In her series Comparisons (2015-18), Virginia Maksymowicz incorporates images of caryatids and canephorae—columns in the shape of female bodies and of women bearing baskets on their heads—into a catalog of forms that extends beyond the classical examples from the Erechtheion in the Acropolis at Athens. The caryatid upholding a pediment is a rich metaphor: in the artist’s words, it is “the visual summation of human life and women’s fundamental role in supporting it.” The female body as column is structural, essential and subsumed within the design of the building. There is a play between prominence: the female body thrust into the public sphere and subordination: the woman as instrumental to the building’s function. The Comparisons develop this binary with examples drawn from diverse cultures to become a meditation on women’s visibility and invisibility and to extend the exploration of power dynamics that lends to Maksymowicz’s oeuvre a political, feminist edge.
Comparisons risks essentialism in juxtaposing Western and non-Western, ancient and contemporary examples that locate women as part of civilization’s very foundation: as columns and sconces, as bearers of bread, of flowers, of salt. Yet in social, political and economic terms, women wield less power than men. In the introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir examines the persistence of women’s marginal position as men’s Other: “Throughout history [women] have always been subordinate to men, and hence the dependency is not the result of a historical event or a social change—it was not something that occurred.”(1) Her translator, H. M. Parshley, notes that there are “rare exceptions, perhaps” to Beauvoir’s sweeping claim: “certain matriarchal rulers, queens, and the like.”(2) Hypothetical outliers aside, Beauvoir observes that women’s Otherness is so pervasive as to seem beyond questioning. A supposedly natural order of things may change, she writes, but women must unite to challenge their lot and that women live among men, sharing their interests as well as legal and social binds, makes organized female resistance almost unimaginable.(3) The juxtapositions in Maksymowicz’s Comparisons bring women together, pointing to shared experience.
Beauvoir points to women’s ties to men and implication in patriarchal society as hindrances to gender solidarity. Today, intersectional feminism cautions that gender is inflected by race, class, sexuality and myriad other factors that mitigate against women finding common cause on the basis of gender alone. Maksymowicz poses comparisons as a means to draw connections, such as a classical caryatid whose headdress resembles the one worn by a Russian woman performing a traditional bread and salt welcoming ceremony, or a folk figurine who bears loaves of bread in a basket on her head, like a canephora from the Vatican. These overlaid photographs, the result of extensive research and documentation, visualize a continuity in the way women are positioned within patriarchal structures. Far from being deterministic, however, their double layers of fluttering silk suggest movement and openness to change. The image pairs are provisional; hung in a row, they can be imagined in different combinations. For all the work her source material does to fix women into essential yet subordinate positions, Maksymowicz’s installation resituates and frees them.
As with architecture, the history of art is another field where women are visible and invisible at once. Since the 19th century, the female nude has been the prime site for innovation in European and American avant-garde art. History of Art (1983 -), which feminist art critic Arlene Raven described as “[Maksymowicz’s] first piece to be seen widely and over time…an image that challenges and criticizes the entire history of art” posits the female body as the ground for Western art’s evolution. The work consists of photographs of canonical artworks painted on female torsos made of cast paper: cave paintings, Byzantine mosaics, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, compositions in the style of Picasso and Pollock, among many others. The artist models the piece, unbuttoning her shirt to reveal the artwork underneath, her torso cropped at the neck and hips. With breathtaking critical economy, Maksymowicz at once restates the absence of female art-makers in art history surveys, situates the female body as the literal support for the canon of Western art history and introduces an element of sexual enticement in the act of opening her blouse.
The feminist art collective Guerrilla Girls asked in a brash graphic from 1989, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” Their data indicated it was likely so: “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” In “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas,” written the same year the Guerrilla Girls posed their question, feminist art historian Carol Duncan argues that the prevalence of the female nude in 20th century avant-garde painting as presented by the Museum of Modern Art codes the museum as a masculine space and furthermore defines “the larger project of modern art as primarily a male endeavor.”(4) Women are terrifyingly seductive in Willem de Kooning’s Woman series from the early 1950s and in Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), and Duncan observes that these representations continue a lineage that extends back to the Gorgons on Greek temples, if not before. Women are largely excluded as creators in the works on display, and consequently, the masculine perspective prevails to tell this story that is then understood as ostensibly universal.
Maksymowicz’s architectural installations do not allow the gallery or museum to be neutral with regard to gender. She imposes a female body into the space to intervene in the positioning of the nude as a passive vehicle for masculine ambition or universalizing ambition. Her female nudes are neither shocking nor grotesque as portrayed by the male painters of the 20th century vanguard, not devouring mothers or castrating sirens. They are plain, white casts of a woman’s body from the waist or midriff to her feet, serene and implacable. Installed at the Phillips Museum of Art in 2002, the bodies in Peripheral Vision stand on pedestals which are oriented upright, sideways and upside down in dimly lit corners of the galleries. They worked on the audience subliminally, glanced at and easily overlooked. Combinational Structures (2006) arranged three nudes around a structural column at the Sculpturesite Gallery in Sonoma, California. These could be load-bearing, with rectilinear columns reaching from floor to ceiling above and below the figures and are more assertive than the earlier piece.
The mixed media print series Appiades (2014) represent female nudes in Italian fountains. Their demeanor varies from restrained to playful, even sensual. They are adjacent to the water basin, or water flows out of their breasts or mouths. Some of the figures refer to classical goddesses or nymphs. As with Maksymowicz’s other women in/as architecture pieces, these nudes are multivalent: they provide a resource that is literally life-sustaining, and they are sources of visual pleasure; they are decorative parts of the fountain’s design and allude to mythical narratives. Like the Comparisons, they treat architectural details that seem incidental as important. Maksymowicz highlights the conventions through which women’s bodies are incorporated into buildings and consequently denaturalizes them. Her work challenges art and architecture’s claims to universality by reappraising the female bodies that are their foundations.
Margo Hobbs is Associate Professor of Art History at Muhlenberg College, where she teaches courses in modern and contemporary art. Her writing on art, gender, sexuality and feminism has been published in Art History, n.paradoxa, Genders and GLQ. She edited a special issue of the Journal of Lesbian Studies on lesbians and art in 2010. Most recently, her chapter “The Blatant Image and the Question of Visual Pleasure” appeared in Queer Theory and Visual Culture: Rethinking Identity and the Sexed Body, edited by Christopher Reed and Jongwoo Jeremy Kim for Routledge. Her current research interests include feminist photography and erotic art made by and for women.
Hobbs earned her Ph.D. in art history at Northwestern University, with her dissertation on female body imagery in the feminist art movement. She has an M.A. in modern art history, theory and criticism from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a B.A. in liberal arts from St. John’s College, Annapolis.
(1) Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), xviii
(3) Ibid. xix
(4) Carol Duncan. “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas.” Art Journal 48, no. 2 (1989): 192