on life, ambitions, and dreams

How Women See the World: Elles at the Seattle Art Museum

Bloggers at Elles Pompidou at Seattle Art Museum

Museums are not places that we go to be entertained, they are places that we go to come together and discuss ideas. They exist to make us think.

Wendy Simons, a docent at the Seattle Art Museum, said a version of the above at the end of our tour. A few weeks ago, the Seattle Art Museum invited a group of bloggers to the museum for a preview and a guided tour of Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris exhibit. Elles at the Seattle Art Museum features more than 125 works of art made by 75 women artists from 1909 to 2007 and through their work reveals a history of 20th and 21st century art from a perspective that we’ve never seen before, women. And this exhibit is a fraction of the 500 pieces that were part of the original exhibit at the Pompidou in Paris, France.

Before Elles first appeared in at the Pompidou from May 2009 to March 2011, art by women were never part of discourse on the history of art and culture. Think back to when you were in school and learned the names of Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gaguin, and many other artists of the 20th century. Did you ever stop to ask why there wasn’t a single female artist included in those lessons?

It wasn’t that women weren’t creating art during this time. They were painting; we just didn’t know their names.

Elles exists to change that and show how the twentieth century looked through the eyes of women like Natalia Gontcharova, Tamara de Lempicka, Suzanne Valadon, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Hannah Wilke, Dora Maar, Diane Arbus, and many more. Names that I didn’t know until I saw their art for the first time at the Seattle Art Museum.

Learning How to Experience Art with Elles 

Jeune fille en vert, Tamara de Lempicka from Elles:Pompidou at the Seattle Art Museum
Jeune fille en vert (Young Girl in Green), 1927 – 30, Oli on plywood, Tamara de Lempicka

I’ve toured to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia and the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain. I have gazed into the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, paid my respects to La Pietà, and met Michelangelo’s David up-close. While these works of art were incredible, none of them moved me.

The problem with famous works of art is when you see it in person, it’s quite underwhelming because you’ve grown up seeing reproductions your entire life. We are also taught the histories of these pieces in school. We know about the struggles that each one represents and the political and cultural states that existed as they were created. So we were never invited to arrive at our own conclusions of them. We were never taught how to experience art.

As I toured Elles with a group of other women bloggers, together we experienced the twentieth century through the eyes of artists that we had never heard or heard of before. We began in the late twentieth century when women were beginning to question family roles and see the world through their own eyes and consciousness. As we moved towards the middle of the century, the pieces became edgier as the artists collided with the feminist movement and the political instability of the 1960s and 1970s. As the content of their work changed, so did the mediums. Art was no longer restricted to painting and sculpture, but now included photography, performance, and video.

The further we moved into the depths of Elles and through history, the more their art challenged me.

Espagnoles (Spaniards), Natalia Gontcharova of Elles:Pompidou at the Seattle Art Museum
Espagnoles (Spaniards), 1920-1924, Oil on canvas, Natalia Gontcharova

In college I discovered feminism and decided that I never wanted to be trapped by a glass ceiling. As an adult, I have met some of the strongest, bravest women who have done incredible things because of and despite of their gender. I have learned that women can’t have it all, that some women can, and the majority of us are still trying to figure out what that “it” is. At times I am reminded that I am one of the only women on my team not by other women, but by men. At times I realize that gender isn’t really an issue any more, while other times it is painstakingly obvious that it still is.

As I stared through the eyes of the women of Elles, it was the first time in my life that I realized how much we live in a man’s world. Even the fact that this exhibit was created to highlight women artists of the twentieth century shows how much women are not part of history at all. It makes me wonder, what would this exhibit have looked like if these pieces were in an exhibit with art created by men of the same period? Would the women of Elles have had the same impact on me?

Elles:Pompidou Makes You Think

La Chambre Bleue, Suzanne Valadon
La Chambre Bleue (The Blue Room), 1923, Oil on canvas, Suzanne Valadon

The only way to answer any of these questions is to go see the exhibit and let yourself start those conversations.

Like I said, this exhibit challenged me. Not because their work was shocking, though some pieces did (by the way, Elles was designed for a mature audience). But because of how I am experiencing my own world. Your experience of Elles will be different that mine, and you will be better for it.

When you do go – and you should – open your mind and your heart and experience everything that you see. Allow yourself to process every piece and start a conversation with yourself and whoever goes with you about what you see and what you feel. Also, go on a guided tour so that the docent can fill you in on the histories of each piece. The placards and text signs alone next to artwork do not do it justice.

Have you ever gone to an art exhibit that affected you in a way that you weren’t expecting it to?

Untitled (What big muscles you have!), Barbara Kruger
Untitled (What big muscles you have!), 1986, Self-adhesive strips and letraset on acrylic panel, Barbara Kruger American

Elles:Pompidou at the Seattle Art Museum is the only U.S. venue for this groundbreaking exhibition that tells a story of modern and contemporary art solely through the work of women artists. This exhibit runs now through January 13, 2012. Thank you, Seattle Art Museum, for inviting me to experience Elles! 

All photos of the artwork were taken with permission from the museum. 


4 Responses

  1. I love your perspective on this. In high school, my (female) French teacher took us on trips to Chicago to see impressionist works in person. While most of the famous painters were men, I experienced them largely through a woman’s perspective. After HS, my best friend (also female) entered an MFA program in photography. While I can name VASTLY more male artists than female, it’s probably a more balanced view than some.

    Le Centre Pompidou, though I’ve never been there, appeals to me more than any other museum in the world. I am very much looking forward to seeing it one day.

    Thank you so much for sharing this, asking questions, and opening minds. Love it.

    1. Thank you, Terry. Your experience with a female teacher makes me wonder how this exhibit would look through the eyes of a male docent. I took my husband through the exhibit last week, but it was during SAM Remix, which is an event where they essentially turn the museum into a night club. Walking around these pieces of art in a crowded museum with loud funk music is fun, but doesn’t leave the same impression.

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