Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou


In 2009, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the largest modern art museum in Europe, did an amazing thing.  It emptied all of its galleries, all of its permanent collections, of every piece of artwork done by a man and put them in storage.  And then filled the entire museum with art by women.  Every single gallery.  Every single piece.  By women.  It exhibited only women artists for a period of two years.  Now, some of the collection is on the road, and it is currently at the Seattle Art Museum.

On Saturday, Jon and I headed down for a little break from all the holiday hustle and bustle for a visit.  The exhibit is only in Seattle until January 13, 2013, and we wanted to see it before it leaves.

So, the first thing I want to say is… this is the painting that was on their flyer.

The Blue Room by Suzanne Veladon, 1923

The Blue Room by Suzanne Veladon, 1923

This painting by Suzanne Veladon was painted in the Post-Impressionist style in 1923.  Although it was painted during the roaring twenties, and there were plenty of glamorous upper class women to paint, she chose to paint a member of the working class.

So, why is this painting significant?  Well…  The exhibit started out fine, with several very nice works by artists I had never heard of before.  Natalia Gontcharova, Romaine Brooks, and Tamara de Lempicka.

Romaine Brooks was born to wealthy American parents in Rome, but unfortunately, her father abandoned the family and her mother was emotionally abusive, preferring to dote on Romaine’s mentally-ill brother.  Romaine moved to Paris and lived as a poor art student until her mother’s death in 1902 gave her the money she needed to live independently and paint what she wanted to paint.  Sadly though, Brooks largely stopped painting after 1925; she only completed one painting after World War II.  The self-portrait below was in the exhibition, and it was one of my favorite works.

Au Bord de la Mer (The Edge of the Sea), Self-Portrait by Romaine Brooks, 1914

Au Bord de la Mer (The Edge of the Sea), Self-Portrait by Romaine Brooks, 1914

Tamara de Lempicka was another artist I was unfamiliar with, but whose artwork really resonated with me.  Tamara was Polish, born to wealthy parents in Warsaw, and went to boarding school and traveled extensively as a child.  She married a ladies man whom she was enamored with, and when he was arrested by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, she searched for him in prisons and managed to secure his release with the help of a Swedish consul.  She and her husband then fled to Paris where she took up a bohemian lifestyle, with multiple lovers of both genders (her first husband left her in 1927 and they divorced in 1931).

Tamara de Lempicka was one of those artists who knew success early on, and her paintings of the 1920s and 1930s are apparently her most well known.  She painted with a clear Art Deco style, and her works exude sexuality.  She fled Paris in 1939 when she saw the writing on the wall that World War II was coming, and moved to Hollywood, where she lived a life of high style with her second husband, the Baron Raoul Kuffner von Diószeg.  Her works are collected by Madonna and Jack Nicholson.  I really like the painting that was in the exhibition.

Girl in a Green Dress, by Tamara de Lempicka, circa 1930

Girl in a Green Dress, by Tamara de Lempicka, circa 1930

After that, the exhibit went downhill.  I got a little worried when an exhibit room had a warning label before you entered.  “This Exhibit Contains Mature Content.  Discretion Advised.”  Oh boy…

That room contained a giant-sized (I’m talking about 20 feet tall) woven textile (probably wool) representation of a vagina.  Other notable works included a whole wall of photographs of a topless model adorned with different patterns of chewed gum, a video of a woman violently brushing her hair, a series of photographs of a woman with crotchless pants posing with a machine gun, and what I like to call the “Feel-Up Box.”  This was a video of a woman wearing a box over her upper half, with a piece of fabric covering the front.  She then invited men to put their hands in the box and feel her up.  But not for too long, because she was timing them with a watch.

Much of the remainder of the exhibit was overtly sexual, and angry.  It just seemed like the entire exhibit was angry feminist art, and I didn’t think it was very representative of several decades of art by women.  I guess I just don’t understand modern art; to me art will always be something that requires talent, and putting a nylon over your face and filming yourself as you cut holes in it with scissors just isn’t art to me.  And in case you weren’t completely weirded out at this point, the exhibit ends with two more disturbing works.

The first – dead birds in crochet.  Yep…  Three cases of dead, taxidermied sparrows dressed in little crocheted sweaters.

And the finale… A film of a nude woman on a beach, hula-hooping with a hoop of barbed wire.

I won’t make you endure any photos of these later exhibits…  I’m sure I’ve already scarred you enough.  And if you want to visit Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, and you don’t have to pay out of pocket (hooray for our membership!), I would suggest that you quit after the second gallery.

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6 thoughts on “Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou

  1. A nude woman on a beach, hula hooping with barbed wire. Wow. Just…wow. Really takes “art is subjective” to a whole new level.

    On the other hand: love the Lempicka portrait, especially the color of the dress. I can “feel” it, just by lookng at it.

    • I know right? I understand that artists need to try new things, but the whole idea of “performance art” or art as shock value just doesn’t do it for me.

      The photo of the Tamara de Lempicka portrait really doesn’t do it justice. It was beautiful – and so very real. I just found myself wanting to stare at it. In fact, I went back to it at the end to look again.

  2. I love Romaine Brooks–and wish this exhibit stopped by DC. The more raw stuff does seem jarring in this context, but I can understand the intent behind them. Manet’s art seemed jarring and unnecessarily provocative in the 1860s, after all–I do occasionally enjoy having this visceral reaction to something, even when it’s mostly unpleasant. Good to give a shakeup to the system once in a while 🙂

    • I agree and I guess change can never happen if our senses are jarred every once in awhile. I guess my big gripe was the exclusive focus on the raw or jarring art, when I was expecting it to be a more representative mix of women’s art. But I suppose it can only be the representative mix that the Centre Pompidou purchased for its collection…

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