Confronting Greatness: A Celebration of Women Artists

March 27th, 2021  |  Published in March 2021

January 25 through June 11, 2021
Miami University Art Museum (MUMA), Oxford, Ohio
Monday – Friday, 10 am – 5 pm (Check for current hours)

I would like to celebrate the exhibit Confronting Greatness – A Celebration of Women Artists in this review. There are three areas to consider including the question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” from a 1971 article by Linda Nochlin (ARTnews.com, May 15, 2015) which the exhibit explores, the active collaboration which took place at Miami University to create the exhibit, and the breadth of how the exhibit covers the topic itself. I hope you become moved to either visit MUMA in person or relax in your easy chair to view it online by June 11, 2021. First, let us consider the theme.
In the 1970s, female artists and feminists began to question why they were held back from becoming artists, discover reasons for such, and challenge these explanations. Nochlin’s article is educational and especially provocative at the time. She describes how western white men had established, excelled in, and controlled the space in which art had taken place for centuries and how it was not in their interest to include women. She delves deeply into the intellectual and ideological bases of social institutions to explain how their structures discouraged women from learning, doing, and becoming artists. Finally, she notes that it is human nature for those that have “privileges hold onto them until compelled by superior power of one sort or another.” In the 1970s it was quite a social battle for women to be in the artworld and today there seems to have been progress.

If you are unfamiliar with the feminists’ art movement of the 1970s, I recommend that you read Nochlin’s article before viewing the exhibition. It certainly added a deeper understanding for me of what I was about to see. It strengthened my knowledge about women’s place within art history and the struggle to rise within it. I was especially struck by two points that Nochlin made toward the end of her article. First, she described how western society had long expected women to marry, care for her husband and family, and handle all societal matters for the family, and second, how this “helps guard man from unwanted competition in his “serious” professional activities and assures him of “well-rounded” assistance on the home front, so that he may have sex and family in addition to the fulfillment of his own specialized talent and excellence at the same time.” Ha! This last phrase jumped at me making me aware of a battle I personally related to as a woman, spouse, mother, and professional. The exhibition uses Nochlin’s 50-years ago “powerful message while providing a more expansive and inclusive perspective on the question of women artists in the twenty-first century,” according to its website. This phrase summarized much of the historic narrative that she explained and would come back to me while viewing the exhibition. Next, I will write about the impressive collaborative learning situation from which Confronting Greatness arose.

Miami University can be proud of the Art History Department’s Fall 2020 Art & Architecture History Senior Capstone seminar capstone program from which this exhibition arose. After speaking with Dr. Annie Dell’Aria, Assistant Professor in Art History who led the program, and meeting Jason E. Shaiman, Curator of Exhibitions at the MU Museum of Art who also worked with the students, I was immediately impressed. I sensed a deep level of commitment and pride from them about the students’ work. It was clearly a collaborative experience. Dell’Aria developed the topic which the students refined. Laura Stewart, MUMA Collections Manager/Registrar gathered numerous collection pieces from which the students chose, and Sara Vance Waddell generously loaned pieces from her collection of feminist art to the museum. Dell’Aria arranged for the students’ opportunity to engage with Shaiman, Waddell, and supportive museum staff as they worked through the process of curating an important exhibition, during an historic time.

Typical class time for Capstone Students. Photo taken at exhibit by Deborah Johnson.

Dr. Dell’Aria explained to me that she was teaching this program for her first time and due to the Pandemic, had the added challenge to teach it online. She reflected about how she was at times surprised that they were able to accomplish it all. The capstone rotates annually among five Art History professors and provides well-researched, educational, and engaging exhibitions with MUMA. She explained that this exhibit went beyond the woman artist and explored a diversity of issues. The “category” of women is not stable, and it became immediately complicated. She assigned students readings such as by Judith Butler, a gender theorist including a queer excerpt from her famous book Gender Trouble as well as readings by Alice Walker, novelist, and social activist, author of The Color Purple. Dell’Aria expressed gratitude to Shaiman who lectured online about the profession of museum curator including practical applications. She was very excited that Sara Vance Waddell met with the students by Zoom to share about collecting art, her activism, and her views. This collaborative effort included other MUMA staff members’ support as well as an MU intern named Grace who added to her portfolio by producing the important graphic design and exhibition’s wall panels. I especially like the logo design of the pinkish female symbol slightly covered with a yellow/gold question mark underlining and separating Confronting Greatness: A Celebration of Women Artists against the background of Shapiro’s Frida Kahlo.

Detail from exhibition website (https://bit.ly/39kvN9w, 2021).

The 20 capstone students earned invaluable knowledge toward their future careers. Even the business and marketing students in the program gained transferable skills from curating an exhibition, managing the details of an installation, and running a museum. I recommend that other educational institutions follow the MU Art & Architecture History Senior Capstone seminar program. As a former adjunct professor and program director, I could write on and on about its accolades, yet will begin to discuss the exhibition.

Detail of “Birches/Embrace” by Vera Klement from exhibition blog (https://bit.ly/3lQbh5C, 2021).

A well-endowed university art museum was important to the success of Confronting Greatness: A Celebration of Women Artists. Not many universities are gifted as such. Dell’Aria was able to procure over 50 artworks by modern and contemporary women from the MUMA’s own collection. She learned from the experience herself. Shaiman and Stewart taught her about artists she had not previously known of like Vera Klement. When viewing Klement’s painting Birches/Embrace above, the artist’s heavily applied paint and brisk brush strokes bring the tree alive and the mysterious figure embracing the trunk evokes wonder. Dell’Aria also found that some of the students’ choices (based on their response to Nochlin’s article) were interesting and different from what she would have chosen for the exhibit. For example, they opted for two photos by Joyce Tenneson that were very different including a revealing portrait of Jane Goodall, 2000. Tenneson portrays Goodall by capturing the wisdom of her years through the gentle folds of her skin, serious depth of her eyes, and the sensitive hands holding open her ears.

The exhibit represents a breadth of examples about how women have broken through societal walls to be recognized artists in the past 50 years. Topics explored include the Woman/Artist which asks why a woman is called a woman artist, and not just an artist. Works by Cindy Sherman and Käthe Kollwitz are presented there. Sherman’s image Untitled #117, 1983 into which she placed her face, emanates discomfort that a female photographer/artist might feel while hovering between her roles of woman and professional. Kollwitz’ self- portrait demonstrates her bold placement of emotion into artwork. Some women feared incorporating their feelings into their artwork, concerned that they would be ridiculed. I find that Kollwitz’ application of her deep feelings in her sketch adds depth and power to the overall piece. Another topic is artwork completed by women using media and techniques unaccepted in the past like fabric and crafts. This style is vividly and boldly demonstrated by Miriam Schapiro’s Conservatory (Portrait of Frida Kahlo) a 72 x 152″ triptych on canvas. A viewer could spend a very long time exploring her work for its subtle content in which Kahlo is placed.

One of my favorite pieces is a beautiful, strongly sculpted bronze bust Glory of an influential African American woman Glory Van Scott by Elizabeth Catlett. Both the artist and the subject had experienced injustices in their lifetime and this piece brings their activism and hope together. Lastly, one of the most iconic pieces in the show, loaned by Sara Vance Waddell, is Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann. The artist emphasizes the “interior knowledge from the female body” other than the male accepted formal and conceptual processes of objectivity. You must see her piece to experience it to understand it. It is powerful.

“Glory” by Elizabeth Catlett from exhibition blog (https://bit.ly/3cldpix, 2021).

There are many more excellent artworks by well recognized artists to recognize and discuss and I will touch on one more piece. The mixed media sculpture The Royal Family, 1967 by Marisol Escobar stands out literally and figuratively. I expect both art enthusiasts and fans of Netflix’ The Crown to enjoy this piece. It includes Queen Elizabeth II, her husband, Prince Philip, their four growing children and curious family dog portrayed in a colorful, somewhat whimsical, and serious fashion. Escobar pushed her artistic style against societal norms and became accepted in the artworld.

I stop here and leave you to experience the other artworks in the exhibition through your own eyes, your own perspective. Beforehand, I encourage you to read Nochlin’s article as well as consider the scholarly effort taken by Dell’ Aria and her collaborative team of colleagues and capstone students to produce such a quality presentation. Plan to spend at least an hour to view, read, and absorb what there is to learn and enjoy. Either visit Miami University’s Museum of Art in person or go online to experience its strength. You may click here for an easy entrance.

–Deborah Johnson, PhD

Leave a Response