A Swiss exhibition presents the ‘female gaze’ an art form

‘Ich Und Mein Modell (I and My Model)’ by Lotte Laserstein (1929-1930). — Picture courtesy of Fondation Beyeler and ProLitteris

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PARIS, Sept 25 — Does a female painter have a different view than that of one of her male colleagues? The Fondation Beyeler attempts to answer this question with the exhibition “Close-Up.” It brings together the work of nine women artists, including Cindy Sherman, Berthe Morisot and Frida Kahlo.

“Close-Up” is an exhibition that requires the onlooker to pay particular, close attention. The exhibit is all about the gaze, and more precisely about the “female gaze.” This term, used in feminist circles and on social networks, isn’t new. It appeared in reaction to the famous “male gaze” that the British feminist critic and director Laura Mulvey theorized about in 1975.

The “female gaze” is an approach that deconstructs the mechanisms of patriarchal and Western dominance at work in the arts. Curator Theodora Vischer has decided to explore this feminine-ist concept through a hundred portraits and self-portraits created between 1870 and today.

In less than two centuries, women have emancipated themselves from the domestic sphere and have given themselves the means to access the profession of artist. This change has been reflected in the evolution of portraiture, which also began to address important societal issues. 

Changes in perspective

The paintings of French artist Berthe Morisot and American artist Mary Cassatt illustrate this phenomenon. Both helped shape Impressionism and became important role models for later generations of painters. Most of Morisot’s works in “Close-Up” were painted between 1869 and 1885. Her models were very often family members, servants and young women from her circle of acquaintances. 

Mary Cassatt also depicted her relatives — most often female — in her paintings. But what was new and original in her work was how the artist portrayed them. Whatever they were doing — reading, drinking tea, watching or doing nothing — they appear as subjects of modern life.

“Today that may not sound so special, but then in those times it was incredibly important,” Theodora Vischer told the New York Times. “They created a shift, a change in perspective, from being the model, the person a painter is looking at, to being the painter herself.”

The “Close-Up” exhibition is organised chronologically, with each artist given their own room. Among them are Paula Modersohn-Becker, Lotte Laserstein, Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, Marlene Dumas, Cindy Sherman and Elizabeth Peyton. “While the exhibition does not intend to provide a history of portraiture since the inception of modernity, each of the artists’ bodies of work presents a specific form of portraiture that is rooted in and arises from their respective time,” outlined the Beyeler Foundation in a press release. So many different “female gazes” différents.

The exhibition “Close-Up” runs until January 2 at the Beyeler Foundation in Riehen, near Basel. — ETX Studio