“The Past is Palpably Present” on New York Avenue

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is now on view in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project!

At a celebration on September 30, curator and scholar Mary Jane Jacob, a renowned authority on the artist, gave a special lecture on Abakanowicz, including her body of work and her sculptures on view on New York Avenue. These pieces, including Walking Figures and abstracted birds in flight, represent some of the artist’s most iconic work.

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

During Jacob’s talk, she discussed Abakanowicz’s life story, particularly her youth and artistic training in Poland and her experiences during the Second World War. Jacob believes that “the past is palpably present” through the artist’s work. She talked about Agora, a large public installation in Chicago’s Grant Park that, like the Walking Figures on New York Avenue, features a group of larger-than-life, armless and headless human figures.

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Through this motif in her work, Jacob said, Abakanowicz shows that “Art is able to be a means of building links between distant societies” despite differences, due to commonalities and collective memory.

Jacob also described the artist’s abiding interest in nature: “Restoring nature became a theme for Magdalena Abakanowicz. She grew up in nature, and she understood that in war we not only kill others, but we kill the earth. She’s always been drawn to nature.”

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Abakanowicz is especially inspired by unrepeatability in nature—encountering a swarm of mosquitos, for example, the artist was fascinated by the conspicuous individual characteristics among them. Jacob said, “Among her most powerful works are her soaring birds, which take us back to nature, and to a way of thinking not just about how we exist within this natural form, but how natural form itself has amazing variety.”

These works will be on view through September 2015 outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Plan your visit soon to see work by this extraordinary artist both inside and outside the museum.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

“Knowledge of [Latin American] art makes it possible to develop an acquaintance with and, if you will, an understanding of, our society.”—Marta Traba, Latin American art critic and writer, in Arte de América Latina

Hispanic Heritage Month was established in 1988 to recognize the histories, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans. Commencing on September 15, the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and lasting until October 15, this month-long celebration also coincides with Mexican Independence Day on September 16 and Chilean Independence Day on September 18. Now is a great time to visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts to explore the work of some foremost Latin-American women artists!

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Begin your visit with a stop by Frida Kahlo’s 1937 painting Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky and pay your respects to one of the most iconic and widely recognized Latin-American artists of the 20th century.

This bold painting commemorates Kahlo’s brief affair with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader before his assassination in 1940 and proclaims her political allegiance to Trotskyism, though she subsequently broke with the movement and became a supporter of Stalin in 1939. Kahlo depicts herself in a stage-like setting reminiscent of Mexican retables—popular devotional images of saints or the Virgin Mary painted on tin, which she collected—clasping a letter to Trotsky, signed, “with all my love.” While the subject of the painting reveals her engagement with international politics, the Mexican folk art-inspired style shows Kahlo’s engagement with Mexicanidad, a post-Revolutionary movement that emphasized Mexican nationalism and eschewed European influences.

A visit to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait provides an excellent opportunity to get to know the work of another fascinating Hispanic artist, Remedios Varo.

The entrance to NMWA’s 2000 exhibition “The Magic of Remedios Varo”

The entrance to NMWA’s 2000 exhibition “The Magic of Remedios Varo”

In the same room as Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, you will find three paintings by this Spanish-born Surrealist artist, who produced many of her captivating artworks while living in Mexico: Weaving of Space and Time (1954), The Call (1961), and Phenomenon of Weightlessness (1963). As Lupina Lara Elizondo describes in Visión de México y sus Artistas Siglo XX 1901–1950, Varo viewed Surrealism as “a way of communicating the incommunicable.” Look closely at Varo’s dreamy paintings to appreciate their otherworldly subjects and beautiful, minute details.

Varo, who spent 16 years in Mexico and six years in Venezuela following her exile from Paris during the German occupation, cultivated numerous interests that influenced her art, including alchemy, magic, and the supernatural, as well as architecture, engineering, philosophy, and science. A number of her works portray women in claustrophobic spaces. They are sometimes interpreted as responses to the marginalization of women in society or within the Surrealist art movement, though she also painted many androgynous and species-bending figures in scenes that defy categorization.

Find out more about the works on view at NMWA and plan your visit soon!

—Olivia Mendelson is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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.