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Opening Pandora’s Box: Women Behaving Badly at the BMA

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At its core, Women Behaving Badly: 400 Years of Power & Protest (at the Baltimore Museum of Art through December 19) consists of a two-part argument. In the show’s first room, whose walls are painted a dark purple, an array of works depicts legendary female troublemakers, from Medusa to Eve. The effect is spooky and oppressive, and the lesson clear: For millennia, fundamental Western narratives have positioned women as transgressive, dangerous, and unnatural. 

But the second room, outfitted in a lighter lilac gray and featuring dozens of works by and about historically significant female performers, artists, and activists, offers a very different proposal. Perhaps transgressive behavior, these powerful objects cumulatively suggest, is exactly what is needed in order to effect change in a system long predicated upon the estrangement and vilification of women.

Curated by Andaleeb Banta, the show was initially scheduled to open in 2020, in conjunction with the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which nominally gave American women the right to vote. Its scope is correspondingly delimited, as the 77 works date from a 400-year period, from the Renaissance to the early 1900s. No Zanele Muholi photographs or #WoYeShi screenshots here, folks; this is a sustained look at gynophobic tendencies in early print culture and the eventual rise of first-wave feminism. 

Admittedly, there are potential risks in such an approach, which deploys works of art as illustrations of a teleological narrative that verges on the simplistic: Did the long shadow of misogyny really disappear with the advent of universal suffrage? Please. And yet, despite the limits of such a didactic, commemorative structure, this show is richly rewarding, due in large part to a range of rarely seen objects and some truly clever juxtapositions.

 

Jan van de Velde II, The Sorceress, 1626
The fact that these were prints meant that they circulated broadly and played an active role in shaping public attitudes. If misogyny is an edifice, then here are some of its building blocks.
Kerr Houston

The show opens confidently, with an apparent choice: To our left, a 16th-century engraving depicts Pandora and her infamous box, while three prints to our right show Eve, unable to resist the forbidden fruit. We hesitate, unsure of which route to choose—until we realize that it barely matters. Classical myth or Biblical narrative: either way, the woman will be blamed.

So let’s turn left and watch as Pandora opens the box, ignoring Zeus’ grave counsel and releasing a host of hardships that will vex the world. Some of us might be tempted to see Pandora can as a proto-feminist, willing to flaunt divine decree in order to satisfy her curiosity. But the original moral of the story was simpler and more pointed: Female curiosity is ungovernable, dangerous, and the origin of chaos. And with that grim theme in place, the rest of the first room goes on to develop a catalog of other threatening and violent fictional women.

There, in a fantastic print by Rembrandt, is Eve, looking both stunted and animalistic in the wake of her disobedience. There, in an etching and engraving by Pieter Lastman, is Tamar, clinically seducing the unsuspecting Judah, and there, in a woodcut by Niccolò Boldrini, is Delilah, watching intently as troops subdue and swarm over her shorn lover.

Gullibility, treachery, infanticide, and witchcraft: cumulatively, these prints (all of which are taken from the BMA’s permanent collection) nominally document the sinister ability of women to upset the order of things—but ultimately say at least as much about the fears and insecurities of their predominantly male makers. And yet, it won’t do to merely laugh them off. For, as Banta noted at the press preview, the fact that these were prints meant that they circulated broadly and played an active role in shaping public attitudes. If misogyny is an edifice, then here are some of its building blocks.

 

Rembrandt van Rijn, Adam and Eve, 1638
Johann Sadeler (after Bartholomeus Spranger), Aristotle and Phyllis, n.d.

But that’s not to say that cracks aren’t apparent. A stunning bronze door knocker made in France in the 1920s takes the form of the severed head of Medusa, which dangles from Perseus’ disembodied fist. It’s a large and potently haptic object, presumably meant to playfully intimidate anyone who approaches the door. However, if we really think of using it as a knocker, force gives way to farce, and awe to something like empathy—for what would it mean, exactly, to use this beautiful woman’s head as a blunt tool? We degrade both the myth and ourselves if we actually follow the work’s functional logic.

Or consider the tidy pairing of prints across the room. Goya’s Todos Caerán (All Will Fall) is an ominous, cynical image in which syphilitic female sex workers skewer and disembowel a winged male client, even as other men flit about, drawn like moths to a flame. It offers a darkly satirical view of human nature as propelled by little but lust and self-interest.

Henry Somm, Woman Teasing Miniature Men, n.d.

But in the adjacent etching by Henry Somm (a pseudonym used by the prolific engraver François Clément Sommier), Goya’s bitterness is replaced with something more lighthearted. A towering, well-dressed woman plays with a group of tiny, toylike men, one of whom has toppled over and lost his top hat, while another is flown like a kite by the giant woman, who literally tugs on his heartstrings.

Meanwhile, a serpent’s tail emerging from her skirt reminds us of a long tradition of depicting women as monstrous, grotesque hybrids. But Somm, a deft portraitist of Parisian socialites, is hardly being serious here. If anything, he is lampooning the notion of the femme fatale: a trope which feels, in his hands, at once paranoid and laughable. Even misogyny contains, it seems, the seeds of its own deconstruction.

 

Eugene Samuel Grasset, Jeanne d'Arc/Sarah Bernhardt (Joan of Arc/Sarah Bernhardt), 1890
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, seated in front of a fireplace, facing left, holding cigarette in one hand and a beer stein in the other, in her Washington DC studio, 1896

But the larger, second room of the show makes it clear that true liberation required the work of energetic, creative women. We’re greeted by two dynamic works linked to the immensely popular French actress Sarah Bernhardt. In a sizable Art Nouveau poster, Bernhardt (who was, the wall text reminds us, “an expert self-promoter”) appears as Joan of Arc. Blithely ignoring a rain of arrows, she confidently gazes towards the heavens in a cool statement of unflappable grace. Bernhardt was also a committed sculptor who produced dozens of works, including the bronze inkwell here. The piece is a self-portrait, and it depicts Bernhardt as a hybrid, winged sphinx. Is it a reference to her role in the 1874 staging of Le Sphinx? A winking nod, like Somm’s, towards the dehumanizing imagery that had long greeted any ambitious woman? Or, as the scholar Jodi Cranston has noted in relation to Renaissance inkwells, a rumination on transformation, as once-molten bronze hardens, ink is converted to writing, and Bernhardt toggles between the roles of performer and artist?

In any case, Bernhardt is in good company, as a number of nearby works reflect the struggle of early 20th-century women to present themselves in more diverse and meaningful ways. One of the most affecting works is a photograph, taken circa 1926, of the Black entertainer, political agent, and activist Josephine Baker. Photographed while performing her infamous Savage Dance, a scantily dressed Baker seems to float several feet above the ground, her limbs forming an assertive X. To be sure, the dance evokes racist notions of a primitive Africa—but it does so in an intentional manner, deliberately playing on white fears and fantasies. Ultimately, there is no doubt about who is in charge here, as Baker’s practiced athleticism and perfect form thus offer an open rebuke to the fragmented bodies and objectified nudes that populate the show’s first room.

 

Elizabeth Catlett, In Sojourner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as blacks, 1946-47, printed 1989
Cecil Beaton, Colette, April 26, 1929
Man Ray, Marchesa Luisa Casati, 1935
Gisèle Freund, Virginia Woolf, 1939
The larger, second room of the show makes it clear that true liberation required the work of energetic, creative women.
Kerr Houston

Arcing lines of cigarette smoke in Russell Patterson’s sensuous illustration of a flapper lead towards a final grouping of works, which coalesce around the theme of activism. Prints give way to photographs and texts (many on loan from nearby institutions), which testify to the liberatory work of women such as Harriet Tubman, Vida Milholland, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others. 

Performativity emerges as a central theme in many of the photographs. Cross-dressing allowed imaginative women to challenge conventional boundaries (and, sometimes, to be simply heard in ways that a traditional dress might not allow). But it’s not just gender that’s being performed here; several of the photographs are clearly the result of a good deal of conscious staging, and thus suggest a media savviness a full century before the advent of TikTok.

But there are complicating elements here, too. The first involves the several texts on display. Certainly, there is a thrill in seeing the 1853 edition of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, or Margaret Sanger’s 1914 Family Limitation, a pamphlet on contraceptive methods that violated the Comstock Act and led to the imprisonment of her husband. Rather like live embers, these objects glow with historical resonance. But how, exactly, are we to view them in the context of an art museum? They feel awkwardly out of place here: designed objects, yes, but chosen solely because of their content and historical significance, rather than their visual form.

More relevant, to my eye, are the several works in which male artists react to the success of the nascent feminist movement. A memorably bizarre lithograph made circa 1853 purports to record a dream caused by reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and depicts the author Harriet Beecher Stowe in a fiery, sulphureous realm. Based on a print of an entirely different subject by Jacques Callot, it’s unstable and unresolved, comparing those who would burn Stowe’s novel to demons, but also resorting to openly racist tropes. 

 

Luigi Conconi, Intoxication, c. 1896

The intention behind a 1920 drawing by Oscar Edward Cesare is clearer, as it imagines a phalanx of mounted women advancing towards the U.S. capitol while a line of male fat cats, armed with nothing but expressions of surprise and unearned privilege, breaks ranks. Virginia Woolf once remarked that “The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.” It’s a debatable claim, but the inclusion of works like these increases the dimensionality of this show, and gives it a clear through line: the reactionary habits, that is, of a patriarchal system that has always been profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of female autonomy.

“What I wanted,” Banta told me, “was to explore the way women have been represented in Western art.” Mission accomplished: as a concise overview of stock tropes and notable moments of resistance from the Renaissance through World War II, this is a satisfying show. If anything, in fact, it may leave you wanting more: a parallel look, say, at images of women in other cultural traditions (I’m imagining images of Huda Sha’arawi and a burkini, for instance), or a consideration of much more recent tendencies in the West.

Two years ago, AOC made a splash when she attended the State of the Union address wearing suffragette white and a badge bearing Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous claim that “Well behaved women seldom make history.” She was, of course, doing her own part to draw attention to the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment. But she was also embodying a further, pressing idea that should concern us all. Appended wings and accusations of witchcraft may be less common than they once were in representations of women. But from the all-too-familiar chants of “Lock her up” to Emily Ratajkowski’s attempt to regain control over her own image, the evidence is clear: plainly, there is still meaningful work to be done.

 

*****

Header image, clockwise from top left: Rembrandt van Rijn, Adam and Eve, 1638; Eugene Samuel Grasset, Jeanne d’Arc/Sarah Bernhardt (Joan of Arc/Sarah Bernhardt), 1890; Jan van de Velde II, The Sorceress, 1626

All images courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

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