Images that Tell a Story: The First Woman Graphic Novelist

The Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC) at NMWA currently features an exhibition of work showcasing a female voice in a field that many associate with men. Five novels created by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová are featured in the exhibition The First Woman Graphic Novelist: Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, on view through November 14.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, woodcut print from Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), Prague: Orbis, 1929; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, woodcut print from Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), Prague: Orbis, 1929; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

The artist’s novel Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood), published in 1929, is believed to be the first wordless novel written by a woman. The exhibition hopes to foster discussion about her important contributions to this under-explored genre.

Bochořáková-Dittrichová most likely encountered the popular wordless novels of Belgian artist Frans Masereel while in Paris, where she had received a grant to study printmaking. Masereel focused his novels on socialist themes, such as the working class and the downtrodden. By contrast, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s wordless novel From My Childhood is about her middle-class upbringing, following her into her adult life. Similarly, other works focus on her life experiences. A 52-woodcut manuscript, which remains unpublished, called Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), features a woman who receives an award to study art in Paris, drawing on the artist’s experience in the city where she became familiar with wordless novels.

Though the novels of Masereel are better known, and are more numerous today, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s less-polished woodcuts distinguish her. While Masereel’s style features stolid blocks of black and white space that sit against each other, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s prints are richer in tone, line, and shade. Her figures emerge with a series of small white lines from the expanse of black ink on the page, relying more on hatching and texture to give the appearance of shadow and form. Areas of greater light tones—an open window, for example, or a blouse—seem luminous by comparison.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, untitled print from Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), n.d.; Woodcut, 4 1/4 x 3 1⁄8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, untitled print from Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on her Journey), n.d.; Woodcut, 4 1/4 x 3 1⁄8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s other works housed and on view in the LRC depict scenes that depart from her personal experiences. Her work explored religion, travel, and history. The library also houses novels by Bochořáková-Dittrichová that feature interplay of image and written narrative. Dojmy Z SSSR (Impressions from the USSR, 1934) features both text and illustration by the artist. However, even when the image is of a historical figure, or a cityscape, her style still features careful slivers of white paper through black ink.

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s legacy remains to be firmly cemented within our modern understanding of the woodcut. However, with this exhibition, her prints are presented as a tool to help viewers understand her distinct place in the history of the graphic novel.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Graphic Novels to Watch Out For: “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel

Alongside the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center’s current exhibition, The First Woman Graphic Novelist: Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, the library’s display shelves currently feature fantastic contemporary graphic novels by women. There are gems in the LRC to discover, even for lifelong enthusiasts of comics and graphic novels. Here on NMWA’s blog this fall, we will post a series of short reviews to highlight a selection of great graphic novels and the women authors who are creating them today.

LRC_Bechdel-coverDon’t miss Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, which chronicles the author’s youth in a rural Pennsylvania town and her complex relationship with her father. The art and story by Bechdel, a recent McArthur Foundation fellowship winner, have indelible emotional impact.

Bechdel presents her father, a third-generation funeral home director and high-school English teacher, as a cold and distant parent who grapples with his closeted bisexuality. She depicts her complex desire for a connection with him, the unspoken bond they begin to share over literature, and the heartbreaking events that quickly unfold after Bechdel discovers her own sexuality as a lesbian.

Fun Home has received wide commercial success, spending two weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, and has been named by numerous publications, including Time and Entertainment Weekly, one of the best books of 2006.

Bechdel’s artistic style, along with her well-crafted narratives, work together to create rich scenes that reveal darkly funny childhood memories of growing up in a funeral home and painful accounts of a lost relationship with her father. Bechdel successfully blends the comics genre with memoir to convey a powerful, poignant story of sexual orientation, gender roles, suicide, and dysfunctional family life. Her journey works on specific and broad levels—readers can find connections to the larger human experience as well as moments that evoke strong personal memories.

Fun Home continues to impact readers and find new audiences since it was first published. A musical adaptation of the book, written by playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori, ran off-Broadway last year and is planned for a Broadway showing in 2015.

The exhibition of work by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová, Bechdel’s Fun Home, and many other excellent graphic novels are available for visitors’ viewing and reading pleasure in the library! Visit the museum, view the works on display, and stop by the library learn more about the work of female graphic novelists.

—Molly Krost is an intern in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

There’s No Place Like . . . Where?

Has NMWA’s exhibition Total Art: Contemporary Video left you wanting to know even more about video artists? You’re in luck! Today, the museum opens a new installation, bringing even more video art into its galleries.

After the Rainbow (2009), a video installation by Soda_Jerk, a two-person artistic collective from Australia, is presented in collaboration with the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ public art project 5×5. For 5×5, five curators each invited five artists to install public art around D.C. Curator Justine Topfer coordinated with NMWA to present this work, in which Soda_Jerk explores themes such as the passage of time, age, stardom, and melancholy.

Soda_Jerk, After the Rainbow, 2009; 2-channel projection on screens back-lit with fluorescents, 5 min, 42 sec.; Image courtesy of the artists

Soda_Jerk, After the Rainbow, 2009; 2-channel projection on screens back-lit with fluorescents, 5 min, 42 sec.; Image courtesy of the artists

After the Rainbow plays on our culture’s collective interest in both the characters portrayed by film stars in movies, and the turbulent mythologies of their private lives. In what the artistic duo calls “séance fiction,” they present clips of Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, reimagined. Instead of being swept by a tornado to the bright and colorful Oz, Dorothy instead comes face to face with her future self. Created using a process called sampling, Soda_Jerk splices together segments from film and television, creating a sort of moving collage. Viewers see the young Garland in the role that cemented her stardom, alongside her older, jaded self, as she appeared in a 1960s television special.

Soda_Jerk, After the Rainbow, 2009; 2-channel projection on screens back-lit with fluorescents (Installation view at UTS Gallery, Sydney, 2013); Image courtesy of the artists; Photo David Lawrey

Soda_Jerk, After the Rainbow, 2009; 2-channel projection on screens back-lit with fluorescents (Installation view at UTS Gallery, Sydney, 2013); Image courtesy of the artists; Photo David Lawrey

This video installation is the second in their series “Dark Matter”; each video juxtaposes youthful old-Hollywood icons encountering their spectral future selves. As viewers see Dorothy and the adult Garland side by side, the video emphasizes the unexpected turns a life can take—in this case between her tragic later life in Hollywood and her youthful exuberance and promise—as well as the factors that can make a narrative more complex than it seems.

After the Rainbow will be on view September 19–October 2.

—Caitlin Hoerr is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Kimsooja’s Threads of Culture

The art of Kimsooja (b. 1957, South Korea) is anchored in physical and metaphorical explorations of fabrics, textiles, and sewing. She has used a needle and thread to stitch together much of her work, manipulating everything from traditional South Korean fabrics, discarded clothing, travel bundles called bottari, and even her own name (rather than Soo-ja Kim or Kim Sooja, she prefers Kimsooja: “A one-word name is an anarchist’s name,” she says).

Kimsooja, Thread Routes–Chapter 1, 2010; Single-channel video projection, 16-mm film transferred to HD format, and sound; Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

Kimsooja, Thread Routes–Chapter 1, 2010; Single-channel video projection, 16-mm film transferred to HD format, and sound; Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio

 

When the artist was a young girl, a life-changing moment occurred while she was helping her mother mend a bed cover. With needle in hand, Kimsooja says the moment the instrument entered the fabric she felt a jolt of energy that inspired a feeling of deep connection to the rest of the world. While this might seem like an extreme response to the seemingly insignificant act of mending sheets, this transformative sense of connection resonates through the artist’s oeuvre. For Kimsooja, the needle and thread symbolize the artist’s discerning eye and hand (another series of her work is called “A Needle Woman”), while images, videos, installations, and performances become swatches of fabric joined to create sensory works of art.

Thread Routes—Chapter 1 (2010), currently featured in Total Art: Contemporary Video, is a visual poem dedicated to the bright, color- and pattern-saturated aesthetic of the culture and landscape of Peruvian weavers. Shot by a film crew on location near Machu Picchu, the 26-minute video features images of women chatting while hand-spinning fibers into threads and using looms and other weaving techniques to create fabric designs. These scenes are juxtaposed with silent imagery of knotted mountainous landscapes, creating a patchwork-style video of a sensory experience of the region.

Kimsooja, Thread Routes–Chapter 1, 2010; Single-channel video projection, 16-mm film transferred to HD format, and sound; Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio; Installation photo Laura Hoffman

Kimsooja, Thread Routes–Chapter 1, 2010; Single-channel video projection, 16-mm film transferred to HD format, and sound; Courtesy of Kimsooja Studio; Installation photo Laura Hoffman

The video can be viewed as a meditation on the textures of experience, specifically the everyday, tactile experience of southern Peru. Kimsooja brings the viewer’s attention to the rich textural similarities between patterns created in the weavers’ fabrics and clothing, and the natural and agriculturally-manipulated patterns of the earth. Close-up details of braided threads and bright buttons are mirrored by video sequences framing harvested plots of land punctuated by the uniform roof tiles of small houses, as intricately interwoven as the textiles.

By creating these visual parallels, Kimsooja offers nuanced perspectives on the relationships between nature and culture, as well as between the artist and the larger world. This relates to a greater theme of Total Art—video as an art form that encourages the individual artist to collaborate with others. In this video, Kimsooja nods to the earth and entire societies as creators in their own rights. The Thread Routes series is an ongoing project that will eventually include six chapters, featuring images of other textile-centric cultures in their social and physical environments.

To learn more about the artist and Thread Routes—Chapter 1, visit the museum for a short conversation with Associate Educator Addie L. Gayoso on Wednesday, September 10, at noon.

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is pursuing her MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Curatorial Practice.

Behind the Scenes in the Registrar’s Office: Crates, Notes, and Dust Motes

Visitors to the National Museum of Women in the Arts have no doubt seen Anne Vallayer-Coster’s majestic portrait of Madame de Saint-Huberty in the Role of Dido, which currently hangs on the east wall of the mezzanine level. However, many do not understand the behind-the-scenes work involved in the preservation of this grand painting. While interning in the office of the registrar this summer, I learned about the various ways in which the office safeguards and organizes nearly 5,000 works in the collection.

Cleaning-Madame-de-Saint-Huberty_webBelieve it or not, dusting is one of the most important preventive measures undertaken by the registrars. Dust hardens like cement, so these pesky particles can actually damage objects if ignored for too long. On one afternoon, I learned how to gently remove the dust that had accumulated within the intricate floral frame surrounding Madame de Saint-Huberty in the Role of Dido. With slow and careful strokes, I brushed the dust of the small crevices, guiding it into the hose of a special low-suction HEPA vacuum positioned a safe distance from the surface of the painting. My brush never actually touched the surface of the paint, though. You may notice that many works are framed with a layer of glass in front, which shields the art from damaging debris. Even small measures like these can ensure a work’s long-term safety.

The registrars also carefully control the environment of the museum, for changes in temperature and humidity can have harmful effects on art. While we removed Madame de Saint-Huberty and other works for routine cleaning, the museum’s chief preparator improved the insulation inside the walls of the gallery space, guaranteeing that the paintings would be in a more protective environment. In fact, a temperature-controlled storage vault houses the majority of the museum’s collection inside massive crates, ceiling-high filing systems, and cocoons of bubble wrap. Only three percent of the collection’s 4,800 works are actually on display!

After routine care, Anne Vallayer-Coster's painting was returned to its place on the gallery wall for visitors to enjoy; Photo Daniel Schwartz

After routine care, Anne Vallayer-Coster’s painting was returned to its place on the gallery wall for visitors to enjoy; Photo Daniel Schwartz

While working within the maze of art storage, I began to realize that keeping accurate records is equally as important as ensuring the physical safety of the collection. After all, how could we study a sculpture without knowing the basic information about it, or even where to locate it? For the past year, the office of the registrar has been working on a collections inventory to ensure the intellectual safety of the objects. Throughout the summer, I helped photograph, measure, and document hundreds of works on paper, knowing that all of this information would allow future scholars to better understand them.

Working behind the scenes these past few months has given me a greater appreciation for the importance of safeguarding the physical and intellectual well-being of the art. After all, without preservation, education would not be possible. Visitors walk through NMWA’s gallery spaces because they want to learn about the groundbreaking accomplishments of women artists. The dedicated efforts of registrars and collections managers ensure that this experience may happen.

—Amy Root was a summer 2014 intern in the registrar’s office at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Click here to learn more about interning at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Mariko Mori—Artist, Prophetess, and Cyber-Geisha

“The world is melting; the world is melting, becoming one . . .”

This Zen-apocalyptic chant is a translation of the Japanese lyrics artist Mariko Mori (b. 1967, Tokyo) sings on a hypnotic loop in Miko no Inori (The Shaman-Girl’s Prayer) (1996), currently on view at NMWA in Total Art: Contemporary Video. Dressed in a sleek, futuristic white dress, wearing mirrored contact lenses and a wispy white wig, all crowned by a reflective moon-shaped tiara, Mori sits in Osaka’s impressively modern Kansai International Airport rolling a clear glass orb between her manicured hands. Perhaps using the capsule to channel energy and knowledge from the past, perhaps meditating on events of the future, the artist envisions herself as an intermediary between visible (present) and invisible (past/future) worlds.

Mariko Mori, Miko no Inori, 1996; Color video and sound; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Courtesy of Dennis and Debra Scholl

Mariko Mori, Miko no Inori, 1996; Color video and sound; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Courtesy of Dennis and Debra Scholl

Beginning her career as a high-fashion model in Japan in the 1980s, Mori quickly transitioned to the New York art world in the ’90s, producing large-scale Cindy Sherman-esque photos of herself as various imagined characters. Wearing skimpy anime- and sci-fi-inspired costumes while interacting with the Japanese public on the subway or in business districts, Mori exaggerated the limiting, stereotypical roles available to Japanese women, while also acknowledging the growing creative role of technology.

Interested in portraying the tensions and connections between the old and new worlds of Japanese culture, Mori often integrates spiritual, otherworldly motifs with advanced technological techniques and modern aesthetics. The artist’s elaborate designs often require collaboration. For Miko no Inori, Mori enlisted the help of a videographer, two choreographers, a make-up artist, a stylist, and a composer (her husband) to establish her calming but eerie presence.

Mori also incorporates the Japanese public and their environment. Travelers can be seen in the background of the video continuously passing by Mori, perhaps unaware of the artist’s presence amid the airport’s shiny, reflective surfaces. The overwhelming visual motifs of bright whites, illuminating background lighting, and mirror images created with the glass ball and Mori’s tiara augment the video’s meditative, transfixing aesthetic.

Mariko Mori, Miko no Inori, 1996; Color video and sound; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Courtesy of Dennis and Debra Scholl; Photo Laura Hoffman

Mariko Mori, Miko no Inori, 1996; Color video and sound; Collection of Pérez Art Museum Miami, Courtesy of Dennis and Debra Scholl; Photo Laura Hoffman

The choreographed movements of the orb combined with Mori’s all-white ensemble may reference the post-WWII Japanese tradition of butoh, an avant-garde style of dance performed in white body makeup with slow, hyper-controlled movements motivated by the unconscious. Wearing the color white in Eastern cultures can also refer to death and mourning. Connecting back to the video’s lyrics, Mori’s attire might suggest that she remains respectfully attentive to the overwhelmingly streamlined present and a potentially dystopian future.

The flow of Mori’s gaze also echoes the tai chi-like patterns she completes with the glass sphere in hand, further embodying the overall “one-ness” her song proclaims. Mori’s more recent work in sculpture and installation follows in this prophetic style, and requires continued collaboration from archeologists, scientists, and engineers to create her out-of-this world work.

To learn more about Mariko Mori and Miko no Inori, visit the museum for a short conversation with NMWA Chief Curator Kathryn Wat on Wednesday, September 3, at noon!

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

NMWA by the Numbers

While traveling abroad in the 1960s, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, Wallace, admired art by 17th-century Flemish painter Clara Peeters. Returning to the U.S., they discovered that none of the leading art history textbooks referenced Peeters or any other female artist. Inspired to rediscover this lost heritage, the Holladays began acquiring works by women artists and amassing a library of research and archival materials. From these collections, Holladay established the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in 1981; the museum’s doors opened in 1987.

Founded to redefine traditional histories of art, NMWA exhibits, preserves, acquires, and researches art by women and teaches the public about their accomplishments. Take a look at NMWA by the numbers.

$0
Cost of admission on the first Sunday of every month, as a part of NMWA’s free community days.

1
NMWA is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to recognizing women’s creative contributions.

10
Number of artists featured in the current special exhibition Total Art: Contemporary Video.

19
Countries represented by NMWA’s international members.

27
Women artists identified in the current edition of Janson’s Basic History of Western Art (9th Edition)—up from zero in the 1970s.

59
High-resolution images of artwork in NMWA’s collection presented on the Google Art Project beginning in March 2014. The resolution of these images, combined with a custom-built zoom viewer, allows art lovers to discover minute aspects of paintings they may have never seen up close before.

114
Issues of Women in the Arts magazine produced and published by NMWA, which began as a newsletter in the summer of 1983, four years prior to the public opening of the museum.

273
Special exhibitions presented by NMWA celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts.

1987
The year NMWA opened to the public.

2,855
Average hours worked per year by NMWA’s dedicated volunteers.

061614_PhotobyDakotaFine_Gallery27

Photography by Dakota Fine

4,500
Objects preserved and displayed in NMWA’s collection.

14,000
Volumes maintained at the NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center.

15,000+
NMWA members around the world representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Vietnam.

18,620
Miles to Australia, home to the NMWA member who lives the farthest away.

78,810
Square feet of the main building housing NMWA, originally a Masonic temple, purchased in 1983.

400,000
The number of people served by NMWA’s education programs.

$50 million
The endowment goal reached for the Legacy of Women in the Arts campaign during NMWA’s 25th anniversary.

7 billion
Pixels contained in the Google Art Project’s high-resolution photograph of Rachel Ruysch’s Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680s).

Detail of Rachel Ruysch’s painting—click here to see more of NMWA’s art on the Google Art Project

Detail of Rachel Ruysch’s painting—see more of NMWA’s art on the Google Art Project

There’s just one NMWA, the only museum solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing, and literary arts. The museum’s collection features 4,500 works from the 16th century to the present created by more than 1,000 artists, including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker, and Nan Goldin, along with collections of artists’ books, 18th-century silver tableware, and botanical prints.

NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. Come visit: the museum is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors 65 and over and students, and free for NMWA members and youths 18 and under. Free Community Days take place on the first Sunday of each month. For more information about NMWA, call 202-783-5000, visit nmwa.org, Facebook, or Twitter.