Art

Extraordinary California Women Artists Working from 1860 to 1960

An exhibition brings together work by artists whose contributions to art movements and regional histories might have been obscured, forgotten, or overshadowed by those of their male colleagues.

Installation view of Something Revealed: California Women Artists Emerge, 1860-1960 at Pasadena Museum of History (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

PASADENA, Calif. — Pele de Lappe was a teenager when she painted “The Eyes Have It,” a surreal depiction of a woman artist being hung at the hands of a male art critic. The painting is dated circa 1931, around the time she would have befriended Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera during their visit to de Lappe’s native San Francisco. It’s possible that the painting is an outcome of one of Kahlo’s impromptu drawing circles, to which de Lappe was invited. Dreamlike, macabre imagery like the one in the painting was not de Lappe’s signature style, but the artwork contains the seed of social and political consciousness that Kahlo, Rivera, and other mentors would help foster during her lifetime.

Pele de Lappe, “The Eyes Have It” (circa 1931), gouache on artist paper

Among her many life experiences, the artist went on to model for and assist Diego Rivera with his ill-fated “Man at the Crossroads” fresco, which was ordered destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller due to its communist imagery. She also picketed alongside maritime workers and contributed political cartoons for a union newspaper during the 1934 West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike, which led to the unionization of all ports in the West Coast. De Lappe would continue to align her art with her political convictions, becoming an artist in the social realist tradition, working as an illustrator for pro-labor and progressive publications, and co-founding the Graphic Arts Workshop, a cooperative for politically minded printmakers in the Bay Area.

De Lappe is one of more than 100 extraordinary women whose artworks are exhibited in Something Revealed: California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960 at the Pasadena Museum of History. Informed by curator, conservator, and historian Maurine St. Gaudens’s extensive research for her four-volume book, Emerging from the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860–1960, the two-part exhibition brings together work by artists whose contributions to art movements and regional histories might have been obscured, forgotten, or overshadowed by those of their male colleagues. While the exhibition is vast and sprawling, loose themes emerge across the artworks, whether in the artists’ affinity for documenting the region’s diverse communities and urban transformations or their interest in expressing new art forms and trenchant social commentary.

Several paintings in the exhibition serve as historical records of communities long transformed or disappeared. Depictions of Los Angeles’s early Chinatown — before and after its redevelopment as part of the city’s construction of Union Station — appear frequently, although it’s Daisy M. Hughes’s “Wrecking Old Chinatown” from 1951 that marks the near-disappearance of the city’s first neighborhood of Chinese railroad workers and immigrants (the Garnier Building, which now houses the Chinese American Museum, is the only remaining edifice of old Chinatown today). Chavez Ravine, another historic community displaced by city developers, also makes an appearance in the form of paintings depicting idyllic scenes of semi-rural, hillside homes, many of which were owned and inhabited by generations of Mexican Americans (construction of Dodger Stadium in the 1950s ultimately led to their eviction).

Rose Schneider, “Untitled (Fishing Shack, San Diego Harbor, California)” (circa 1935), oil on board

The relationship of these artists to the communities of color they depict aren’t always clear, but in the caption of an untitled painting from 1935 by Rose Schneider, which represents a neighborhood of Japanese immigrants who lived alongside the canneries of San Diego Harbor, we learn that the artist was close with families who’d been forced to live in shantytowns due to discriminatory housing policies. A regular visitor to these fish camps, Schneider produced an entire series of oil paintings documenting the lives of Japanese immigrants whose livelihoods by the sea would ultimately be disrupted by their placement in internment camps during World War II.

While women artists of color don’t appear as frequently in the exhibition’s early historical record, a rare still-life painting from 1890 by Pauline Powell Burns, the first African American artist to exhibit in California, is featured in the museum. A descendent of Joseph Fossett, a blacksmith who worked as a slave under Thomas Jefferson, Powell Burns was a renowned pianist in addition to being a painter whose early death at 40 years old cut short what was otherwise a remarkable career as a largely self-taught artist. Another black woman artist in the exhibition, Beulah Ecton Woodard, was the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (later to become the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). An undated work, “Cowrie Shell Mask,” is representative of Woodard’s creative output inspired by Central and West African cultures. Multi-disciplinary artist, folklorist, and educator Thelma Johnson Streat, whose art is featured alongside Woodard’s, combined modernist forms and folk traditions in her work while pioneering visual arts education programs that celebrated the historical legacies of African Americans.

Installation view of Something Revealed: California Women Artists Emerge, 1860-1960

Like Woodard and Streat, not all artists in the exhibition went unrecognized during their lifetimes. Animator and set designer Mary Blair had a successful career working for Walt Disney, creating concept art and character designs for classic animated features like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, examples of which are presented in the museum. Painters Helen Lundeberg, Dorr Bothwell, and Grace Richardson Clements are also credited as innovators of Post-surrealism, an American school of art that both drew inspiration and broke away from the early 20th century Surrealism of European artists like André Breton. Far less, however, is known about artists like Kathleen Taylor Upper, whose lithographs on paper depict equally surreal and sometimes unsettling imagery of the enigmatic and grotesque, or Boza Hessova, whose 1935 painting “Rising and Vanishing Hollywood” captures the growing (and still continuing) tension between the city’s suburban idyll and urban density.

Ruth Miller Kempster, “Housewife” (circa 1935), oil on canvas

While the relationship between these artworks and broader regional histories can be muddled due to the sheer size and scope of the exhibition, there are plenty of individual stories, formal innovations, and curatorial possibilities to be explored. Ruth Miller Kempster’s painting from 1935, for example, portrays a woman washing dishes, with her child and husband in the background. The almost expressionless rigor with which the woman performs her household task, and the inner life the artist withholds from the viewer, makes the subject a prototype for Jeanne Dielman, the protagonist of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film about the status of women and domestic labor under patriarchy. Just as that film took pains to capture on film much that has historically been excluded from cinema (namely, what is historically considered women’s work), Something Revealed presents a century’s worth of the creative labor and accomplishments of women that might otherwise be hidden or forgotten.

Daisy M. Hughes, “Wrecking Old Chinatown, Los Angeles” (1951), oil on canvas board
Adolphine Sutro Fullerton, “Untitled (Chavez Ravine)” (circa 1940), watercolor on paper
Pauline Powell Burns, “Still Life with Fruit” (circa 1890), oil on canvas
Helen Lundeberg, “The Evanescent” (1941–44), oil on canvas
Kathleen Taylor Upper, “Untitled” (circa 1935), lithograph on paper

Something Revealed: California Women Artists Emerge, 1860-1960 continues at the Pasadena Museum of History (470 West Walnut Street, Pasadena) through March 31.

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