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Are we really still doing white feminist performances in 2024?

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Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith and her Maidservant” (1618–19), oil on canvas, 44 x 36.61 inches (image courtesy Uffizi Gallery)

MADRID — 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. Judith’s harrowing decapitation became a popular topic for women artists during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. They often painted Judith and her faithful maid Abra together as pillars to sisterhood and strength. Today, Judith’s resistance continues to be a potent symbol of female empowerment.

Visitors are welcomed by painted versions of the story by Lavinia fontana, Fede galizia, and Artemisia Gentileschi 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: 1550-1950The show toured the United States from 1976 to 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 was a first-of-its-kind that retold Western Art through the female creators who had been overlooked. However, its lack diversity is still a criticism.

De la Villa’s exhibition is strikingly similar to the one that preceded it. Women ArtistsThe following are some examples of how to get started: Women MastersShare overlaps between timelines, featured artists, and geographic reach. The 1976 show featured artists from 12 different countries. Women Masters This show features 74 international artists from 13 different countries. In both cases all the artists participating are from Europe or Russia or United States. Frida is the sole Mexican artist who appears in both shows. After so many works by Europeans (plus six artists from the US), Kahlo’s 1942 painting “Niña Tehuacana, Lucha María” Hanging at the exit to the exhibition is a bit hurried and out of place.

What does it take to put on an event like this in the year 2024? What does it mean for a show to be put on in 2024? Women MastersTake the events of 50 years ago into consideration, or is it simply a reprise Women Artists? Like in the 1970s there is still a need to celebrate and spotlight women artists, especially those who are now more often in positions of power. But, as Barcenilla notes in her text, museums have great authority in shaping narratives about art’s history, scope, and value. Why is the curator focusing on these places, events, and people? Some parts of Europe, and certain modes of production, clearly take precedence. For example, nearly 20 percent of the artists in Women MastersAround 80% are paintings. The majority of the works on display are French. There have been choices made, even if they are not explicit, and a lack definition can perpetuate the exclusion and erasure of such an exhibit. This is especially problematic for a survey exhibition of this magnitude that aims to rewrite our canon.

There are many positive aspects to the show. Clara Peeters and Rosa Bonheur are well-known figures, but Emy Roeder and Victoria Malinowska are lesser-known. 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 appear to show artists from neighboring countries moving in opposite directions. Morisot towards the lightness and rapidity of Impressionism and Garnelo towards the solidity and academic realism.

Men are rarely shown in the exhibit, except as children or as the severed Holofernes head. Women are shown with a unique sympathetic view as mothers, workers, friends, and heroes. My own ambivalence during touring Women MastersAside from that, I have never seen such a large and engaged audience at an exhibition. On my Tuesday afternoon visit there was a lively, convivial atmosphere as large groups women in their 60s and over crowded around each 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.

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