Testosterone is at an all-time low at Seattle Art Museum this fall, when a century’s worth of modern and contemporary art—more than 130 works by female artists—travels to Seattle from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Some artists stand out in bold face: Frida Kahlo. Dora Maar. Diane Arbus. Others have only recently received their due; Claude Cahun’s daring self-portraits (circa 1919), which were as sexually androgynous as her name, existed in a limbo of inconsequence until the last decade. She was a radical, too gender-bending for her time—and this was during the height of surrealism.
And then there’s that word: radical. Even in the twenty-first century, critics wondered out loud if the Centre Pompidou was taking a big risk by excluding male artists in its original exhibition in 2009, a monumental show of 500 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, and installations by more than 200 women. “I think with any forward-thinking exhibition risks are part of the conversation,” said Marisa Sánchez, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at SAM, who cocurated Seattle’s Elles with Camille Morineau from the Pompidou. “For me, it was just experiencing very ambitious work by artists. Period. These are women artists, but they’re artists first and foremost.”
In the same way that Tacoma Art Museum’s Hide/Seek exhibit last spring reexamined American art history through the lens of homosexuality, Elles offers a survey of modern and contemporary art, 1909 to 2007, from a new perspective. Beyond the shadow of Dalí lurks talented surrealists Cahun, Kahlo, and Maar; Joan Mitchell represents the next generation of abstract expressionists after de Kooning and Pollock. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that artists such as Martha Rosler (Semiotics of the Kitchen) and self-portrait photographer Cindy Sherman were openly exploring so-called “female” issues: gender roles, body, and ideas about beauty. In one of the exhibit’s most provocative pieces, 1994’s Foreign Body, Beirut-born video and installation artist Mona Hatoum uses her body as both subject and material, sending a medical camera on a cruise through her interior, from mouth to vagina. At SAM the images are projected inside a walk-in sculpture. “It’s dealing with surveillance and violence and issues of the self and self-representation like nothing you’ve experienced before,” said Sánchez.
Elles is part of a larger transformation of Seattle this fall; SAM will reinstall 25 additional female artists, featuring its Imogen Cunningham photographs, and hang a small collection of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings on loan. The Henry Art Gallery, Seattle Asian Art Museum, and Seattle Arts and Lectures will also offer programming that celebrates women. Not that it’s just about women.
“Camille Morineau had this great quote” about the Pompidou’s exhibit, said Sánchez. “‘[We’re] exhibiting only women, and yet the goal is neither to show that female art exists nor to produce a feminist event, but to present to the public a hanging that appears to offer a good history of twentieth-century art. The goal is to show that a representation of women versus men is no longer important.’ That’s an important note for our public. This isn’t a feminist exhibition.”
Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris
Oct 11–Jan 13, Seattle Art Museum, seattleartmuseum.org
The Making of the Exhibition Elles:
A Conversation with Co-Curators Cecile DeBray and Marisa Sanchez
Oct 11 at 7, SAM Downtown, Plestcheeff Auditorium, $5–$10
Elles: Community Night Out
Oct 12, 6–9pm, SAM Downtown, free entry