I am now a member of the press. At least the Seattle Art Museum thinks so. I was lucky enough to be included in a private reception for Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris. In the board room, we were given wine, snacks, and then asked to leave these things behind and be guided through the exhibit by a docent. I don’t usually go on Museum tours, I prefer to draw my own conclusions of the art, but this was different. It was a history lesson.
It was a history lesson that was sorely needed. I went to NYU and majored in Communications. I took as many art classes as they would let me without being an art major. My one art history class was “Painting and Sculptures in NY” I learned all about the collections of the Met, Guggenheim, MOMA, The Frick and others. Just living in Manhattan was an art history lesson.
During my college years I also made it to Paris and spent an entire day at the Pompidou. I mostly remember the architecture. Another embarrassment was that I didn’t leave much time to look at the Louvre, so I had to jog through it to see Nike before they closed and I had to go to the airport. I did spend an entire day in the Musee D’Orsay sketching Ève après le péché.
When in the hallowed halls of these famous institutions, I never contemplated the genders of the artists. I was always drawn to paintings and sculptures OF women, but I never looked at the tag and noticed a woman’s name. My hunch is that 95 percent of the artists I saw were men. Especially because there was not a single work in this collection, that made me say, “Oh I’ve seen this before!” For that reason alone, I think everyone should see Elles:Pompidou.
But that reason is not alone. The work is good. I am usually a bit bored by the work at Seattle Art Museum. It’s all pretty and fine, but rarely does it make gasp. This show was different. This was not safe art. It was not expected. It was disturbing at times, and riveting at others. It was exciting. Never in my time here in Seattle, have I been so impressed with an exhibit. And to think – it’s only a fraction of the 500 pieces in the Pompidou’s collection of women artists.
I am not going to spend any time telling you about the works you will see there. I don’t want to spoil any surprises. Nor do I want to send you on some kind of scavenger hunt. I will recommend you take a tour. The extra information you get – beyond the words on the walls – is the real meat of what makes the experience worthy. We all need this education. We all need to know the names of these women as well we know the names Jackson Pollack, Keith Haring, or Roy Lichtenstein.
One artist’s name I recognized was Louise Nevelson. After college, I took a sculpting class at a Lower East Side art center where she used to teach. She became a bit of a hero of mine. Many people I know have never heard of her, yet she was a giant in the art world. At the height of her career, a reviewer of her 1941 exhibition at Nierendorf Gallery stated: “We learned the artist is a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns.” It’s time to hail her work.
At the end of our tour the docent touched on the idea that people might not want to come to Elles because they think it will be disturbing or they will feel uncomfortable. She hopes they will come – not to look at pretty paintings but to be a part of the discussion. She believes museums are forums where people come together to advance new ideas. I was struck by this. Much of this subject matter doesn’t get discussed much. Most young women shy away from claiming to be a feminist. Perhaps we hope that if gender inequality is simply ignored, it won’t exist.
Don’t think of Elles as “Getting your woman on” as one of the gallery placards claimed, (something I found off-putting), but as a slap upside the head and a reminder that the conversation is far from over. We need to keep talking. As girls, we were taught that we would be treated as equals, but many of us have had rude awakenings to the contrary. Until history paints a complete picture, we never will be. Elles is a fair start on that painting.