Through August 24th, in a brief and beautifully-positioned hallway of NOMA known as the "A. Charlotte Mann and Joshua Mann Pailet Gallery" sits a tiny photography show culled from the museum's permanent collection. It is a show which is as much about collaboration as it is about the unsung, undocumented influence of women in art. Titled Sphere of Influence: Pictorialism, Women and Modernism, this collection of late 19th to early 20th century fine art photos represent a confluence of thought amongst revolutionary American feminists.
The exhibit subtly – and the statement, explicitly – suggests that through the work and guidance of Eva Watson-Schütze, Gertrude Käsebier and Anne W. Brigman, the next generation of women photographers learned a modernist approach which must have burgeoned under newfound freedoms for women in American society. Guest curator Tasia Kastanek, a journalist and art historian, makes the case of how the "turn of the century pictorialism" guided "photography into its modern era" as evidenced in the work of Alma Lavenson, Imogen Cunningham and Consuelo Kanaga. The exhibit seeks to reinforce the importance of women photographers to the development of the medium.
"The Sketch" by Gertrude Käsebier portrays a disheveled Rückenfigur of sorts, her hair loose and her eyes fixed on the open horizon. This photo is an excellent and uncomplicated key to "Sphere," exemplifying the transitioning times. Between the socially unsettling advent of the bicycle on the male-dominated status quo and Coco Chanel's bold dismantling of Belle Epoque finery stands Käsebier "Sketch."
Due to failures in inventing a side-saddle bicycle that actually functioned, women of the late 19th century stepped astride the bicycle in culottes and felt the wind in their hair for the first time. Clothing and attitudes had begun to change instantly and dramatically. Often cast aside as frivolous, fashion became a make-or-break reality for women at the turn of the 20th century. The cost, process and inconvenience of the Gibson girl uniform in America (which mirrored the Belle Epoque attire in Europe) had become confining not only in the physical sense, but was also exposed as confining in the social sense. Women began to understand that the time they spent trying to wrestle into a girdle and the energy they wasted trying not to faint in it all day was cutting into their accomplishments.
Enter Käsebier 1903 photograph "The Sketch." The photo depicts a fresh-faced, ruddy-cheeked, tan adventuresome type who happened to be a young lady. In her hand is a sketchbook, the embodiment of her independent, creative mind. Unadorned in a suffocating corset, devoid of hat sporting faux bouquet, uncoiffed and self-possessed, the subject of "The Sketch" was exploring something terribly threatening to American society: her freedom. Fashion was following this freedom, officially with Coco Chanel's insistence that comfortable, uncomplicated and unfussy were the new sexy. Through fashion, women were freeing themselves from social and economic expectations a few steps at a time. The tasteful, creative eye no longer needed to spend a small fortune on layers and layers of finery to be considered publicly acceptable. If only Kate Chopin's heroine Edna Pontellier had been able to pick up a camera instead of a paintbrush, wear a shift instead of a bustle!
The focus of Kastanek's exhibit travels forth in time from the days when loose hair and an occupied mind were revolutionary fare to Laura Gilpin's feverish and formidable "Hands of Marie Roemaet Rosanoff, Cellist." Thanks to the mentoring and trailblazing of artists like Käsebier, we see the woman expert emerge not only as photographer, but as subject.
What Laura Gilpin includes of Marie Roemaet's portrait is just as important as what she leaves out. Sobering natural light rests on the soft, buttery surface of the cello and of the cellist's hands. The comparison is obvious. The cello is a fine and precise instrument of artful engineering, singular purpose and serious intent. So are Marie Roemaet Rosanoff's hands. They do not need to be attached to an alluring nude. They are not involved with cooking, weaving, cleaning or darning. They are expert and singular, seeking no approval, only singing their song. They have animated the instrument they occupy with a beauty and skill which seems to emanate the glow of moonlight from within the photo itself.
A fine result of Kastanek's Sphere is the realization that women have been working together, assisting one another throughout the process of liberation. Our greatest gains have not been achieved by undercutting one another, or vying against one another. We have seized upon instruction and education whenever available. We have developed technical skill and deliberated, sketched and dreamed and excelled. We have achieved when we have built one another up, exhumed one another's successes from beneath and brought them into the moonlight, the limelight, into whatever light was available.
Kastanek has exhumed these ten works from within NOMA's existing collection and forged less of an argument and more of a cue to women today. Sphere of Influence reminds us to associate and confer with one another, to encourage and inspire. Our social freedoms still don't permit us full ownership of our bodies any more than our rights of equality are guaranteed under our Constitution. We still have gains to make, and "Sphere" is shouting not only this fact, but also suggesting how we might yet hope to achieve it.