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Art et féminisme Public events poster, 1982. La Médiathèque du Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
Leisure Projects extends special thanks to Robin Simpson for his participation at the recent Salon events at the SBC gallery and for contributing an article to Leisure Letters. Read Robin’s survey of press material surrounding the two exhibitions ( Art femme ’75 at the Saidye Bronfman Centre, and Art et Féminisme at the MAC in 1982) that inspired us to initiate the exhibition “I haven’t been a figment of my own imagination” at the SBC gallery, Montréal.
In an earlier post to Leisure Letters an excerpt from the sole English language review of Artfemme ’75 accounts one of the more fantastic elements of the exhibition’s opening. Nixon’s article commenced with an exciting account of artfemme personified a single identity shared between a set of bejewelled, feathered, and anonymous performers who descended upon the crowd. Yet for all that artfemme could have been the article moved on to diminish the exhibition, its mandate, and its artists. The critical voice used in this review and others was preemptively defensive from a masculine standpoint and approached the topic of feminism with caution and suspicion.
When looking into the history of art exhibitions journalistic material can be some of the trickiest documents to work with. Arts communities, be it in Montreal or elsewhere, can often be heard bemoaning the journalistic coverage of their events. In many of our newspapers across Québec and Canada attention to the visual arts is nominal compared to that paid to mass entertainment of cinema and television, as well as larger stage productions and festivals. Often it appears that the breadth of visual arts coverage can be measured by the amount of advertising dollars invested by galleries within the local of the newspaper. Yet, when seeking to reconstitute the experience of an exhibition critical reviews can often be the only supplementary material available. In her presentation accompanying Leisure Projects exhibition I haven’t been a figment of my own imagination Rose Marie Arbour remarked that the press’ response to both Artfemme ’75 and Art et féminisme was limited in scope. Much of the print space was devoted to broad introductions of feminism with little consider of how this translated into the operations of the artists and their art works. What I want to illustrate is that Artfemme ’75 held an ambiguous and destabilizing presence within the Montreal arts milieu whose effects extended into the press. We can read comments which at times reinforced the denigration of women artists and calling to question a feminist mandate within the visual arts.
Coordinated between the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Powerhouse Gallery, the Saidye Bronfman Centre, and the YWCA Artfemme ’75 featured the work of sixty five women artists along with an extended program that included panel discussions, performances, poetry readings, and debates. Despite the fact that 1975 was commemorated by the United Nations as International Women’s Year local press showed limited interest in Artfemme ’75. Just two reviews were printed in La Presse, one in Le Devoir, and one in the Gazzette.
Gilles Toupin’s April 19th review of the exhibition for la La Presse commenced with an reiteration of stereotypical classifications of feminine art. Three of these made up its title – “Le mou, le flou et le délicat…”, the remaining two being: intériorisé and irrationnel. For the first half of his article Toupin criticizes the exhibition’s fragmentation over a number of venues and citing the failure of the group exhibition to offer a resolved illustration of the feminist movement within the local community. Under the subhead l’Hermaphrodisme Toupin moved on to valorize a few works on view. Although, this praise is only found in the fact that works were observed to closely resemble the work of reputable male artists. Luce Dupuies’ and Hannah Franklin’s sculptures were hailed as being just as strong as those of Breton, and the stuffed and soft aspects of Janice Flood-Turner and Sorel Cohen’s work were equated with Oldenburg’s canvas hamburgers. Upholding the standards of social conduct Toupin assured that these introductions remained formal, where the men need not be introduced to the women by anything but their last name. This assumed mimesis led Toupin into a hypothesis on the hermaphroditic condition of Québec’s women artists, Toupin wrote: “La femme québécoise crée selon des normes et des attitudes qui on été élaborées par la culture masculine, mais qui, à l’image et au rythme contemporain de l‘émancipation de la femme, perdent peu à peu leur appartenance à l’un out l’autre des sexes. L‘àrt actuel a un fort penchant pour l’hermaphrodisme”. The section concluded that this hermaphroditic hypothesis still afforded women artists enough nuances to distinguish their production from the other sex: “Qu’on ne croit pas cependant que cette hypothèse – car c’en est une – d’hermaphrodisme est un façon commode de tout tourner au profit de la culture masculine. Elle appelle, de toute évidence, bien des nuances.” Even in a mode of art production which is imagined to be neither feminine nor masculine, it is assumed that female artist must differentiate herself or be subsumed by the male.
Virginia Nixon’s April 12th article for the Gazette pulled its title – “Women artists or women in the masks of men?” – from Musée d’art contemporain director Fernande Sainte-Martin’s introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue. Under the subheader “Dreary To Adequate” Nixon also offered a facile classification of the artists in the exhibition as but “pallid followers of men artists.” Although Nixon drew her title directly from the exhibition’s catalogue, she takes contention with much of what Mme. Saint-Martin delivers. In a curious moment of amateur sociology Nixon proposed that feminism’s emancipatory goals and idea of separate female culture are misguided. To Nixon there is one overarching culture within which “female culture, male culture (like youth culture) are really subcultures”. Nixon, like Toupin, needed to introduce another sexual(ized) category to counterbalance the disturbance which the exhibitions brought to their conceptions of women as artists.
Amongst the press coverage Claude Gosselin’s April 19th article for Le Devoir “Artfemme, ou des artistes-femmes peu…féministes”, was alone in recognizing the exhibition’s intentions. The hyphenated title of artistes-femmes, adopted from the exhibition’s official publication and press material, stressed that the exhibition was firstly concern with women as artists. This hybrid title was further articulated as one that is primarily concern with aesthetic inquiry over sexual categories: “La femme artiste ne semble pas se poser en face de son sujet en tant que femme, mais plutôt en tant qu’artiste…(elle s’insère) dans un démarche qui ne s’adresse pas à son sexe, mais à sa pensèe esthétique et à sa concientisation de phénomànes sociaux.” Gosselin also made space to mention the exhibition’s peripheral events including a paper entitle “Le rôle de la femme dans les arts au Québec” presented by Suzanne Lemerise and future Art et Féminisme curator, Rose Marie Arbour.
More organized and focused than 1975’s cross-institutional efforts, Rose Marie Arbour’s 1982 Art et féminism exhibition brought in advanced academic dialogues on issues of feminism and their manifestations within the visual arts in Québec. The accompanying catalogue was recognized by the Woman’s Art Journal as the first publication in Québec to deal with these topics in a significant way. After visiting the exhibition, Lise Bissonnette for Le Devoir remarked: “Elles son souveraines. C’est par là qu’il faut sortir du musée : on y goûte au temps présent qui permet enfin, qui commence à nous permettre de regarder l’histoire, toutes les histoires, avec détachement. Pas seulement de l’envers, mais d’ailleurs.” Seven years earlier Toupin and Nixon made conflictual demands to the artist of Artfemme ’75, simultaneously asking them to demonstrate that their work maybe incorporated into the standing culture and while proving that their output was in fact distinct from that of men. In turn Bissonnette identified the exciting possibilities that these exhibitions held for the visiting public, an encouragement to entertain and incorporate some disruption during their visit to exhibition and to carry it with them when they leave.
Robin Simpson is currently pursuing graduate studies in Art History at Concordia University, Montreal. His research concerns Rochdale College, once Canada’s countercultural hub and North America’s largest free school, and its intersections with Canadian art in the 1960s and 1970s. He has delivered presentations on his research at University of Toronto’s Art Centre and the Universities Art Association of Canada conference as hosted by the University of Alberta, this February he will be contributing to McGill University’s A Measure of Place: Space in Text and Context graduate conference. He is co-founder of Pavilion Projects (www.pavilionprojects.com), a nomadic and often symbiotic curatorial and arts service initiative, and a founding member of the art collective The Discriminating Gentlemen’s Club / Le Club des Gentilshommes Avertis (www.dgc-cga.org).
Bissonnette, Lise. “Variation sur un même thème.” Le Devoir 3 April 1982.
Gosselin, Claude. “Artfemme, ou des artistes-femmes peu… féministes”. Le Devoir 19 April 1975: 18
Holcomb, Adele M. “Rev. of: Art et Féminisme by Rose Marie Arbour et al.” Women’s Art Journal 2 (1983): 46-9.
Nixon, Virginia. “Women artists or women in the masks of men?” The Gazette 12 April 1975: 50.
Toupin, Gilles. “Le mou, le flou et le délicat…”. La Presse 19 April 1975: D16.
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