“Women” was a common theme to all the exhibits. There was “Joan of Arc: Highlights from the Permanent Collection”; “Carrie Schneider: Reading Women”; “Page Turners: Women and Letters,” and “Bijinga: Picturing Women in Japanese Prints.”
Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the reconstruction of the nearby Joan of Arc chapel, the museum pulled out four interesting pieces from its collection. There was a beautiful alabaster bust and a medieval-styled tapestry, both showing the “Maid of Orleans” as a shepherdess. The evening sunset light had a fascinating effect on the bust, as the expression changed if it was in shadow, or if the full sun was falling on it. The saint’s warrior phase was represented by a silver reproduction of a statue by princess Marie de France which shows Joan of Arc in armor, praying; and a study for a cathedral fresco, which shows a close-up of a formidable laurel-crowned saint scrutinizing her viewers.
“Reading Women,” by Carrie Schneider, has an interesting premise. The exhibition is a collection of poster-sized photographs depicting women reading works by women. In addition to the photographs, there is a four-hour long video installation of close-ups of the readers, which includes one hundred subjects. While there is a variety of women and settings in the photos, I was struck by an undercurrent of sameness in the poses. The majority of the women depicted are young. They mostly have a cozy-looking spot to sit or recline, most often by natural light. They all have serene expressions of contemplative concentration. Most all of them are reading serious literature, non-fiction or biography: in the collection of a hundred books, one is an Agatha Christie; there’s one Austen and one Bronte; after that the lightest work might be Zora Neale Hurston’s folklore collection. We didn’t have four hours to spend watching the video, but I would be surprised if any of the readers were depicted smiling or laughing.
It was interesting how this dovetailed with the “Page Turners” collection, which deals with written works about women reading, women’s education, and women’s rights. Through the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries, women readers were depicted as thoughtful and serious, the same slant as given by Ms. Schneider’s works. Of course, the women of earlier centuries were expected to be reading mostly prayer books. In the 19th century, we see more intellectual ferment, as both leisure reading in the form of novels for women, and books, articles, and broadsides for and against women’s education and rights began to appear. These texts are also represented in the collection, with illustrations reflective of the respective publishers’ often unflattering opinions on the subject.
Upstairs, there was a very interesting collection of Japanese woodblock prints. Although coming from a number of different genres, they all fall into the class of “bijin”, or “beautiful woman” pictures. Some were illustrations from classic stories, some were essentially advertisements for courtesans, some records of life in the kabuki and noh theaters (in which the beautiful women are actually men), and everyday life. Usual suspects like Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro are represented along with other less-known artists. This was a particularly beautiful collection, with the artists’ meticulous depictions of fabrics as they fold and fall being just amazing.
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