Yea, but are you that kind of feminist?
When I am working behind the bar at night, a popular inquiry from patrons is, “are you in school?”, or “so, what else do you do?”, (I get it, but as an aside, in what other profession today is it deemed appropriate to ask such that kind of question to a perfect stranger?). I generally use these opportunities constructively to talk a bit about current art projects and invite the guest to check out my blog or etsy.
The collection of work I have been laying out this spring is historically based, but conversing about it across the bar has led to unexpected conversations regarding the constructs of gender today.
My project evolved as I was reading ‘Dali,’ by Taschen Publishers. I started to think about how little is known of Dali’s life partner, Gala. Gala was without question an influence in the surrealist movement. This is gathered by marking her major life events. Before Dali, she was married to the French poet and a founders of surrealism, Paul Éluard. While married with Éluard, she also had an affair with Max Ernst. She had three surrealists in the bag!
In learning about Gala & Dali’s relationship, one can question if Dali would have gained the lasting momentum and recognition he achieved without her. Gala was Dali’s manager, liberating him to focus on his work. She attained goddess-like status in his paintings, being idolized as one of his most frequent subject matters. Dali even dedicated a custom made house to her alone!
She continued to be her own person throughout her life, and had a multitude of extra marital relationships, despite being Dali’s self proclaimed only sexual partner. Knowing this, I had to wonder what would have become of her in another place and time. In her world she may have been framed as manipulative or wolfish, but had she been born a man, who knows where her direct, ‘I know what I want’ attitude could have gotten her. Here is the airbrush & graphite piece I did on her :
I chose to portray her referencing a photo which Dali also used to depict her in ‘Galarina’ as seen below:
In my version her features are more masculine and there is the addition of the signature Dali mustache, hinting at once of her influence in his work, and also the idea of, ‘who wore the pants’ in the relationship. In Dali’s portrait, the features are softened, and the color scheme is warm, giving the piece a more loving, nurturing feeling. Below is the original picture:
I also like that throughout Dali’s life he continued to depict Gala as she aged. An admirable point of view, particularly in todays eat all youth culture.
Thus, I began the project to honor the overlooked counterparts of celebrated male artists in the last century. These women were involved in the surrealist, impressionist and fauvist movements of the day, but little is known about them. History memorializes what we culturally regard as valuable.
Not only did these women help their partners reach their full potential, but they often had their own artistic practice. One of Picasso’s partners, Francoise Gilot (check out her video!) is still shaking the art world today at 94! These ladies led fabulous lives. One facet of their lives is the energies they lent into helping and allowing their partners reach their full potential artistically.
At the bar last night, I was telling a patron about this project. We were talking about female artists of the recent past that he could remember. He got Frida Kahlo, asking me if I had seen the movie. Another patron chimed in, with Georgia O’Keeffe.
I can add Tamara De Łempicka and Mary Cassatt. Lets face it, it’s slim pickings.
The male patron then went on to ask about experiences in my own life which may have been influenced by my gender. It seemed a bit of a loaded question as to why I have not experienced perhaps more monetary success and recognition as an artist, which of course is not a question one can easily field over a bar while working. The answer to the question of my individual success includes a multitude of factors including economic status, networking, and time that I can devote to projects while continuing to support myself by working nights. I answered a little half heartly that by no means was I saying that I couldn’t do more, and I have enjoyed being part of successful shows in the past. That being said, there is no doubt that my identity as a woman has had major effects on my life, therefore on my life as an artist. Even if it is in the simplest way, such as being interrupted mid sentence when I am making a point. Or attending a college where there was only one female applied arts faculty member. On the micro level of simple social interaction, and the macro level of careers available, women are constantly being reminded that their contributions are less valued.
Looking at simple statistics, today at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, 70 % of the students are female. In most Chicago galleries, however, that number is nearly reversed, with male artists being represented 2 in 3 times more often then women.
It goes without saying that role models matter a lot. Having people who look like you, who identify with you and can offer guidance from a perspective that you can relate to is unquestionably important to the development of the individual. Having female experiences and viewpoints validated and recognized is crucial to our progression towards an equal and just society.
I have been lucky, in my practice I can attribute my mother as my biggest influence and role model, someone who has always seen the best in me and shown me first hand what it takes to attain success (check out her work).
My second piece in the series explores the many women whom Picasso was involved with over the course of his life. Since my teen years I have long admired Picasso’s work, but knew nothing about his personal relationships. In researching this project, I have become saddened to know that he had a bad habit (?) of dating women who were juvenile in age to him. He met Marie-Thérèse Walter when she was 17. He was 45. My pottery teacher likened Picasso to a vampire that sucked his women dry and discarded them. Of his many mistresses, 2 of them, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Jacqueline Roque both committed suicide after his death, and others suffered from depression and mental imbalances.
I am interested to learn more, and ordered, “Life with Picasso”, by his partner of 10 years, Francoise Gilot, with whom he had two children. Below is the first piece in the dyptic of Picasso’s partners that I am working on. It is airbrush, spray paint, pencil and newspaper.
The major women in his life are grouped in three, modeled after the classic presentation of the Three Graces. They stand together in solidarity. I incorporated a reflection of Picasso’s face in the shadow of the women. Graph paper covers their sex, as well as silhouetting some of the furniture, indicating objectification.
Lastly I would like to leave you today with a definition of feminism and an early proponent. The definition is because I encounter a lot of people who are hesitant to be labeled as feminists and I am flabbergasted by the denials every time!
Feminism is: the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. Can you get behind it?
An amazing activist who challenged gender roles head-on with her photography is Claude Cahun (1892-1954). She is credited to leading the way for the likes of Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. In efforts to propel equality, she frequently depicted herself as a man, changed her name, and she launched a resistance movement against the Nazis when they took over her town in France. She was a super woman. Look her up! Until next time, ciao!