Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR
One of the many happy results of the publishing industry’s push for greater inclusion: more art books showcasing not just women’s art, but women’s abilities.
Three recent headliners feature female subjects of all shapes and hues from around the world, doing the things that women have historically done — and also the things that men have historically done. With few words, these books speak volumes. All would make great gifts. A glance:
The only woman
In The only woman, Immy Humes has collected 100 mostly black and white group photographs that feature a solitary, pioneering woman “who claimed space in a man’s world”.
There are some familiar faces among these stars, including banker Christine Lagarde, Pakistani Prime Minister Benazhir Bhutto, writer and witty Dorothy Parker, and Washington Post Katharine Graham editor. A young Frida Kahlo looks tiny next to her hulking future husband, Diego Rivera, pictured with a contingent of painters, sculptors and other male artists during a 1929 May Day march in Mexico City. War correspondent Martha Gellhorn, dressed in a no-frills trench coat, enlists with soldiers on the Italian front months before D-Day in 1944. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sits in the front row at 10 Downing Street in a shirt dress, flanked by the two dozen men in dark suits who made up her new cabinet in 1979.
Even more fascinating are some of the stories behind lesser-known female vanguards – including a shipyard worker, a racing car driver, a gold miner and several scientists, nurses and medical students. Clarissa Wimbush stands out as the only woman member of the Virginia Old Dominion Dental Association in 1961, as does Gloria Richardson, the only woman at a meeting of black civil rights leaders with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963.
The solo woman at the 1946 meeting of the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists (yes, really) is easy to spot because of her elaborate hat. But other “Onlys” are harder to identify in these cluttered small-format reproductions – giving Humes’s book a fun Where’s “Walda” sometimes vibe.
women holding things
women holding things combines so many wonderful elements of Maira Kalman’s work: her uncanny ability to balance whimsy and restlessness, simplicity and depth – and both mundane and philosophical thoughts in alternate texts and colorful paintings, which often channel Matisse. This volume is an expanded version of a self-published booklet that Kalman produced during the pandemic to raise funds to fight hunger.
Unusual for Kalman, the text is typed rather than handwritten, but the dust jacket copy of the book features his attractive handwritten letters in irregular capitals. It sets the tone: “You hold in your hands the thing that is dearest to me. A book. If there was ever a time to hold on to SOMETHING, this is it. Wait , dear friends. Wait.” (Spoiler alert: the charming back jacket reads: “One more thought. Besides holding on, you can also LET GO. But that’s ANOTHER BOOK.”)
In vibrant paintings of jewel-toned pinks, reds and greens, there are women holding red balloons, teacups and garden shears. Many visitors to a museum sculpture garden have opinions about modern art, while others court or keep wolves at bay. With typical Kalman ironic wit, the sturdy Gertrude Stein is pictured at her desk, “true to herself by writing things that very few people like or even read”. A tense Virginia Woolf is shown as “barely holding it together”.
As Uncertainty Principlesin which Kalman touted the benefits of “meaningful distraction” from a disturbing, often unfathomable world, women holding things ventures into autobiographical material. An atypically dark painting depicts a mother holding her child’s hand as they are shot by Nazi soldiers in Belarus during the Holocaust – what happened to the family Kalman’s father left behind when he emigrated to Palestine before the war. A painting of two girls in identical yellow dresses that also appeared in Uncertainty, now carries the heading “resentful women”, as well as the story behind the lifelong animosity between Kalman’s stepmother and her twin sister.
Sure, women holding things is also filled with many things that Kalman cherishes and enjoys painting – chairs, hats, parks, gardens, bowls of ruby red cherries, vases of red, pink and yellow anemones. In portraits of women holding everything from dog leashes and whips to malevolent opinions, Kalman’s latest offers an encouraging hymn to courage and perseverance.
Great female painters
Great Women]Painters, which completes that of Phaidon great female artists and last year’s Woman Made: Great Designers, presents more than 300 painters born in 60 countries between the 16th and 21st centuries. This beautiful coffee table book is listed alphabetically from Pacita Abad and Mary Abbott to Marguerite Zorach and Portia Zvavahera.
You will find many household names like Georgia O’Keeffe, Alice Neel, Gwen John, Hilma af Klint and “the first superstar Old Mistress[s]”Artemisia Gentileschi and Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. But there are also lesser-known artists like Dotty Attie, Anita Rée, Carmen Herrera and Giulia Lama, and emerging stars like Dana Schutz, Jenny Saville and Amy Sherald (who painted the portrait official Michelle Obama) — making for a rich mix. Each artist is represented by a key chart and a short biographical note.
The goal, writes Alison M. Gingeras in her introduction, is to “renegotiate the canon” by “discarding the yardstick of auction prices and the subjective categories of aesthetic beauty, technical mastery and ‘power of the wall'” . “the calculation of the valuation” must take into account the historical context and the intellectual content of the works, as well as “the singularity and the difference” of the women artists.
There are delicacies from all eras and all genres. Some paintings, like Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird”, “Pumpkin” by Yayoi Kusama, and the extreme close-up of Marilyn Minter’s lips in “Big Red” are well known. But surprises abound, not only from artists whose work I didn’t know about, but also from lesser-known paintings by well-known artists. Mary Cassatt, often associated with her blurry impressionist canvases of mothers and children, is represented by “In the Loge”, which features a woman gazing intently through opera glasses. Leonora Carrington’s “The Old Maids” depicts a sort of surreal tea party filled with creatures that might have come straight out of a fairy tale. In “The Only Blonde in the World”, British pop artist Pauline Boty’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in one of her best-known roles is set against an abstract background that suggests the gap between the public image of the actress and her private self.
Among contemporary works, I was particularly intrigued by the feminist spin of Iranian-born Sanam Khatibi on Renaissance pastorals in “Thirty Days of Hunger”, the muscular joggers of Latvian Ella Kruglyanskaya in “Exit in Flip Flops and one of Celia Paul’s haunting earth-toned works. family portraits, “My grieving sisters”.
Grandmother Moses’ “Summer Party” folk art presents a happier scene, and I was happy to remember that the late-blooming artist’s real name was Anna Mary Robertson Moses. The names and work of all these painters deserve to be better known.