Ask the average person who their favorite artist is and you’re likely to get names like Da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh or even Banksy – only men, most of them mainstream names and rightly praised for their masterpieces. Throughout most of history, the artistic contributions of women to the world of fine art have not been forgotten, because they were rarely noted and remembered in the first place.
The Pasadena Museum of History’s exhibition “Something Revealed; California Women Artists Emerge, 1860-1960” seeks to play a small part in amending this travesty, showcasing over 200 works by women artists who poured their passion into brilliant pieces of art in a male-centric world which never sought to appreciate them.
Curated by Maurine St. Gaudens, who wrote the book “Shadows; A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960” as a companion piece to the exhibit, the gallery spans across two large rooms. The format is conventional and straightforward: the paintings are placed in the confines of black or gold gilt frames, while the statues and other ceramics are shielded behind glass. Placards placed alongside the artwork provide details such as the name of the artist, birth and death date, title of the artwork and sometimes a blurb detailing the artist’s background.
When walking into the west gallery you are immediately confronted with Vivian F. Stringfield’s “Monterey Cypress”. Unlike typical landscapes painted in realistic colors, the tree and its surroundings are painted in vivid, saturated hues with little subtle shading. The mountain range in the background is highlighted in bright orange and the sky is done in a dark blue-to-aqua green gradient. It looks far more like a watercolor or an illustration than an oil painting: a remarkable feat, especially in 1925!
Much of the west half is interesting but conventional artwork: landscapes ranging from lively to somber, busts of perfectly symmetrical people and still-lifes of strangers. There are cityscapes and landmarks of the early twentieth century painted in exquisite detail – some familiar, others long gone.
Vera C. M. Staples’s “Olvera Street” features the iconic Los Angeles landmark circa 1935. Eva Scott Fenyes, whose manor now occupies the museum grounds, used watercolor to depict Venice Pier Beach and the Golden State passenger train in “Pier of Venice” and “Leaving Los Angeles on The ‘Golden State Limited’” respectively. Her brushes, folio and palettes are also on display – the latter splattered with remnants of aged paint.
There are notable exceptions, like “The Rabbit Hunt” by Esther Bruton, a pair of three-paneled wood screens featuring Native Americans hunting on horses. There is also a collection of clocks, glazed stoneware maquettes and antique brass lamps. But aside from the old black and white photographs of the artists in their fancy hats and dresses, there is little in the west half of the gallery that is distinct and female-centric.
The east half is an entirely different story. The first eye-catching piece is a cement statue of a nude woman hanging from a ceiling beam in the back of the room, her figure clearly elongated and meant to be disproportionate. Throughout the gallery there are self-portraits, paintings of nude women and strange sculptures.
Here you can find the “Cowrie Shell Mask” – a mask composed of wood, leather, and cowrie shells – made by Beulah Ecton Woodard, the first African-American artist given her own exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1937. The totemic figures in “Two African Kings and Baby on Board” – simplified by Thelma Johnson Streat to speak to all races of people and cultures – are boldly colored and outlined in thick black strokes.
There is a clear deviation from the conventional into the abstract and surreal – a delve into the darker thoughts that may dwell just beneath the consciousness of the artists who brought the artwork to life. “Eyrie” by Pamela Boden looks like a small Lovecraftian creature made of glue and sawdust. A personal favorite, “Evolution of Freedom” by Dorr Bothwell, is a painting that features a smiling robed woman carrying an infant against a backdrop of explosions and barbed wire at her bare feet.
“Something Revealed” is a mere glimpse of what women have always been capable of. To be unseen while being in plain sight is a fate no artist strives for, and yet it is a fate most of them knew would befall them: they persisted anyway, because it is what they loved to do, and we are better for it. The admiration and praise that these creative trailblazers receive now will not amount to much for them personally, but will pave a smoother path for the women who follow them. Visit, and be a part of the change.
The exhibit is open from noon to 5:00 p.m, Wednesday through Sunday, from Sept. 29 to Mar. 31. Admission is $9 for adults, $8 for seniors and students and free for children under 12.