On Exhibit: 'new women' of prewar Chicago | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: 'new women' of prewar Chicago 

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Macena Barton's large 1936 painting Salome would stand out in virtually any exhibit anywhere. In Barton's stripped-down treatment of the story, a nude Salome, standing alone against a strident yellow background, contemplates the filigreed platter at her feet from which the blue-skinned head of John the Baptist, eyes open, seems to return her gaze. She's an ordinary, contemporary looking young woman--a far cry from the idealized girl in a flowing gown we've come to expect from Renaissance-era depictions. Barton's Salome is no hapless pawn of the desires of others: she herself holds the murder weapon, a bloody curved dagger.

Salome is one of nearly 50 paintings that make up the Illinois Art Gallery's current exhibit "The 'New Woman' in Chicago, 1910-45: Paintings From Illinois Collections." The "new woman," says curator Susan Weininger, "was a term used in the teens and 20s to refer to the suffragette. It referred to women who were liberated economically and sexually. And it also had other references--to a woman as a consumer, whose sphere wasn't totally domestic."

Put together by Robert Henry Adams, a local dealer, and Weininger, associate professor of art history and assistant director of the School of Liberal Studies at Roosevelt University, the exhibit presents paintings by women influenced by cubism, social realism, expressionism, and surrealism.

Nearly 40 percent of those who identified themselves as professional artists in the 1930 census were women. But opportunities for "new woman" painters--or for any artists whose work leaned to the modern--weren't especially numerous. Of Chicago's few commercial galleries, only one, the Katherine Kuh Gallery, took the risk of consistently showing modern art. The Art Institute had two major exhibitions of contemporary art every year, one of which, the Chicago and Vicinity Show, was devoted specifically to the work of Chicago artists. The jury's choices were usually conservative; nevertheless, Weininger says, "There were some modernist artists who exhibited every year at the Chicago and Vicinity Show. But everybody couldn't be in. Even if they had 200 works in the show there were a lot of people excluded. So the artists--particularly the artists who felt themselves to be a little less traditional or conservative--joined together in exhibition groups."

One of these was the Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists, with whom a number of the artists in the "New Woman" show exhibited. "They had exhibitions in department stores, including Marshall Field's," Weininger says. "Most of the department stores at that time had picture galleries. Field's would donate the space, and it was all organized by the artists. All that was required of someone to show was a very small yearly membership fee. There was no jury, so nothing was excluded."

Modernist artists in Chicago found an ally in Clarence J. Bulliet, director of the Magazine of the Art World, the Chicago Evening Post's weekly art supplement, and art critic for the Chicago Daily News until his death in 1952. Unlike the Tribune's Eleanor Jewett, who despised modernism and called the work of Cezanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh "brutal, primitive, and childish," Bulliet wrote enthusiastically about modern art, including that by women. "More than other critics at the same tune," says Weininger, "Bulliet had a certain theoretical position. He didn't just write, 'Oh, this is a nice landscape and this is a nice portrait.' He had an attitude . . . that it didn't matter what the subject of the work was, it mattered if it made you feel something, if it was expressive."

But artists' groups and critical support didn't pay the bills, especially during the Depression. Most Chicago artists during the 30s worked for the WPA's Illinois Art Project. In exchange for producing a painting each month, artists received a paycheck from the government, enough to cover living expenses. The paintings then went to public institutions--schools, hospitals, and libraries. The program gave women artists the chance to work independently as professionals, but it also fostered something of a backlash. "Particularly on work done for the government there was a very strong if unstated mandate to underscore traditional sex roles," says Weininger. "Because in the 30s nobody could get jobs, so that women who had jobs were a threat: they were taking a job away from a man and that man's children. It comes through in works like Bernece Berkman's South Chicago Series, paintings in which you see the women near the house, doing very stereotypical women's work, and the men working out of doors and using their hands."

Still, some of the artists in the "New Woman" show did manage to direct their attention outside the home. Some looked to the city around them for their subjects: Ruth van Sickle Ford's State and Ohio (circa 1935) shows that intersection from the vantage point of a third- or fourth-story window; Frances Foy's moody Lincoln Park (1925), with its stylized trees bending in the wind, recalls the work of such American modernists as Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe.

And a good number of paintings--those by Barton, Julia Thecla, Gertrude Abercrombie, and Fritzi Brod--look inward rather than outward. Charged sometimes with an atmosphere of reverie, sometimes with suggestions of psychological or spiritual unrest, they border on the surreal. Weininger thinks that has to do with isolation and marginalization. "Because these women were way out here in the midwest, because they were already marginalized because of their gender and were seeing the world differently because of that, they looked for their voice somewhere inside rather than trying to model themselves on something external. Because they didn't have to meet the expectations of the art capital [New York], they were able to find their own way of speaking."

"The 'New Woman' in Chicago, 1910-45: Paintings From Illinois Collections" continues through March 18 at the Illinois Art Gallery, James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph, suite 2-100. Gallery hours are 9 to 6 Monday through Friday. At 6 PM Thursday, February 24, Weininger will present a free talk at the gallery; for information call 814-5322.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.

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