Connecting the Threads: Joan Mitchell and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Landscape & Memory

In the 1950s, Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) emerged as a leading member of the second generation Abstract Expressionist movement. One of just a small group of women painters to gain acclaim in the movement, Mitchell is known for her expansive paintings and ecstatic, gestural brushstrokes. In her work, she sought to capture the emotional and psychological impressions of landscapes and experiences—each painting a preservation of feeling. “I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with,” she once said. In Sale Neige (which translates to Dirty Snow) (1980), on view in NMWA’s collection galleries, Mitchell evokes impressions from childhood in her native Chicago—frozen Lake Michigan, falling through the ice in a sledding accident, and competing as a champion figure skater.

Joan Mitchell, Sale Neige, 1980; Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell, Sale Neige, 1980; Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Mitchell spent much of her career in France—moving to Paris in 1959, and later, the small village of Vétheuil in 1968. There, with nature as a backdrop, her work changed significantly, encompassing more spaciousness and light. In her book Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel described this change: “In an environment so rich in natural bounty…a part of Joan long buried awakened. The ‘violent’ high notes of yellows and reds she first used as a girl returned. Joan’s canvases shone like light.” Mitchell herself once explained the refuge she found in rendering nature: “I become the sunflower, the lake, the tree. I no longer exist.”

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Ever-present in the Mulleavys’ work is the landscape of California. This influence is deeply rooted in their childhood, which was spent outdoors, exploring the redwoods and beaches that surrounded their home in Aptos, California. Kate says, “There is probably a little bit of California’s natural beauty in every one of our collections.” Laura describes “tide pools, redwood forests, mustard fields, California poppies, and apple orchards…the entire landscape had a sort of hazy atmosphere. Hare Krishnas, psychedelic skaters, hippies, punks, surfers—all of these memories shaped the way we think creatively.”

Photo © Tony Powell. 2018 NMWA Rodarte Opening. November 8_ 2018-51 2

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Tony Powell

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Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Photo © Tony Powell. 2018 NMWA Rodarte Opening.

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Tony Powell

Rodarte’s Spring/Summer 2011 collection reflects the Mulleavys’ memories of growing up in 1970s and 1980s suburbia. Dresses echo the faux-wood paneling of their childhood home, the blue-and-white porcelain in their house, and a bronze Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, shown on the Great Seal of California. Other dresses reflect impressions of Santa Cruz, where two subcultures—the surfers and hippies—are transformed into printed silk gowns that replicate tie-dye combined with neoprene bibs. California, thus, is not only a source of inspiration, but also an ideological point of reference, both free-thinking and iconoclastic.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Gallery Reboot: Natural Women

The museum’s newly reinstalled collection emphasizes connections between historical and contemporary art. Organized by the themes of the body, nature, domesticity, fabrication, and herstory, each gallery delves into a topic explored by women artists through time and around the world.

The natural world often serves as a source of inspiration for artists. Because of their purported powers of observation, women artists historically were encouraged to render the natural world. Still-life painting was deemed appropriate since it did not require the training needed to render the human body. NMWA’s collection galleries feature women artists from the 17th and 18th centuries who produced precise and imaginative flower paintings, as well as modern and contemporary artists who continue to draw inspiration from the natural world.

Dutch flower painter Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) gained renown for her meticulous attention to detail and scientific accuracy. Because her father was a botanist she studied his collection from an early age. Ruysch’s education allowed her to put her own spin on the genre of still-life painting. She employed her scientific knowledge in her paintings by including insects and signs of decay. Although each flower is depicted with scientific accuracy, her compositions are imaginative. Ruysch combined blooms from different seasons and locations. In reality, these particular flowers would not have existed in the same arrangement.

Contemporary artist Sharon Core (b. 1965) often uses photography to mirror still-life paintings by well-known male artists and trick the viewer’s eye when presenting them with natural subjects. Core looks beyond traditional standards of beauty. At first glance, Single Rose (1997) appears lovely and delicate, but its velvety petals seem to be constructed from thin slices of meat. The work confronts the expectations of what is and is not considered beautiful in nature—and challenges the traditional subjects depicted by women artists.

Sale Neige (1980) by Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) serves as an abstracted interpretation of nature. The monumental painting’s title translates to “dirty snow” in French. Snow, often romanticized as pure and fresh—not unlike qualities often attributed to women—appears grittier and less pristine in Sale Neige. Vigorous brushstrokes of pale color at the top of the canvas seem to melt onto the more vividly colored lower third. Like many of her works, Sale Neige signifies Mitchell’s memories of or feelings for the landscape. Mitchell extended the scope of Abstract Expressionist painting by applying it to the subject of nature.

Works by these innovative women transcend simple, pleasing depictions of the natural world. See these works online or by visiting NMWA!

Meghan Masius was the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The Pre-K Invasion: Developing New Tours for Young Audiences

This April, some of NMWA’s oldest paintings entertained the museum’s youngest audience. In a series of pilot tours for preschoolers, NMWA’s Education staff led 140 energetic Pre-K and kindergarten students through the galleries to examine portraits, colors, and shapes. Seated on rainbow-colored carpet squares, tiny visitors listened to stories, explored paintings, and experimented with diverse materials in their own art projects.

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Pre-K visitors explore poses and posture in front of Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

As the intern charged with crafting this new tour experience, I quickly realized that flexibility was key. Months of planning and research culminated in three thought-out lesson plans. However, unexpected obstacles still arose. School buses ran late, large events occupied the museum’s Great Hall, and an educator was accidentally scheduled to give two tours at once. I designed the tours to last 45 minutes, allow for ten students per educator, and conclude with an art-making activity in the Great Hall. In the end, the tours lasted an hour and art-making occasionally shifted locations.

Pre-K visitors experiment with art-making in the galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Pre-K visitors experiment with art-making in the galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Activities morphed based on the students’ interest, participation, and cooperation. Some of the preschoolers enjoyed using viewfinders to act like “color detectives” while other groups found the tool distracting. By the last program, we had figured out the most efficient ways to use materials in the galleries.

The art-making, movement activities, and stories captivated our young audience. The preschoolers found the dog in Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman and the unicorn in Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly in Her Mind easy to talk about—as well as the eye-catching outfits of each painting’s subject. They enjoyed mimicking shapes and lines with their bodies in front of Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain and using “magic paintbrushes” to imagine the expressive brush strokes in Joan Mitchell’s Orange. Students were eager to mix oil pastels and rip colored tape in their hands-on art activities. While creating self-portraits, they used hand mirrors to admire their faces. They were proud to take their artwork home as a reminder of their experience.

Overall, the program was a huge success! Logistical hurdles aside, we received positive feedback from teachers and chaperones who thought the tours were engaging and age-appropriate. Hearing kids say, “Wow! This place is cool!” or mention how much fun they had made the entire experience worth every ounce of effort it took to make it happen. I am excited for the future of these tours and cannot wait to hear how they play out during the next school year.

—Valerie Bundy was the winter/spring 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is a former Pre-K teacher who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in museum education at the George Washington University.

Snowy Spectacle: NMWA’s Wintry Works

American author and Baltimore native Mignon McLaughlin (1913–1983) once wrote, “Spring, summer, and fall fill us with hope; winter alone reminds us of the human condition.” This adage may support why winter is a popular subject for artists. Two works in NMWA’s collection, Gabriele Münter’s Breakfast of the Birds (1934) and Joan Mitchell’s Sale Neige (1980), explore the depths of the season, eschewing comforting images of winter wonderlands to encourage deep contemplation.

Gabriele Münter, Breakfast of the Birds, 1934; Oil on board, 18 x 21 ¾ in, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Gabriele Münter, Breakfast of the Birds, 1934; Oil on board, 18 x 21 ¾ in, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Growing up in Berlin, German artist Gabriele Münter (1877–1962) was no stranger to harsh winters. Working in an expressionist style, she incorporated dense layers of paint, flattened forms, and bold black outlines in her works. In Breakfast of the Birds, a woman eating alone gazes out toward a snowy scene of birds sitting in the trees. The drapes and window frame strictly divide the space into interior and exterior. The woman’s concealed face adds an element of ambiguity. Obscured, it is difficult to determine whether the central figure enjoys the solitary moment or feels isolated. The work’s title implies that the woman is joined by the birds, and that they share a meal, separated by a thick pane of glass. Münter’s tendency to compress space and distort perspective gives the work a slight alienating, claustrophobic feeling. Outside, the birds perch on snow-covered branches, free to come and go as they please.

20111115_7939Sale Neige, meaning “dirty snow” in French, represents just that. Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) blanketed the canvas with a thick additions of paint—giving the work a complex, layered surface texture. Toward the top of the composition, the artist’s sweeping brushstrokes become more elongated in shades of white, periwinkle, and violet. Gradually, the strokes appear shorter and more condensed in darker shades of indigo, royal blue, orchid, and black. Mitchell’s color choices and active brushstrokes evoke a city after a snowstorm—particularly when snow melts and mixes with mud, asphalt, and bits of refuse. The painting’s large scale contributes to its powerful presence. Filling the visual field, the painting engulfs the viewer in its swirling storm. Sale Neige embodies the chaos of a blizzard while also encapsulating its icy beauty.

The psychology of winter is paradoxical. The season signals holiday warmth and cheer, but is also emblematic of harsh weather, isolation, and loneliness. However, through its representations, artists can channel the resiliency and spark of the human spirit. As the days grow colder, spend time contemplating winter in NMWA’s galleries through Gabriele Münter’s Breakfast of the Birds and Joan Mitchell’s Sale Neige.

—Marina MacLatchie was the fall 2015 education and digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: July 25, 2015

A new project hopes to add sculptures of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to the public art of Central Park. Out of the park’s 22 sculptures, none depict women. Of the 5,193 public outdoor sculptures in the U.S., only 394 are of women.

Chicagoist also discusses the need for more statues of women of historical significance in Chicago parks—rather than depictions of fictional female characters like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Front-Page Femmes

Los Angeles Times comments on the glaring lack of major solo exhibitions in the city featuring black women artists.

Ti-Rock Moore, the artist behind the controversial Michael Brown sculpture, explains her motivations in this Huffington Post article.

A Brooklyn-based artist and textile designer, Lauren Garfinkel creates food art featuring political commentary.

A behind-the-scenes tour of rarely seen WWII artwork in Reality in Flames examines Australian female war artists. The Australian War Memorial’s assistant curator says, “I think the women artists do offer us a much more intimate, a much more personal view of the war.”

The Telegraph’s Claire Cohen explains why author Beatrix Potter should be the next woman on Britain’s £20 note.

Marvel’s publishing line relaunch includes books by 116 creators—but only 10 are women.

Celebrated dancer Jennie Somogyi will retire from the New York City Ballet this fall.

Reel Girl says Minions is the most sexist kids’ movie of the year. “The fact that the lack of females in children’s movies—from protagonists to crowd scenes, from heroes to villains—isn’t glaringly obvious to us and our children shows how sexist the world is.”

Female rapper MC Lyte is one of the women featured in Oprah.com’s “Who Am I” web series.

Shows We Want to See

Spanning her 35-year oeuvre, a major survey of Dame Elisabeth Frink’s public sculpture commissions will open in Nottingham.

The new Joan Mitchell retrospective reminds ARTnews of this throwback review of a 1965 exhibition of Mitchell’s work.

Carnegie Museum of Art’s She Who Tells a Story features women artists whose work comments on and subverts stereotypes about Middle Eastern identity.

Sotheby’s Cherchez la Femme: Women and Surrealism features women Surrealists, including Kay Sage, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo. Sotheby’s Vice President Julian Dawes says, “Male Surrealists look at women as objects of desire. The female Surrealists sort of treat women as looking inward.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.