Representation for Women: In the Gallery and at the Voting Booth
By: CMA’s Interpretation Department
American women were guaranteed the right to vote after World War I had ended, after the Cleveland Museum of Art had opened, and after Susan B. Anthony had died without seeing her life’s work come to success. This year’s centennial of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution is worthy of celebration — if it is tempered with the recognition of how long it took to achieve and how elusive a full equality remains.
On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to approve the guarantee that women could vote anywhere in the US. A century later, issues of representation and equality persist in many areas of American society, from the workplace to political leadership to the art world. Works by white male artists dominate the holdings of major institutions, including the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Two years ago, the CMA announced its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan that pledged to address this imbalance by collecting and highlighting works by women artists. Since then, the CMA has hosted many exhibitions featuring women artists: Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors; Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern; Dara Birnbaum: Technology/Transformation; In Her Image: Photographs by Rania Matar; Ilse Bing: Queen of the Leica; and Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea.
The CMA is actively collecting artworks by women artists in all areas of its encyclopedic collection and now has more than 4,100 such works, easily searchable in the museum’s Collection Online.
One of the most notable is Indian Combat, an 1868 marble sculpture by Edmonia Lewis. An African American and Ojibwe woman, Lewis studied at Oberlin College in 1862 before moving to Boston and then making sculpture in Rome to escape the inequalities of American society. As the first female American artist of color to receive international renown, Lewis is such a monumental figure that Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Tyehimba Jess composed a poem about Indian Combat for a recent CMA celebration of artistic diversity.
Indian Combat Edmonia Lewis, Marble, 1868
By: Tyehimba Jess
We three warriors
were called forth
to be, forever, enemies.
Stolen from marble,
pressed into slaughter,
we never weary. We
seek no asylum except
the perpetual hatchet,
the eternal blade,
the never-ending arrow,
our fists that swallow
our senses till we’ve carved
ourselves into memorials
for causes long forgotten.
Our fight was forged
by a free brown woman’s
brunt, her design for
all our fates entwined
like fingers laced in prayer
for victory, then mercy,
then dug into the Earth
to resurrect our embattled
lives lived just as her own:
pounded into memory
with mettle on stone.
Last year the CMA acquired Bing’s Self-Portrait with Mirrors, a print now featured in the exhibition about the groundbreaking photographer. The 1931 image was made when Bing set up two mirrors that simultaneously provided profile and frontal views of her face. The exhibition with this riveting image is on view through October 10.
Exhibitions with a wider theme still include important works by women artists. A Graphic Revolution: Prints and Drawings in Latin America, on view through November 29, features a print by Argentinian artist Liliana Porter. Man (To Be Embroidered), acquired last year, reflects Porter’s play with an image by adding three-dimensional decoration to printed silhouettes. The embroidery seen on this piece had domestic, feminine associations that counter the masculine form, which Porter associated with alienation.
In the museum’s contemporary galleries, you can see another 2019 acquisition: Jenny Holzer’s sculpture Laments: Death came and he looked like . . . . Part of Holzer’s response to the AIDS epidemic, the sculpture pairs text that flows through an LED display on the wall with a marble sarcophagus on the floor engraved with the same text. The CMA acquired its first Holzer work in 1995 and now has five of her art objects in its collection.
A few feet away from Holzer’s sculpture stands Las Meninas by African American artist Simone Leigh. This 2019 sculpture presents an abstracted image of womanhood. “As I work, I imagine a kind of experience, a state of being, rather than one person,” Leigh says. The bare-chested figure stands proudly with hands on her hips, porcelain flowers ringing a space where her face should be. The sculpture’s expansive skirt references not only the Spanish princess’s gown in the Diego Velázquez painting it’s named for, but also the cone-shaped Mousgoum buildings in Cameroon and raffia costumes worn by practitioners of the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé.
In 1974 the museum acquired Sky Cathedral-Moon Garden Wall by Louise Nevelson, who assembled massive sculptures from wood fragments she found discarded on the streets of New York. In this piece, you can see the remnants of round staircase posts, wall paneling, and bits of decorative molding. She painted her assemblages in a single color to highlight the interplay of light and shadow on their surfaces.
Koike Shōko’s Vessel takes its inspiration from the sea. This lidded stoneware vessel, glazed in white, evokes the spiral swirl of a conch shell; its rough, ruffled ridges convey a sense of movement and energy. One of the first women to graduate from the prestigious Ceramics Department of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Shōko is well known in Japan and has works in museum collections all over the world.
On view in gallery 225, Future (Woman in Stockholm) by Gabriele Münter uses bright yellows, pinks, and blues to emphasize the happy, contented expression on the woman’s face. Münter attended the progressive Phalanx School in Munich. She became involved in the avant-garde art scene and helped create Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group that believed in the spiritual power of color.
These are a few of the artworks in the CMA collection created by female artists. Who is your favorite? Is there an artwork that really resonates with you? Please visit our Collection Online or our ArtLens tour to see more and add your thoughts to the comment box.