The Jewish Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East side has recently become one of the premier uptown destinations for appreciating good art. Their programming features artists from all over the world that are either Jewish or celebrate the culture’s rich history. Currently, the museum is showcasing London-based artist, Chantal Joffe’s 34 portraits of some of the most powerful women in global history. The series, Portraits of 20th Century Jewish Women, is a part of the museum’s ongoing programming, Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings (you can check out people’s pictures from the exhibit at #usingwalls).
When creating the series, Joffe’s intent wasn’t to replicate hyperreal replicas of the women’s busts, but instead to paint her own depiction of how these women looked during the many different stages of their lives. Joffe chose to represent Diane Arbus, Nancy Spero, Gertrude A. Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Susan Sontag, and Hannah Ardent as both children and adults. The purpose was to implicitly reference the millions of lives, young and old, that were lost in the Holocaust, along with their intellectual and creative contributions to society.
You may be somewhat familiar with the names of women that Joffe chose to paint, but their unique and fascinating personal histories are worth a quick refresher.
Gertrude A. Stein (1874-1946)
This not-so-little-lady had one of the coolest art collections from her time, including Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne, Delacroix, and others. She lived in Europe for the majority of her life writing about gender and sexuality and was openly critical of President FDR’s New Deal, and even once proclaimed that Hitler merited the Nobel Peace Prize. This outspoken, progressive (maybe even a Jewish anti-semetic) woman was a feminist that will likely never be forgotten.
Alice Babette Toklas (1877-1967)
Toklas had a mean mustache and was actually Gertrude Stein’s life partner, which would be why Stein’s memoir is ironically titled, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas“. The two lived a glorified life in Europe, opening a Salon together, befriending legendary authors like Ernest Hemingway, Paul Bowles, Thornton Wilder, and Sherwood Anderson. When Stein died in 1946, Toklas life pretty much dwindled and only remained relevant because of her famous cannabis brownies, which you can find in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
Speaking of legendary authors, Betty is the author of the historically renowned, The Feminine Mystique (yes, that feminist book we all had to read in U.S. History). She also co-founded and was elected as the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her husband, Carl Friedan, was quoted saying, “She changed the course of history almost singlehandedly. It took a driven, super aggressive, egocentric, almost lunatic dynamo to rock the world the way she did.”
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Arbus was the first American photographer to have her work featured in the Venice Biennale (unfortunately, she took her own life one year before). This lady photographer was notorious for capturing images of the “surreal” humans of the world; dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, and circus performers. Because of her choice in subjects, she was both ridiculed and admired by critics.
Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)
This South-African writer and political activist was quite the firecracker. Having published her first book at 15 years old and her first adult fiction novel at 16, it is no surprise that her literary abilities led her to receive Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 (among 25 other awards and honors). Oh, and she also helped write Nelson Mandela’s famous speech, “I Am Prepared To Die” (she was close friends with his defense attorneys during his 1962 trial).
Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
If you haven’t heard of Susan Sontag, the New York-based writer, teacher, and political activist you have most likely heard of her longtime partner, Annie Leibovitz. Sontag’s claim to fame are scripted plays, works of fiction, and her critical essays on photography and other art-related themes. It also may peak your interest to know that she was quoted saying she has been in love nine times; “five women, four men.”
Portraits of 20th Century Jewish Women will be on view until October 25th at the Jewish Museum.