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Are we still doing white feminist shows in 2024?

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Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith and her Maidservant” (1618–19), oil on canvas, 44 x 36.61 inches (image courtesy Uffizi Gallery)

MADRID — In the Book of Judith, the titular Jewish widow seduces and then beheads an Assyrian general in order to prevent him from destroying the city of Bethulia, where she lives. Judith’s harrowing decapitation became a popular topic for women artists during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. They often painted Judith and her faithful maid Abra together as pillars to sisterhood and strength. Today, Judith’s resistance continues to be a potent symbol of female empowerment.

Visitors are welcomed by painted versions of the story by Lavinia fontana, Fede galizia, and Artemisia Gentileschi as they enter. Women Masters at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, an exhibition focused on female artists from the 16th to early-20th centuries and curated by Rocío de la Villa. Foregrounding three distinct renditions of Judith’s bloody, defiant act suggests that the exhibition will contest and even violently break with outmoded traditions in art history — namely, its domination by male creators and subjects. The show certainly achieves this goal, and it’s still a relatively rare treat to see an exhibition of this scale purely feature the work of women artists.

However, despite the apparent breadth of the show’s premise and its failure to signal an emphasis on Western Europe, its curatorial lens feels surprisingly narrow, focusing on countries and media that are strangely close to another survey exhibition of women artists from nearly A half-century ago: Women Artists: 1550-1950The show toured the United States from 1976 to 1977. In their catalogue essays, both de la Villa and independent curator Haizea Barcenilla cite the show as a flawed but pivotal turning point for the modern legitimization of women’s place in art history and institutions. The exhibition, which was the first of its type, retold Western art’s story through the eyes of women who were previously overlooked. It made waves for its uniqueness and its lack of diversity.

The exhibition de la Villa staged in the decade since its predecessor is strikingly similar. Women ArtistsYou can also find out more about the following: Women MastersShare overlaps between timelines, featured artists, and geographic reach. The 1976 show featured artists from 12 different countries. Women Masters The show features 74 artists from thirteen countries. In both cases, the participating artists are all from Europe, Russia or the United States. Frida Kahlo is the only exception, appearing in both exhibitions. She is the solitary Mexican and person of colour. After so many works by Europeans (plus six artists from the US), Kahlo’s 1942 painting “Niña Tehuacana, Lucha María” Hanging at the exit to the exhibition is a bit hurried and out of place.

What does it mean in 2024 to put on such a show? What does it mean for a show to be put on in 2024? Women MastersDoes it take into account the events of the last 50 years, or is it just a reprise? Women Artists? Like in the 1970s there is still a need to celebrate and spotlight women artists, especially those who are now more often in positions of power. But, as Barcenilla notes in her text, museums have great authority in shaping narratives about art’s history, scope, and value. Why does the curator choose to focus on these people, places, and events? Some parts of Europe, and certain modes of production, clearly take precedence. For example, nearly 20 percent of the artists in Women MastersAround 80% are paintings. The majority of the works on display are French. Even if the choices are not made explicitly, they have been made. A lack of definition can perpetuate exclusion and erasure, which is what such an exhibition aims at resisting. This is especially problematic for a survey exhibition of this magnitude that aims to rewrite our canon.

There are many positive aspects to the show. Clara Peeters Rosa Bonheur and Mary Cassatt, as well as lesser-known names like Emy Roder, Victoria Malinowska and Jacqueline Marval, are all featured in the show. It was a delight to discover these artists, among many others, and de la Villa’s cross-European view allows us to witness fascinating shifts in style between bordering countries. Berthe Morisot’s luminous “The Cherry Tree” and Eloísa Garnelo’s more circumspect “Montilla Grape Harvesters” are both large-scale canvases from 1891 depicting a pair of women collecting fruit in baskets. But Morisot’s free-flowing, vivid strokes contrast sharply with Garnelo’s dark palette and carefully rendered details. The two pieces appear to show artists from neighboring countries moving in opposite directions. Morisot towards the lightness and rapidity of Impressionism and Garnelo towards the solidity and academic realism.

Men are rarely featured in the exhibition unless they are children or the severed head from Holofernes. Women are shown in a sympathetic light as mothers, wives, friends, workers and heroes. My own ambivalence during touring Women MastersAside from that, I have never seen such a large, engaged crowd at an exhibit. On my Tuesday afternoon visit there was a lively, convivial atmosphere as large groups women in their 60s and over crowded around each artwork. For these Spanish women — many of whom had presumably experienced significant parts of their lives during Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 — this exhibition not only resonated; it mattered very much.

Women Masters continues at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza (Paseo del Prado, 8,Madrid (Spain) through February 4, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Rocío de la Villa and organized in collaboration with the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck in Remagen, Germany, where it will be on view from February 25 to June 16.


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