Thanks so much to my dear ladies who accompanied me yesterday to Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea.
I had never been to the National Museum of Women in the Arts before. I also had no idea the building started out as a Masonic temple. This created a gorgeous space, but also a lack of substantial exhibition space. Aside from most of the pieces in the special exhibition, all of the art works are by women artists, and this made me think about what it means to have a museum like this. The gaps
become all the more obvious, and you realize that nothing by an anonymous artist can be included. But, how anonymous are the named artists in this collection? In all of the non-special exhibition spaces, I only recognized the names of 14 artists. This number was higher than that of several of my companions, but I credit my greater name recall solely with the fact that I've been cleaning up an art history database for months. I could only truly tell you anything of substance about ~3 of these female artists. As a woman and as an art historian, I felt a bit ashamed to realize my knowledge falls squarely within the "canon." While most of these amazing women artists were a mystery to me, I had no such trouble standing in a small contemplative room in the special exhibition space dedicated to one painting by Vasari. That was familiar and normal.
The special exhibition itself was filled with marvelous loans from all over Italy and elsewhere--mostly by male artists, though I was surprised at the number of items by female artists such as Orsola Maddalena Caccia and Sofonisba Anguissola, the latter's self-portrait perhaps my favorite piece in the show--of course, one depicting female agency. How fascinating that an exhibit at this museum focusing on a woman and depictions of that woman also serves to glorify the traditional male artistic canon--the poster image for this exhibit being a gorgeous Botticelli.
Unfortunately, the exhibit was marred by poor lighting (it was hard to see many of the paintings), difficult to locate labels, and confusing layout design. Each room was meant to represent a different theme dealing with the Blessed Virgin, but to my mind, most of the pieces could easily have resided in any of the rooms within any of the themes.
My favorite find of the entire museum was an artist I had never heard of before: Remedios Varo. Check out a sampling of her work here.
My women's studies theory may be lacking, but this experience certainly made me ask certain questions: How does one study women in the arts? How do we tell this story with available materials and space? How do we reshape the canon?