Miriam Schapiro's "feminography": collaborations, costumes, and the construction of self

Miriam Schapiro, entering the art world in the 1950s at a time when the dominant American art was extremely abstract and largely produced by men, made the position of the woman as an artist in the twentieth century and the position of the woman as a woman in twentieth century culture central ideas in her work.  She does this through her use of images which suggest female activities and crafts, her evocation of the work of earlier women artists in her own, and her creation of works which are extremely ornate and decorative (qualities which are often condemned in art but which are found in many of the textile crafts associated with "women's work").

Taken together, her works, like those of Faith Ringgold, generally defy categorization in terms of traditional media (sculpture, painting, graphics).* The word Schapiro invented to describe her medium was "femmage" using this to refer to the combination of paint and fabric in compositions with a theme or meaning that pertained to women, taking her imagery and icons primarily from the women's sphere of culture and life: quilts, houses, clothing, fans. Her collaborative artworks are made in this vein: she collaborates with the work of female artists whom she wants to place in an artistic genealogy with herself. Such works serve two purposes for Schapiro: they allow her to pay homage to artists whose legacy she wants to preserve, and they provide her with a framework for an introspective search and the attempt to construct her own artistic persona.

femmage: (feminine + collage) composition of paint, fabric, and other materials with deliberate reference to feminine imagery or icons

Schapiro: Mary Cassatt and Me, 1976 Schapiro: My Fan is Half a Circle (from the Mother Russia series), 1994 Aleksandra Ekster: costume designs for a 1917 production of Salome

Her earliest collaboration was with Mary Cassatt in the mid-seventies.  (Note that when Schapiro uses the word "collaboration," she is not referring to a verbal or conversational agreement with the artist, since the artists she chooses are no longer living.  She uses the word as a metaphorical description of her use of the earlier artist's work.)  Schapiro's early collaborations were small collages, 20 by 30 inches, using a cut-out reproduction of a work made by a female artist of the past such as Mary Cassatt. The woman in the reproduction is usually engaged in some domestic activity or space; in Schapiro's collaboration, she is surrounded by photographs of places and things associated with Schapiro's life.  The composition creates a flattened space with a frame around the interior space containing the reproduction so that it reads, in the end, much like a window onto another scene, or a shrine/cabinet which has been represented as two-dimensional space.

She collaborates with many other artists, including Russian women artists (such as Ekster), a subject which may have been particularly meaningful, less because of her own Russian roots (through her grandparents) than because the female Russian artists she includes in her "genealogy" all worked with fabric as part of their political and ideological program as artists. These Russian influences are also critical to her theatrical, performance and dance series, not only for their style but for the metaphor of performance and the imagery of dance.  In the Russian collaborations (as well as her Frida Kahlo collaborations), Schapiro does not use a reproduction of the artist's work and make a collage.  The Russian collaborations and the Kahlo collaborations are entirely painted by Schapiro.

Performing an autobiography and finding a face?

Schapiro: I'm Dancin' as Fast as I Can, 1984 Schapiro: Moving Away, 1985

In this group of three paintings, Schapiro attempts to visualize her creative development through the imagery of theater and dance, media which have direct and indirect allusions to ideas about performance and masquerading as part of the process of constructing oneself and constructing gender. I'm Dancin' as Fast as I Can: the figure which represents Schapiro is fragmented, breaking into pieces, and caught between a male and female dancer. The male dancer appears to be marching off stage, while the female dancer is attached to the central figure by a rope-the symbol of an umbilical cord.. Although tied to one figure, the central figure seems to be pulling away from her, wanting to go after the man. The fragmentation can suggest two things: being torn apart, or coming together and becoming a self. If becoming, she is becoming herself in a position which is in-between the male and female dancers. No matter which way we see her, as being drawn to follow the male dancer or tied to the female dancer, it is a conflicted position which holds the possibility of further construction, presumably through art.
Moving Away does not include the male dancer. The mother figure is fully costumed in the masquerade of feminity. The younger woman appears to have rejected this masquerade, in her body, her costume, and her movement away from the figure on the left. But can she succeed, and how real is this attempt to escape, given the two-dimensionality of the figures, the hint of real space on the floor of the stage but immediately denied by the flat and patterned background?

Schapiro: Master of Ceremonies, 1985

Master of Ceremonies includes all three figures again. The male is in the center, the focus of attention, the mother figure is peripheral and even more fully part of the masquerade of feminity which the daughter has rejected in her costume, her position, and her movement. Yet this time the background is fractured.  Although the Schapiro figure holds a palette, she is more like a cloth doll, without a spine, than a strong person. The lights on the floor of the stage look like flaming pots, and one has to wonder if this image is an image of successful separation and construction of role and gender identity or the opposite.  It is, afterall, almost an apocalypse, with the leaning buildings in the background, but one which is masked by the performance of the theater.

Collaborating with Kahlo

photograph of Frida Kahlo (taken by Imogen Cunningham, 1931) detail from Conservatory photograph of Miriam Schapiro (ca. 1980)

Conservatory uses a fictional Frida; it evokes Frida's own paintings but is not a representation of any of them.  Frida sits enthroned and surrounded by the objects and icons of her Mexican life and her paintings.  In presenting Frida as a goddess, Schapiro seems to be creating a utopian statement about women and art, and a statement about herself since she has united her own facial features with those of Frida. Yet, we sense that there is some ambivalence or ambiguity in this image, given the presence of the goddess of birth and death: Tlazeoteot'l.

Schapiro: Conservatory (Portrait of Frida Kahlo), 1988
Kahlo: The Broken Column, 1944 Schapiro: The Agony in the Garden, 1991

The Agony in the Garden uses one of Kahlo’s most despairing and difficult images, a female body in pain, but as we have already seen, the meaning of Kahlo’s painting may not be despairing.  Schapiro’s rendering of this image is certainly less despairing in a visual sense than Kahlo’s – Schapiro has replaced the desert background with a garden which would seem to evoke creativity and productivity despite the conflicted nature of her body.  For Kahlo, the dualism of pain and productivity may have been masked in this painting by the suggestion of her body as the tree which anchors the three realms of the Aztec cosmos.   Schapiro replaces Kahlo’s arid background, symbolic of Mexico, with the lush vegetative background that evokes her own signature style of ornamental pattern.  In an interesting transformation, the implied but unseen tree symbolism of Kahlo’s painting has been made visible in Schapiro’s.   It would seem that Schapiro has placed Kahlo in the garden of Paradise, but the garden of Paradise has become Schapiro’s paintings.  By extension, she has also placed herself there.

Selected Bibliography:
Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Miriam Schapiro: An Art of Becoming, American Art, Vol. 11, No. 1. (Spring, 1997), pp. 10-45.
Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Miriam Schapiro: Shaping the Fragments of Art and Life (Harry N. Abrams, 1999)

*Just thinking about this as I reread it: the two things which have struck me about most of the women artists I've studied are 1) the inability to categorize them in terms of traditional media, and 2) an emphasis on making interiority (usually their personal lives) exterior, but without making the work truly autobiographical. Do these characteristics lead us to a more useful description of feminist art than the idea of "central core imagery"?