“Museum fatigue” needs no introduction to art fans like me.
When visiting popular venues like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) or the Tate in Britain, I’ve come to rely on food breaks and a rescue glass of Sauvignon Blanc to bolster my excitement and stamina. But physical fatigue is hardly the problem. On-demand entertainment and rising admission prices compete for our attention and dollars. Around the world, “culture-hungry” museum crowds are on the decline by as much as 20 percent. Thankfully, museum hacking is challenging old school visits, as I discovered on a fun, female-centered approach to understanding art.
My longtime gal-pal Lisa recently bought tickets to a Friday night Badass Women at the Met Tour. The slogan of the tour company Museum Hack, “sassy, insider stories about art and artists” , seemed like the perfect antidote to museum fatigue. The tour focused on women as subjects and creators in the art world at a time when American news feeds continue to explode with shocking exposes of sexual abuse scandals. This kind of morale booster is needed more than ever, especially since I’ve been coasting on Wonder Woman movie fumes for a while now.
Gender Power and Feminism
Meeting in the grand rotunda, our guide Sara extended warm and witty hellos to our small group of six women. She oozed sassiness, likely aided by her acting pursuits. Zipping through busy crowds, we immediately traveled to the 4th century B.C. As our tribe gathered around a marble fertility sculpture honoring our gender’s power to give life, we considered the word feminism. All sanctioned its primary feature – women entitled to the same rights as men.
Without going ape, Sara set up the unconventional modus operandi for the 90-minute tour. She explained how the Gorilla Girls first drew attention to the deplorable number of female artists whose works are absent in museums like the Met. If you’ve not heard of the Gorilla Girls, they are a group of “feminist activist artists” anonymously exposing gender and ethnic bias around the art world. Formed in 1985, they are artists, business women and thinkers from all walks of life that lend a riotous voice around the world to advocate equal representation.
Case in point at the Met: Sara stated only five percent of the Met’s art collection was produced by women. This is a meager 475 works in the modern wing and 32 pieces in the remaining exhibit halls. Of 5,000 art works in the Met, the naked truth gets better; 85% of the women depicted in any of the art pieces are nude.
Nothing like creating a good fire in our bellies! Using a very creative and interactive style, Sara guided us through five art halls detailing historical backstories to pieces and unusual gender-driven facts. Along the way, she kept us engaged with timed tasks for our eager minds to perform. After each, we shared our findings with great enjoyment.
Women as Subjects of Art
When we visited a few exhibits in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods, Sara asked us to consider what the women subjects in some of paintings might be thinking. This became a game of snapping photos and thinking beyond one’s immediate reaction to consider the social constraints and subjugation women faced. Our group came up with some funny but insightful interpretations.
What do the women in these pictures below say to you? Certainly men like Henri Matisse or George Seurat aren’t thinking, “When do I get a seat at the table”, or “What’s the point”. Better yet, the woman in this picture is asking something more than, “Do these boots come in my size?”
Because these women can’t speak for themselves, their body language and surrounding objects used by the artist help us to consider the artist’s point of view.
Take this image by Vincent Van Gogh. It shows a woman sitting in front of an open book looking into the distance. Van Gogh’s scenario is as radical as his impasto painting style. In the late nineteenth century, more than 85% of women were illiterate and a woman could never be seen “thinking”. That would surely distract her from her central purpose in life – to reproduce.
Women as Artists
When you consider the number of women artists in history, it’s easy to assume there weren’t many. Yet women have been painting for thousands of year, as supported in a 2013 National Geographic article. Ancient cave drawings were overwhelmingly done by women and not men, as scholars and society once thought. Maybe this explains longstanding stereotypes that somehow men are better artists than women.
This is obviously not true and galleries like the National Museum of Women in the Arts (in Washington, D.C.) challenge these old paradigms. This 1855 painting by Rosa Bonaire entitled Horse Fair hangs in the Met like a larger than life testament to this truth. Bonaire’s striking eight foot high by sixteen foot wide canvas debuted at the Paris Salon, and won her international fame and recognition.
Bonaire actually painted herself into the picture, at the center. She is seen riding on a horse and wearing a blue coat and navy hat. It’s a radical notion on so many levels. She’s wearing men’s clothes and jockeying with them. But painting herself into history didn’t stop there. Bonaire was educated alongside men because her family’s Christian-socialist sect allowed it; this helps explain why she enjoyed some of the same privileges. As a result, Bonaire opened doors for other women and her fame helped her to become the first French woman to own property. Even more radical was the fact that she could own land and when she died, it was legally passed down to her lover, Nathalie Micas.
So if you worry about thousands of years of art taking a toll on your feet and your mental stamina, think again. Try hacking your way through a museum by rethinking how you approach art. Be inspired by the many influences and stories that give it a richer and deeper context in the fabric of life. Art challenges us to expand our minds and our views about social conventions surrounding gender and related roles in society. Thanks to our amazing MuseumHack guide Sara, the Met was a rich exercise in self-discovery and a powerful way to connect more personally to women in art.