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.

5 Fast Facts: Elisabetta Gut

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Elisabetta Gut, whose work is currently on view in NMWA’s galleries.

Elisabetta Gut (b.1934)

1. Who Knew?

Gut began her artistic career as a painter, but in the 1960s, she started to search for a new form of expression. Inspired by avant-garde artists’ use of experimental materials, she created her first book-object in 1964.

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Elisabetta Gut’s works (left to right): Book in a Cage, 1981; Gift of the artist; Libro-Seme (Seed-Book), 1983; Gift of the artist; Photographs by Lee Stalsworth

2. Lost & Found

Whether trapping a French-Italian dictionary in a cage or “growing” music from a seed, Gut often incorporates found objects in her work. Each object’s unique history is incorporated into a new context.

3. What’s in a Name?

Though Gut’s artist books encourage close looking rather than traditional reading, words still play a role. Her titles provide insight into the inspiration, materials, or thoughts behind a work.

Elisabetta Gut, The Firebird (From Stravinksy), 1985; Gift of H.G. Spencer in honor of Lorraine Grace - See more at: http://nmwa.org/works/firebird-stravinsky#sthash.GnLWHaCp.dpuf

Elisabetta Gut, The Firebird (From Stravinksy), 1985; Gift of H.G. Spencer in honor of Lorraine Grace

4. Art Begets Art

Gut’s work frequently draws inspiration from her favorite works of art, music, or poetry. The Firebird, for example, visually interprets music from Igor Stravinsky’s famous ballet.

5. Book as Art

Artists’ books blur the lines between visual art and literary art. Works by Elisabetta Gut are currently on view in both the exhibition Super Natural and the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center. See if you can find both works during your next visit!

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

Books Without Words (in a book with words)

The catalogue for Books Without Words: The Visual Poetry of Elisabetta Gut includes essays by exhibition curator Krystyna Wasserman and Gut’s fellow Italian book artist Mirella Bentivoglio, along with beautiful color reproductions of each of the delightful treasures in the show. The founder of NMWA’s Library and Research Center and a foremost authority on book arts, Wasserman writes:

“Many of Gut’s works are visual representations of poetry, music, and art and as such are built on the aesthetics of ekphrasis. From Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in the Odyssey to Ellen Zwillich’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (inspired by five paintings from NMWA’s collection and composed for the inauguration of the museum in April 1987), ekphrasis describes one form of art interpreted in another medium. In the spirit of ekphrasis, poetry can depict sculpture, dance can portray painting, and collage can evoke the sounds of a musical instrument. Gut’s ekphrastic representations of music reflect the changeable emotional climate in which she lives. Her three works titled Strumento musicale (Musical Instrument) (1980–81) are composed of thread, pieces of sheet music, and organic matter such as dried seeds and leaves collaged into imaginary instruments. Libro-seme (Seed-book) (1983) is a book-object assembled from sheet music bound by the split shell of a small fruit. The notes represent seeds from which culture grows and blossoms. Musica impazzita (Crazy Music) (1983), a collage made of an ancient book of Gregorian chants and shaped like a butterfly arrested in motion, serves as a metaphor for transformation, mortality, and the constant human passage from one stage of life to another. Strumento musicale (p dolce) (Musical Instrument (p dolce)) offers peace and solace while Explosionoire (1985) brings about the rhythm and excitement of jazz through the burst of scattered words and letters extending into the viewer’s space.

Complementing her love of music is Gut’s passion for poetry. She voraciously reads French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish verse. French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) wrote in his essay “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument,” 1895, that “all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book.”1 Gut abstracts and transposes works by her favorite poets and composers into “spiritual instruments.” She literally translated Mallarme’s idea into a series of hybrid artist’s books: Libro-piano (Piano-book) (1982), Libro-nido (1982), Libro-foglio (Leaf-book) (1982), Libro-finestra (Window-book) (1980), and Libro-seme (1983). These works bring new associations to the book format by demonstrating the relationships between the natural and man-made worlds and the book—emblem of civilization and culture. Reminiscences of the past triggered the creation of these works: Libro-piano brings back to life Gut’s mother playing the piano while Libro-nido, Libro-seme, and Libro-foglio portray the artist’s sublime experience of feeling one with nature.

Gut’s Fumo d’autore (A Kafka a Kafka) (Author’s Smoke (To Kafka to Kafka)) (1983) honors Franz Kafka. Gut is familiar with Kafka’s stories and letters, but does not allude directly to the contents of her muse’s oeuvre. Looking at Gut’s symbolic representation of the Czech writer—smoke rising from the butt of a half-burnt cigarette—viewers might think that Kafka was an obsessive smoker. “I am interested in a gesture of a cigarette smoker and the passage of time needed to smoke a cigarette,” says the artist. But Kafka biographer Reiner Stach writes that Kafka “did not smoke or drink, and stayed away from tea, coffee, and animal fat.”2 When asked about the misleading representation of Kafka, Gut responded, “It was a fantasy. I imagined him as a smoker.”

Gut’s oeuvre represents a mirror of memories, images, and real people. Her visual poetry is accessible and her books do not require reading and the time consumed by reading. Their messages are compressed and universal, expressing love for nature or another person, fascination with music, or a sense of loss. Pacchetto di poesia (Package of Poetry) (1979) —a 1 x 1–inch wrapped package tied with string—embodies the works in Books Without Words. In the exhibition Gut offers the viewer a gift of twenty-two “packages of poetry,” reliquaries of poetic thinking. Most of them have no words, and some contain invisible secrets locked forever, but as the Little Prince once said in Antoine Saint Exupéry’s philosophical fairy tale: What is essential is invisible to the eye.3″

Notes

1 Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Decisive Years, trans. Shelley Frisch (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005) p. 31.

2 Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument,” in Stéphane Mallarmé, Stéphane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Mary Ann Caws (New York: New Directions, 1982), 80.

3 Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince. Trans. Katherine Woods (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1943), 87.

Books Without Words: The Visual Poetry of Elisabetta Gut (Softcover, 48 pages, $10.95) is available in the Museum Shop. Call 877-226-5249 to order.

Books Without Words: The Visual Poetry of Elisabetta Gut

 

Books Without Words: The Visual Poetry of Elisabetta Gut features twenty-two works by the artist carefully crafted from her dreams, memories, and love for music and poetry.

Gut was born in Rome in 1934. “During World War II,” Gut says, “my parents sent me to Switzerland. But the trauma of being separated from my parents … gravely affected my behavior. At age eleven, when I returned to my family in Rome, I was confused and had difficulty communicating with people. All I wanted to do was … escape into the realm of imagination, a better world than the one around me.”

Gut studied at the Art Institute and later, from 1953 to 1956, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. She was given her first solo painting show at the age of twenty-two. But in the 1960s Gut began to search for a new visual language. She was fascinated with the experimental use of materials and the ideas of avant-garde artists. In 1964 she created her first book-object, Diario. From that time on, book-objects, object-poems, and artists’ books that reflect the beauty, sadness, and fragility of life became her favorite media.

Gut’s 14 Chiodi (L’impronta di Man Ray) (14 Nails (The Man Ray Footprint)), 1991, was inspired by Man Ray’s famous Gift, 1921, an iron with a row of fourteen nails glued to the flat ironing surface. Using an iron, Gut burned the pages of a book and pressed nails into the paper to create fourteen little stigmata, suggesting a “mark” of Man Ray’s original piece. Like Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp, Gut employed a variety of found materials, including newsprint, photographs, sheet music, threads, leaves, seeds, and shells of exotic fruits. She developed a visual language in which the arrangement of words, images, symbols, signs, and metaphors express in pictorial terms her ideas, secrets, and intimate emotions.

Elisabetta Gut, 14 Chiodi (L’impronta di Man Ray) (14 Nails (The Man Ray Footprint)), 1991; Altered book and burnt paper; 9 x 9 x 1 ½ in.; On loan from the artist

Many of Gut’s works are built on the aesthetics of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis describes one form of art interpreted in another medium—poetry depicting a sculpture, for example, or dance portraying a painting. Strumento musicale (p dolce) (Musical Instrument (p dolce))composed of thread, pieces of sheet music, and dried seeds and leaves collaged into an imaginary instrument—offers peace and solace, while Explosionoire (Explosion), 1985, brings about the rhythm and excitement of jazz through the burst of scattered words and letters.

Complementing her love of music is Gut’s passion for poetry. Gut abstracts and transposes works by her favorite poets and composers. L’uccello di fuoco (Da Stravinsky) (The Firebird (From Stravinsky)), 1985, evokes the lightness and plumage of a beautiful bird and animates Igor Stravinsky’s “glorious lava flow of sound.” À Paul Éluard, 1985, embodies the mystery of love, passion, and sensuality—the quintessence of the French poet’s verses—through random dark forms protruding into the air.

Gut’s Fumo d’autore (A Kafka a Kafka) (Author’s Smoke (For Kafka to Kafka)), 1983, honors Franz Kafka but does not allude directly to his oeuvre. Looking at Gut’s symbolic representation of the Czech writer—smoke rising from the butt of a half-burnt cigarette—viewers might think that Kafka was an obsessive smoker. But Kafka did not smoke or drink. When asked about the misleading representation, Gut responded, “It was a fantasy. I imagined him as a smoker.”

Gut’s oeuvre represents a mirror of memories, images, and real people. The artist’s messages are universal, conveying love for nature or another person, fascination with music, or a sense of loss. Books Without Words offers viewers reliquaries of poetic thinking to contemplate and behold.

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

Books Without Words: The Visual Poetry of Elisabetta Gut is organized by NMWA and made possible by the generous support of Margaret M. Johnston.

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

Books Without Words: The Visual Poetry of Elisabetta Gut

Endowed with an aura of originality and poetic whimsy, Elisabetta Gut’s book-objects must be seen rather than read. Gut was born in Rome and has lived there ever since. She studied at the city’s art institute and later at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1964 Gut created her first book-object Diario (Diary), and from that time on she has devoted most of her energy to the exploration of the relationship among language, music, image, and nature through book arts and visual poetry.

Buzz Spector, the conceptual and book artist, describes book-objects as “a genre of artwork that refers to forms, relations, and configurations of the book.” A uniqueness and tactile physicality defines Gut’s book-objects. Ideas are expressed through the symbolic meanings of found or fabricated objects, rather than through words. The artist frequently uses organic matter such as leaves, seeds, and wood in her work.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts is home to more than 1,000 artist’s books. This fall, NMWA will host “Books Without Words: The Visual Poetry of Elisabetta Gut”. Featured in the exhibition will be Volo-volume (Flight Volume), 1980, from NMWA’s collection (below).

Elisabetta Gut, “Volo-volume” (Flight Volume), 1980; Paper, wood, wool, spray paint; Museum purchase: Library and Research Center Book Acquisition Fund

Krystyna Wasserman is Curator of Book Arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  Since 1987, she has carefully assembled NMWA’s outstanding collection of artists’ books and has curated numerous exhibitions.