I cannot even begin to tell you how happy I am to finally be sharing this post with you. I’ve been working on this since the start of October, but I wanted to make it much more detailed and informative than the first part of this series. I’ve been doing a lot of research into the four artists I’ve included today, so I hope this post both introduces you to some new artists to look into but gives you a little background into them as well.
Over the last few months, I’ve become a little bit obsessed with Remedios Varo, and so I couldn’t resist making her the first artist in this post. She was born as María de los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Uranga in 1908 in Anglès, Spain. She studied in Madrid originally where she first became interested in surrealism, from there moving to Barcelona where she lived in the same neighbourhood with other avant-garde artists. While in Europe she met other key surrealist artists like Andre Breton, Dora Maar and Leonora Carrington, but reportedly did not feel much like a member of that particular group. If you’ve looked into surrealist artists, you’re probably well aware that they often didn’t take women particularly seriously though many women worked in the movement. Varo then moved to Mexico, where she experienced most of the success in her career. While there she met with local artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera but formed a close bond with Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna, both of whom were WWII refugees from Europe like Varo herself. The three women would continue to influence one another’s work and lives. I think part of the draw of Varo’s work for me comes from the witch-like figures and feel to her pieces—they feel as if they would be at home in a tarot deck as much as on the wall of an art gallery. My personal favourite of hers is La Ilamada, or The Call (1961), which is on display at the NWMA in Washington D.C.
There’s a quite a bit of biographical information about Varo on the NWMA website, so I highly recommend looking into that if you’re interested. But I always wanted to link these two journal articles that I found really helpful while writing an essay about Varo; firstly, The Creative Woman And The Female Quest: The Paintings of Remedios Varo by Estella Lauter and Remedios Varo: Voyages and Visions by Janet Kaplan. Both of these links lead to JSTOR pages—you will have to pay to read them without library or university access.
Ana Mendieta was born in Havana in 1948, and was among the 14,000 children moved to the United States from Cuba in 1961, at age 12. She spent her first two years between many foster homes and orphanages with her older sister, Raquelin, before their mother and brother joined them in 1966. While she worked as a performance artist, sculptor, painted and video artist, she is best known for her ‘earth-body’ work and is considered a pioneer of the movement. The movement started in the 60s as a pushback against commercialism, and it’s defined as any artwork that draws from the landscape, whether ‘that is created directly in the landscape, sculpting the artwork into the land itself, or making new structures with natural materials like rocks, twigs, leaves, and so on’ (Manatakis, 2018). You can see some of her artwork through The Art Story here, please be warned that many of her images are quite comforting and may include blood and depictions of violence. Unfortunately, discussions of Mendieta and her art often come hand in hand with a discussion of her tragic death. She fell from her 34th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village in September of 1985. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her husband and fellow artist, Carl Andre, was trialled and acquitted for her murder. I’m sad to admit that this was first how I discovered Mendieta myself. While her death was tragic, her art has so much more to offer.
This article from Sean O’Hagan for the Guardian goes into detail about Mendieta’s death, but it also includes interviews with a friend of hers and looks into her lasting effect on the art world.
Mary Edmonia Lewis was born to an African American father and Native American (Ojibwe/Chippewa) mother in 1845 and was the first black artist to become known worldwide for her neoclassical style sculptures. She reportedly made her female figures’ ethnicities vague as to avoid people making assumptions about her life and her art based on her race. She raised enough money through her sculpture to move from Boston to Rome, where she spent most of her career. There she found herself among many other American women, including other artists, writers and intellectuals. Many feminist art historians consider this the first ‘all girls group’. There’s unfortunately not much known about the end of her life, including when she may have stopped working or even when she passed away, as the focus switched from artists in Rome to those in Paris. Sadly, a lot of her work was lost to history, though you can see a number of her pieces at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as well as on their website here. In all the articles I read about Lewis for this post, most of them deemed The Death of Cleopatra (1876) as her most impressive work, though I think everything that of hers that you can find online are pieces to be in awe of.
This article from the Smithsonian Magazine goes into great detail about Lewis’ life and work and speaks of the renewed interest in her work. There’s also some great information about Lewis (and thousands of other female artists) in Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art, and Society.
There isn’t a whole lot we know for a certain about Henrietta Johnston. For one, we don’t know when or where she was born—it seems to be around 1674, though depending on the source some say she was born in Ireland and others say Northern France. However, she is most known for being considered the earliest recorded female artist and first known pastelist and portraitist working in what we know now as the Southern US. There are about 40 portraits from Johnston that remain today, many remain preserved with their original frames and backboards where Johnston would leave her signature. She painted in a Rococo style, which is a personal favourite of mine, and a lot of her work reminds me of Vigee Lebrun. It’s quite difficult to find extensive collections of her work online, but they are well worth the look just like this one called Mrs. Pierre Bacot (Marianne Fleur Du Gue), which you can learn more about on The Met’s website here.
I found this incredible website called History of American Women which has a detailed biography of Henrietta Johnston that is worth the read if you want to know more about her.
So that’s it for today’s post. I imagine it’s going to take me a few more months to put together the next part, but I will definitely be continuing this series in 2021. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for artists you think I should talk about!