Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Fundación Caja Madrid
The history of Western art is full of images of seductive, indulgent, submissive, defeated and enslaved women. But the women whom this exhibition centres on are strong women: active, independent, defiant, inspired, creative, domineering and triumphant. Or, to use a key word that has been at the top of the feminist agenda for the last few decades: this exhibition is interested in images which could be sources of “empowerment” for women themselves. Lists of heroines have a long history, starting with the first catalogues of famous females by Hesiod and Homer, in which women appeared only as “accessories” to the males – as the heroes’ or gods’ mothers and daughters, wives and mistresses. The first compendium of women who were illustrious on their own merit was that in Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus, which followed in the footsteps of Petrarch’s De viris illustribus. Inspired by Boccaccio’s work but intent on correcting his point of view, in 1405 Christine de Pizan wrote the first defence of women to be penned by a woman: The Book of the
City of Ladies. Pardon the anachronism but Christine de Pizan was the first feminist – because she attributed the disadvantages of being a woman not to Mother Nature but to force of habit. Her book led to a long Querelle des Femmes which has lasted seven centuries and is still very much alive.
This exhibition is also a kind of “city of ladies” centred especially on the cycle of modernity, from the 19th century to the present day. Following a non-chronological but thematic order, it explores the backgrounds and aspirations of heroines: the iconography of solitude, work, delirium, sport, war, magic, religion, reading and painting. In each “chapter” artworks from different periods, languages and artistic environments are juxtaposed, providing food for thought on what has changed through those differences and what has remained the same. And in each chapter, one or several voices of women artists, particularly contemporary women, respond to images created by their male counterparts.