Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Constructing a Matrilineal History of Women Artists in Interwar France *

Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

Constructing a Matrilineal History of Women Artists in Interwar France *

Article excerpt

In 1987, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, a prominent art collector and wife of a wealthy publishing magnate, founded the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Many critics wondered in response whether the Museum, as a sex-segregated art institution located in the nation's capital and supported by moderate feminists and political centrists, would succeed in celebrating female artists throughout history. (1) While Holladay herself described her decision to found the Museum as a "feminist act," she added: "We're doing it for women, so the adjective is suitable. But we've tried very hard to not talk about the inequities. We've decided that putting the accent on the achievements of women, on the positive, makes a better statement." (2) Holladay's strategically centrist position caused critics to divide into a number of differing camps, with many conservatives skeptical of the Museum's marriage of art and feminist politics, whereas liberals remained suspicious of its ability to challenge the political establishment of the late 1980s and its conservative views on women. For many liberal feminists today, the Museum's exclusive focus upon the work of female artists continues to be perceived as a "ghettoization" that only reinforces the fact of their marginalization from more powerful art institutions throughout history. In addition, Holladay's institutionalization of her own preferences as a collector for painting by white, Western women of social privilege has been criticized by some as further distancing the Museum from the realities of women's diverse experiences as an heterogeneous artistic group.

Many parallels can be drawn between Holladay's role in shaping a large, American museum of art by women in the 1980s and Marie-Anne Camax-Zoegger's (1887-1952) as founder and President of a group known as the Societe des Femmes Artistes Modernes (FAM), an annual women's exhibition forum in Paris in the 1930s. Through Camax-Zoegger's perseverance, the group attracted the participation of over one hundred women artists of diverse generations, social classes, and ethnic and national origins--from Marie Laurencin to Tamara de Lempicka--yet it remains a relatively little-known chapter in the history of twentieth-century art today. The artists involved produced works that participated in a spectrum of stylistic trends associated with modernism, and depicted a variety of themes common to the period. Their exhibitions often featured works by celebrated female forerunners from the late nineteenth century, adding a historical dimension to the group's image as an annual "salon" of contemporary art produced by women. While Camax-Zoegger did not directly provide funds for commissioned work by members of the FAM or found a permanent museum for their artwork, she can be placed within the tradition of female art patronage since, like Holladay, she sought both to construct and transmit a specific history of women artists that would not alienate the political establishment of her day.

As the upper-bourgeois wife of a Parisian industrialist and devoted mother of five, it would be all too easy to reduce Camax-Zoegger to the popular mythology of the modern female patron of the arts as a genteel society woman who "lavishes her time, attention, and husband's earnings on the arts [while he] historically immerses himself in 'practical' money-making pursuits." (3) In her insightful analysis of this historical stereotype, Kathleen D. McCarthy has described how many of Camax-Zoegger's late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century American counterparts went on to become important cultural custodians who wielded increased measures of cultural responsibility and resulting power. In order to better understand Camax-Zoegger's complicated relationship to this model of female patronage, we must ask specific questions regarding the role of her elevated social class and resulting attitudes about gender-identity in both her personal and professional life. …

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