[Jacqueline Hyde, Centre Pompidou]
Two months ago, the Elles: Pompidou exhibition opened at the Seattle Art Museum. I wrote at the time about attending opening night. The program had a late starting time, with a long list of dignitaries (such as the French ambassador to the US) making remarks, as a result of which we weren’t released to see the art until 8:45. This was a weekday night. We didn’t last long. A return visit was called for, and that visit came on Tuesday morning.
Before saying more about that, let me quote once again from the exhibition website, where Marisa Sánchez, the museum’s associate curator for modern and contemporary art, writes:
Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris is a landmark exhibition of more than 130 works of art made by 75 women artists from 1907 to 2007. Organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris, home to the Musée National d’Art Moderne—the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe—this exhibition is an unforgettable visual experience that will challenge visitors’ assumptions about art of the past century. This survey of daring painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video and installation by pioneering women artists offers a fresh perspective on a history of modern and contemporary art. With humor, disdain, sensuality and ambiguity, these women represent the major movements in modern art—from abstraction to contemporary concerns.
Artists include Sonia Delaunay, Frida Kahlo, Dora Maar, Diane Arbus, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Atsuko Tanaka, Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Hannah Wilke, Nan Goldin and Tania Bruguera, among others.
An exhilarating exhibition that has already become a milestone in the history of exhibitions, Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris will excite the casual viewer as much as the hardboiled expert.
What brought us back was a one hour, pre-opening-hours tour of the exhibition for which we had signed up, led by Catharina Manchanda, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. As an unexpected bonus, we were joined afterwards by Camille Morineau, senior curator at the Centre Pompidou and chief curator of Elles, for a fifteen-minute Q&A. She happened to be in from Paris on her first visit to Seattle.
Our walkthrough with Catharina Manchanda was an eye-opener. Where two months ago I saw an assemblage of works that happened to be made by women, this time Catharina placed the art and artists in cultural and historical context. She is a gifted speaker, a scholar who, with an economy of words, gives you the sense that you understand what you’re seeing. There’s a touch of magic to this. On leaving, I couldn’t reproduce what I learned. It was part illusion, yet a most welcome illusion.
I would attempt to demonstrate, but the SAM exhibition website doesn’t offer images of the art for me to use. Well, there’s one image I can copy, from a May 2009 LA Times article on the original Elles exhibition at the Pompidou. It’s the one I’ve put at the top of this post. This painting is in the Seattle show too, and is one that Catharina discussed, relating it to traditional male depictions of women. She highlighted the pose, the clothing, and the cigarette. But again, I can’t reproduce her insights. Let me instead turn to the excellent gallery guide, which one can download as a pdf file. There we read about gallery three, Paris in the 1920s and 1930s:
During the twenties and thirties, Paris was a vibrant heyday of intellectual exchange among artists, writers, and poets; their artistic endeavors defined their age. In addition to the shifting realities of a post-WWI society, the role and image of women began to evolve, due in part to more women entering the work force. The modern woman emerged to occupy an important place within that culture. Valadon’s reclining female painted in 1926 embodies the emergence of a modern woman—one who has done away with her corset and assumes a more confident pose. Many women became chroniclers of their time, advancing their voice in various disciplines, including photography and literature. For example, Virginia Woolf published her influential A Room of One’s Own in 1929 in London.
In Gallery Ten, Genital Panic, we learned about several interesting works, including a video of performance art by Valie Export. Here is part of the guide’s gallery description.
￼In the politically charged 1960s and 1970s, women artists particularly took to task representations of the female body, challenging conventional perceptions of the figure and acceptable behavior—embodied in works like Valie Export’s TappundTaskino, 1968, and Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series: An Adult Game of Mastication (MasticationBox), both of which remain raw and startling today. Brought together here under the title of the legendary performance work by Austrian artist Valie Export, in which the artist moved among an audience seated in an X-rated cinema, the works in this gallery offer unorthodox representations of the female body.
The particular video Catharina pointed us to is mentioned in Valie Export’s wikipedia entry:
Valie Export’s early guerilla performances have attained an iconic status in feminist art history. Tapp- und Tast-Kino (“Tap and Touch Cinema”) was performed in ten European cities in 1968-1971. In this avowedly revolutionary work, Valie Export wore a tiny “movie theater” around her naked upper body, so that her body could not be seen but could be touched by anyone reaching through the curtained front of the “theater.” She then went into the street and invited men, women, and children to come and touch her.
The video showed her in a busy central square in Vienna, accompanied by a colleague using a bullhorn to attract a crowd. (Catharina informed us that he is now the director of one of Germany’s major museums.) People would come up, uncertain, and put their hands in the box she was wearing. Catharina commented on the visible awkwardness of one of the men, then ushered us on to the next gallery.
It was a privilege to chat afterwards with Camille Morineau. In describing the genesis of the exhibition in Paris a few years ago, she explained that her initial idea was to have a temporary show of women artists drawn from various museums. What made all the difference was her revised conception of a show installed in the permanent Pompidou galleries consisting of works from the Pompidou collection. By law, state museums can’t deaccess their art. Collections continue to grow, with very little on display. Of course, this is true of any major museum. But Morineau wanted us to understand that many works by women are stored away, likely never to see the light of day. Her idea reversed this, opening half to two-thirds of the permanent exhibition space to women’s art in a sequence of installations over a couple of years.
About a thousand works were exhibited. This created an entirely different challenge for the Seattle show: how to select just a fraction of these works. The show required a reconception, one Morineau hadn’t seen until the day before. Asked what she thought, Morineau claimed to be impressed.
The LA Times article from three years ago that I mentioned above has a good discussion of the original show. I’ll close with excerpts, and urge you to see Elles before it closes on January 13.
Imagine a museum that boasts the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe. Now imagine that an intrepid female curator puts all the men’s work in storage and fills the permanent collection galleries with a new version of 20th and early 21st century art history, the one that women created.
Would she emerge as a champion, finally proving that women artists are as good as — or better than — the guys? Or would she simply expose weaknesses of the museum’s collection and the art itself?
“It’s a risk,” says Camille Morineau, who has organized “elles@centrepompidou,” opening Wednesday at the Pompidou Center. “Excluding men and showing only women is a revolutionary gesture of affirmative action. But the museum is avant-garde. It’s part of the Centre Pompidou culture to do things differently. And we like a lot of drama. This is going to be dramatic in a big way.”
As Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, puts it: “When you have an institution of the scale and prestige of the Pompidou devoting its entire hang of its collection thematically to women artists, it’s making a very serious statement.”
Some of the artists have subtle sensibilities; others deliver a punch. In a text panel by Barbara Kruger, an awe-struck exclamation — “What big muscles you have!” — overlaps sappy terms of endearment such as “My better half,” “My sugar daddy” and “My ticket to ride.” In “Life Size Portraits,” a huge painting by Agnes Thurnauer, female versions of famous male artists’ names — Annie Warhol, Francine Bacon, Jacqueline Pollock — appear on 11 of 12 circles of bright color. But the first name of Louise Bourgeois, a sculptor who has garnered almost as most notice as her male counterparts — has been changed to Louis.
Time will tell how all this is received.
“It’s a very un-French thing to do,” Morineau says over lunch at a cafe overlooking the Pompidou’s plaza, where lovers smooch, sunbathers catch fleeting rays and schoolkids line up for museum tours. “In France, nobody counts the number of men and women in exhibitions. Very few people notice that sometimes there are no women.”