“Remembering the Ladies” Series – 20th Century Female Artists, Making Art Through Adversity

The 20th century was a pivotal period for the advancement of the female cause – women’s suffrage was achieved with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, the First and Second World Wars showcased the perseverance of women and their capability to be effective in the workforce, and federal legislation would be enacted throughout the century that would protect the legal and human rights of women. Though the status of women increased nominally, in actuality many women found themselves suffocating under what they considered to be the same circumstances that had obstructed former generations of women; pressured to marry, be a mother, embark on marginalized career paths such as secretary or nurse (if at all), and acquiesce to the conditions laid before them. Certain women, however, were unresponsive to these provocations and set out to represent the female struggle in a corporeal form. A combative effort was made by female artists in the 20th century to not only express the female experience, but throw off the bonds of oppression.

Augusta Savage was a prominent Black sculptor in the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Florida in 1892, her father was a Methodist preacher who did not support his daughter’s early and consistent interest in art. Savage would recall later in an interview that he “almost whipped all the art out of me”. Despite the minimal support from her family, Savage would earn a distinction for one of her sculptures at the West Palm Beach County Fair in 1919 after which she moved to New York City to pursue a full-time career in art. 

Augusta Savage, circa 1930s.

The “Roaring Twenties” were the time in Savage’s career when she produced her most noteworthy work; as essentially the only American sculptor who focused on representing Black physiognomy in this period, as well as a recognized figure within the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Savage produced busts of fellow activists W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Her best-known work from this interval in her career was Gamin, an unofficial bust of her nephew Ellis Ford that earned her the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris in 1929. She would study in Europe for the next three years, returning to New York in 1932 to establish the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts.

Gamin, 1929, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

For Savage, her artistic expressions were less driven by the subordinate position of women in society. Rather, her works sought to render the experience of African Americans within the dominant white society of the early 20th century. In the 1930’s, Savage’s talent for sculpture launched her into the national spotlight, as she became the first African American inducted into the National Association of Women Painters in 1934 and was appointed the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937. Two years later, she would be commissioned by the New York World’s Fair committee to create a sculpture representing the musical contributions of African Americans in the United States. Savage’s final product was The Harp – inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, this sixteen foot tall sculpture featured 12 Black chorus singers as the strings on a harp attached to a sounding board in the shape of a hand, meant to be the hand of God. A thirteenth Black man kneels at the base of the harp holding a music bar. Unfortunately, The Harp was destroyed at the conclusion of the World’s Fair in 1940, a typical feature of these events whose exhibits are meant to be ephemeral.

The Harp on display at the World’s Fair in New York City, 1939.
Savage sculpting “The Harp” in her workshop, 1939.

A second female artist that was concerned with the value and perception of women in society was Judy Chicago. In the 1960’s as a recent college graduate, Chicago noted that within the art world there lacked a true representation of the female experience; she found historical representation of women in art distasteful and downright demeaning. Over-sexualized, irrevocably demure, consistently nude, and acceptably downtrodden is how Chicago observed women to be portrayed in paintings by men, and she chose to do something about it. She would write later that this potent desire to reshape the image of women in art as well as art created by women emerged from “society’s definition of me as a woman [being] in conflict with my own sense of personhood”. It was from this internal struggle that Chicago would will into existence the Feminist Art Movement.

Judy Chicago in her workshop, 1970s.

In 1970 Chicago earned a teaching position at CSU Fresno and immediately began a Feminist Art Program within the Art Department, the first in the nation. It was here that the goals of the artist were solidified in her mind: collaborate with female artists to rework the narrative surrounding women in art and force the institution to recognize the input of female artists. Chicago wanted her students to “confront those aspects of their socialization as women that prevented them from taking themselves seriously and setting ambitious goals”. After her brief stint at CSU Fresno, Chicago would move to Southern California to begin teaching at CalArts in Valencia in 1971 – it is here that the Womanhouse project began. Under Chicago’s direction, CalArts purchased an abandoned seventeen-room house in Hollywood with the intent “to transform it into an environment that expressed women’s experiences within their traditional domain” – the home. Each room in the home was transformed – stereotypical identifiers of “womanhood” were dominant in each room. Nurturant Kitchen, Menstruation Bathroom, and Linen Closet are just some of the projects that were contained within Womanhouse. By depicting the home as a trap for women, Chicago and her collaborators sought to redress the acceptable boundaries of womanhood and evoke a sensation of mental freedom from the restraints of the past.

Judy Chicago and fellow artist/co-creator Miriam Shapiro outside the “Womanhouse” exhibit, 1972.
Linen Closet, Womanhouse, 1972.

Augusta Savage and Judy Chicago changed the art world forever. While Savage received and dispelled inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance, giving a voice to African Americans through her art, and Chicago defiantly resisted the limitations placed on female artists to accurately display the tribulations of the female sex, both created art through adversity that has withstood the test of time.

Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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