Director’s Desk: Family Matters

Marisol's The Large Family Group (1957) is framed by Patricia Piccinini's The Stags (2008) in NMWA's Family Matters gallery; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Marisol’s The Large Family Group (1957) is framed by Patricia Piccinini’s The Stags (2008) in NMWA’s Family Matters gallery; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

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 current collection installation. Read about our “Rebels with a Cause” theme and stay tuned for more.

When selecting subjects, artists and their patrons often turn to those closest to them: spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, and pets. Artists from all periods have created tender, naturalistic renderings of loved ones meant to record important moments or emotions. Their imagery sometimes even focuses on other species to represent all living beings that seek companionship and protection.

Historically, images of families created by women artists have tended to be sober and refined, in keeping with the traditional idea that family portraiture is a space for presenting tranquil relationships. Today’s artists examine a broader range of familial experiences, expressively depicting the moments of humor, insecurity, rivalry, and joy that shape family connections.

Gallery Highlights:

Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) is a South African artist and visual activist known for their self-portraits and documentation of LGBTQI lives in South Africa. Their portrait of two women, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007), expresses a sense of enchantment and happiness, defying the discrimination and violence often directed towards homosexuality in South Africa. By capturing their subjects in moments of intimacy and affection, Muholi emphasizes their humanity.

Alice Neel (1900–1984) depicts her boyfriend’s brother, Carlos Negrón, in T.B. Harlem (1940). Negrón had just moved to Spanish Harlem in New York from his native Puerto Rico. A bandage on his chest covers a wound from a treatment for tuberculosis, which spreads easily in densely populated neighborhoods. The archaic operation removed ribs to ease the effects of the disease. Radiating emotional intensity, Neel’s touching portrait of Negrón alludes to poverty as a social issue without sacrificing her subject’s dignity.

In the center of the room, the large-scale sculpture The Stags (2008), by Patricia Piccinini (b. 1965), presents two motor scooters transformed into futuristic creatures. They spar like male deer in the wild, evidently beyond human control. The Stags uses vehicle parts to evoke animal forms and the intimate relationships among these creatures.

zanele muholi, katlego

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007; Chromogenic print, 30 x 30 in.; Museum purchase: The Paul and Emily Singer Family Foundation with additional support from Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Zanele Muholi; Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

alice neel T.B. Harlem

Alice Neel, T.B. Harlem, 1940; Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

Patricia Piccinini the stags

Patricia Piccinini, The Stags, 2008; Fiberglass, automotive paint, leather, steel, plastic, and rubber, 69 3/4 x 72 x 40 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Patricia Piccinini; Photo by Graham Baring

earl of gower Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffman, The Family of the Earl Gower, 1772; Oil on canvas, 59 1/4 x 82 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), one of the most successful portraitists in the eighteenth century, became a sensation in London, captivating society and shaping European visual culture. The Family of the Earl Gower (1772) depicts the British politician Granville Leveson-Gower, his third wife, Lady Susannah, and their children dressed in lyrical costumes and interacting with marble busts, lyres, and period props. Her Neoclassical style communicated the family’s prominence.

Marisol (1930–2016) was one of the most respected and popular artists of the 1960s. Her carved wood sculptures blend Latin American folk art styling with the wit of Dada and Pop Art. The Large Family Group (1957) is one of the artist’s earliest works. It depicts a family with members who extend their arms outward in a welcoming gesture—a gesture that I hope also invites visitors to think about their own associations with the word “family.”

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

Women House: A Room of One’s Own

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Zanele Muholi, Francesca Woodman, and Claude Cahun reimagine the domestic space as a source of inspiration and self-reinvention.

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, ext.2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007; Lambda print, 30 1/8 x 29 3/4 in.; Private collection

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007

“At present South Africa has no anti-hate-crime legislation. Rampant hate crimes make us invisible. Coming out exposes us to the harshness of patriarchal compliance. We are also at risk when we challenge the norms of compulsory heterosexuality,” says Zanele Muholi (b. 1972 Umlazi, Durban, South Africa).

Muholi combines art and activism to bring awareness to violence against the LGBTQ community in South Africa. By capturing her subjects in moments of intimacy and affection, she emphasizes their humanity. Nestled into the corner of their kitchen, the couple in this photograph are concealed from the violence and hatred of the outside world. Their home is a liberating space in which they can express themselves.

Francesca Woodman, space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–78, 2000–01; Gelatin silver print on barite paper, 10 x 8 in.; © George and Betty Woodman, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Francesca Woodman, space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–78, 2000–01

While studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Francesca Woodman (b. 1958, Denver, Colorado; d. 1981, New York City) set up a photography studio in a dilapidated room above a dry goods store. Woodman incorporated her decaying surroundings into her self-portraits. Using the space’s crumbled moldings and peeled wallpaper, she explored the relationship between the body and the built environment.

In space², Providence, Rhode Island, Woodman covers her face and part of her nude body with pieces of wallpaper. Her ghostly figure seems to fade into or emerge from the wall, making her part of the space.

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait (in a cupboard), 1932; Digital reprint of vintage gelatin silver print, 4 ⅜ x 3 ⅜ in.; Courtesy Jersey Heritage Collections

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait (in a cupboard), 1932

“Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces,” said Claude Cahun (b. 1894, Nantes, France; d. 1954, St. Helier, Jersey). Challenging the concept of a fixed identity, Cahun adopted various personas to explore notions of gender, self, and reality. Using makeup, costumes, and a Surrealist visual language, Cahun flowed between masculine and feminine identities in her photographs, embracing ambiguity and androgyny. While her male Surrealist contemporaries objectified the female form, Cahun subverted traditional perceptions of gendered bodies. Her characters invite viewers to question perception and reality.

For Self-Portrait (in a cupboard), Cahun assumed the role of a young girl. She appears asleep and tucked away onto the shelf of a cupboard—perhaps during a game of hide-and-seek. The cupboard, though an unusual place to nap, is a quiet sanctuary that Cahun has claimed as her own.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.