Cig Harvey, “Compost Heap,” 2019, Collection of the artist. Images courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum

Women have played enormously influential roles in the history of art since antiquity: from Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, and Isabella d’Este (known as “First Lady of the Renaissance”) to Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. This illustrious circle has included great philanthropists, museum trustees, astute collectors, powerful dealers, brilliant curators. Yet few museums ever focus on these women, ceding the limelight instead to female artists (themselves still a marginalized group).

The Farnsworth Museum has set out to correct this, on a local level, with “Women of Vision” (through Jan. 2). The exhibition occupies a single gallery at the institution but is well worth a good hour to thoroughly read the extensive wall texts that acquaint us with these extraordinary Maine personalities. (The museum has also published a book for the exhibition and will bestow all the subjects with a 2021 Maine in America Award.)

One reason exhibitions about behind-the-scenes players in the art world are scarce in general, let alone shows about women who have left their indelible mark on it, is obvious: We go to museums to look at art, and these women, by and large, were not creators themselves, so there are usually no visuals – other than their photographs – to actually view. The Farnsworth has come up with an interesting solution to this by pairing the wall texts with museum holdings that relate in some way to the subjects in question.

Will Barnet, “Infinite,” 1975–76, Oil on canvas, Gift of Robert and Maurine Rothschild.

Maurine Rothschild, for instance, was the first board president of the museum. A philanthropist and lifelong activist for many human rights causes, she devoted considerable energy to advocating for women’s empowerment. Curator Jane Bianco accompanied Rothschild’s fascinating wall text with Will Barnet’s “Infinite.” At first, this scene – of women looking out to sea as they wait for their sons and husbands to return from their voyages – might seem an odd one for Rothschild because these women could be seen merely as subservient supports for the men in their lives.

Certainly, the women’s attire places them in a bygone era when they might have been considered just that. But what comes across most strongly to me about these figures, whose presences are dignified and monumental, is their quiet fortitude, their unwavering steadfastness, their reliability and their ironclad resilience.

Other pairings are more straightforward. Elizabeth Bottomley Noyce was a social and economic activist who championed charitable giving and also the founder of the Libra Foundation, among the largest charitable organizations in Maine. She bequeathed some 73 works of art to the Farnsworth, and others to museums across the country. Of her bequests, the show features Marsden Hartley’s “Song of Winter #6,” an impressionistic landscape from 1908-’09 of mountains and woods. Linda Bean was instrumental in the establishment of the museum’s Wyeth Center in the United Methodist Church down the street, which specializes in exhibitions about Jamie and N.C. Wyeth. By her bio hangs her gift of an illustration that N.C. Wyeth created for the endpapers of “Westward Ho!,” Charles Kingsley’s 1855 novel.

Other nonvisual artists represented here include the poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay and Phyllis Wyeth, wife of Jamie and a passionate advocate for people with disabilities, education and the arts. But there are female artists represented here too: Berenice Abbott, Katherine Bradford, Cig Harvey, Louise Nevelson, Molly Neptune Parker and Marguerite Zorach.

Louise Nevelson, “Volcanic Magic XVI,” 1985, Wood and paper collage, Gift of Louise Nevelson

The groundbreaking sculptor Louise Nevelson is represented by a wall construction and several exquisite “pendants.” All date from the 1980s, late in her career. But what is interesting about them is that they mix media and finishes in ways that physically embody her abiding interest in light and shadow. In her mostly all-black constructions, this play between light and shadow depended on available natural or artificial illumination and the angle at which it struck the modulated surfaces she created with variously arranged pieces of wood.

In Nevelson’s pendants (more sculptures than functional adornments because of their size and weight), a metallic overlay mixes with the black, creating a reflective surface that both stands in for and intensifies light. In “Volcanic Magic XVI,” the various components boast different finishes that bring color and dimension normally supplied in the black sculptures solely by light.

Berenice Abbott, “Flatiron Building, Broadway and Fifth Ave.,” 1938. Gelatin silver print, Gift of Mr. Ronald Kurtz

Berenice Abbott, the innovator and fearless photographer who became known primarily for her images of Depression-era New York buildings under FDR’s Federal Arts Project, is credited with having pioneered the field of photojournalism. Once, when planning to photograph the dicey neighborhood of the Bowery, an official advised her that it was a place where nice girls didn’t go. “Buddy, I’m not a nice girl,” was her reply. “I’m a photographer … I go anywhere.” The Farnsworth shows her famous image of the Flatiron Building, as well as one of her experimental, meticulously planned photos of a swinging pendulum. She also snapped the iconic portrait of Millay nearby.

Cig Harvey’s sumptuous “Compost Heap” is a large-scale color photo of a teardrop-shaped pile of deadheaded dahlias incongruously discarded in the middle of the forest. Because these flowers die from the back, they are often thrown away when their faces are still bright. The inexplicable appearance of this 40-foot-long mass of color in the dark woods exists at the nexus between life’s lushness and inevitable cessation and decay. Katherine Bradford’s colorful and fanciful “Atlantic Byway” has a foreshortened perspective that brings wading bathers at a beach into charmingly illogical proximity of deep-sea creatures and a cruise ship.

Molly Neptune Parker, “Strawberry Tatting Basket,” Passamaquoddy brown ash and sweetgrass Hudson Museum, Orono, Maine. Photo by Robert Colburn

Molly Neptune Parker, a Passamaquoddy basket weaver who helped preserve this craft, as well as her native language, through four generations of her family, has exquisitely executed examples of this art on display. And the well-known painter Marguerite Thompson Zorach is represented by a hooked wall hanging called “Eden” that hung in her home.

It’s precisely the fact that these women were and are so remarkable that leads to my one quibble with the show: the failure to identify both Abbott and Millay as lesbian (or, in the latter’s case, bisexual). Both were quite open about this aspect of their lives, which further personifies their fierce, uncompromising adherence to their truth in a conservative world. It seems odd to omit this here. In the case of Millay, the wall text seems to even diminish this aspect of her humanity.

“A member of the exploratory, free-spirited art world of the Village in the 1920s,” says the wall text, “Millay embodied its contradictions: she was disciplined and productive as a dramatic writer and yet somewhat of a libertine in her personal life.” Why, I must ask, is this contradictory? Sexuality is rarely a controlled impulse, whether heterosexual, homosexual or anything else. Why should it be compared to the discipline and productivity of a person’s work?

Millay’s husband, Eugen Boissevan, certainly doesn’t seem to have seen it as a contradiction, so why should we? Worse still, the word “libertine” usually describes someone who disregards a sense of morality and personal responsibility. This taints the statement as a value judgement, and an antiquated one at that considering our current understanding of LGBTQ+ people. In the casualness of its attitude (Oh, what ever will those artsy types get up to next?) the statement – though unintentionally I’m sure – subtly denigrates Millay for her choices about those with whom she slept.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

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