Art Imitates Life

Jeanne-Claude de Guillebon passed away recently at the age of 74 and was eulogized in an article in the Wall Street Journal.  Sadly, many people do not know who this person is. But what I find more disturbing is that, despite being one of the most creative minds in the last half of the twentieth century, many people in the art world may not recognize the name either.  It is only when her name is mentioned alongside her husband, Christo, that her status among the art greats becomes clear.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were the artistic duo that created some of the world’s most memorable and monumental art installations.  Their large, public displays of fabric and textiles have adorned the world’s landscape for the past several decades.  Among their many works were the 2005 creation, “The Gates,” a series of 7,503 orange nylon panels erected for 16 days in New York’s Central Park, and “The Umbrellas,” an installation of 3,100 umbrellas that covered two inland valleys in Ibaraki, Japan and California in the early 1990’s.  And for those Kansas City natives old enough to remember, “Wrapped Walkways” covered the walkways and jogging paths of Loose Park in 135,000 square feet of saffron-colored nylon fabric in 1977-1978. 

Jeanne-Claude was an equal collaborator in the creation of these works, and according to her husband, she was also the business genius behind their success in what can most often be a fickle art market.  But references to their large art installations, whether in art books or in conversation, usually credit the works to be by Christo, with no mention of Jeanne-Claude. This, unfortunately, is typical for women in the arts.

As a young art student in the early 1990’s, I became well aware of how marginalized women were in the arts.  In my search to identify any female role models from art history, I found little written about women artists compared to the volumes of information about male artists.  In many of my art textbooks, the marginalization went so far as to annex women into chapters titled  “Women Artists,” as if to emphasize where the woman’s “place” was in the context of visual arts.  While artists such as Monet and Picasso were regarded in chapters that hailed their contributions to important art movements like Impressionism and Cubism respectively; women artists were regarded not for their creative contributions, but for, well, being women. Discussions in my art history classes mirrored the information in the text books.  More time was spent critiquing the works of Da Vinci, Van Gogh, and Warhol, than Mary Cassatt, Freda Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keefe.  Moreover, my first visits to the Met and the MOMA in New York really punctuated the disproportionate representation of women.  On the walls of these major museums, works by men greatly outnumbered works by women.

Nothing has really changed much in the 20 years since I graduated from art school and the article about Jeanne-Claude’s death was a grim reminder.  Why did she exist in her husband’s shadow?  I must not blame Christo for this, and to his credit, their website does bare her name. But why does society have such a hard time recognizing the legitimacy of women in the arts without attaching them to a man?

Other brilliant female artists have fallen victim to this fate, and like Jeanne-Claude, it was their relationships with the men in their lives that make people say, “Oh yeah, now I know who she is.” Lee Krasner is barely known as a talented abstract expressionist artist, but better known as the wife of the irascible Jackson Pollock. And Camille Claudel is better remembered as Rodin’s apprentice and mistress (and for going insane), than for her genius at sculpting marble and stone. Even the stories of well-known female artists like Freda Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe cannot be told without significant references to Diego Rivera and Alfred Steiglitz. It disturbs me that all these women cannot be recognized without the mention of their male partners. 

Is talent not enough when you are a woman and an artist?  Should all these female artists really just be grateful to the men in their lives for helping to bring them some bit of recognition in the cold, cruel, art world? Whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, women today are still fighting for some status among men in all career fields.  And the arts are no exception. On the Christo/Jeanne-Claude website, Christo honors his late wife’s legacy by reminding us of her talent, creativity, and genius. It’s a beautiful tribute and hopefully one that leads us in the direction where all women artists are standing, if not ahead of, but at least, next to their male counterparts in their status as great artists.

In spring 2010, the UMKC Women’s Center will address this issue with a series of events including a screening of the documentary Who Does She Think She Is? (a film that chronicles the lives of five, diverse female artists), an art exhibit featuring local women artists, and a discussion about the state of women in the arts in Kansas City.  Plans are still in the works, but please check the Women’s Center website in the next few weeks for more details.