This past weekend the American University Art History program was thrilled to host the First Annual Feminist Art History Conference. The conference was organized in order to honor the innovative feminist scholarship of Dr. Norma Broude and Dr. Mary D. Garrard. We have been planning for this event since last summer, and it was very rewarding for everyone involved to see it come together. We had over one hundred and seventy registrants before hand, and forty four walk-ons. During the conference itself there were ten sessions. The session topics included: Antiquities, United States Artists at Home and Abroad, Renaissance/Baroque Art, 19th and Early 20th Century European Art, Women Artists in the Americas, Modernism in Germany and Russia, Gender and Sexuality, Abstract Expressionism in the Fifties, Feminist Artists and the Reception of Women’s Art, and Contemporary Artists and Issues. On Sunday the National Museum of Women in the Arts hosted a reception and celebration for Dr. Mary D. Garrard’s new book Brunelleschi’s Egg: Nature, Art and Gender in the Renaissance, which was accompanied by a lecture given by Dr. Garrard.
All of the research presented by the forty scholars was in depth and thought provoking. Some of the highlights from Friday are as follows. In the Antiquities session Dr. Anthony F. Mangieri, an Assistant Professor of Art History at Savannah College of Art and Design, presented his paper “Virgin Sacrifice and Female Agency in Ancient Greek Art.” In his paper Dr. Mangieri asks if the mythological figure of the sacrificial virgin was a symbol of the heroine that empowered women, or a misogynistic fiction used to threaten and intimidate them. Dr. Mangieri examines how the sacrificial maiden’s willingness or unwillingness informs the discourse about female agency and attitudes towards women in the ancient world. By examining mythological figures such as Iphigeneia, Polyxena, and others, Dr. Mangieri concludes that historical women found a range of different female attitudes and behaviors, with the possibility of strong women serving as examples of empowerment. In the session entitled United States Artists at Home and Abroad Dr. Melissa Dabakis, an Art History professor at Kenyon College, presented her paper “Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia in Chains: Rome and the Politics of Place.” Zenobia was a Palmyrene Queen who had been captured by the Emperor Aurelian and paraded through the streets of ancient Rome. In her sculpture, Hosmer presented Zenobia as a regal woman who walks with strength and confidence. Dr. Dabakis provides a feminist reading of the work by examining Zenobia’s reception in Rome, an environment where a community of Anglo-American women could exercise a geographical mobility and creative authority unavailable to them elsewhere. Dr. Dabakis asserts that to this progressive community Zenobia embodied an iconography of sovereign power and feminine resistance which conjoined the struggle for emancipation with utopian dreams for an egalitarian and independent nation-state of Italy. In the Renaissance and Baroque session Ginny Treanor, Ph.D. candidate in Art History at Maryland University and alumna of the AU Art History MA program, presented her dissertation research entitled, “Une abundance extra ordinaire’: The Porcelain Collection of Amalia van Solms.” In her paper Treanor explains that the role of female patronage in the arts in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century is a virtually nonexistent area of study. Treanor works to rectify this gap in the scholarship by studying the porcelain collection of Amalia van Solms, Princess of Orange. She explains that Amalia’s collection grew out of the Renaissance concept of the wunderkammer, and was meant to reflect the status of the owner. Gretchen Holtzapple Bender, another alumna of the American University M.A. program, is currently an art history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She presented her paper “Women on Top- Gender and the Landscape Encounter in C.D. Friedrich’s Views of the Chalk Cliffs” in the 19th and Early 20th Century European Art session. In her research Dr. Bender compares two vastly different works by Friedrich, Monk at Sea and Chalk Cliffs at Rugen. While Monk at Sea depicts a lonely monk on a barren coast, Chalk Cliffs portrays three travelers enjoying a sunny afternoon. Dr. Bender attributes this change in mood to Friedrich’s recent marriage to Caroline, who is depicted in the foreground to Chalk Cliffs. When a woman joined Friedrich on his wanderings, his experiences ceased to be sublime angst ridden struggles and instead became marked by a leisurely enjoyment of nature. Dr. Bender explains that in the Romantic discourse of the sublime, there are two ways of seeing. The first is characterized by a masculine ability to overcome bodily fear and intellectually appreciate the significance of the total view. The second is marked by a more “feminine” tendency to relinquish oneself to sensual experience. Dr. Bender examines how these different ways of seeing are present in Chalk Cliffs, and how Caroline may have challenged them.
Renowned art historian Anna Chave delivered the Friday evening keynote address with her talk “High Tide: Deploying Fluids in Women’s Art Practice.” In her talk Chave discussed the role menstrual imagery plays in feminist art. She explained that menstruation has long been taboo, with menstrual women being feared and subordinated. In the sixties feminist artists began to explore how the formless flow of menstruation could challenge patriarchy. Menstruation was reclaimed as an emblem of what all women share. Chave examined this idea in relation to artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Pipilotti Rist, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lynda Benglis.
Saturday’s sessions also saw a fascinating range of scholarship. Alexis L. Boylan, Associate Professor in Residence of Art History and Women’s Studies, presented her paper “The Curious Case of the Two Mrs. Sloans” in the Women Artists in the Americans session. In her paper Dr. Boylan explains that John Sloan’s well known legacy is in a large part thanks to the work done by his second wife, Helen Farr Sloan. After John Sloan’s death Helen worked with scholars to make his diaries and letters accessible and place his collection of art at the Delaware Art Museum. Dr. Boylan explains that Sloan’s first wife, Dolly, has a negative reputation as a drunk who distracted John Sloan from his career. However, Dr. Boylan points out that these accounts of Dolly can be traced back to Helen. Dr. Boylan asserts that simply demonizing Helen Sloan or further participating in the antagonisms that defined her relationship to Dolly is a fruitless and impossibly fraught task for the feminist scholar. In her paper Dr. Boylan uses the case of the two Mrs. Sloans to consider how tenacious the role of the good wife/bad wife is for art historians and what this means for thinking about memory, archives, scholarship, and feminism. The Modernism in Germany and Russia Session saw a presentation given by Natasha Kurchanova, Assistant Editor of RES- Anthropology and Aesthetics. In her paper “Vavara Stepanova: An Amazon of the Avant-Garde or Just Its Fellow-Traveler?” Kurchanova considers Stepanova’s work in relation to the production of other avant-garde artists and in the context of her relationship with Rodchenko. Kurchanova examines Stepanova’s role in the avant-garde journal LEF and compares her self-portraits with the portraits of her made by Rodchenko. Kurchanova explains that while Stepanova presented herself in a caricaturesque mode, Rodchenko portrays her as both a femme fatale and a dedicated builder of the new communist culture.
As these few examples from the conference illustrate, feminist art history is alive and well. This is in large part thanks to the collective scholarship of Dr. Broude and Dr. Garrard, whose ground breaking work has helped to define and shape the field of feminist art history. It is exciting to see that the First Annual Feminist Conference was able to provide a forum for the continuation of feminist scholarship. The 2011 conference will be on November 5th and 6th, so put it on your calendars now!