Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we regularly rotate our collection to spark new thematic connections. This is an essential part of our curatorial philosophy. In a six-post series, I will explore the themes featured in our most recent collection installation. Read about our “Family Matters” and “Rebels with a Cause” themes, and stay tuned for more.

Kirsten Justesen's Sculpture #2, a square cardboard box that features, on the top, a photo of the naked artist curled up inside of a box.

Kirsten Justesen, Sculpture #2, 1968/2010, Edition II, 1/5; Painted cardboard box and screened photograph, overall: 20 in x 24 in x 24 in.; Gift of Montana A/S

Spaces, both physical and metaphorical, often have strong gendered associations. Historically, conventional ideas about women’s purportedly delicate sensibilities led them to be regularly restricted to private, interior environments—sites of protection and confinement. Such isolation limited women’s active participation in the exterior, public realm directed by men.

Many women artists evaluate the complex interrelationships of inside/outside and the female body. Employing imagery and materials that frame, envelop, or reflect the body, they reconfigure our assumptions about personal space.

Gallery Highlights:

Body-art pioneer Kirsten Justesen subverts the conventional approach to sculpting the nude female figure. For centuries, artists positioned figurative sculptures atop a plinth in order to provide the viewer a 360-degree view. Justesen’s compelling Sculpture II (2010), a remake of an object she first created in 1968, upends this tradition. The piece comprises an open cardboard box that reveals a photograph of the artist’s own curled body. This image of a woman in a box disrupts the viewer’s voyeuristic perspective and, perhaps, provides commentary on social constraints imposed upon women.

Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene also depicts a woman in a confining situation. In her photograph Untitled (68) (1999), she positioned her model in a domestic space: hidden beneath the cushions of a living room sofa, like a child at play. The pillows envelop the woman, who rests with her eyes closed, and suggest both containment and comfort.

With her back to the viewer, the figure in Alison Saar’s print Mirror, Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II (2014) is also somewhat concealed, her face visible only through her reflection in the frying pan she holds. The figure and the print’s title evoke the fairy tale Snow White, which contains themes of female self-critique and a culturally narrow standard of beauty.

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (68), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 3/8 x 15 3/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Hellen van Meene, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Alison Saar, Mirror Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II, 2014; Woodcut on chind colle, 40 1/2 x 23 1/3 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, Dean Emerita of Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore; © Alison Saar; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Berthe Morisot, The Cage, 1885; Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 15 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

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

Although she worked more than a century before these contemporary artists, impressionist Berthe Morisot created a deceptively serene view in her painting The Cage (1885). She applied paint in vigorous strokes on an unprimed canvas to depict a pair of caged love birds. Huddled close together and positioned beside an exuberant vase of flowers, the birds appear diminutive and vulnerable.

Decades later, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe also used the bird cage. Rejecting studio settings and mannequin-like poses, she brought a formal precision and an irreverent sense of humor to the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1936 to 1958. Natalie with Bird Cages (1950) depicts a woman standing between two bird cages, seemingly at ease and assured—and by no means confined or caged herself.

These and other works in “Space Explorers” showcase how elements of architecture, mirrors, and other objects highlight the physical and psychological nuances of enclosure.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

A Tribute to a "Singularly Painterly Painter"

“I love only extreme novelty or the things of the past.”–Berthe Morisot

Art historian Jean-Dominique Rey’s new book, Berthe Morisot (Flammarion, 2011), with an introduction by Musée d’Orsay curator Sylvie Patry, presents a comprehensive tribute to the life and career of the remarkable French artist, from her precocious talent as a child drawing and painting with her sister, to her strikingly loose works produced during the last years of her life. While Rey acknowledges that Morisot had all the blessings of “fairies” to become a professional artist—born into an affluent family who traveled frequently and encouraged her to hone her talents—he attributes Morisot’s success to her passion: “Beneath her gentle appearance, this woman possessed an unshakeable will, so that nothing could divert her chosen path. Her work demanded effort and tenacity, but the cost was never apparent.”

Rey details the pivotal events in Morisot’s life, including her first drawing lesson at age sixteen and her introduction to Édouard Manet in 1868. Rey elaborates on Morisot’s often misconstrued relationship with Manet (more mutual muses than pupil-teacher) and her equal status among the other Impressionists who were all men (Mary Cassatt joined later). In fact, Impressionism was the first movement in painting to include a woman among its founding members. In 1874, Morisot participated in the first Impressionist exhibition and experimented with brushwork and light alongside her fellow artists, yet she had something the other members could never have: in reference to a portrait by Morisot, Rey explains, “The picture shows a blend of charm and sensuality to which only a woman artist can aspire, depending as it does on a powerful identification with womankind, and a deep knowledge of the female state.” Berthe Morisot includes elegant reproductions of the artist’s paintings as well as her often-overlooked watercolors, pastels, and drawings—all timeless and full of charm. An extensive timeline with archival photos and reproductions of letters written by and to Morisot sheds light on the artist’s world. Rey concludes the book with quotes from writers and poets of Morisot’s time—Emile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé among many others—who followed the impressive career of the woman whom Paul Valéry called the “essence of distinction.”

Berthe Morisot (hardcover, 288 pages, 150 illustrations) will be available in February in the Museum Shop. Jean-Dominique Rey, art historian and curator, has published numerous essays, memoirs, and books including Monet: Water Lilies (Flammarion, 2008). Sylvie Patry has organized two retrospective exhibitions on Morisot.

–Vivian Djen is managing editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.