This week in Washington DC, USF Museum Studies Professor Paula Birnbaum will present her most recent research on feminist art in the Middle East at the annual feminist art conference at American University. This blog post celebrates the genesis of her work as well as her recent award from the University of San Francisco.
It was the late 1980s. Why were no female artists included in H.W. Janson’s popular art history survey, History of Art? Why, when 65% of professionals working in museums were women, were only 5% of the works on display in major art museums attributed to female artists? These questions inspired Paula Birnbaum’s books, Women Artists in Interwar France: Framing Femininities (Ashgate Publishing, May, 2011) and co-edited anthology entitled Essays on Women’s Artists Artistic an Cultural Contributions (Mellen Publishing, 2009). On the basis of her contributions to the inclusion of a diverse group of creative women in art publications, museum acquisitions, collections, and exhibitions, Dr. Birnbaum was awarded USF’s 2014 Distinguished Research Award.
The seed for Women Artists in Interwar France grew from Birnbaum’s research on Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938), a popular French painter of the female nude during the years between the two World Wars. As she explored how Valadon’s working-class background as an artist’s model for painters such as Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec had impacted her work, Birnbaum suspected that there were others like her—women who had negotiated their artistic careers through untraditional means—or whose reputations were overshadowed by more famous male partners and colleagues. She was right, but there was little information available on the topic of women artists, Parisian or otherwise. Sifting through thousands of documents, Birnbaum began to compose Women Artists in Interwar France and illuminate the importance of a group of over one hundred international women artists who exhibited their work in Paris between the World Wars. The book returns this group to its proper place in the history of modern art. In particular, it explores how artists of diverse generations and backgrounds reimagined art’s conventions (themes such as the nude, motherhood, and the self-portrait) and changed the direction of both art history and the politics of their contemporary art world. Informed by postcolonial theories of feminism and diaspora, the book has been praised by numerous prominent critics in the field for injecting discussions of gender, race, class and sexual orientation into the study of modernism.
Birnbaum’s forthcoming biography/monograph of the sculptor Chana Orloff (1888-1968) as well as a series of articles on contemporary artists working in the Middle East show how women negotiate diaspora identities and experiences in light of their own experiences of ethnicity, gender, religious background and other factors. Through extensive research through archives, press clippings, and first-hand interviews with artists and their families, Birnbaum’s work offers a much-needed account of global women’s contributions to the history of art, modernism and to their contemporary societies. As Brian Foss, Director of the School of Art and Culture at Concordia University, writes in Art History (January 2014): “Scholars such as Birnbaum are to be to be thanked for providing thoroughly researched and cogently argued reminders of what feminist art history has to teach about the procedures and politics of inclusiveness.”