NOVEMBER 23, 2016
WOMEN ARTISTS have long been underrepresented in art exhibits in Southern California. This is not due to a paucity of talent, as Emerging From the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960 amply displays. In this four-volume compendium, Maurine St. Gaudens offers a massive resource on 320 women artists based in California, many of whom would otherwise remain forgotten. The volumes describe the lives and careers of women artists who worked in California for a minimum of 15 years. Media covered include painting, sculpture, drawing, illustration, and printmaking, and styles range from realism to modernism.
The artists are presented alphabetically, while the text includes biographical material and discussions of technique and creative influences. Some of the artists were during their lives (and continue to be) well known, including Mabel Alvarez, Helen Lundeberg, Anna Hills, Elsie Palmer Payne, Agnes Pelton, Donna Schuster, Henrietta Shore, Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel, June Wayne, and Julia Bracken Wendt. These figures — who went far beyond the Sunday-painter model that many women followed — were dedicated professionals who studied art, exhibited their work widely (often in illustrious institutions), and won many awards. Their work was technically proficient and often included socially relevant themes. Yet many of them felt compelled to disguise their gender, signing their work merely with initials or with masculine-sounding names, in deference to the norms and expectations of a patriarchal art establishment. Sometimes, when they arrived to collect awards bestowed on them, audiences were surprised to discover that they were not men.
One exception to this chauvinistic trend was the support for female professionals provided by the Hollywood studios, especially Disney. During the 1930s and after, many women were hired to do set design and animation, making Los Angeles a bustling hub for working artists. This milieu nurtured the work of figures like Mary Blair (designer of the “It’s a Small World” ride for Disneyland) and Dorothy Sklar, who spent their free time creating art in the genre known as California Scene Painting. Most of these women, as St. Gaudens outlines in her introductory essay, led adventurous lives, “some in terms of their work, some in terms of their fearlessness in the way they lived, and some in terms of their ability to convey their emotions in their art.”
St. Gaudens is a fine-art conservator, consultant, historian, and curator. Over many decades of work, she discovered numerous finely crafted paintings and sculptural pieces created by female artists, most of whom were unknown except by relatives and admirers. St. Gaudens began seriously writing this monumental study in 2010, gleaning material from old newspaper clippings, academic brochures, and ancestry records, and working with a photographer to capture the 2,000 color images. The result is an inspiring series of profiles of dedicated and disciplined creative talents, struggling to excel in what St. Gaudens calls “the fiercely male art establishment.”
A few examples will have to suffice to convey the richness of this survey. Two artists working in the branch of American Scene Painting, generally known as Social Realism and sometimes referred to as Urban Realism, were Claire Mahl Moore and Ruth Miller Kempster. Moore (c. 1912–1988) was born in New York City to a socialist father who believed in women’s rights. She studied with Thomas Hart Benton and produced art for New Deal programs. Her gouache drawing The Strike (1937) depicts two distraught-looking men with sharply drawn features; while primarily representational, it also displays abstract elements of early modernism. Moore’s work can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and other major institutions. Kempster (1904–1978) painted the finely detailed oil, Struggle (1931–’32), which features two wrestlers, one black and one white. Evoking the murals of Thomas Hart Benton, St. Gaudens explains that this painting offers a potent comment on race relations in its simple depiction of a wrestling match. Kempster submitted this painting to the Olympic Art Competition of the 1932 Summer Olympic Games and was awarded the silver medal.
Helen Lundeberg (1908–1999), also profiled in the book, published the manifesto New Classicism with her husband and fellow artist Lorser Feitelson in 1934. Also called “Subjective Classicism,” their style emphasized orderliness, introspection, and classical illustration, with elements of surrealism. Some critics referred to this style as post-surrealism. Lundeberg’s Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1935) features a two-year-old child with a long slender shadow emerging behind her, representing the adult artist.
Other artists associated with the New Classicism movement were Dorr Bothwell and Grace Clements. Bothwell (1902–2000), who was born in San Francisco, had a long, prolific career. A world traveler, she was part of the post-surrealist circle of painters who drew inspiration from this international movement. Her award-winning Form and Ideas (1947), featuring symbolic shapes evocative of Joan Miró’s paintings, was included in the Art Institute of Chicago’s 1949 exhibition, “Abstract and Surrealist American Art.” Clements (1905–1969), in addition to her involvement with post-surrealism, embraced leftist politics and socially conscious art. While creating murals and mosaics for Los Angeles County buildings under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, she worked on her own paintings, often employing odd juxtapositions of objects and shapes. Her oils, lithographs, murals, and mosaics were shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art (today, LACMA) and at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The last artist cited in this anthology is Paula Zen, whose Portrait of Gladys, painted circa 1938, also has surrealist elements. St. Gaudens owns this painting, which was exhibited at the 19th Annual Painting and Sculpture Exhibit in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park in 1938. She writes:
The provenance behind Portrait of Gladys and the artist who created it is a mystery […] Gladys possesses elements of the surrealists. Symbolically, she holds a book usually associated with learning and intelligence […] The tall black hat, which in folklore represents authority and power and is frequently associated with witches, is a bold statement.
These four volumes cover numerous artists as elusive and alluring as Zen.
Emerging From the Shadows brings to the fore creative souls who have slipped through the art-historical cracks, alongside others who were famous during their lifetimes but have since fallen into obscurity. While this set of books is an essential step in the recasting of California’s art history, its larger importance lies in its recognition of the crucial roles women played in the state’s cultural evolution. As California’s population exploded from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, its visual arts movements reflected this dynamic change. The state’s artists, including many women, developed their own schools of painting, particularly California Impressionism, which employed techniques developed by their European counterparts. Others began working in California Scene Painting, a stylized form of American Scene Painting.
Several women artists featured in these volumes were also instrumental in infusing modernist influences into California art. As founding members of the 1916 Los Angeles Modern Art Society, Meta Cressey (1882–1964), Helena Dunlap (1876–1955), and Henrietta Shore (1880–1963) provided exhibition space for unacknowledged experimental artists. After this short-lived but influential group disbanded, these three women (along with a few men) helped form the California Progressive Group in 1919, an alliance created in response to European modern art influences. Emerging from the Shadows valuably traces these — and many other — lines of connection that show how essential women artists were in the creation of the modern art scene in California.