“Women Breaking Boundaries” Cincinnati Art Museum from October 11–April 12, 2020

October 26th, 2019  |  Published in *, October 2019

Marie van Oosterwijck, “Flower Still Life”, 1669.

In this the one-hundredth anniversary of the Women’s Suffragette Movement, the Cincinnati Art Museum joins numerous museums across America to focus on and celebrate women’s equality. But the Cincinnati contribution is oh-so-different. The curator, Ainsley M. Cameron, Curator of South Asian Art, Islamic Art & Antiquities at the Cincinnati Art Museum explained that all eight of the museum’s curators met and put forth a list of the most significant art works by women in their respective departments.  The result is a very fresh exhibition that demonstrates that women artists have been breaking boundaries for much longer than one hundred years ago.

This is a certainly a timely way to look deeply into the museum’s holdings to create this special exhibition that explores the role of women in art and art history by highlighting artworks from the museum’s permanent collection created by female artists from the seventeenth century to today.  All the museum’s curators thus encourage visitors to think critically about gender, inclusion, and diversity and how that translates to the museum’s gallery walls. The #MeTooMovement and continuous news via social media has forever changed any attempts to hide, marginalize or silence women and these curators under lead curator Cameron all know this. They have succeeded grandly with this exhibition.

This thoughtful exhibition is featured on the main floor of the museum that allows for maximum exposure for museum visitors.  Just past the Great Hall, the Women Breaking Boundaries exhibition is on view in the Vance Waddell and Mayerson Galleries. What is on view is a rich, cross-departmental selection of 38 artworks from Europe, North America and Asia featuring women’s art work in oil on canvas, metalwork, ceramic, and prints to photography and fashion.  Prominent artists include: 17th century still life painter Marie van Oosterwijck, beloved 19th century painters Mary Cassatt and Cincinnatian Elizabeth Nourse, 19th century photographer Julia Cameron, 20th century legends like printmaker-sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, groundbreaking painter Georgia O’Keeffe and equally groundbreaking Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler along with late-twentieth-century/twenty-first century artists such as Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker.

Other lesser-known artists I didn’t know existed were in the museum’s collection, who broke boundaries and who surprised me by somehow cutting through the sexism, the existing entrenched institutions and who made beautiful art work against so many odds hundreds of years ago. The Cincinnati Art Museum’s female founders played an essential role in the birth of this city’s vibrant arts scene.  In 1877, the Women’s Art Museum Association (WAMA) was formed to promote the arts in Cincinnati. WAMA was adamant about bringing the social and economic benefits of an art museum to Cincinnati. Enthusiasm and support for their cause was widely generated and, by 1881, the Cincinnati Museum Association was incorporated. Later, three local women founded The Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati as well, which was originally located within The Cincinnati Art Museum.

Ainsley M. Cameron, Curator of South Asian Art, Islamic Art & Antiquities, has organized the exhibition. “Though Women Breaking Boundaries proudly recognizes the contributions of female artists to the art canon, this is not a celebration of equality,” says Cameron. “Artists who identify as female continue to be a minority within museum collections—ours, and in the art world more broadly speaking—and addressing this inequality creates space for dialogue and productive exchange.”

Chiyo Mitsuhisa, “Presentation of a Prince”, 17th century.

I start with pairing the two earliest art works in this exhibition, the 1669 Flower Still Life by painter Marie van Oosterwijck a seventeenth century Netherlandish artist with Chiyo Mitsuhisa’s screen painting, Presentation of a Prince. Mitsuhisa is a much-lesser known woman screen painter of the seventeenth century.  Her bio is illuminating in that her father was the leading artist of the Tosa School of painting in Japan and she benefitted from his devoted tutelage. Van Oosterwijck, across the globe in Amsterdam, never married, instead devoting her life to painting which was unheard-of in that century and the future centuries as well. Both artists’ paintings are breathtaking.

Van Oosterwijck is known for her lush, meticulous paintings of still lifes with stark dark backgrounds that foreground the beautiful flowers she is presenting for us to view and see as ready to pluck from the wall. Her paintings are not brushy; they have a crispness that seems modern, nearly photographic.  The colors are so breathtakingly rich that we know this must be a painting that is painted at the ‘perfect moment’ when all the fragile flowers are at the peak. In the museum’s painting, a small bright marigold is at the bottom of the still life group, isolated.  Look carefully at this painting. Is the marigold (her namesake) a stand-in for Marie? All the big bombastic flowers above little marigold, are they all the men in the art world and guild hierarchy?

In addition to being a talented painter, Van Oosterwijck was also a savvy businesswoman; she had an agent in Amsterdam.  Her patrons included Louis XIV of France, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, Augustus II the Strong, and William III of England and the King of Poland. What was the result of this roster of collectors?  Nothing, she was denied membership in the painters’ guild, because women were not allowed to join.

The Japanese screen painting, attributed to Chiyo Mitsuhisa is exceptionally rare because it is painted by a woman artist.  The screen depicts the Presentation of a Prince, an episode taken from the first chapter of the “Tale of Genji” (Genji Monogatari), in which Prince Genji is presented to the emperor. Here, Genji is seen dressed in a white patterned robe and sitting on a mat to the lower right of the emperor. “The Tale of Genji” , Japan’s most famous novel ever, is not only considered to be the first novel ever written anywhere in the world, but it was written by a woman, Lady Murasaki Shikibu,who was part of the Japanese court in the 14th Century. Westerners consider Mme. de Sevigne to be the precursor of the novel as we know it, but Lady Shikibu precedes her by well over 200 years.

In this screen painting, the interplay of lush field of gold ink representing the clouds and the rich black of the hills creates the spiritual interplay between spirit and matter every bit as powerfully as gold leaf has been used in Western art of the Renaissance and subsequent eras. In Western art, the gold behind the Blessed Virgin Mary signifies her status as Mother of God.  In Asian art, the contemplation of nature is to contemplate the spiritual, the sublime with clouds of gold signifying that spiritual space. Chiyo Mitsuhisa was one of the very few distinguished female artists in Japanese painting history. She was the daughter and pupil of Tosa Mitsunobu and wife of Kanō Motonobu. Her son Shoyei (1519–1592) was also a painter of great distinction. Mitsuhisa became a well-known illustrator of story and poetry books and was particularly famous for her illustration of the “Tale of Genji.” Unlike Van Oosterwijck, she had a more traditional life including family and she certainly benefitted from a family of painters that made for easier entre into the male-dominated art world. Very few women were professional artists during the 1600s. In a 2004 book on Dutch Golden Age paintings by art historian Christopher Lloyd, van Oosterwijck was the only woman whose work was included. Since Van Oosterwijck devoted her life to her painting rather than being a wife and mother, she was a challenging subject for writers. How could they write about a woman who so fully rejected the norm?

Thoughtful juxtapositions are placed throughout the exhibition in the two galleries with the intention to create internal conversations for viewers such as the human-scaled, floral Ali Baba vase (1880) by Cincinnatian Mary Louise McLaughlin, paired with Anne Lowes’ floral dress (1930-1934).  Barbara Kruger, a feminist artist who critically engages with the portrayal of women in the media has her famous gelatin silver print “My face is your fortune” paired with a dress by early twentieth century fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet.

Mary Cassatt, “Baby in Dark Blue Suit, Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder”, circa 1889.

A powerful pairing, each painting on a different wall in the second gallery are a mother and child theme, one by Mary Cassatt and one by Cincinnatian Elizabeth Nourse. These two mother and child paintings were made within one year of each other. Mary Cassatt’s Baby in Dark Blue Suit, Looking Over His Mother’s Shoulder is a tour de force contemporary painting of the late 19th century.  Cassatt brings to us the experimentation taking place in Paris.  Her painting is raw in places, her chubby boy blocks the mother’s face and her body is an unmodulated, bold, almost abstract for taking up a lot of the right half of the painting. It’s a brief moment, it could be a snapshot.  In contrast the Nourse A Mother is deeply traditional, local, not cutting edge. Yet this very painting paved the way for Nourse to be celebrated in Europe.  She submitted it to the French Salon exhibition in Paris. Not only was it accepted by the French jury, they hung it at eye level, which was reserved for the best works. It celebrates the working class mother and it is painted reverently and with careful brushwork and a dark palette that offers no searching for anything new. It is comforting. Like van Oosterwijck, Nourse chose her career over marriage.

Elizabeth Nourse, “A Mother”, 1888.

I found it rewarding to focus on the historic art works by women that are featured in this exhibition.  While there is contemporary art work by Helen Frankenthaler, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker, and an interactive piece by DAAP faculty member Amanda Curreri who created clothing and wraps of Suffragettes, Colonials and goddesses among a fine group of cloth works viewers can touch and try on, I was ultimately drawn to the historic art works.  Maybe it is because we might imagine that it is nearly impossible that these art works exist at all.  And here they all are for us to look at, think about and ask our own questions about.

The art museum offers: “Women Breaking Boundaries is conceived of as the museum’s main contribution and focal point of a larger project, Power of Her, a city-wide initiative of Cincinnati arts organizations to mark 100 years since Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment. Led by ArtsWave, Power of Her will include over a year’s worth of community programs, festivities and events at organizations including Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Cincinnati Ballet and more, from June 2019 through December 2020.”

During Power of Her, a majority of the museum’s permanent gallery rotations throughout the museum will focus on female artists. Visitors are encouraged to view Women Breaking Boundaries, explore rotating galleries, as well as the Cincinnati Art Museum permanent collection galleries that feature women. A free gallery guide highlighting female artists in the collection will be available at the entrance to the museum. Admission is free.

The eight curators who pulled art works from their various areas are Cynthia Amnéus, Curator of Fashion Arts and Textiles, Dr. Julie Aronson, Curator of American Paintings, Amy Miller Dehan, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design; Kristin Spangenberg serves as Curator of Prints, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, curator of East Asian Art, Dr. Nathaniel M. Stein, Associate Curator of Photography, Dr. Ainsley M. Cameron, Curator of South Asian Art, Islamic Art and Antiquities and Dr. Peter Jonathan Bell, Associate Curator of European Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings.

Free general admission to the Cincinnati Art Museum is made possible by a gift from the Rosenthal Family Foundation. Special exhibition pricing may vary. Parking at the Cincinnati Art Museum is free. The museum is open Tuesday–Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. and Thursday, 11 a.m.–8 p.m. cincinnatiartmusem.org

–Cynthia Kukla

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