09 February 2013



There are generations, and cities, and peoples,
Sad and old –
That left us no great masterworks,
But -  a few pots!
In a museum a lady stands with a parasol
Before such a pot;
While in Sicily (even though Polish!...) she doesn’t know
Upon whom she treads!...
When peoples – you’ve no pity about their fate
In epoch’s chasms –
Vanish – like the butler who serves the plate
To the esteemed Madame."
-         dated  Day 3, year 1869, Cyprian Norwid, from Poems,  translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt, Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2011.

Like his more famous compatriot Chopin, (Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883) chose a life of exile, traveling throughout Europe. Russia, Prussia, and Austria had divided Poland in the 18th century, much as Germany was to be divided for a time in the 20th century,  with the addition of suppression of the Polish language.  A battalion of the Russian Army sacked the Zamoysky Palace in Warsaw, throwing all its treasures out the windows, including the grand piano that Frederic Chopin had played.  He died in a Polish hospice in Paris.)

There are hundreds of art galleries in Manhattan and even more hundreds of women who work in them.   This unremarkable fact became the occasion for something like ridicule in October.  Vogue dubbed the women who work for global art dealer Larry Gagosian, the "Gagosiannes" in an article.  Not to be outdone, New York's The Cut, a fashion blog, suggested that the women were more enjoyable to look at than the art on the gallery walls.   And, coincidentally, Mindy Kaling in her New Yorker piece Flick Chicks, included "The Woman Who Works In An Art Gallery" in a list of characters who appear in movies but don't actually exist.  Like the dodo bird, perhaps?    And yet, the term "gallerina", a diminutive that used to refer to women who dabbled in art appreciation, is commonly used to denote a lack of seriousness among all those women who do, in fact, work in galleries and museums. 
When Edgar Degas painted his friend - and fellow artist - Mary Cassatt - touring the Louvre Museum in 1879, women were only beginning to venture to public spaces without male escorts.  A common theme in Art Nouveau posters and drawings is the woman perusing works for sale at an art gallery and, it should be understood as it was by contemporaries, the woman was engaged in a slightly risque activity.  The arched eyebrow, the knowing look, the smirk of complicity; all these are subtle ques that suggest a departure from the normal order and something a bit risible.  Old habits die hard.

1. Edgar Degas - Mary Cassatt At The Louvre, 1879, private collection.
2.Amphora, ca. 27 BCE - 68 CE, a pot of Roman or Etruscan origin, Metropolitan Museumof Art, NYC.


Casey Klahn said...

Wonderfully blogged. I never knew the societal risk hinted at in this venerable Degas image, and how rich am I now after reading here.

Jane said...

Thank you, Casey. "Nouveau Risque", an exhibition just opened at Lowe Art Gallery at Syracuse University,deals with this very subject. We forget how quickly things have changed in the last century - or even during our own lifetimes.