In the Book of Judith, the titular Jewish widow seduces and then beheads an Assyrian general in order to prevent him from destroying the city of Bethulia, where she lives. This harrowing decapitation was a popular subject during the Renaissance and Baroque periods among women artists in particular, who often depicted Judith alongside her faithful maid Abra as pillars of sisterhood and strength. Today, Judith’s resistance continues to be a potent symbol of female empowerment.
Painted versions of the tale by Lavinia Fontana, Fede Galizia, and Artemisia Gentileschi greet visitors as they enter Women Masters at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, an exhibition focused on female artists from the 16th to early-20th centuries and curated by Rocío de la Villa. Foregrounding three distinct renditions of Judith’s bloody, defiant act suggests that the exhibition will contest and even violently break with outmoded traditions in art history — namely, its domination by male creators and subjects. The show certainly achieves this goal, and it’s still a relatively rare treat to see an exhibition of this scale purely feature the work of women artists.
However, despite the apparent breadth of the show’s premise and its failure to signal an emphasis on Western Europe, its curatorial lens feels surprisingly narrow, focusing on countries and media that are strangely close to another survey exhibition of women artists from nearly half a century ago: Women Artists: 1550-1950, which toured the United States between 1976 and 1977. In their catalogue essays, both de la Villa and independent curator Haizea Barcenilla cite the show as a flawed but pivotal turning point for the modern legitimization of women’s place in art history and institutions. The exhibition retold the story of Western art through its overlooked female creators and made waves as the first of its kind, but one criticism that remains pertinent is its lack of diversity.
Much has changed in the decades since it was presented, but curiously, the exhibition staged by de la Villa is strikingly similar to its predecessor. Women Artists and Women Masters share overlaps in timelines, several featured artists, and geographic reach. The 1976 show included 83 artists from 12 countries, and Women Masters features 74 artists from 13 countries. In both cases, all participating artists are from Europe, Russia, or the United States. The sole exception is Frida Kahlo, who appears in both exhibitions as the solitary Mexican artist and person of color. After so many works by Europeans (plus six artists from the US), Kahlo’s 1942 painting “Niña Tehuacana, Lucha María” hanging at the exit of the exhibition feels cursory, and oddly out of place.
What does it mean to put on a show like this in 2024? Does Women Masters take the events of the past 50 years into account, or does it simply reprise Women Artists? As in the 1970s, there is still plenty of need to spotlight and celebrate women artists, including those who are finally appearing more frequently in places of power. But, as Barcenilla notes in her text, museums have great authority in shaping narratives about art’s history, scope, and value. Why does the curator focus on these places, people, and events? Certain parts of Europe and modes of making clearly take precedence; for example, nearly 20% of the artists in Women Masters are French, and paintings make up around 80% of the display. Choices have been made, even if not explicitly, and a lack of definition can perpetuate the kind of exclusion and erasure that such an exhibition aims to resist. This is particularly problematic in a survey show of this magnitude, which seeks to rewrite the canon as we know it.
Of course, there are positive points in the show. Recognized figures like Clara Peeters, Rosa Bonheur, and Mary Cassatt are joined by lesser-known names including Emy Roeder, Victoria Malinowska, and Jacqueline Marval. It was a delight to discover these artists, among many others, and de la Villa’s cross-European view allows us to witness fascinating shifts in style between bordering countries. Berthe Morisot’s luminous “The Cherry Tree” and Eloísa Garnelo’s more circumspect “Montilla Grape Harvesters” are both large-scale canvases from 1891 depicting a pair of women collecting fruit in baskets. But Morisot’s free-flowing, vivid strokes contrast sharply with Garnelo’s dark palette and carefully rendered details. The two pieces seem to show artists in the neighboring countries going in opposite directions: Morisot toward the lightness and speed of Impressionism, and Garnelo toward the solidity of academic realism.
Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./VEGAP)
Men rarely appear as subjects in the exhibition, unless as children or in the severed head of Holofernes. Meanwhile, women are shown in a uniquely sympathetic view, as mothers, friends, workers, and heroes. My own ambivalence when touring Women Masters aside, it is worth noting that I have never experienced such a large and engaged crowd at an exhibition. During my Tuesday afternoon visit, there was a convivial, boisterous atmosphere as large groups of women in their 60s and older crowded excitedly around every artwork. For these Spanish women — many of whom had presumably experienced significant parts of their lives during Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 — this exhibition not only resonated; it mattered very much.
Women Masters continues at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza (Paseo del Prado, 8, Madrid, Spain) through February 4. The exhibition was curated by Rocío de la Villa and organized in collaboration with the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck in Remagen, Germany, where it will be on view from February 25 to June 16.