Common Threads: Staff Quilt Stories

In honor of National Quilting Month and NMWA’s current exhibition “Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts, NMWA staff members share their quilt stories and memories:

“I didn’t know there were quilters in my family until after ‘Workt by Hand’ opened. I mentioned to my mother that it felt strange not having a quilt story, and that’s when I learned that my great-grandmother, Rossie Webber, was an award-winning quilter. Her double wedding ring quilt won first prize at the Cleveland County Fair in North Carolina, ca. 1941.”—Ashley, Assistant Educator

Ashley's quilt (left) and Stephanie's (right)

Ashley’s quilt (left) and Stephanie’s (right)

“My aunt took up quilting when she and her husband bought a farm in Indiana. She had no ties to the area but figured quilting would be a good way to assimilate into ‘farm life.’ She made quilts for me and each of my sisters to mark our 16th birthdays, customizing them to our individual tastes. Knowing nothing about quilts then, I was so impressed with my aunt’s quilt when I received it with its multi-colored patches in a seemingly random array of mismatched pieces. Now having seen Workt By Hand’, I can attribute my quilt to taking after the Crazy Quilt genre. It’s crazy and bright, and I love it.” —Stephanie, Curatorial Assistant

AIDS Memorial Quilt; Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

AIDS Memorial Quilt; Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“The most memorable quilt to me is the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Not only has the quilt been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but it is also the largest community art project in the world and has been traveling the globe since its inaugural display in Washington, D.C., in 1987. Today, the quilt in its entirety includes over 48,000 individual three-by-six-foot memorial panels, most of which commemorate the life of someone who has died of AIDS.”—Gordon, Director of Operations

Quilts that Laura received for her Bat Mitzvah (left) and at birth

Laura’s quilts from Kathy

“A family friend, Kathy, made my sister and me quilts for major milestones in our life (birth, Bat Mitzvah, etc.) Each quilt was specific to both the person and the occasion, and they were always inscribed, ‘Love, Kathy.’ They are among the few gifts I distinctly remember receiving, and I have cherished them over the years. Though Kathy passed away this year, I still sleep under her quilt when I visit home, and I feel connected to her.”—Laura, Digital Media Specialist

Ginny's family quilt

Ginny’s family quilt

“My mother’s quilt, which currently lives in my office in honor of the ‘Workt by Hand’ exhibition, came from my great-great Aunt Fanny and Uncle Bob Thompson who lived in McHenry, Illinois. We think it dates from the 1920s, and it was most likely part of her wedding trousseau. I believe my grandmother received the quilt after Uncle Bob passed away in the 1980s.”—Ginny, Associate Curator

Do you have a quilt story to share? Add it to the comments section below, or comment on NMWA’s other social media sites—thank you!

Shedding Light: A Curator’s Perspective on Anna Ancher

“If you ask Danes to name a woman artist, they will say Anna Ancher,” declared Skagens Museum curator Mette Bøgh Jensen in an enlightening gallery talk of A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Art Colony. Jensen, curator of the 2009 exhibition I am Anna. A homage to Anna Ancher in Skagen, Denmark, the site of the artist colony, is a noted authority on the artist.

Kicking off the tour with Michael Ancher’s Christmas Day 1900, visitors learned that earlier sketches included male family members and table clutter such as coffee cups and cakes. Their omission in the finished painting highlights “what this family is about—it’s about the women.” Anna is shown at the far right, with her daughter Helga, her mother, and two sisters.

Her family’s support was crucial in her success. With mutual respect as artists, Michael and Anna collaborated on Judgment of a day’s work, in which they painted each other’s portraits. “You see them as equals,” says Jensen. Only after marrying Michael did Anna get her own studio, to which she did not allow visitors access. “She got good reviews but didn’t want people to see the works before they were finished.”

Other artists who came to Skagen stayed at the inn run by Anna’s family—the only one in town. Pausing at the serene Portrait of mother (Mrs. Ane Brøndum), Jensen says Anna’s devout mother “welcomed [the artists] to the hotel,” even though “they drank and they had parties and that’s not what she believed in.” Joining this bohemian group was the famous painter P.S. Kroyer. Michael Ancher was initially “afraid [Kroyer] would take over,” but the pair became friends. An attractive locale for artists, the seaside town had “cheap models and relatively cheap accommodations.”

Anna Ancher, A field sermon, 1903; Skagens Museum

Anna Ancher, A field sermon, 1903; Skagens Museum

Of Anna Ancher’s breakthrough works, Jensen says, “the outside really doesn’t interest her that much.” Her interior paintings, in particular, are “more about the color and light than anything else,” a style that Jensen characterizes as “typical Anna.” One exception, Anna’s largest painting, A Field Sermon, depicts Skagen’s religious life.

Jensen ranks Anna as “the closest to a Nordic Impressionist of the Skagen painters.” Her stunning preparatory studies (or “painted diaries,” as Jensen calls them) showcase Ancher’s remarkable interpretation of light and color. Light is often the only subject in her works, as is the case in Interior. Without figures or furniture, the composition is “very modern—there’s no story. It’s all about color and light.”

Ancher was an innovative artist—as Jensen characterizes, “It’s really Anna Ancher who was the modern one of the colony.”

—Emily Haight is the member relations assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

NMWA’s Nordic Cool

In honor of A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Art Colony, on view through May 12, 2013, we’re researching other delightful, innovative, and interesting Danish women in the arts. Click here to learn more about NMWA’s current exhibition.

Some of the earliest seeds for NMWA’s current exhibition, A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Art Colony, were planted nearly a decade ago when curatorial staff members visited Scandinavia to research Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers. This exhibition, on view at NMWA during April–September 2004, was a hit, and although it was NMWA’s first-ever design exhibition, it opened the curators’ eyes to Scandinavian women artists such as fascinating Danish painter Anna Ancher.

Women in the Arts magazine cover, Spring 2004, with Nanna Ditzel's "Bench for Two," 1989

Women in the Arts magazine cover, Spring 2004, with Nanna Ditzel’s “Bench for Two,” 1989

Several of the Danish designers whose work was on view at NMWA were creating domestic-use products that addressed gender roles—such as Johnna Sølvsten Bak’s tablecloth with “iron burns incorporated into the design” as Jordana Pomeroy described in the spring 2004 issue of Women in the Arts magazine. Another example, “Danish industrial design team PAPCoRN (Lene Vad Jensen and Anne Bannick)…created compostable dinnerware from corn by-products.”

Of furniture by Nanna Ditzel—pieces with “curvilinear structures [that] would be as comfortable in a gallery as in a living room”—Pomeroy said, “Ultimately design is highly personal, often bearing traces of the artist’s hand, reflecting the proportions of the designer’s body, and deriving from the most intimate emotional memories. Ditzel’s designs flow with the human body while simultaneously drawing on other natural sources: seashells, coral, flowers, and butterflies.”

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Sister Mary Corita on PBS!

Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Kathryn A. Wat was recently interviewed by PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Wat described R(ad)ical Love: Sister Mary Corita, NMWA’s current exhibition of Corita’s 1960s, advertising-image-based art, on view March 9–July 15, 2012.

Kathryn Wat, NMWA curator, leads a tour of R(ad)ical Love

Kathryn Wat, NMWA curator, leads a tour of R(ad)ical Love

As Wat explains, work by Sister Mary Corita (later Corita Kent, 1918–1986) appeals to today’s viewers because of our constant exposure to media and advertising—we are constantly faced with advertising imagery and aspirational slogans created by companies selling products. Corita used 60s-era advertising words and images to communicate “her intense emotional response to the issues of her time.”

She often juxtaposed imagery from advertisements with texts that spoke to deeper spiritual fulfillment, addressing the cultural turmoil around her. “In the 60s, here in America, you are dealing with the Vietnam War. This is certainly on everyone’s mind, in addition to the Civil Rights movement, which was very close to her heart. She is in the middle of this maelstrom and seeks to make sense of it from her perspective as a nun.”

Sister Mary Corita (later Corita Kent), for eleanor, 1964; Serigraph on Pellon

Sister Mary Corita (later Corita Kent), for eleanor, 1964; Serigraph on Pellon

“I think that the tenor of the 1960s involved a push/pull with religion…. There are works in this exhibition that feature texts from the bible. There are several works that incorporate proverbs. She quotes from many Christian authors. So, the Christian content is in the exhibition. But the way that she turns and twists it by juxtaposing it with secular content and certainly with secular imagery that she has drawn from popular culture is truly unique.”

To watch the video and hear Wat discuss more of Corita’s work—“super-cool art that’s very hip, but that is filled with a sincere spirit”—click here: http://video.pbs.org/video/2210001517/.

A Curator’s Travelogue: Women Artists of Rome

In this series of blog posts, NMWA Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman recounts a recent trip to Europe:

The focus of a journey could be the exploration of a new territory or a spiritual journey in search of internal peace. It could also be the need to assuage one’s desire for friendship, love, or adventure or, simply, finding an inspiration for creative work. My trip to Germany and Italy in September 2011 was focused on viewing works created by women, on meeting artists, particularly book artists, and on cultivating old friendships. 

Part V: Women Artists of Rome

 In 1985, when the National Museum of Women in the Arts was still located in its temporary headquarters on MacArthur Boulevard in Washington, D.C., (the museum opened in its present location in 1987) we received a letter and a package of photographs of artists’ books and libri oggetti (book-objects) from Italian artists Mirella Bentivoglio and Elisabetta Gut, offering to donate any work we liked to the museum’s collection. Mrs. Holladay and I reviewed the photographs. We loved the works and decided to select Bentivoglio’s A Malherbe and Gut’s Libro-seme (Seed-book). They were the first foreign artists who donated artists’ books to the collection, and we were very excited and grateful for the gift. Subsequently both artists donated many more works to NMWA, and both were given solo exhibitions: Bentivolio in 1999, The Visual Poetry of Mirella Bentivoglio and Elisabetta Gut in 2010, Books Without Words.

Mirella Bentivoglio, A Malherbe (To Malherbe), 1975; Onyx, 5 3/8 x 7 1/8 x 2 1/4 in.

Mirella Bentivoglio, A Malherbe (To Malherbe), 1975; Onyx, 5 3/8 x 7 1/8 x 2 1/4 in.

Mirella Bentivoglio is an extraordinary person of many talents. She is best known in Europe for her exploration of the relationship between language/word and image. Unlike most poets, Bentivoglio presents poetry “liberated” from the traditionally printed page. The artist plays with words, breaks rules of syntax, detaches words from phrases, and isolates letters from words. The results of these experiments—concrete and visual poems—are perceived as symbols and metaphors. She also creates unique artists’ books, often made from unusual materials such as marble, wood, and earth, and publishes limited-edition portfolios. She is a renowned sculptor and performance artist. Her public sculpture, The Egg of Gubbio, has been celebrated for years by the citizens of that small Umbrian town. She curated many exhibitions of women artists in Italy and all over the world, and she has participated in the Venice Biennale 10 times, as well as in over 900 solo and group exhibitions. Her concerns, often reflected in her work, are protection of the environment and critique of conspicuous consumerism and thoughtless waste. For her 90th birthday, next year, the National Gallery of Contemporary Art in Rome will present a retrospective exhibition of her work. Most recently, in November 2011, the Museum of Modern and Conteporary Art of Trento and Rovereto (MART) celebrated her major gift, Donation Bentivoglio, of over 300 works of visual poetry and artists’ books by Italian and foreign artists from her private collection.

Bentivoglio has lived dangerously. As a young woman after the World War II, she and her future husband, then a law student, participated in the anti-fascist demonstrations in Northern Italy in Pavia and Milan. One of their favorite anti-establishment activities was whistling in the theaters in Milan, which at the time produced a conservative repertoire that was supportive of the establishment. To protest, a group of students would go to the theater every night, with camouflaged whistles in their pockets; they whistled from many seats located all over the theater during the performance. They were known as “The Whistlers”—Bentivoglio assured me that it was a good tactic, because the following season the theater’s program included Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. “The Whistlers” then relaxed and stopped whistling.

 Bentivoglio is an extraordinary cook. Her fennel salad with oranges and walnuts, her delicious vegetable stews made of eggplants and tomatoes, and homemade pastas with pesto are some of the best dishes I have ever tried anywhere in the world. If weather permits, meals are served on her balcony overlooking a beautiful garden marked by the cypress trees. When the sun goes down, it is like being inside a landscape of a Renaissance painting. This September it was too cold to eat on the balcony, and we sat in her small, blue-wallpapered dining room, eating from beautiful blue china dishes set on a blue tablecloth. My present to her was a blue apron, which she said inspired this blue lunch.

Like many artists, Bentivolio sees in works of art the details invisible to the eyes of other mortals. An example of her poetic imagination occurred in the post office. She noticed a bunch of labels with the sign “fragile,” the sign we often attach to parcels with glass dishes or other delicate contents. Bentivoglio took some of the labels and made a book titled “The World after September 11” (presently in NMWA’s exhibition Trove, until January 15, 2012.) She found the sign “fragile” as the word defining the world after September 11, 2001. “We are surrounded by potential symbols,” says Bentivoglio, “to be discovered in moments of poetic insight and preserved with the help of forms, words, and materials.”

Bentivoglio’s research has brought recognition to many forgotten women artists, in particular to those who were active in the futurist movement. She co-authored, with Franca Zoccoli (as I have mentioned in Part I of my report from Rome), a 2008 book, Le Futuriste Italiane nelle Arti Visivi and published a 2010 portfolio, Futurismo ex Novo (Futurism Anew) describing and reproducing the verbo-visual poetry of Marietta Angelini (1868–1942) who was a maid and lover of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), the founder of futurist movement. Angelini’s poetry known as ”parole in liberta” (words in freedom) is a kind of a private diary in which she alludes to her sexual adventures with Marinetti and depicts a busy life of a woman in a domestic space. Futurismo ex Nove has been recently donated to NMWA.

Elisabetta Gut, L’uccello di fuoco (Da Stravinsky) (The Firebird (From Stravinsky)), 1985; Paper cutout, wood, and collage; 8 ½ x 11 x 2 ¼ in.; Gift of H.G. Spencer in honor of Lorraine Grace

Elisabetta Gut, L’uccello di fuoco (Da Stravinsky) (The Firebird (From Stravinsky)), 1985; Paper cutout, wood, and collage; 8 ½ x 11 x 2 ¼ in.; Gift of H.G. Spencer in honor of Lorraine Grace

Elisabetta Gut’s recent exhibition Books Without Words, in 2010, was enthusiastically received by NMWA’s visitors. Many recorded their impressions in the exhibition guest-book, which the artist asked us to photocopy and send to her to Rome. Gut reported that reading and rereading visitors’ remarks is the best medication she knows for her gloomy days and blue moods. It uplifts her spirits instantaneously. Among the visitors to the show was Joseph Eisenberg, Cultural Director of Maitland Regional Art Gallery, in Maitland, Australia, who fell in love with Gut’s art. He asked NMWA to travel the show to Australia, but we had already arranged the return of the exhibition toRome and it was not possible. Mr. Eisenberg persisted, and in October this year he and his curator went to Rome to select the works for Gut’s 2012 exhibition in Maitland. When I visited the artist this September, Gut showed me her new works, which will travel to Australia for the Maitland show. They were pure poetry and magic, and I wished I could present another exhibition of her works at NMWA.

Elisabetta Gut at home

Elisabetta Gut at home

Even though I had been to Rome before, I had never seen Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth) located in the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church. It was a sentimental journey inspired by one of my favorite films, Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. In one of the movie’s scenes, Peck puts his hand into the stone “mouth of truth,” which is supposed to bite the hand of a liar. The line of tourists was too long to verify my truthfulness, but my curiosity was assuaged. I also made a pilgrimage to Via Margutta 51, where Peck, who played the role of an American journalist in love with a princess (Hepburn), lived in a modest apartment. It had not changed much since 1953, when the film was made.

The Mouth of Truth

The Mouth of Truth

The other news of interest to our bloggers might be the information about a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition (October 4, 2011–January 22, 2012) taking place in Rome in Palazzo Cipolla on Via del Corso. The show is curated by one of her biographers, Barbara Buhler Lynes. Another great woman painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, enjoys great glory in Milan, where an exhibition of her 40 major works is on view in Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) through January 29, 2012.

Finally, I would like to share with you the recipe for my new favorite drink, which I tried for the first time this year in Italy. If you take a walk in the afternoon inVenice, you will notice in almost every outdoor cafe people sipping red liquid from their glasses. This is a Spritz, a mixture of Prosecco and Campari, with a slice of orange and some ice. Cin-cin!

—Krystyna Wasserman is the curator of book arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Curator’s Travelogue: MACRO and MAXXI, the new museums of Rome

In this series of blog posts, NMWA Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman recounts a recent trip to Europe:

The focus of a journey could be the exploration of a new territory or a spiritual journey in search of internal peace. It could also be the need to assuage one’s desire for friendship, love, or adventure or, simply, finding an inspiration for creative work. My trip to Germany and Italy in September 2011 was focused on viewing works created by women, on meeting artists, particularly book artists, and on cultivating old friendships. 

Part IV: Rome

Franca Zoccoli, an art critic and art historian who has been NMWA’s friend and supporter for many years, invited me to visit her in Rome. In 1999, she came to Washington to see the museum and to deliver a lecture on contemporary Italian women artists. Her special interests include American art and Italian women futurists, and she has written and published books on both subjects. Her recent volume, Le Futuriste Italiane nelle Arti Visivi (2008), co-authored with Mirella Bentivoglio, met with enormous acclaim in Italy, receiving rave reviews. Franca knows everything and more that a visitor might wish to learn about art and the city of Rome; she also makes the best lasagna. In her residential neighborhood, Parioli, we wandered on Sunday morning around the large park known as Parco di Villa Glori, watching graceful amazons and children riding horses and ponies. The park celebrates the memory of the Italian heroes who died for their country. We also explored the new Parco della Musica, designed by Renzo Piano, where the neighborhood people listen to music in three large concert halls and watch plays in the Roman-inspired outdoor theater. And we visited museums I had never seen before, MACRO and MAXXI.

The Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO) opened in 2002 in a transformed former Peroni beer factory. MACRO collects and presents Italian art since the 1960s. An exhibition of Bice Lazzari: L’Equilibri dello Spazio (The Balance of Space) was one of the major exhibitions on view in September 2011. Thanks to Franca Zoccoli’s friendship with the artist’s family, a painting by Bice Lazzari (1900–1981) Misure Doppio Ritmo (1967) was given to NMWA. The exhibition is part of the project known as MACRO Roots of Contemporary Art, designed to introduce to a new generation of museum-goers some important artists whose work and activity laid down the foundations of contemporary art in Rome. The installation includes Lazzari’s paintings and drawings, in addition to sketchbooks, photographs, documents, and additional works stored in cabinet drawers that visitors can pull out and study in depth. Lazzari’s work, described as “harmonious signs suspended in space combining lyricism and expressiveness with rational inquiry” was strongly influenced by poetry and music. The artist was part of the European avant-garde of the ’20s and ’30s. She has been credited as one of the precursors of Minimalism in Italy.

The MAXXI, in Rome

The MAXXI, in Rome

The newest museum in Rome, the beautiful National Museum of XXI Century Arts, known as MAXXI, which was designed by Iraq-born star of international architecture Zaha Hadid, opened in May 2010. Hadid won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004—the first woman so honored—and the Stirling Prize in 2010 for the best new European building, the Evelyn Grace Academy in South London (U.K.), a concrete-and-glass structure housing a secondary school in an underprivileged part of London. Presently, Hadid is engaged in designing the Eli and Edy Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University in East Lansing, scheduled to open on April 21, 2012.

The interior of the Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI

The interior of the Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI

MAXXI is an extraordinary building. Its fluid and sinuous design is reminiscent of the flow of a river, which reflects Hadid’s intention to create “a fluid construct comprising a series of streams—converging, overlapping, then changing course.” As one explores the museum, the winding paths and ramps of the building and the open exhibition areas feel more like a walk along the river than perusing traditionally enclosed gallery spaces. MAXXI took an industrial area occupied by a set of military barracks and transformed it into a new arts district. The plaza leading to the museum has become a neighborhood playground. Children play in sandboxes and climb artificial hills. In the heat of the summer they look for shade under the petals of the large red glass flowers, illuminated at night (see photo). The pavement of the plaza is covered with paths of colorful drawings and paintings by an artist from India. People from the neighborhood sit on the stone benches, chatting, reading, and drinking lemonade.  MAXXI Plaza on that late summer night remains in my memory as the most community-oriented museum space I have ever seen in any city.

Outdoor space at MAXXI

Outdoor space at MAXXI

The Foundation MAXXI, sponsored by the Italian Government, is made up of two parts—one devoted to the visual arts and the other to architecture (MAXXI Architettura and MAXXI Arte). MAXXI Architettura recently collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in New York on the Young Architect Program (YAP), which features the work of talented young architects from all over the world through a competitive process. The outdoor projects of both MAXXI and MoMA PS1 often are designed by the winners of the competition. MAXXI ARTE includes more than 300 works by international artists, which are displayed on rotation together with temporary exhibitions focused on leading contemporary masters. Sol LeWitt (1928–2007) an American conceptual artist known for simple geometric sculptures and wall drawings, has been prominently featured among them.

—Krystyna Wasserman is the curator of book arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Curator’s Travelogue: Women Artists of Bologna

In this series of blog posts, NMWA Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman recounts a recent trip to Europe:

The focus of a journey could be the exploration of a new territory or a spiritual journey in search of internal peace. It could also be the need to assuage one’s desire for friendship, love, or adventure or, simply, finding an inspiration for creative work. My trip to Germany and Italy in September 2011 was focused on viewing works created by women, on meeting artists, particularly book artists, and on cultivating old friendships. 

PART III . Bologna

Home of the oldest university in Europe (1088) and the capital of tortellini, Bologna is also the birth place of Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) and Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), two of the best-known “old mistresses.” Fontana was the favorite painter of the noblewomen and created two of the oldest paintings in the NMWA collection, Portrait of a Noblewoman and Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, which are excellent examples of this genre. Of the two artists, Fontana is now given more recognition, judging by the number of her works on museum walls during my September 2011 visit to the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna.

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, c. 1595

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, c. 1595; Oil on canvas, 62 x 47 3/8 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Fontana’s somber Ritratto della Famiglia Gozzadini (1584) (Portrait of the Gozzadini Family) was commissioned by the Bolognese aristocrat Laudomia Gozzadini. At the time the portrait was painted, Laudomia’s father, a senator, and her sister Ginevra were dead. The painting underscores Laudomia’s role as the legitimate heir to the family’s power and fortune. The portrait, as Vera Fortunati, a feminist art historian from the University of Bologna, observed,” is a kind of domestic alterpiece dedicated to the household gods.” Ritratto di neonato nella culla (1583) (Portrait of a Newborn in the Cradle), also on view, portrays a less common subject for a painter of that period. The baby’s aristocratic background is depicted through exquisite white clothing and inlaid cradle; however, the cradle is reminiscent of a catafalque and it has been observed that the painting may depict a deceased newborn. Fontana was the mother of eleven children and painted several children’s portraits, but as Vera Fortunati suggests quoting from P. Aries Padri e Figli nell’ Europa Moderna, 1960, “the appearance in the sixteenth century of the portrait of a dead child represents a very important moment in the history of feelings.” Both paintings travelled in 1998 to Washington for NMWA’s exhibition Lavinia Fontana of Bologna, 15521614 (February 5–June 7, 1998).

Fontana was also the first woman to paint alterpieces at the time of Counter-Reformation and the growing power of the Catholic Church. One of her altarpiece paintings, San Francisco di Paola blessing the Child has been also on view in the Pinacoteca Nazionale. Birth of the Virgin Mary can be seen in Santissima Trinita church and Madonna Enthroned with Child and Santa Caterina of Alexandria, Cosma, Damiano e il Committente Scipione Calcina in the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, among other churches of Bologna.

Donatella Franchi, A Clotilde, 2009

Donatella Franchi, A Clotilde, 2009; Mixed media, 8 x 8 1/2 inches; Gift of Lynn M. Johnston

I sorely missed Fontana’s tender Ritratto di Gentildonna con Bambina (Portrait of a Noblewoman with a Young Girl (ca.1590–1595) in which a mother passes a bound in red velvet book to her small daughter. This painting was an inspiration for a contemporary artist of Bologna, Donatella Franchi, in creating the artist’s book A Clotilde (currently on view in NMWA’s exhibition Trove). The book is devoted to her mother, who died at the age of one hundred. Franchi says, “In my memories of her as young woman, she always holds a book in her hands. To overcome the anguish that her fragility and dependence occasionally caused me, I focused on her most characteristic gestures. Her hands, delicately turning the pages or resting on them, appeared to be bathed in the same light as the great tradition of artistic portraits. The Pinacoteca painting depicting a mother passing a book to her daughter is one of them. Now that my mother is no longer here, it is with great intensity that I harbor within me the force of this legacy.”

Via Urbana, Elisabetta Sirani's birthplace

Via Urbana, Elisabetta Sirani's birthplace

Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665) lived on Via Urbana 7, a quiet arcaded street. There is a plaque on the building that says: “Nell giorno VIII gennaio 1638 qui nacque Elisabetta Sirani emulatrice delsommo Guido Reni” (On the day of January 8, 1638 Elisabetta Sirani, the rival of the great Guido Reni (1575–1642) was born [in this building].) It is a slightly chauvinist inscription. It defines Sirani as emulatrice of Guido Reni rather than remembering her as an independent talent and an accomplished painter of religious and historical scenes. Guido Reni would never be described as a “rival” of Sirani or any other artist on the wall of the building he was born or lived in. In the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna the only Sirani painting on view was Sant’Antonio di Padova in adorazione del Bambin Gesu (1662). I was disappointed that San Girolamo (1660) and Maddalena (1660), some of her greatest works, were nowhere to be seen.

Elisabetta Sirani, Virgin and Child, 1663

Elisabetta Sirani, Virgin and Child, 1663; Oil on canvas, 34 x 27 1/2 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Conservation funds generously provided by the Southern California State Committee of NMWA

Sirani’s life was the subject of gossip. Young and beautiful, she died at the age of 27 at the peak of her successful career. A poisoning by a domestic servant Lucia Tolomelli was rumored, but I was assured by scholars that the autopsy proved that the artist died of stomach ulcers and a perforated stomach. She was working too hard to support her family and it did not help that her father, also a painter, kept and controlled all of her earnings.

Massimo Pulini's book on Ginevra Cantofoli

Massimo Pulini's book on Ginevra Cantofoli

In Donatella Franchi’s library, I discovered a book by Massimo Pulini Ginevra Cantofoli: La nuova nascita di una pittrice nella Biologna del Seicento. Ginevra Cantofoli (1608–1672) was a talented pupil of Sirani and an excellent painter whose work was often attributed to Guido Reni and other artists. Pulini identified many works by Cantofoli, among them a portrait of Sirani (in a private collection in Bologna.) She particularly excelled in sensitive and idealized paintings of women. Her Sibilla (Busto di Ragazza) is in the Hermitage, another Sibilla (Donna con Turbante) in the Louvre collection, and Berenice is in Galeria Borghese in Rome. In Bologna, none of her paintings is on view, even though Pulini’s book lists the large canvas Vergine Immacolata col Bambin Gesu (190 x 117 cm.) in the collection of the Pinacoteca in Bologna. Cantofoli’s paintings deserve to be known and seen. The magistrates of the city of Bologna should pay more attention to the legacy of their women artists to maintain the historical importance of their city as the legendary world’s capital of women artists from the Renaissance to the 18th century.

Santo Stefano church, in Bologna

Santo Stefano church, in Bologna

Angela Lorenz is another contemporary artist in Bologna whose artist’s books are in NMWA’s collection. Often referring to the female heroines of the past, she is currently working on an installation, Victorious Secrets, inspired by the mosaics of 380 A.D. in Villa Armorina in Sicily representing women wearing bikinis. Lorenz is an American from New England who married an Italian man photographer (who is also the owner of the best gelateria in Bologna). Unlike most art historians, guidebook writers, and tourists, she is not concerned with what the women are wearing, but what they are doing. Lorenz creates mosaics made of buttons, a traditional material used by seamstresses, which she stores in large boxes in her studio. After thorough research, she discovered that the women portrayed are the athletes and the winners of the Olympic games. Unlike the men who performed naked, women participated in the Olympics every other year and wore bikinis. She is currently creating a triptych which will show women throwing discus, playing ball, and lifting weights.

—Krystyna Wasserman is the curator of book arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Check back soon for additional posts on her travels.

Part Two of a Curator’s Travelogue: On the trail of women artists—and old friends—in Germany and Italy

In this series of blog posts, NMWA Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman recounts a recent trip to Europe:

The focus of a journey could be the exploration of a new territory or a spiritual journey in search of internal peace. It could also be the need to assuage one’s desire for friendship, love, or adventure or, simply, finding an inspiration for creative work. My trip to Germany and Italy in September 2011 was focused on viewing works created by women, on meeting artists, particularly book artists, and on cultivating old friendships. 

PART II . Berlin and Hannover

Karla Woisnitza in her home studio

Karla Woisnitza in her home studio

Karla Woisnitza, a painter and book artist, has several works in NMWA’s collection. She grew up in East Germany and lived there until the unification in 1989. Karla has had many solo exhibitions in Germany; most recently she has shown her paintings and drawings in Mannheim Kunsthalle. She invited me to her studio and home to review the new artist’s book that she has been working on for the last five years, which NMWA is acquiring. Each page is filled with the exquisite abstract ink drawings, rendered in a repetitive and highly decorative pattern of signs. Her work is peopled by distorted figures somewhat inspired by the ubiquitous graffitti in Berlin. Near Woisnitza’s studio, on the corner of Lychener and Raumerstrasse, is Frida Kahlo Restaurant, a building painted vibrant blue, just like the Blue House and Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City.

The Kahlo Restaurant

The Kahlo Restaurant

There are many splendid museums in Berlin, but some of them ignore completely women artists. A magnificent exhibition of Italian Renaissance portraiture, at the Bode Museum, Gesihter der Renaissance: Meisterwerke Italienischer Portrait-Kunst, did not include one work by a woman. The Gemäldegalerie has a very few works by women on view, among them a painting by Sofonisba Anguissola of her mother Bianca Ponzone Anguissola, a beautiful self-portrait by Anna-Dorothea Therbusch, Angelica Kauffmann’s Bachante, and Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun’s angelic portrait of Prince Heinrich Lubomirski. In the Neue Nationalgalerie, among the works of art created between the years 1900–1945, there is a large painting by Lotte Laserstein, Evening over Potsdam, as well as numerous works by Hannah Höch, Natalia Goncharova, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Marianne Werefkin. Visiting museums in Europe, for centuries bastions of male art, one observes the growing visibility of women artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. The “old mistresses” are mostly forgotten, an affirmation that NMWA’s mission is significant. 

My second stop in Germany was Hannover. I went there to see my old friend Prof. Dr. Ruth von Ledebur, a retired professor of English literature whose special interest has been Shakespeare. My friendship with her dates to the 1970s and 1980s, when we used to go with our husbands to international conferences. While they were busy with their meetings we found time to drive around Europe and visit museums. Thanks to her, I discovered works by Judith Leyster in Haarlem. We took a streetcar to downtown Hannover and explored two superb museums, the Sprengel Museumand the Landes Museum. Sprengel is best known for its collection of works and the Archive of Kurt Schwitters, including his famous

Niki de Saint Phalle's Nana figure

Niki de Saint Phalle's Nana figure

architectural sculpture-room installation known as Merzbau, which was created between 1920 and 1937, destroyed during World War II, and reconstructed by Peter Bissegger in 1983. Schwitters was almost singlehandedly responsible for the development of the Hannover Dada, one of the centers of the Dada movement in central Europeafter World War I. His artist-friend Hannah Höch (who was part of Berlin Dada group) is also well represented by numerous assemblages, collages and drawings.

 

Niki de Saint Phalle (whose work has been showcased in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project) is exceptionally popular in Hannover. Her La Grotte, Nana figures and other large public sculptures are on permanent display in the Great Garden of the Herrenhausen, and the Sprengel museum includes several galleries of her prints, drawings and sculptures. The Landes Museum (Hannover State Museum) celebrates Paula Modersohn-Becker. Three galleries are devoted to her paintings, including Girl in a Black Hat.

—Krystyna Wasserman is the curator of book arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Check back soon for additional posts on her travels.

On the trail of women artists—and old friends—in Germany and Italy

In this series of blog posts, NMWA Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman recounts a recent trip to Europe:

The focus of a journey could be the exploration of a new territory or a spiritual journey in search of internal peace. It could also be the need to assuage one’s desire for friendship, love, or adventure or, simply, finding an inspiration for creative work. My trip to Germany and Italy in September 2011 was focused on viewing works created by women, on meeting artists, particularly book artists, and on cultivating old friendships. 

PART I . Berlin, September 3–8, 2011

My friend Gabriela Eigensatz greeted me at the airport in Berlin. She drove us to her beautiful apartment in the former East Berlin, now a booming and elegant part of town, where on this warm day I noticed children playing in her building’s cobblestoned courtyard; their toys spread all around a small old fountain. Our friendship began when Gabriela, who used to be the cultural counselor of the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C., and her friend donated a beautiful artist’s book, Claire Nydegger’s Voyelles, inspired by Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, to the NMWA collection of artists’ books.

Image of Claire Nydegger's artist's book Voyelles, 1992

Claire Nydegger, Voyelles, 1992; Woodcuts and wood engravings on paper, offset printing on paper and tracing paper, 6 1/2 x 12 3/4 in.; Gift of Gabriela Eigensatz and Yvana Enzler

Gabriela’s job in Berlin allows her to participate in many fabulous cultural events. My host took me along to a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the spectacular Berlin Philharmonic Hall and to a reception afterward organized by the American Embassy. The following day, Gabriela invited several women artists and curators to meet with me and learn about NMWA. Among them were Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat, the curators in charge of Das Verborgene Museum (The Hidden Museum). The museum’s objectives are similar to NMWA’s—highlighting, researching, documenting, and exhibiting works by women artists. Its leadership is struggling to raise necessary funds, and since they do not have a headquarters or permanent collection, they collaborate with other museums, who host exhibitions that they have conceived.

Lotte Jacobi: Berlin–New York, by Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat

Lotte Jacobi: Berlin–New York, by Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat

Beckers and Moortgat are the authors of an excellent book about Lotte Jacobi, a renowned German photographer who lived in New Yorkduring the Nazi era. The book (part of the collection in NMWA’s Library and ResearchCenter) was first published in conjunction with the exhibition Atelier Lotte Jacobi: Berlin–New York held at Das Verborgene Museum and other German museums in 1997. This October, Beckers is curating in the Berlinische Galerie an exhibition of Hungarian photographer Eva Besnyö, whose work was seen in NMWA exhibition of Hungarian women photographers in 2009. Das Verborgene Museum’s comprehensive two-volume catalogue, published in 1987, is a landmark comparable to Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin’s catalogue Women Artists, 1550-1950.

Detail of Gisela Breitling's commission for St. Matthaus Kirche

Detail of Gisela Breitling's commission for St. Matthaus Kirche

One of the founders of the Verborgene Museum, artist Gisela Breitling, visited NMWA many years ago and donated one of her paintings to the collection. I was unable to visit with her, but I was told that I could see her wall paintings in the St. Matthaus Kirche, located near the Neue Galerie (Gallery of Modern Art). The following day I climbed the stairs to the church tower to see the sixteen murals representing scenes from St. Matthew’s Gospel, (image above) a powerful contemporary interpretation of the life of Christ and his martyrdom. Breitling depicted love, suffering, sacrifice, and betrayal not just as a biblical story but as the present human condition. Breitling won the all-German competition for the murals in St. Matthaus church, a rare commission for a woman.

—Krystyna Wasserman is the curator of book arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Check back soon for additional posts on her travels.

“Women, Power, and the Arts”

The turnout was fantastic for “Women, Power, and the Arts,” a May 3 panel discussion at Boston’s Simmons College. A collaboration between the Massachusetts State Committee of NMWA and the Simmons Institute of Leadership and Change, the event attracted students, professors, working artists, and collectors. My fellow panelists came from different areas of the art world—we were professors, writers, curators, artists, collectors, and directors.

It was invigorating to address a topic that still pushes buttons and incites excitement and passion four decades after Womanhouse, the groundbreaking feminist art installation and performance organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro in 1972. However, the panel could have used a few younger voices. The sole under-40 panelist was MacArthur Genius Award-winning artist Anna Schuleit, who, upon being invited to participate, took a poll of her female peers about gender awareness in their careers. The responses she received were overwhelmingly underwhelming: gender seemed to have little if any impact on the consciousness of Anna’s colleagues. The audience’s questions reflected the age divide—a young woman asked us to comment on issues of transgender discrimination, while older attendees expressed frustration that after decades of producing art, entrée to gallery representation as well as private and public collections still lay beyond their grasp. Author Gail Levin, drawing examples from the life of Lee Krasner, her most recent biographical subject, suggested that success for women often comes at age 70—not by age 70, but at age 70, when an artist has stuck to her guns long enough to be noticed.

Guerrilla Girls image: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. museum?

Guerrilla Girls (active1985– ), Untitled (from the series “Guerilla Girls Talk Back: The First Five Years,” 1985–1990), 1986, Color photolithograph on paper, 17 x 22 in., National Museum of Women in the Arts

It is a rare opportunity to view three historical generations and explore the bridges and chasms among them, which are exposed even by the title “Women, Power, and the Arts.” I immediately thought of the Guerrilla Girls, particularly their strategies in using commercial advertising tools to bring attention to art-world disparities. For other panelists, power signifies an inner strength and imagination that can drive creativity and guide an art career. Schuleit’s brief presentation took the form of a paean to her artist mother who inspired—or empowered—her to pursue a career in the arts. As a curator, it dawned on me that the determination to empower oneself as a woman artist existed long before the 21st century, though the means have changed drastically over time. In 16th centuryItaly, authority and influence were won by networking with local aristocracy and the elite clergy. In 18th-centuryFrance, the royal court provided ample opportunity for artists of both genders to ply their trade. Today, empowerment might mean receiving equal space in the critic’s column, fetching prices equal to men of the same stature, or running a successful business as a printmaker, painter, or architect. “Women, Power, and the Arts,” not a statement of certainty, remains an open-ended question that continues to provoke discussion.

—Jordana Pomeroy is the chief curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts