Catalog review: Independent Spirits (Autry, 1995)

Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, “4-B” (1937)

The full title of this exhibition is “Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945.” This was the first exhibition to look at women artists in the American West during this time period, at the end of a time where the West was considered the Last Frontier. In addition to actually identifying and displaying works by these oft-neglected artists, the exhibition’s larger goal was to look at “the shifting mechanisms of privilege and exclusion, as women evolved from amateurs to professionals, from the Victorian ideology of ‘separate spheres’  to a more integrated participation in the arts” (ix). The catalog (and presumably the exhibition) looked at women artists in multiple states/areas in the West: California (there were actually 3 essays on this state alone, taking into account Northern, Southern, and Modernism), the greater Northwest, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains. Women still had a lot of issues to deal with at this time, such as the over-bearing nature of a patriarchal society and the general marginalization of the American West as peripheral to the East Coast centers, but amazingly, women had more opportunities for independence– both artistically and socially– in the West than their Eastern counterparts did. This was because the West was not as rooted in European gender traditions that were more prevalent in the East (although, arguably, the East Coast was not as bad as Europe in this regard). I cannot even begin to describe how much I wish I could have seen this show, but unfortunately, I was 9 years old when it came out. Thank god for catalogs. For my research purposes, I have so far only read 3 of the 9 essays in depth: “The Adventuresome, the Eccentrics, and the Dreamers: Women Modernists of Southern California” by Ilene Susan Fort; “Inner Voices, Outward Forms: Women Painters in New Mexico” by Sandra d’Emilio and Sharyn Udall;  and “‘I must paint’: Women Artists of the Rocky Mountain Region” by Erika Doss. 

Helen Lundeberg, “Microcosm and Macrocosm” (1937)

I noticed some common themes amongst the essays I read: there was still a degree of anti-feminization sentiment, which men worried would destroy the so-called moral fabric of society, but this fear was not nearly as bad in the West compared to the East; women artists did encounter some gender discrimination when it came to exhibiting, so many signed only with their initials; the right to vote did not take as long to pass in the West, thus demonstrating the overall greater independence women were granted; many women painters (though not all) came from relatively affluent families and/or married someone who could support them, though these marriages were not always traditional, and that financial security meant that they did not have to worry about pleasing others with their art to make money. The above generalizations are not always true, I simply noticed their mentioning quite a bit.

The main reason I read Fort’s essay was because it appears to have been the only one that looked at women and Surrealism in the American West; I was also already somewhat familiar with Fort’s work from the “In Wonderland” exhibition catalog. Southern California has always been– unsurprisingly– very liberal and eccentric. Artists in particular were very open-minded to ideas from metaphysics and psychology due to the popularity of the Theosophy and New Thought movements (women were believed to have been experiencing an “increasing psychism” in the early part of the 20th century), thus Surrealism was fairly readily adopted. It allowed women painters an alternative method to rebel against societal expectations and aided in fostering self-awareness. However, this Surrealism is referred to more as Post-Surrealism. Helen Lundeberg and her husband, Lorser Feitelson, published the brochure New Classicism, which became the first and only American Surrealist manifesto. The emphasis in this new Surrealism was not the unconscious and accident that was so heavily emphasized in Breton’s manifestoes, but rather on a re-ordered reality and the subjective in terms of introspection and contemplation. However, some women artists who painted in this manner refused to acknowledge themselves as Surrealists due to the term’s misogynistic implications.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Red Hills with Pedernal” (1936)

D’Emilio and Udall’s essay talked a lot about the awareness of multiculturalism and the landscape in New Mexico. There was a fascination and respect for the Hispanic and Native American population, the latter of whom were a source of inspiration for many artists due to their connection with nature (I personally question this romanticized, somewhat colonialist view, but whatever). New Mexico was so far removed from major centers that women were more or less free from the fear of “feminization,” and it was seen as a place of healing, with many people with respiratory ailments came to the state. This healing was seen to embody a feminine quality for some artists. Georgia O’Keeffe was invited to the state by poet Mabel Dodge Luhan, who invited many to come  to witness the indigenous connection with the land as well as partake in the state’s therapeutic qualities for her own health, and O’Keeffe was so inspired by the landscape that it permanently transformed her work and turned New Mexico into more of an artistic center. The landscape almost always played a role in the work of New Mexican artists, though it transformed over time due to changing views on traditionalism vs. Modernism.

Doss’s essay focused largely on Utah and Colorado (fun fact: she used to be a professor at my school, and I got to meet her last semester during my Visiting Scholars Seminar. I can tell you that her work has changed A LOT since 1995). Utah and Colorado– specifically Denver– represent two poles at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum: in Utah, a lot of work was heavily theological and family-oriented due to the influence of Mormonism, whereas in Colorado, women were seen as a “civilizing force,” creating many cultural centers in Denver, and there was somewhat less apprehension to experiment with Modernism. However, as in many other places in the US at this time, there was a lot of debate about Modernism vs. traditionalism, and Denver had its own heated battle in 1948 (though that is a completely different tangent). Doss’s main emphasis was that we must have a GENDERED view of history in order to get the complete picture. There is a very ideal and masculine perception of how the West was won, but this view is incomplete. We must remember that women played significant contributory roles.

To me, this exhibition demonstrates the place that art held for women as a vehicle for self-expression and independence, thus I consider these artists predecessors to the feminists of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The catalog was nicely put together, though I have to admit that the essays grew to be rather repetitive after a while, demonstrating that they were clearly written independently of one another before being assembled into the catalog.

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