“What do women hold?” asks artist and writer Maira Kalman at the start of her latest book. She searches for the answer through portraiture. Kalman starts by painting anonymous women who represent her prompt in its most literal sense, clutching books and balloons and garden shears. Gradually her subjects become more identifiable and their assets more abstract: Natalia Ginzburg holds strong; Virginia Woolf barely holds it together; Gertrude Stein, hunched over her desk, “hold[s] true to herself / writing things very few people / liked or even read.” And interspersed throughout are contemplative asides about Paul and Hortense Cezanne, Kalman’s mother and mother-in-law, her recurring dreams, and her walks through Central Park.
Women Holding Things, expanded from the 2021 limited-edition booklet of the same name, is Kalman at her best. By turns whimsical and poignant, the book combines two of her most consistent subjects: women and beloved objects (an amalgam, perhaps, of two of her previous illustrated books, Girls Standing on Lawns and My Favorite Things, both published in 2014). The central project of Women Holding Things concerns lineage. Her granddaughters, daughter, mother, aunts, and grandmother all appear in portraits throughout the book. What hold does history have on us? What do the women who came before us — kindred and otherwise — illuminate about ourselves? What do we inherit from our families, from the greater sorority of which all women are part? Kalman gets unusually personal as she works through these questions, reflecting on everything from her father’s infidelity to her relatives lost in the Holocaust.
So what do women hold? According to Kalman, they hold court, they hold opinions, they hold their own. They hold painful histories and clandestine dreams, the weight of responsibilities and obligations, of generations that came before. They hold themselves and one another. They hold everything together. “You may be exhausted from holding things …,” writes Kalman, to herself as much as her reader. “Hold on.”
Women Holding Things by Maira Kalman (2022) is published by Harper Design and is available online and in bookstores.