Women artists have come a long way within the art world, amidst erasure, exclusion and stereotyping. We have come a long way since women were forbidden to draw male nude models (resorting to tasteful sculptures instead), lived in the shadow of their male counterparts while receiving no credit for their own work for years (Camille Claudel), or being deemed incapable of creating “high” art rather than twee scenes of domestic life or still life. Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists” is a perfect introduction to the subject of art history and how it must tackle this complex issue. Then again, it would be wrong to shun these problems into a safely distant past: as this collection of testimonials indicate, women are still underrepresented in exhibitions, galleries and art fairs – and this also applies to curators, galerists and art dealers. Some of these women are tired of being labelled as such, believing this affects the perception of their work compared to a fake male “standard”. Others think that it is important to create more feminist opportunities for discussion and representation around women in art.
The exhibition I am reviewing corresponds mostly to the second option. The Femina exhibition at Pavillon Vendôme, in Clichy (France), has closed but a virtual tour is still online, visible here. It closed only a few days after its opening on January the 24th, largely due to a great deal of debate surrounding Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s installation Silence, meant to reflect upon a dialogue between a elements of Westernized femininity and Islam, by portraying high-heeled shoes on cut-out prayer mats. However, the algerian artist decided to remove her work from the exhibition in January in the context of the attacks in Paris, deeming it inappropriate in the current context. This was interpreted in many different ways, in debates centred around self-censorship and the limitations between freedom of expression and individual commentary. One thing leading to another, after the town hall of Clichy rid itself of all responsability in the case of an “attack” or menace, even after the installation was replaced by another artwork by the artist, the exhibition closed.
This decision is saddening, partly because I believe such an extreme could have been avoided and secondly because it would have been a beautiful opportunity to explore women’s self-expression and agency in an art world that has for the most part objectified women’s bodies for centuries, without giving them an opportunity to weave their own narratives. The display, sub-titled “the reappropriation of models”, seeks to create a visual dicussion of the way women artists may have been inspired by past depictions of women or moved to reinterpret them in a more critical or “ironic” light (in the curator Christine Ollier’s words). Does the visit match these strong, compelling motives explored in its presentation?
The exhibition starts in a sobering white space with a collection of photographs and paintings that seem to echo this art historical theme – a history of numerous representations of women by men, which take another dimension with the reinterpretation of the pose as a self-portrait, such as ORLAN’s ORLAN en Grande Odalisque d’Ingres or Paloma Navares’ Venus Entretenidas, featuring Ingres’ Odalisque and Titian’s Venus d’Urbino, two classical figures of desire and idealism. Nina Childress’ immense painting l’Enterrement is in itself an acid-colour, suberted version of Courbet’s Enterrement à Ornans, freed from its initial sobriety into a surrealist sexual frenzy.
As we arrive in the next room featuring Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s work, we are introduced to the lavishness of the Pavillon Vendôme, its ornate, Versailles-like stately decoration. This virtual tour decides to show both views, before and after – after the incident I described above, Silence was replaced by another work by the artist, Dansons. Silence is thus intent on creating a dialogue between a certain view of femininity and Islam, drawing on the artist’s experiences and her existence on the border of two contrasting civilizations (she is Algerian but was brought up in Moscow). Yet its precense in this room creates a second dialogue perhaps, between French muslims and the ‘Old World’ French establishment reinforced by places such as the Pavillon Vendôme. Dansons, lost in the middle of the room in a hasty video installation, seems on the contraring underwhelming, obviously not meant to be there in the first place. The video itself , featuring a bellydancer in blue-white-red dancing to the tune of the Marseillaise is humorous more than it is though-provoking, drawing once again on a mesh of cultures and the issue of patriotism that still uncomfortably skims the surface on more serious issues concerning so-called “French national identity” and multiculturalism. In the current January context, I don’t think a funnier, feel-good-about-ourselves sentiment was the best way to address the subject.
Somewhat accidentally, Dansons leads us seamlessly to two other videos – MASKED by the Kenyan-German artist Mwangi Hutter and She-Wolf, by Pilar Albarracín, a raw performance that seems to reinterpret the Red Riding Hood fairytale in a more empowering way, both for the woman and the wolf itself as the artist locks herself in a room and shares her picnic with the hungry she-wolf, instead of the traditional, predatory outcome. Upstairs, Carmela García’s series of photographs I want to be a young british girl, give us a vision of documentary self-scrutiny, while Ellen Kooi reexplores the famous painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais. This particular ‘homage’ to (male) painters, mirrores Lydie Jean-Dit-Pannel’s Hommage à la Psyché abandonnée de Jacques-Louis David (vers 1795) inasmuch as…it does not go very far. These photographs are beautiful and I love the way that these artists have chosen to break down the idealised version of the “typical” female body imposed by these painters…but it feels somehow contrived, once again skimming the surface and more focused with the pastiche than what they could express instead from scratch.
Trine Søndergaard expressed a soft subtlety and sense of detail in her photography, but as with Laura Henno’s A Tree of Light, the model either turns her back or looks away – I can’t really sense the defiance, the confrontational aspect of challenging and exploring past portraiture.
The last room edges away from this very smooth, ‘pretty’ type of portraiture – Katinka Lampe’s Untitled (1420136) is both unflinching and fragile, as Hélène Delprat’s notebook rife with ideas, doodles and wit show a light-hearted intimacy that is reflected by Iris Levasseur’s Il miroir painting, showing a woman’s body under every facet, in a raw, unflattering and beautifully honest light.
I think that the focus on curating an exhibition with so many works reinterpreting art historical classics of painting moved the focus away from what women were capable of creating on their own terms. ORLAN’s provocation, her reappropriation of sterotypical criteria of beauty throughout the centuries, remodelling her body like a canvas, seems oddly lacking here! It seems ironic in the light of what happened to this exhibition, but I think that it probably did not go all out in the sentiment the curator beautifully expressed on the website. In fact, it had a soft, introspective and poetic feel for the most part, allowing only a small overview of the European scene – which was fine in itself but perhaps not the initial intent.
I was not truly able to find much that went against the traditional archetypes of the female nude and felt that in fact, I would have been a lot less critical had it been dubbed as a celebration of women’s bodies rather than expressing a need to “reappropriate” a model without ever steering very far from it.
A lot of the works did not quite ‘work’ for me, either in their vision or in the way they were displayed. Others crystallized moments of dialogue and reflection that I truly enjoyed – in the last rooms particularly.
However, this is the point that stuck with me: I was only able to discover a lot of new woman artists in this virtual tour because an exhibition was devoted to them, and that in itself, whether or not the “message” of the display pulled through, is extremely important. Erasure and underrepresentation shall not ebb away by themselves or go away if we ignore the issue, and we need to create spaces where we can discover, dicuss, like or dislike new women artists. This exhibition sadly closed before most people could see these works, but putting this project online and creating an entire small website online with pictures and links to these women’s work and portfolios is a brilliant idea that an increasing number of museums and temporary exhibition projects should draw inspiration from in the future.
Happy International Women’s Day!