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Celebrate Women of Art in Books and Films

By Arts & Culture Editor Joan Kirschner

Let’s kick off 2024 by recognizing women in the fine and decorative arts! The art and business worlds often discouraged women artists in the studio or manufacturing, and their husbands, lovers, and others sometimes took credit for their works, ideas, and designs. Despite that, determined women overcame those barriers to become known and respected in their own times, or unfortunately, posthumously, but even into the twentieth century and currently, it remains a challenge.

Some of them appear as real or fictional characters in novels, biography and in films, and many of the works that feature them were written, directed, or produced by women.

Painters

I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira. A novel that explores the relationship between Impressionists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. (Mary Cassatt painted “”The Great Cat,” above.)

In the novel The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman, the artist is Camille Pissarro, but the primary character is his mother, Rachel. The lyrical writing captures the visual environment – try the audio book for a great “listen.”

Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon, a biography by Catherine Hewitt. The artist who first modeled for the male Impressionists but later became a painter in her own right.

Frida, a stunning film based on Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera: Salma Hayek as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera, Ashley Judd as Tina Modotti, plus Geoffrey Rush, Antonio Banderas, and others. Directed by Julie Taymor. (That’s Frida to the right.)

Photographers

The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik. A novel of the young Dorothea Lange, renown portraitist of migrants fleeing to California during the Great Depression and interned Japanese Americans during World War II.

Eight Girls Taking Pictures by Whitney Otto. An episodic novel inspired by photographers Imogen Cunningham, Yevonde Middleton (Madame Yevonde), Tina Modotti, Lee Miller, Grete Stern, and Ruth Orkin, plus two fictional characters.

Lee Miller, a Life. Biography by Carolyn Burke. Miller was first a Vogue model, became an art photographer, then a war correspondent. (Lee is pictured to the left.)

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer. A novel based on Miller’s relationship with 1920s surrealist Man Ray. 

Lee, a film starring Kate Winslet as Miller, recently released in England. Directed by Ellen Kuras. Watch for it. https://www.vogue.com/article/kate-winslet-lee-miller-october-cover-2023-interview   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcW1w__cx_U

Decorative Arts

Clara and Mr. Tiffany, a novel by Susan Vreeland. Clara Driscoll created the designs for Tiffany’s famous lamps and the leading process used to construct them. (The lamp picture to the right is a Tiffany model called Wisteria.)

The Colour Room, a “biopic” film on English ceramic artist Clarice Cliff, known for the distinctive Art Deco designs she named “Bizarre”. Phoebe Dynevor is Clarice; Matthew Goode is her husband Colley Shorter. https://www.amazon.com/Colour-Room-Phoebe-Dynevor/dp/B0BX3WDZB8

Collectors and Others

The Lioness of Boston by Emily Franklin. Historical fiction inspired by Boston’s own Isabella Stewart Gardner. (That’s Mrs. Gardner to the left.)

The Last Masterpiece: A Novel of World War II Italy by Laura Morelli, art historian/novelist. Europe’s art treasures were looted and hidden by the Nazis, while on the Allies’ side, the “Monuments Men” worked to retrieve them. Two women, a German photographer, and an American WAC stenographer, tell the story from their perspectives.

People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks. An Australian woman, a rare book expert, travels to Sarajevo, Bosnia to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah, a centuries-old Hebrew manuscript with a remarkable history.

Coming Soon

Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez – a novel set in the art world and on College Hill (Brown University in Providence). The author made a splash with her first book, Olga Dies Dreaming, and writes regularly for The Atlantic.

Joan Kirschner is a Boston area writer/blogger who reviews books, museum exhibitions, theater, film, music, and travel experiences. Her commentary previously appeared on SonsiWoman.com, UllaPopken.com, WomenofGloucesterCounty.com, Trazzler.com, and IndieReader.com. She attributes a lifelong love of reading and cultural events to parents who encouraged her interests early on. Joan began as a retail and mail order catalog copywriter when typewriters, carbon paper, X-Acto knives, and hot glue were found in advertising offices everywhere. She advanced through the ranks and changes in technology, eventually taking on corporate communications, social media, and digital advertising and promotion. She managed and mentored younger writers, acquired skills in art direction, and had responsibility for print and digital communications reaching millions of customers. Surrounded by the babble of languages in Manhattan and Brooklyn and sympathizing with the challenges of non-English speakers, she earned a certificate in the Teaching of English as Second Language (TESOL) and began teaching and tutoring adults and college students. Joan now works part-time in grants administration, freelances occasionally, reviews books and the arts at No Shortage of Words and shares observations on the day-to-day at Musings at Random.

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deborah a cushman
deborah a cushman
1 month ago

Loved it! Can’t wait to track down all of the books and films Joan mentioned. As always, Joan’s writing style is, well, stylish and approachable.

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