Saturday, June 25, 2011

Their Rightful Place

Their Rightful Place
By Tom Wachunas

“Some women like to sew to calm their nerves, but I paint books.” - Claude Raguet Hirst -

After the Italian painter Artemesia Gentileschi died in 1652, it wasn’t long before her amazing paintings were all but completely forgotten, lost, or attributed to either her father (who taught her in the ways of Caravaggio) or other Baroque male masters. Sometimes when I look at reproductions of her jarring “Judith Slaying Holofernes” in the history books, I can’t help but sense that her imagery of heroic (usually Biblical) women exacting retribution on miscreant men was both somehow ironic and prophetic.

The art world of her time and long after was a man’s world. The idea of women art students apprenticing to male masters of the day (unless they were family) was simply not encouraged. These days most historians and curators rank Gentileschi not only a truly significant painter among all painters of her era, but also among the greatest women to ever wield a brush. But Gentileschi’s arduous journey into its rightful historic place points to the long-standing sexual/social exclusionary biases that kept women artists unseen in the shadows of male-dominated rule- making.

Fast forward to 1986 New York City. At that time, the Guerilla Girls were a very active, in-your-face coalition of artists whose ‘performances’ shed harsh light on art establishment biases. One of their posters asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” Printed next to the image of Ingres’ reclining nude “Grande Odalisque” (her head replaced by that of a snarling gorilla) was the text, “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” We’ve presumably made some progress in the last 25 years.

This evolving perception and role of women in the art world is well-addressed in the curator’s statement accompanying an exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) of approximately 50 works from the permanent collection by women from the 19th to 21st centuries. Therein we read, for example, that Claude Raguet Hirst (born Claudine in 1855) “…assumed a male name to avoid sexual bias and assure that her work was taken seriously.” Seriously indeed. Her intimately scaled painting here (pictured above), called “An Interesting Book”, is a masterpiece in the trompe l’oeil still life tradition , all the more breathtaking when you consider that it’s a watercolor.

Breathtaking, too, are the watercolors by Patricia Tobacco Forrester and Carolyn Brady. Both are heroic departures from the standard smaller- size format so commonly practiced in watercolor painting. The similarly scaled acrylic and colored pencil “Still Life with Silver Bowl and White Cup” by Jeanette Pasin Sloan is astonishing in its precision, lavish patterns, and the stunningly rendered reflections of a room that appear on the inside rim of the bowl.

Jennifer Bartlett’s woodcut/silkscreen “At Sea, Japan” is an elegant, abstracted bird’s eye- view of reflections on water and the darting movements of fish clustered beneath the surface. For all of its dramatic, rapturous progression of colors, and almost palpably kinetic energy, it exudes a fluid peace. And it’s a Zen-like serenity that characterizes the four stoneware vessels by Toshiko Takaezu – quiet, simple sentinels of rich earthiness.

These are but some of the more remarkable works, barely scratching the surface of the depth, mastery, and variety of genres so abundantly evident in this show. It’s a show that once again amply demonstrates the formidable level of curatorial discernment that makes the CMA permanent collection so thrilling.

In today’s world, the flawed practices and assumptions that ignored or marginalized women artists aren’t a hot-button issue, thankfully. In fact it would be ludicrous and even criminal to think that women are in any way a “less-than” class of artists who still have miles to go and something to prove. They’ve been there, done that. So call this show a lovingly compiled and important reminder of (with apologies to The Grateful Dead) what a long, strange – and beautiful – trip it’s been. And continues to be.

Photo, courtesy, “An Interesting Book” watercolor by Claude Raguet Hirst, on view through July 24 at the Canton Museum of Art, (330) 453 - 7666

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