Women's art in Paris: elles@centrepompidou

Susan Gilbert takes us on a tour of the Pompidou Centre's groundbreaking rehanging of its collection to showcase the last 100 years of art through work by women

Sue Gilbert, 17 December 2009

elles@centrepompideu.jpgA minor feminist art revolution took place in Paris in 2009. The Pompidou Centre, which houses the French National Museum of Modern Art, has re-hung its collection of modern and contemporary art with an emphasis on women artists. It is not just another exhibition of women's art, but a re-thinking of the way that work by women artists has up to now been exhibited in major museums. It is also an attempt to show the development of modern art through the female perspective and to ask the question, does this parallel development take the same direction as the progress of art as a whole?

When will the Tate in Britain attempt such a novel idea? It is interesting to speculate that it never will, being too obsessed with bogus theories on political correctness to actually risk appearing to be deliberately unfair to a particular group - especially men. Or more likely, the Tate haven't collected enough work by women to fill a single floor of Tate Modern.

At the moment the Pompidou Centre devotes the whole of one floor and part of another to work by women artists, all taken from their established collection. The museum owns art by more than 400 women and has only the space, even in such a large gallery, to display the work of half of these. However a total of 8,000 square metres have been devoted to showing some of the most inspiring and in-your face work created by women artists over the past 100 years.

This is an international exhibition. From French painter Suzanne Valadon and the Russian artist and designer Natalia Goncharova, through the abstractions of Portuguese Vieira da Silva and the surrealism of the US' Dorothea Tanning, to Austrian Valie Export's performance art and Lebanese Mona Hatoum's video installation, they are all here and for once are being exhibited as the precedent over their male contemporaries.

It seems significant that this has happened in Paris, which until the 1940s was the undisputed Western capital of art. From around 1860, women artists and writers from everywhere in Europe and North America began migrating to Paris, seeking freedom from censorship and domestic drudgery. In the meantime, local blood was also on the rise, with several women including Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzales and Mary Cassatt actively involved as painters in the Impressionist group. By the 1920s, hundreds of creative women were active in the French capital and this has increased to thousands. Paris still means Art with a capital A to most people, despite the rise of the New York art world and the YBA's in London.

Meret Oppenheim, whilst sympathetic to the broad reach of feminism, refused in her lifetime to actively participate in any all-women shows

The work on display in elles@centrepompidou shows how far women's art has progressed since the Impressionists. You will not find many pretty pictures by well brought up lady painters. You will find quantities of challenging and extraordinary art by brave and innovative artists. There are prints and drawings, installations and videos, sculpture, graphics, design, photography and painting. elles@centrepompidou succeeds in the museum's intention. It has the overall effect of a total representation of modern art, regardless of the sex of the artist and, most importantly, the show illustrates how modern art, regardless of gender, has evolved. This is achieved every bit as well as if men's work had been included.

To enter elles@centrepompidou you need to take the external escalator to level four, but don't be disappointed, you aren't missing part of the exhibition. Level one houses the huge entrance concourse with its café and workshops, other levels house cinemas, libraries and research facilities as well as smaller exhibition spaces. elles@centrepompidou is on levels four and five. On entering the main exhibition area, you are greeted by the astounding figure of a bride, fossilised with wire mesh and whitewash, by Niki de Saint Phalle. Next to her, pinned to the wall is Crucifixion, by the same artist, consisting of a bloated female figure made in patchwork. Her arms have been torn off and her pubic hair is exposed, yet her chest is covered in tiny flowers, as if to say, "That's all right, cherié". These comments on the state of many women's lives date from the 1960s and 70's, yet still feel valid.

Opposite is a wall of Agnes Thurnauer's Life-size Portraits, giant buttons with gender-swapping puns on 12 famous artists. Andy Warhol becomes Annie Warhol and Francis Bacon is Francine. It is disappointing to see that while the name of Marcel/Marcelle Duchamp appears in this exhibit of women artists, his real life artist sister, Suzanne Duchamp, remains in the museum's archive. There is also her older brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, who is represented upstairs on the fifth floor by his admittedly marvellous cubist bronze of a horse. The Pompidou centre gives and takes away with the same hand.

Nearby is Rachel Whiteread's monolithic Room 101, a cast of negative space and of, quite literally, the room at the BBC where George Orwell wrote 1984, his dystopian novel. Though perhaps unintended by Whiteread, her cast can also be read as a comment on the condition of women living tiny, impoverished lives trapped in claustrophobic environments.

Mona Hartoum's Corps Etranger, intended as comment on our surveillance society, can also be interpreted as a feminist statement about the lack of personal privacy that women's bodies are accorded. The Gorilla Girls are present, in giant poster form, as are Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneemann with photographs and videos of their performance pieces. There is plenty of other strongly feminist work.

Not all the work is intentionally political. Frida Kahlo's The Frame, painted on aluminium and glass, is the least political of her self portraits and is almost pretty, while Agnes Martin's minimalist grids are concerned purely with tiny abstract effects on the drawn surface. Some of the artists regard gender as unimportant to their creativity, believing that it is the art itself that makes its own statement. Surrealist Meret Oppenheim, whilst sympathetic to the broad reach of feminism, refused in her lifetime to actively participate in any all-women shows.

Dorothea Tanning, now aged 99, has also been known to say no to all-women shows, nonetheless her installation piece Room 202, Hotel du Pavot, is included. Nobody can enter Whiteread's Room 101, but no-one would want to enter Tanning's Room 202. Nightmarish, tweed encased figures are stretched and distorted as they morph in and out of the walls and furniture.

The Surrealist movement may have liked women and to some extent encouraged their work, but their creativity was romanticised, women were never admitted as equals to the intellectual centre of the group

Further down the central corridor is Reflexions of a Waterfall, one of Louise Nevelson's imposing black walls, by an artist who sacrificed home and family to pursue her career, yet also regarded her gender as irrelevant to her work.

In themed rooms with labels like 'Fire At Will' and 'Genital Panic', artists address issues of violence or defiantly depict their own genitalia or the graphic fuck. There is as much that is as unexpectedly shocking as you could expect from a cutting edge exhibition. Notable jolts to the system come from two video pieces: Ana Mendieta's deceptively simple Body Tracks(Blood Signs #2) and Sigalit Landau's Barbed Hula, which is literally a film of a naked torso performing with a hula hoop of barbed wire.

On level five you will find several rooms devoted to the women pioneers of modern art. Here are Sonia Delaunay and Natalia Goncharova, front-runners in Russian abstraction, and Hannah Höch from Berlin Dada. Frida Kahlo, painting from 1928, was later adopted by the Surrealists, while Dora Maar shot some of Surrealism's weirdest photographs. Suzanne Valadon and Marie Laurencin took only what they liked from their contemporary movements of Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism, and created their own strong images of singular women. Each of these artists deserves their own exhibition to show exactly how, working alongside men, they contributed to the relevant movements.

Upstairs on level six, a much smaller exhibition of Surrealist photography sadly brings the gallery visitor back to the reality of women's position in art for most of the 20th century. Whilst amazing photos by Claude Cahun, Dora Maar and Lee Miller wave a female flag, too many of the other photographs push woman back to being the submissive muse and sex object. The Surrealist movement may have liked women and to some extent encouraged their work, but their creativity was romanticised, women were never admitted as equals to the intellectual centre of the group.

So, on the periphery, real artists struggled to achieve the recognition of their male counterparts.

The major feminist pieces are the highlights of elles@centrepompidou. I described this as a minor feminist art revolution for a reason. The collection is routinely rearranged and will next be re-hung in May 2010. There might not be the same predominance of women's work after that date. This could be the only chance to see women who are so well hung!

Photo by Pedro Layant, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

About the author

Sue Gilbert

Susan Gilbert is an author and playwright. She is currently working on a book about the Exhibition of 31 Women which, in 1943, was the first devoted to the women artists of the avant-garde. It included Louise Nevelson, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning and Vieira da Silva, whose work can be seen in elles@centrepompidou. The 31 Women exhibition also included The Dada Baroness, performance artist extraordinaire, whose work has never been exhibited in France, though she is buried nearby in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. A pilot of Susan's play about the Dada Baroness was produced at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds in October 09

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