“But seriously…can you name 5 women artists?” Women In Front of and Behind the Lens

Jane Avril (1893)_Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1893. Brush and spatter lithograph, printed in five colors. Key stone printed in olive green, color stones in yellow, orange, red, and black on wove paper, 48 13⁄16 × 36 in. Private collection

I posed the question to a friend over the phone, eager to hear his response. Here at The Phillips, we’ve had a lot of fun celebrating Women’s History Month. The National Museum of Women in the Arts surfaced #5WomenArtists last year, and people everywhere followed suit. This trend is meant to introduce the same question I asked my friend to lovers of art: Can you, even the most enthusiastic museum-goer, name five women artists? My friend certainly struggled to answer the question. Some of his answers required hints from me, others were names of works which he could recall, but not artists. He eventually got to five and even named a sixth, then insisting that he likely could not name five male artists either. I heard a pause over the phone. “Actually, I probably could.”

The National Endowment for the Arts reports that 51% of visual artists working today are women. But according to The Guardian, a mere 3 to 5% of artworks in permanent collections of major American museums are by female artists. Understanding the statistic requires an understanding of the culture which has always surrounded it. In part, we must look at how male artists interacted with their female counterparts throughout history. Recently at the Phillips, we have had much to celebrate with the opening of Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque. Toulouse-Lautrec’s fame resided largely in his depictions of French starlets like Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. The subjects of his works were primarily women, and for a period of time Lautrec resided in a French brothel. A product of his time there was his album Elles; visual interpretations of the daily lives of prostitutes. The prints, four of which are presently on view at the Phillips, barely depict the presence of male figures, instead focusing non-judgmentally on the quiet, private moments of these women’s lives. A publisher of erotic magazines and prints, Gustave Pellet, published Elles in the spring of 1896, placing the sale price higher than any of Toulouse-Lautrec’s previous work. To male buyers, however, the publication was an unsexy flop, as one critic wrote, “The meaning of the work is still unclear to us; the desired effect cannot be seen. He portrayed vice, but not because he was attracted to it, since he avoided the obscene details.”

The point here is clear; even work by an accomplished male artist attempting to humanize women was once seen as utterly undesirable. Along with museums all over the world, The Phillips Collection will challenge visitors this month to name five women artists, to learn about their accomplishments, and to celebrate their work! The topic of female celebrity, power, and the public gaze in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work was the focal point of a recent Open Conversation we held in the galleries, led by Cristen Conger. Watch the video and let us know your thoughts!

Elizabeth Federici, Marketing & Communications Intern

5 Things Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence Can Teach You About Museum-Going

Helen Frederick installation shot

Installation view of Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence Intersections contemporary art project

Museums can sometimes be considered intimidating spaces, complete with a flurry of visitors, pristine paintings, and immaculate sculptures. But venture into the galleries and there’s much to be gained. Today we look at Helen Frederick’s Acts of Silence as an example of how each and every exhibition has something to offer museum-goers; it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.

  • 1) Keep calm and carry on
    Frederick, an artist and printmaking professor at George Mason University, makes a habit of contemplative papermaking. As she explains in an early essay, hers is a storied process of interacting with materials, textures, and overlays to create paper produced by hand. This same reflective mindset is useful in approaching museums—taking time to consider and experience the quietude of the works on view.
Helen Frederick_Extinguish etc

Trees Darker Than the Night, 2015. Two pulp painting (42 x 22 in. each) and three solar prints (14.5 in. diameter each)

Sudip Bose echoes this in a review of Johannes Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art, in which Bose writes that pensiveness has given way to the blockbuster and calls into question the value of an enriching museum experience. What Bose drives home is that for artwork in general, and works by Vermeer in particular, each piece should be a study in quiet reflection rather than rushed consumption.

  • 2) Mix up your media

    Too often, exhibitions pigeonhole visitors into one media over another. Frederick’s Acts of Silence stands in contrast to this, encouraging viewers to explore works of varied textures, values, and aesthetics to get at the core of the installation’s themes – those of the environment and longevity. Frederick’s Extinguish, for instance, elevates the warfare debate, displaying each piece on handmade paper (a nod to nature in a world of artificiality).

It’s a concept worth mulling over. What effect does one media have over another? Surely texture plays a pivotal role. In fact, the Museo del Prado now includes 3-D printed masterworks for blind visitors to the museum—a move indicative of the experiential nature of depth, texture, and media.

  • 3) Lean in
    Equally important on your next museum visit is taking in the works on view at close range as well as at a distance. Frederick’s exhibition at the Phillips serves as a prime example, drawing visitors into the installation’s second room with a series of paintings that, from afar, appear to represent an empty field at sunset, but upon further inspection, reveal themselves as complex studies of light and tone. The next time you’re in a museum, try viewing works at a distance as well as up close to see what, if any, changes can be detected. What do those subtleties tell you about the work?
Helen Frederick_Acts of silence

Helen Frederick, Acts of Silence (still), 2015. Sound and video projection over primordial forest imagery, Voice: Helen Frederick; Video collaboration: Sean Watkins; Photo credit: Matt Nolan

Stephanie Herdrich, assistant research curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes this to a new level, harnessing Instagram to zero in on the minute, yet terrifically dazzling, details of the institution’s works. Much like quiet contemplation, experimenting with different levels of detail can bring to life nuance you might otherwise miss.

  • 4) Compare and contrast
    Another concept to think through on your next museum visit is how the works on view fit into a broader cultural context. In particular, what parallels can you draw between the selected works and those of comparable theme from a different time period or region? At the Phillips, Frederick’s works are displayed alongside Morris Graves’s, an abstract expressionist whose oeuvre captures the Pacific Northwest in its rawest beauty. In its second room, Acts of Silence brings this to bear, juxtaposing Frederick’s tonal works with Graves’s seabird compositions.

Gillian Daniel draws similar parallels on her Fash of the Titans Instagram feed, pairing classical art work with today’s high fashion. The unlikely juxtapositions reinforce the value of reflective study to glean new meaning from an exhibition’s selected works.

  • 5) Share your own interpretations
    Frederick’s Acts of Silence also encourages viewers to interpret the works on view in their own way. An earlier blog post tackles just this in its survey of the many ways viewers have interacted with the series, effectively adding their mark to the collection online.

Appropriately, many exhibitions now feature signature hashtags. One question to ask yourself in looking through submitted photos is what works inspired the most photos? Why do you think that is? The Getty Museum’s #GettyInspired series celebrates the nuance visitors add to a museum’s collection.

Museums, then, offer visitors a moment of quietude, layers of meaning, new perspectives, cultural nuance, and the opportunity to share in novel ways. Armed with these five tips, your next museum visit is sure to be an inspired one.

Angelica Aboulhosn, Marketing & Communications Volunteer