in the film industry.

In a culture dominated by the white male viewpoint, films made by women offer an important, alternative perspective. In Mary Queen of Scots (2018), starring Saoirse Ronan and directed by Josie Rourke, Rourke revisits “history from a female perspective. We’ve not been telling the historical stories of women very well.” Indeed, the representation of women in film has historically been from a male perspective. Film theorist Laura Mulvey’s term “male gaze” reveals the dynamic: women are passive objects who are being looked at, while men are active, seeing subjects who construct the female image to please the male viewer.

Using Visual Culture to Challenge Visual Culture

In Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard) (1992), currently on view at NMWA, Kruger plays with the gendered dichotomies of passivity and activity. The piece comprises a photograph printed on aluminum, overlaid with lines of text in white-on-red strips. The picture is cropped tightly on the face of a laughing woman. She holds what appears to be opera glasses and looks through them at the viewer. The statement, printed in bold letters, suggests that women want to be the makers of their own image.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard), 1992; Lithograph on embossed foil, 11 x 8 3/4 x 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the Thirtieth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo: Courtesy of Derriere L’Etoile Studios

Artist Barbara Kruger
(b. 1945) has challenged dominant modes of representation in her work since the 1970s. By using found images and incorporating provocative slogans in bold letters, she draws attention to how visual culture shapes our perception of gender, and how it reinforces a binary gender system that objectifies women. In the context of the Oscars’ gender inequity, Kruger’s work can be seen as an amplification of the voices of women.

In Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard) (1992), currently on view at NMWA, Kruger plays with the gendered dichotomies of passivity and activity. The piece comprises a photograph printed on aluminum, overlaid with lines of text in white-on-red strips. The picture is cropped tightly on the face of a laughing woman. She holds what appears to be opera glasses and looks through them at the viewer. The statement, printed in bold letters, suggests that women want to be the makers of their own image. “I see my work as a series of attempts to ruin certain representations, to displace the subject, and to welcome a female spectator into the audience of men,” Kruger has said.

The white male viewpoint has historically defined Western visual culture: from painting to photography, to film. As the Oscars demonstrate, the only way to change the status quo is to let women author their own stories, and make their own images.

—Louisa Potthast is the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Laure Tixier

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Laure Tixier (b. 1972). Tixier’s Plaid Houses (Maquettes) (2005–11), currently on view in NMWA’s collection galleries, explore a range of architectural styles in a rainbow of colors, referencing the variety, beauty, and complexities of the built environment.

1. Earliest Green Architecture

White Hut and Brown Usha Hut recall modest, vernacular architecture from around the world. Historically, huts were constructed of natural materials like animal skin, wool, grass, earth, and wood. Yurts or gers, a type of portable hut, have been common dwellings for nomadic Central Asians for centuries.

A row of multi-colored felt houses of different styles.

Laure Tixier, Plaid Houses (Maquettes): Blue Japan House, Blue Art Deco House, Red Deconstructivist House, White Hut, Acid Green Dome House, Brown Usha Hut, Pink Tower, Turquoise Blue Colonial House (Barbados), Orange Breton House, 2005–11; Wool, felt, and thread, dimensions variable; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Les Amis du NMWA, Paris, France; © Laure Tixier

2. Sunny Side

Orange Breton House is a nod to chaumières (thatched cottages) in Brittany, France’s northwest coastal region. Characteristics of these traditional dwellings include walls of local stone like granite, schist, or sandstone; steep gabled roofs covered with dry vegetation; and siting facing south to make the most of daily sunlight.

3. Streamlined Structure

Blue Art Deco House celebrates the first truly international architectural movement. Born in Europe in the early 20th century and introduced worldwide at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition, Art Deco is a simple, symmetrical style that boasts clean lines and the innovative use of manufactured materials like plastic and concrete.

4. Disjointed Diva

Tixier’s red asymmetrical house reflects Deconstructivism, a postmodern architectural style that emerged in the 1980s. It often incorporates organic shapes, acute and obtuse angles, and irregular surface areas to impart a sense of chaos. Practitioners include Zaha Hadid (1950–2016), the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004).

 A young girl with her blond hair in a ponytail, wearing a purple shirt, and holding a NMA visitor's guide, looks excitedly at Laure Tixier's Plaid Houses (Maquettes). Her mother stands behind her also enjoying the work.

A young NMWA visitor experiences Laure Tixier’s Plaid Houses (Maquettes) (2005–11) during the 2019 Women’s March on Washington Free Community Day; Photo by Kevin Allen

5. Imperialist Edifice

Turquois Blue Colonial House (Barbados) reminds viewers of colonialism’s long-term impact on culture, community members’ self-determination, and commodities. A British colony from 1625 to 1966, Barbados reflects prevailing architectural styles from England. This form resembles the Jacobean St. Nicholas Abbey, built as a sugarcane plantation house in 1658.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Camille Claudel

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Camille Claudel (1864–1943), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

1. Barring the Opportunity

The talented French sculptor received training at Paris’s progressive Académie Colarossi, in part because the preeminent Ecole des Beaux-Arts barred women from attending until 1897. Other NMWA artists, including Lilla Cabot Perry (1848–1933) and Ellen Day Hale (1855–1940), also attended Académie Colarossi.

2. A Museum of One’s Own

Claudel’s artwork is often regarded in the shadow of the sculpture of Auguste Rodin—the well-known artist with whom she had both a professional and romantic relationship. In 2017, nearly 75 years after her death, the Musée Camille Claudel opened in France, recognizing her important artistic contributions. This treasure trove features approximately half of Claudel’s extant works.

Camille Claudel's bronze sculpture depicting a naked young girl sitting on a rock with her right hand resting on her chest as she looks down toward the left.

Camille Claudel, Young Girl with a Sheaf, ca. 1890; Bronze, 14 1/8 x 7 x 7 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

3. Hand it to Her 

Claudel modeled the hands and feet of the figures in Rodin’s Burghers of Calais (1884–9). One of the twelve casts of this sculpture can be seen at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Check out the expressive extremities of the six men who sacrificed themselves to save their town.

4. It’s Complicated

Claudel isn’t the only artist to have a tumultuous affair with a male peer. Curious about complicated art-world relationships? Read about the blue ride of Gabriele Münter (1877–1962) with Wassily Kandinsky, the on-again off-again matrimonio of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) and Diego Rivera, and the messy marriage of Lee Krasner (1908–1984) and Jackson Pollock.

5. The Price is Right

During a 2017 auction, 20 works by Claudel—including sculptures made of bronze, terra-cotta, plaster, and clay—sold for a record-shattering $4.1 million, more than three times the high estimate.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Louise Bourgeois

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. Legacy

The second daughter of Joséphine and Louis Bourgeois, Louise was named after her father. Though Bourgeois did have a younger brother, she ensured the family’s legacy by giving her three sons her last name rather than that of her husband, Robert Goldwater.

2. It Figures

Bourgeois initially studied mathematics, and it wasn’t until after her mother’s death in 1932 that she decided to pursue art in earnest.

Louise Bourgeois, The Song of the Blacks and the Blues, 1996; Lithograph, woodcut, with hand-coloring on paper, 21 5/16 x 96 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members' Acquisition Fund; Art © Louise Bourgeois Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Louise Bourgeois, The Song of the Blacks and the Blues, 1996; Lithograph, woodcut, with hand-coloring on paper, 21 5/16 x 96 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; Art © Louise Bourgeois Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

3. Itsy Bitsy?

Although spiders provoke fear for some people, Bourgeois recognized their positive qualities and saw their protectiveness reflected in her mother, who was also a weaver. Bourgeois rendered arachnids throughout her long career, including seven sculptures titled Maman (1999) which stand over 30 feet high. These eight-legged giants grace collections around the world.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Emily Haight

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Emily Haight

4. Déjà Vu

Another theme Bourgeois returned to throughout her career was the relationship of a woman to her home. She combined human and architectural forms in the works titled Femme Maison, which translates to “woman house” or “housewife.” These paintings and sculptures appear in her oeuvre from 1945 to 2004.

5. In the Neighborhood

Bourgeois is a subject—as well as an artist—in NMWA’s collection. In SoHo Women Artists (1978), May Stevens represented members of her community based on photographs, including Bourgeois in one of her wearable sculptures.

—Ashley Harris is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Confining Moments: Cage Imagery in NMWA’s Collection

In NMWA’s recent collection rotation, there are three works newly on view that reference cages. While the meaning of the cage changes slightly from piece to piece, each tableau offers insight into how artists of different mediums and time periods engage with themes of freedom and confinement.

The earliest work is by Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895–1989), an American fashion photographer active in the mid-20th century. She worked for the popular magazine Harper’s Bazaar, and is known for the sense of naturalism she brought to the industry.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Natalie with Birdcages, 1950; Gelatin silver print 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Natalie with Birdcages, 1950; Gelatin silver print 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler

In her photograph Natalie with Birdcages (1950), the belted silhouette of the model echoes that of the two hanging cages, creating a harmonious composition in which the model appears at one with her surroundings. This mimicry emphasizes the naturalism of the model and the “wearability” of the clothing, a technique that Dahl-Wolfe used in other photographs like this one. Contemporary critics have praised the photographer for “replac[ing] the image of the glamorous goddess in the gilded cage with an approachable, active woman with a sense of self”—a sentiment apt for this image of a woman positioned outside of a cage, existing freely and at ease in the world.

In contrast to Dahl-Wolfe’s liberating image, a photographic still by Eve Sussman (b. 1961), Themis in the Bird Cage (2006), explores the power dynamics between men and women. It comes from her dialogue-free film The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007), which is based on an ancient myth narrating the abduction of several women who are forced to repopulate Rome. Rampant with sentiments of twisted patriotism and sacrifice, the narrative has been depicted often by male artists including David, Rubens, Poussin, and Picasso. Sussman offers a new perspective by setting her version in the 1960s, an era of supposed sexual liberation.

Eve Sussman, Themis in the Bird Cage (Photographic still from The Rape of the Sabine Women), 2005; Chromogenic color print, 39 3/8 x 51 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation

Eve Sussman, Themis in the Bird Cage (Photographic still from The Rape of the Sabine Women), 2005; Chromogenic color print, 39 3/8 x 51 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation

The scene takes place at a posh pool party, during which we are afforded a glimpse of the now-married abductees in their new lives. This still evokes a sense of female disempowerment by portraying one woman as caged prey—a “trophy wife” in the most literal of senses. The brightly clad woman in the background initially offers a sense of freedom and lightness; though the narrative context makes it clear that she is no freer than her shadowy counterpart, as both are imprisoned in forced marriages.

Elisabetta Gut, Book in a Cage, 1981; Wood, wire, and French-Italian pocket dictionary, 7 1/2 x 4 5/8 x 4 5/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist; © Elisabetta Gut

Elisabetta Gut, Book in a Cage, 1981; Wood, wire, and French-Italian pocket dictionary, 7 1/2 x 4 5/8 x 4 5/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist; © Elisabetta Gut

Of her film, Sussman once commented that the “linguistic breakdown brings you back to…the core of what it means to communicate on film.” This offers a parallel to a third cage-themed work: Book in a Cage (1981), by Elisabetta Gut (b. 1934). The Italian book artist created this assemblage from of a found wooden cage and an Italian–English pocket dictionary. Not a birdcage but a “wordcage,” the piece comments on the ability of language to be both restrictive and freeing. While we can be hindered by our inability to communicate across language divides, we have freedom in our ability to use language at all. Symbolically, the cage serves to emphasize language’s constraints, while the open door reminds viewers of its endless possibilities.

—Becca Gross was the 2018 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Modern Makers: Rose Jaffe

Q&A with Rose Jaffe, a D.C.-based artist and native Washingtonian whose multidisciplinary works feature women and community at the center. Her vibrant murals can be found around D.C., and now in the Museum Shop where a selection of her smaller works are also on sale.

Rose Jaffe and the NMWA mural, photo by Adriana Regalado

Rose Jaffe and the NMWA mural, photo by Adriana Regalado

What is the inspiration behind the NMWA murals?

I want my art to bring color, energy, light, and meaning to a space. The powerful and vibrant women around me inspire my work. I am intrigued by the lines of a face and the stories our bodies tell. By painting larger-than-life portraits of everyday women, I celebrate and honor their existence.

You work in a wide array of mediums—how have you become so versatile?

I have an insatiable appetite for learning and playing with new mediums. More than anything, I tire of paint after a certain point and want to switch it up. I am working on 3D forms now—sculpture, exploring more wood and metal. It’s very exciting to me. I love how art can exist in so many mediums, almost like languages, telling the same story.

What drives the strong thread of activism in your work?

I was lucky to be raised by socially aware parents who took me to marches and rallies in my youth. I stayed engaged in college, and joined an activist collective of artists upon returning to D.C., which influenced me to use my art for a purpose. Art is an amazing conduit for us to build community, create connections, and process and heal trauma. I am passionate about this and always learning how art can spread messages of social empowerment and social change.

Can you name a notable visit to NMWA?
I know I came as a kid, and I remember visiting after college. But my most memorable experience was attending a Fresh Talk featuring the artist Swoon. I got to meet her and fangirl a bit. I cannot express how amazing NMWA’s programming is—and how important the existence of this museum is.

Which women artists are you inspired by right now?

Oh, so many! Painter Lynnea Holland Weiss, artist-activist Kate DeCiccio, illustrator Sara Andreasson, and painter Jessalyn Brooks, to name a few.