The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

elles@centrepompidou: women in modern art

Posted by Nic Heath on January 19, 2010

Currently showing at the Pompidou Centre in Paris is elles@centrepompidou, the largest all-female contemporary art exhibition ever curated. Last week I spent a day at the Pompidou – the warmest place to be in freezing Paris – and took the photos I have posted here.   


From the exhibition website:   

The programming cuts across disciplines to take a deeper look at the place occupied by women in the culture of the last century, from literature to history of thought, from dance to cinema.    

The exhibition is ordered thematically, under titles including Free Fire, Body Slogan, The Activist Body and A Room of One’s Own.     


The radical vision of curator Camille Morineau is better understood when you consider that the Louvre, the most visited museum in the world and home to 35000 artworks, does not own a piece by a female artist. In London, just 12 per cent of the Tate Modern’s collection is by female artists, and of the National Gallery’s 2300 artworks, four paintings are by two female artists.* In an interview with The Guardian – where I found these shocking statistics – Morineau explains that 40 per cent of the Pompidou Centre’s works by female artists were acquired in the last four years. Now, the museum holds 500 pieces by women artists.     

Work by German artist Gloria Friedman

 This quote from Gloria Friedman accompanied the above paintings:     

“Prior to the 1980s, conceptual art seemed to be exclusively reserved for men, unthinkable for women. The intervention of women no doubt changed the idea that we have of art, but I wouldn’t want to be too simplistic: the 1980s represent a sort of explosion, which by the way we don’t discuss enough. It seems to me that previously, for women, the question remained of whether they had a place in the cultural landscape: one day, the question stopped being asked.”    

Feminist theory and activism is well-represented; I loved the posters made by the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of radical feminists established in New York City in 1985, decrying the lack of female artists having work shown in New York galleries and museums in the eighties.   


Throughout the exhibition space, painted on the walls were quotes from prominent twentieth-century women such as Virginia Woolf, and these from Simone de Beauviour and Susan Sontag:   

 “One is not born a woman, one becomes one. No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society, it is civilisation as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine. Only the intervention of someone else can establich as indivisual as the Other.” [The Second Sex, 1949]     

The identification of beauty as the ideal condition of a woman is, if anything, more powerful than ever, although today’s hugely complex fashion and photography system sponsors norms of beauty that are far less provincial, more diverse, and favour brazen rather than demure ways of facing the camera.” [“A Photograph is not an Opinion. Or it it?” 1999]  

Upstairs the ‘Pioneers’ section is integrated into the gallery’s permanent collection, and features work by artists as varied and talented as Dorothea Tanning, Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova (whose 1912 still-life The Flowers sold for $10.8 million in 2008, the most ever paid for a work by a female artist), New York photographer Diane Arbus and her one-time teacher Lisette Model

Dorothea Tanning - Portrait de famille (1954)

Natalia Goncharova - Les porteuses (1911)

There is a great interactive website to accompany the exhibition, with extra video resources and other information, however it is in French. Good if you speak it of course.

elles@centrepompidou is a great exhibition – enormous and diverse – and an excellent catalyst for discussion about the role of women in modern art.

*I would be really curious to learn how Australia’s state and national galleries compare in the percentage of holdings by female artists.


5 Responses to “elles@centrepompidou: women in modern art”

  1. MarianK said

    Thank you so much for posting this. As the exhibition doesn’t end until February 2011, I might actually get to see it!

    Those statistics quoted on the scarcity of women artists in major galleries are shocking – especially the Louvre at 0%!! The issue of how the artworld has neglected women artists has had me thinking in recent times after seeing the French films ‘Seraphine’ and ‘Camille Claudel’. Until seeing these films I had never heard of either of them. Yet, on looking into their work after my interest was tweaked by the films, I was shocked at the extent of their sheer genius. Camille Claudel’s sculpture far surpasses those of her tutor, mentor and lover August Rodin, and Seraphine’s naive paintings far surpass those of the art world’s annointed guru of naive art, Henri Rousseau.

    How many other female geniuses, or even just the output of ordinary but talented women, have been buried by our history of neglect?

    PS Seraphine de Senlis does not appear to be in the exhibition, despite being a 20th century artist.

  2. sonja said

    Thanks for sharing this. Here is some information about the
    Gloria Friedmann image in your blog.

    Suspension, 1980
    Photographie, aggloméré, bois stratifié, fonte, tendeur de bicyclette – 100 x 359,5 x 6,5 cm
    Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne-Centre de création industrielle

  3. […] were acquired in the last four years. Now, the museum holds 500 pieces by women artists. Read More: —Seurat was a cultivated person, widely read and with an excellent knowledge of the art of the […]

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