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.

Self-Portraits in NMWA’s Collection

Self-portraiture offers a fascinating glimpse into an artist’s mind. Whether traditional or abstracted, self-portraits can affirm an artist’s identity. There are fewer known self-portraits by early women artists, who faced societal challenges in pursuing their goals and publicizing their accomplishments. Modern and contemporary women artists with works on view at NMWA employ self-portraiture to address personal, social, and political issues.

Jane Hammond, Wonderful You, 1995; Oil, gold leaf, collage on canvas, 81 1/2 x 82 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Jane Hammond

Known for her dizzying collages juxtaposing disparate characters and props to hint at alternate stories, Jane Hammond (b. 1950) draws source material from found clippings, images, and phrases. Hammond’s monumental work Wonderful You (1995), the first in a series, brings together recognizable figures including Superman, Mickey Mouse, and Buddha, replacing them all with her own face. Illustrating each character with jarring colors, the work highlights—rather than obliterates—their individuality. Rather than express herself in traditional terms, she chose to portray imaginary extensions of the self, celebrating a fantastical alternative to the isolation of the individual. She asserts the dignity of connections over distinction, eroding what may seem like deep-set cultural or historical differences to embrace the beauty of the other—or, in her words, “you.”

Kirsten Justesen, Lunch for a Landscape,1975/2009; Chromogenic print, 48 3/4 x 67 3/4 in; NMWA; Gift of Montana A/S, © Kirsten Justesen

Kirsten Justesen, Lunch for a Landscape, 1975/2009; Chromogenic print, 48 3/4 x 67 3/4 in; NMWA; Gift of Montana A/S, © Kirsten Justesen

Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943) champions the dignity of independence. Using her body as her medium, Justesen’s work examines how the female self relates to society. She portrays herself seated in a shopping cart, nude, and cruising down a tree-lined outdoor path in the photograph Lunch for a Landscape (1975; printed 2009). With her arms outstretched, Justesen rides in what she calls “the vehicle of [a housewife’s] life.” She embraces her roles as an artist and mother. Despite identifying as a housewife, she portrayed herself free from the house, her husband, or her children, asserting that her individuality as internal. Her pose is one of exhilaration and freedom. Justesen seems to reject the docility of historical female nudes, declaring independence from the male gaze in expressing her own desires.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Best known for her myriad self-portraits, Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) often used her own image in her artistic practice. In her Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937), she paints herself standing center stage, meeting the viewer’s gaze with confidence, and dressed in bright, elegant attire. In one hand she holds a bouquet, while in the other she displays a letter dedicated to Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Framing herself between curtains that call to mind religious Mexican folk paintings of the time, Kahlo takes control of her staged reality, casting herself as a protagonist in a dramatic declaration of political allegiance. Her address to Trotsky functions not only as a message of political support, but also an act of self-assertion to a lover. Although the setting in Kahlo’s painting is fictional, it serves as a symbolic space for self-staged expression.

These women demonstrate that self-portraits can be complex reflections of the artist’s private fascinations or public life. Visit NMWA to see these works in the museum’s collection galleries.

—Xiaoxiao Meng was the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

A Housewife’s Ballet: Kirsten Justesen on Domesticity and Art

Danish artist Kirsten Justesen’s oeuvre highlights her experience navigating her role as a woman and artist. Justesen (b. 1943) explores the links between female identity and gender roles, examining the limits women faced as they fulfilled Western society’s expectations to become housewives and mothers during the 1970s. Themes of freedom and struggle are pronounced in Justesen’s oeuvre. Her works examine how childcare and domestic duties impact the scope for expression. Even Justesen’s studio was positioned between the kitchen and the nursery—an “inspiring threshold” and physical illustration of her blended identity as an artist and a mother.

Image of Kirsten Justesen; Courtesy of Kirsten Justesen

Image of Kirsten Justesen; Courtesy of Kirsten Justesen

As a student at the Royal Danish Art Academy, Justesen helped pioneer the birth of the feminist art movement in Denmark. In 1970, Justesen joined a collective of women artists whose experimental art project, Damebilleder (“Women’s Images”), portrayed women’s role in society “from the beauty parlor to dish-washing.”

The group’s efforts challenged gender perceptions by focusing on female perspective and capturing women’s experiences through art.

Justesen explains, “My generation is brought up with the male gaze, a gaze that still seems synonymous with defining the history of art . . . we want our gaze back in history, to secure diversity.”

On view at NMWA, Justesen’s photograph Lunch for a Landscape (1975) portrays a jubilant, nude Justesen sitting in a shopping cart with her arms raised. Justesen said, “I made this when I was raising two small boys, breastfeeding the baby, and also living as a spouse in a foreign country [Canada]. I describe my life then as a daily ‘housewife ballet.’ Here, a housewife is on her way in the vehicle of her life.” Justesen juxtaposes a celebration of freedom with a traditional symbol of wifely duty—a grocery cart.

Kirsten Justesen, Lunch for a Landscape,1975/2009; Chromogenic print, 48 3/4 x 67 3/4 in; NMWA; Gift of Montana A/S, © Kirsten Justesen

Kirsten Justesen, Lunch for a Landscape,1975/2009; Chromogenic print, 48 3/4 x 67 3/4 in; NMWA; Gift of Montana A/S, © Kirsten Justesen

In Justesen’s own words, “through our upbringing we were defined as reproduction tools and were supposed to behave in order to find suitable husbands.” The core of the feminist art movement challenged the marginalization of women and the confines of strict gender roles. Justesen’s Lunch for a Landscape seems to imply that the adoption domestic duties does not mean giving up the desire for freedom. Works like the photograph on view at NMWA provided a voice for Justesen and enabled her to establish herself in the art world.

—Sophia Wu was the winter/spring 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.