Undoing stereotypes

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THE art world still doesn't quite know what to make of women artists. True enough, overt hostility and indifference toward them are on the decline. And there is less and less talk about whether women are capable of artistic greatness. In other areas, however, things remain much as before. A patronizing attitude toward them and what they produce, for instance, still prevails in certain quarters of the gallery and museum world. It may be subtle and manifest itself as surprised delight at any evidence of genuine talent or accomplishment, or it can be blatant and take the form of flattery or other exaggerated expression of respect.

It is most destructive, however, when it appears to champion women artists and then proceeds to undermine their true strength, identity, or prestige by presenting them in a subtly distorted manner. When, for instance, it represents them as ``sensitive'' and charming as opposed to strong or significant. Or when it insists that their creativity lies almost exclusively in the direction of the intuitive and warm-hearted rather than in the intellectual and profound.

Inevitably, such stereotypes demean all those to whom they are applied. A large, beautifully mounted, and well-publicized exhibition of women artists, for instance, that stresses their lyricism and delicacy of touch at the expense of more solid and forceful traits, pays them no compliment, for it does little but perpetuate the myth of male supremacy in matters of depth and impact.

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The fact that women can paint or sculpt as ``powerfully'' as men - and without any ``unnatural'' straining on their part - still does not sit too well with many in the art community. Leave sensitivity and loveliness to the women and strength and importance to the men is their motto.

Their argument ignores the fact that a number of the past century's most subtle and introspective artists have been men, and some of its most powerful and provocative have been women. Based on style alone, who could possibly identify the works of Redon, Whistler, Klimt, Morandi, Klee, Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and Calder as by men? And who could identify those of Bonheur, Cassatt, Modersohn-Becker, Liubov Popova, Kollwitz, Neel, Joyce Treiman, Lee Krasner, and Nancy Graves - among many others - as the products of women?

It simply cannot be done. The only possible giveaway would be subject matter - Cassatt's preference for young mothers with their children, for instance, or Kollwitz's numerous self-portraits. Outside of that, our best clues to the gender of these artists is a quick glance at their signatures, or better still, the labels that accompany their works.

No one transcended sexual stereotyping more successfully than K"athe Kollwitz. Right from the start, from the time she was still in her teens, she confronted life squarely through her art and without the rose-colored glasses the male-dominated society of her time decreed were appropriate for women artists.

By the time she was in her late 20s, she was deeply involved in a series of dramatic black-and-white prints that still stand among the most scathing attacks ever made against society's evils, particularly indifference to poverty and the suffering of others. A number of these, especially ``Poverty,'' ``Weavers on the March,'' and ``Riot'' (all from 1897), are not only among the world's most powerful and uncompromising prints, but also among its best.

She was, however, only warming up for what was to be a long and extraordinarily productive career that ultimately saw her achieve both worldwide fame as a graphic artist and professional degradation at the hands of Hitler. Her lifetime production was enormous. A 1980 catalog of her drawings describes and illustrates 1,356 of them, and she is known to have made 267 etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs - many of them in various states - as well as a few sculptures.

She was seldom without vigorous critical support, although, quite understandably, most writers focused on her provocative and occasionally disturbing subject matter and took her remarkable drawing and print-making skills pretty much for granted. And yet it is in her draftsmanship and in her ability to distill and compress profound and frequently overwhelming emotion into relatively small and compact black-and-white images that her true greatness as an artist lies.

What others often failed to do in huge canvases or in murals, she consistently succeeded in doing in prints that seldom exceeded the size of this page, and that often consisted of little more than a few bold strokes of a lithographic crayon. For sheer, concentrated emotional impact, no other draftsman of the 20th century except Picasso could match her, and only a handful in the entire history of Western art could surpass her.

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