Friday, January 23, 2009

well behaved women

Lilla Cabot Perry, Lady with a Violin (Portrait of Lady Bellingham), 1908, Pastel

"Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History: Innovative Women Artists on Paper" takes the first part of its title from contemporary feminist scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The show justifies its slant by pointing out how the female artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the show's subject — were only then beginning to gain mass entry into the art-world.

The title is somewhat deceptive, however. For all the progressivism in the lives of many of these artists, their work here is relatively conservative in style and wholesome in subject matter - the latter in marked contrast to their Realist, Impressionist, and early-Modernist peers, many of whom explored the more sordid aspects of modern life. (This sort of thing was not considered acceptable for respectable, middle class ladies.) Domestic life is a recurring theme, while even those images highlighting the public life tend to have a private, contemplative quality.

A (1908) Lady With a Violin (Portrait of Lady Bellingham), by the American Impressionist Lilla Cabot Perry is the largest piece. The pastel drawing shows her seated in profile, facing rightward. She is indoors; the background is sketchily rendered, mainly dark browns and grays. She holds her instrument in her right hand; we see only a golden scroll cut off by the right edge of the sheet.

Lady successfully resolves a tension between the demands of formal portraiture and the improvisational markmaking of Impressionism. The solidity and modeling of her head and left arm contrast with the looser rendering of the rest of the scene most notably the jazzy line-tangle of her dress, baby blue and turquoise.

An untitled black and white drawing (1938) by Blanche Lazzell (also an American) is the second largest piece and sticks out for its lack of decorum. The scene is a mass of overlapping, angular planes in soft charcoal, which has been selectively smudged and erased. As in many Cubist images, it can take a while for the subject here a seated figure, mechanical and sexless to emerge from the cacophony.

The predominant medium here, however, is printmaking — particularly intaglio and lithography. Some of the prints are extraordinary.

Particularly so is Mary Cassatt's color drypoint and aquatint print Peasant Mother and Child (1894). The theme is a signature one for the American Impressionist painter-printmaker. Emerging from an ambiguous hillock of olive green tone, a woman in a dark striped outfit turns away from us and towards her dull ochre cloaked child. The triangle shaped composition echoes Renaissance art, depictions of the Madonna and Child in particular.

Mother has been been paired, for contrast, with Au Louvre: Musée des Antiques (1879-80), a black and white etching by Cassatt's mentor and friend Edgar Degas. His piece shows two fashionable looking women, one of them Cassatt herself, inspecting a glass-encased ancient sculpture inside the French museum. The composition is unstable and asymmetrical, giving Louvre a dynamic quality unlike the classicized domesticity of the Cassatt.

Likewise, the curator has paired Berthe Morisot's tiny drypoint Nu De Dos (Back of a Nude) (1889) with Berthe Morisot (en silhouette), a lithograph by Edouard Manet. Although both black and white images emphasize outline, the delicate strokes of the Morisot have little in common with the boldly expressive lines of the Manet. Nu shows a woman's bare back, her head turned back as if in teasing acknowledgment of the viewer. Nudes are anomalous in Morisot work; this one mimics a series of sexualized female bathers by the French neoclassicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

The influence of Japanese art is all over. The opening of the formerly isolated country to Western trade during the 1850s lead to a cultural exchange, which was highly influential for Impressionist and early modernist artists in Europe and America. A move away from Renaissance verisimilitude and towards greater flatness, asymmetry and abstraction during the late 19th century has clear Japanese precedents.

Three American artists here go all out, imitating not just the style but the technique and subject matter of ukiyo-e (woodcut) prints. Helen Hyde's The Bamboo Fence (1904) is the most compelling. The wide piece in covered all-over by a grid of bamboo scaffolding on which five young children climb. The fluid, dance-like interaction of these boys and girls within a shallow space is witty.

Two other color woodcuts seem a bit forced in their appropriation of Japanese motifs. Lillian May Miller's Morning Snow on Bamboo (1920) aims for an austere, minimal approach but feels overly static and leaden. Bertha Lum's Tanabata (1915) errs in the opposite direction, overplaying the exoticism of the Orient.

The Johnson, with its impressive resources, consistently manages to put on fascinating historical shows of works on paper. "Well Behaved Women" is no exception although the innovation in question is generally modest.


Post a Comment

<< Home