Graphic by, Aurora Noctua
Happy Women’s Equality Day, readers! Exactly 100 years ago, the 19 th Amendment was certified; ensuring that state and federal government cannot deny a citizen the right to vote based on their sex. This was the result of a large-scale civil rights movement that (formally) began in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The 19th and 20th century women’s suffrage movement was a massive, international struggle composed of activist groups as far away as Australia and as local as Lexington, Kentucky. (Fun fact: I just recently discovered that my great-grandmother was a suffragette from Somerset, Kentucky!) Around the world, organized groups of women rose up and demanded that their governments recognize them as full human beings under the law. The Movement for Women’s Suffrage highlighted structural inequalities that have further marginalized women and silenced their voices throughout history.
Suffragists from Madison, Fayette, and Franklin Counties.
In honor of Women’s Equality Day, I want to highlight a few late 20 th and 21 st century women artists that I find particularly interesting. Since today honors the American Women’s Suffrage Movement, I’ve chosen American artists (or in the case of one, an artist working in America).
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927)
Popularly known as “the Baroness,” this larger-than-life artist was a major figure in New York’s Dadaist art scene. A sculptor, performance artist, and poet; Freytag-Loringhoven is often credited as the inventor of the “ready-made” – a sculpture pulled from the materials of everyday life. Born in Germany, the Baroness moved to the US in 1910 after helping her second husband fake his own death. (Interestingly, Kentucky was the first place they lived when they immigrated to the US.) She was famous for her absurd sense of humor and her boundary-pushing definition of art. In a letter to fellow artist Sarah Freedman McPherson, the Baroness wrote “Sarah, if you find a tin can on the street, stand by it until a truck runs it over. Then bring it to me.” Though long ignored in the history of art, Freytag-Loringhoven is now recognized as being an important influence on the work of Marcel Duchamp. One scandalous theory claim that Duchamp’s most famous work, The Fountain, was made in collaboration with the Freytag. Though the jury is still out, The Fountain bears a remarkable similarity to Freytag’s work which was often bawdy, sexual, and otherwise unseemly.
Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890-1960)
This important but too-often-overlooked American sculptor was the first women of color to graduate from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Prophet’s career was marked by a deep commitment to creative independence that saw her move from New York, to Paris, and finally to Atlanta. She’s most famous for her figurative sculptures and busts, which convey an intense but restrained emotional response to feelings of depression, loneliness, and isolation.
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet
During her life, she moved between periods of relative to fame to relative obscurity. Often unable to hire live models to sculpt, she worked mostly from her imagination. Her figures are often ethnically ambiguous, reflecting what some scholars see as her complicated relationship to her African and Native American heritage. Describing her artistic philosophy, Prophet wrote “The principles of the arts which are form, rhythm, harmony; and the abstract qualities, some of which are poise and courage, are factors which no civilized man who aspires to be educated can live successfully without attaining.”
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Discontent, 1929
Carrie Mae Weems (1953-Present)
Carrie Mae Weems is a multi-media African American artist working with text, fabric, audio, digital images, and video installation. She’s best known, however, for her work in photography. Since the mid 1980s, Weems has used visual and verbal narratives to address the black experience of racial and gender stereotyping here in the US. Her work explores possible methods for black women’s liberation and self discovery by engaging African American folklore as well as American culture at large.
Carrie Mae Weems, From The Kitchen Table Series
One of her most famous works, The Kitchen Table Series, documented the artist sitting at her kitchen table in various scenarios. Throughout the course of about two years, we follow Weems through her relationships with her lover, her friends, and her daughter. The series intimately repositions and reimagines how the black experience has often been depicted in mainstream American culture. It explores the intersection of blackness and womanhood in contemporary American culture. Reflecting on the series, Weems writes “I use my body as a landscape to explore the complex realities of the lives of women,” and “At the end of the day, it has a great deal to do with the breadth of the humanity of African-Americans who are usually stereotyped and narrowly defined and often viewed as a social problem.”
Though I’ve only talked about three artists within the vast story of feminist art history, I hope
that it inspires you to do your own research. On this Women’s Equality Day, let’s express our
gratitude for the women throughout history that have raised their voices (both audibly and
visually) to envision a more just society.
To see contemporary work by local women artists, consider checking out our virtual Herself Exhibition at: https://lexingtonartleague.wixsite.com/herself
Sources: UofK Archive, and Artstor
Author: Aaron Reynolds
Aaron Reynolds is the curatorial intern for the Lexington Art League. He holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and visual studies from the University of Kentucky, and is now working towards an MFA in curatorial studies.
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