Though it focuses on the eighteenth century, there could hardly be a timelier exhibit than Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment, which opened at UNC's Ackland Art Museum last week and remains on view until April 8 after this week's Second Friday reception.
Right now, we're in more of an "emperor wears no clothes" age than one of enlightenment, but gender—the feminine in particular—is being dissected more forcefully than ever. Visitors to the exhibit will surely take this climate into consideration when viewing exquisite works from the acclaimed Horvitz Collection of eighteenth-century French art. Curated by Melissa Hyde and the late Mary Sheriff, Becoming a Woman debuted in October at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida. The close relationship between Carol and Jeffrey Horvitz and the Ackland enabled these works to travel to Chapel Hill. Some of them are very fragile, including pastels and other rare works.
Organized by informative, if kitschy, themes ("What's Love Got to Do with It," "Married with Children"), the exhibit is neatly laid out in the museum's cozy corridors. From paintings of children and domestic life to women's professions and fashionable dress, the conversation between these works and our culture is a reminder that we're not so different now from how we were back then. At the entrance, Antoine Vestier's oil painting "Allegory of the Arts" (1788) is an interesting marker of changing times. It's a lovely portrait of the artist's daughter sitting at a desk and drawing a sculpture. She is an active subject, not a passive object, and scholars believe that she even painted her own drawing in the work.
Most of the works on view are by well-known male artists such as Boucher and Fragonard. But several female artists are also represented. Though their talent is on par with that of their male counterparts, they were relegated to the gentle medium of pastel instead of oils.
As digestible as the curation of Becoming a Woman is, the exhibit portrays the Enlightenment as a tumultuous time as seen through the complex and varied roles of women. It was the time of the French Revolution, the repositioning of faith, and scientific discoveries. As Immanuel Kant summed it up, "Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!"
Some works shed light on the niceties of women's domestic life, but several show the duplicitous demands placed on women: to be a saint, but also an embodiment of sexual desire; to be in a profession, but only a socially acceptable one; to be both strong and weak.
One work in particular depicts both praise and admonition. In "Les Adieux, from Le Monument du Costume," by Jean-Michel Moreau, an upper-class woman is so ornately dressed she can't fit in the door her husband is leading her through. She glances back toward her lover, who holds her other hand. She's both proper and improper, ridiculous in her dress and highly fashionable.
The exhibit also includes quite a few studies that show the artist's process, potentially revealing more than the edited final portrait. One such work is Fragonard's "Standing Young Woman Seen from Behind." Once again emphasizing the fashions of the day, the woman's dress is carefully rendered, but her face is a blur.
The last room of the exhibit is quite possibly the best. Entitled "Private Pleasures," it contains a series of intricately wrought pornographic drawings. They embody a frivolity and humor not nearly as prominent elsewhere. While these tiny drawings offer a glimpse into eighteenth-century sexual taste and visual culture, they almost leave the viewer with a cliffhanger. For whom were they made, and were they sold alone or in a series, with or without an erotic text? Speculation abounds, but the patron was likely a male libertine involved in French Revolutionary politics, who possibly used the works as political propaganda during the late-eighteenth century, before the death of Marie Antoinette.
It was a time when propaganda often came in the form of literature and artworks, not in a tweet, but the modern familiarity is bracing. Perhaps it's best that these explicit drawings are in the final room of the exhibit, jarring your senses before you depart from the museum with a sense of connectedness over several generations of culture.
NCMA HIGHLIGHTS FEMALE ARTISTS IN MUSEUM-WIDE MATRONS OF THE ARTS INITIATIVE
According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the stats are abysmal: while about half of today's visual artists are women, they earn eighty-one cents for every dollar earned by male artists, and their work makes up a shocking 3 to 5 percent of major collections in the U.S. and Europe. This imbalance and the NMWA's "Can You Name Five Women Artists?" social media campaign form the backdrop of Matrons of the Arts, a new initiative at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Consisting of programs, exhibits, and acquisitions, the campaign seeks to unbury the global contributions of female artists across history. To the works by women already in its collection—Georgia O'Keeffe, Mickalene Thomas, Louise Bourgeois, and others—NCMA recently added an 1853 bust of Daphne by Harriet Hosmer, America's first female professional sculptor. Special programming began on Jan. 28 with a lecture by Bridget Quinn, author of Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order).
To NCMA, "A matron is no longer a passive bystander but a fierce and powerful force," curator Jennifer Dasal said in a press release. "By working together to make women a priority—and to get both women and men excited to do so—we can really bring about wonderful institutional change." Visit www.ncartmuseum.org/matrons-of-the-arts to learn more. —Brian Howe