Words by Zoe Evans
While visiting in Florence, browsing the Palazzo Pitti is a must. Of course, it’s amazing to walk through the history of western art and see works by famous artists like Titian and Raphael, but it’s also an overwhelming reminder that the canon of renowned artists has a very limited demographic. Since the most represented artists -- especially in galleries of historical western artworks-- are wealthy, white, cis-gender men, I found the Palazzo Pitti’s two exhibitions dedicated to female artists to be a refreshing breather.
Contemporary art: Kiki Smith
What I Saw on the Road is an exhibition of work by Kiki Smith, an American artist who became well known in the 1980s and who continues her practice today.
“What I Saw on the Road offers a selection of her more recent output, the result of an in-depth change in her expression and style. The protagonist now is Nature as a container and generating force. . . where hierarchies have been abolished” the displayed artist statement explains.
Much of Smith’s work in this exhibition relates women with symbolism of nature, like repeated appearances of animals and stars within woven cotton tapestries. Textiles were long considered a female craft, and even today textile works are stereotyped as a feminine field. This context makes the material itself symbolic of ‘womanhood’, creating a connection between women and the elements of nature depicted within the textile pieces.
Looking back: Female Perspectives
We got lucky and happened to visit on the second to last day of Palazzo Pitti’s Female Perspectives exhibition, which ran from March 7th to May 26th.
The curational statement explained “The exhibition celebrates women’s creativity and its public success between the end of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th, providing an innovative overview of the world of women at work.”
Different sections of the gallery focused on different areas of women’s successes. One corner housed works from and about Elisa Pante, one of the first female photographers. Technological advancements in cameras made photography a more accessible medium to women than other mediums (painting, for instance). Pante took advantage of her access to a field which had not yet been dominated by men and began by photographing her husband’s paintings. From there she moved onto her own subject matter, and later printed her photos on small objects like fans and cushions.
Another corner of the gallery focused on the need for accurate background knowledge about women in order to properly analyze artworks. Working-class women’s clothing of this time period is often not considered, but it is a very important part of understanding artworks. For example, working-class women wore pinafores, which they used to communicate discreetly.
“If she shook it vertically, it meant that the deeds or words of the third party being discussed in the conversation had nothing to do with her: in both cases she was simulating the gesture to shoo away flies, which were always considered the very worst kind of insect”
The exhibition also contained some works by men which depicted women in atypical ways. Bernardo Clenentano’s painting Transvestite Model (Figure in an interior) shows a woman dressed in baggy, slouching clothing which would have typically been worn by a man. Carlo Stratta’s Arachne depicts a woman making direct eye contact with the painting’s audience, as she sits among her own, created space. Giving a female subject reign over her own territory, and awareness of herself and others around her (while seemingly a bare-minimum achievement) is something that had not been of concern to many male artists, and even today is disregarded in many male-directed works.
Seeing works by female artists and works that show women in a way that is not explicitly sexual, mythical, or biblical is a critical (and my favorite) part of seeing the art history within Palazzo Pitti. When overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending works by wealthy, educated, white men of the past in such a limited perspective, Female Perspectives helps us remember that there were female artists, and that we need to celebrate them and recognize them today.
I applaud the museum’s curation of such exhibitions, as they cause the visitors to reflect on the lack of focus on and representation of women in the history of art, and to see for themselves the need for attention to women now and in the future. However, these exhibitions were focused solely on white women, and lacked critical context and representation of minority groups, such as black, brown, and LGBTQ+ women and people. I hope that their next exhibitions will give even greater attention to other disenfranchised groups of people, along with their roles and successes in historical and contemporary art.