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.

5 Fast Facts: Hellen van Meene

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Hellen van Meene (b. 1972), whose work is on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries.


Hellen van Meene, Untitled (151), 2002; Chromogenic color print, 15 3/8 in. x 15 3/8 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

1. Dutch Sensibilities

Van Meene’s depictions of spare domestic interiors and her dramatic use of light are often compared with the compositions of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. She says, “I never work…with a flash…or other artificial light and it brings me to use the same kind of ‘ingredients’ as a painter.”


Hellen van Meene, Untitled (30), 1998; Chromogenic color print, 11 3/4 in. x 11 3/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

2. Not Snap Happy 

“What I do is really like a painter working on a painting—looking, making decisions,” says van Meene.

Her process includes spending considerable time observing and getting to know her models before photographing them. “This approach is far from just taking out your camera and snapping, snapping, snapping away.”

3. Notable Alums

From 1992 to 1996, van Meene studied photography at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959), fellow Dutch photographer and NMWA artist, studied there ten years prior.

Both artists are known for their tender photographs of adolescent girls that reveal the sometimes precious—and sometimes awkward—moments of puberty.

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (75b), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 1/4 in. x 15 1/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (75b), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 1/4 in. x 15 1/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

4. Animal Whisperer

The artist’s recent works feature poignant portraits of animals that seem to capture her sitters’ souls and personalities, sharing affinities with the paintings of French animalier artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899).

5. Homegirls

Lorena Kloosterboer, contemporary trompe-l’œil and photorealistic painter, and Anna Louisa Geertruida Bosboom-Toussaint, 19th-century novelist, were born in Hellen van Meene’s hometown of Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

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

Artist Spotlight: Hellen van Meene Makes You Wonder

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (33), 1998; Chromogenic print; 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.; Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

“I am mainly concerned with things such as the lightfall on a white skin, bruises on an arm, hands which disfigure in water, and starting goose-pimples in frosty weather. Only then you see the texture of the skin so beautifully…. Besides this I pay a lot of attention to the right position, to the mise-en-scene, to matching clothes as well as their colour, to the gaze and posture of the model. I arrange everything, to the smallest detail, such as the nail polish on their fingers.”—Hellen van Meene

Eight of van Meene’s ethereal portraits are currently on view at NMWA in the exhibitions P(art)ners: Gifts from the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection (on view through March 6) and Eye Wonder: Photography from the Bank of America Collection (on view through May 22).

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (30), 1998; Chromogenic print; 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.; Gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.

Hellen van Meene, born in Alkmaar, the Netherlands, in 1972, creates carefully posed and styled images of young women and girls that still manage to convey a certain naturalism. She does not use professional models and often photographs girls from her hometown. When van Meene has been commissioned to work in other countries, most notably for her work in Japan, van Meene asks girls she meets there to pose for her.

Curator of Photographs Charlotte Cotton of the Victoria and Albert Museum explains: “It’s unclear whether we are looking at carefully staged or awkwardly struck spontaneous poses, whether these are girls dressed up for the occasion or caught in unself-conscious play. It’s tantilisingly ambiguous whether these are intimate moments that would be happening with or without the present of van Meene, her camera and our appreciation or if they are fully directed scenes that simply have the look of something intimate and fleeting.”

Hellen van Meene, Untitled, 1999; Color coupler print; 15 3/8 x 15 1/8 in.; Bank of America Collection

She works predominantly with younger models because of what she sees as their inspirational qualities. Van Meene finds in them an openness and freshness that is difficult to find in adults. “If you’re taking portraits of someone in their forties, you find they really know what they want, so it’s more difficult to pry them open, to get into their soul, to really get a feel of the person. It’s more difficult because they already know what they want from life; they already have experienced things, either positive or negative; and that results in a different outcome.”

The intimacy of theses works is further emphasized by their small scale. Van Meene’s tight framing, small size, simple props and settings, and use of natural light invites a personal experience between viewer and subject. The figures, though unnamed, are genuine and approachable.

Hellen van Meene’s photography is held in the collections of the Franz Hals Museum, Netherlands, Victoria and Albert in the United Kingdom and in the United States at the Guggenheim Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among others. She lives in Heiloo, The Netherlands.

Works Cited

-Quoted in Hellen van Meene: Japan Series, 2002, by Karel Schampers

-Charlotte Cotton, “Between Friends,” Pop Magazine, Spring/Summer 2004, No.8

-Quoted in “A Conversation with Hellen van Meene,” 2008, by Joerg Colberg,