Women artists ‘of wit and great ingenuity’

Self-portraits from the Uffizi collection

Rea Stavropoulos
December 9, 2010

Who am I?' ‘What am I doing here?' ‘How do I wish to be remembered?' These are among the questions that an artist may ask herself as she tries to decide how she will represent herself to the world, what to reveal and what to mask. The upcoming exhibition at the Uffizi's Reali Poste, Autoritratte: ‘Artiste di capriccioso e destrissimo ingegno' ritratte per gli Uffizi, offers a rare opportunity to consider these issues in the context of the museum's historic collection of self-portraits that range from the sixteenth century to the present day. The quotation in the title is from Vasari's Lives of the Artists. His only biography focused on a woman artist is dedicated to the sixteenth-century sculptor Properzia de'Rossi, whom he praises for her inventiveness and technical skill in being able to carve the entire passion of Christ on a peach stone. Curator of the exhibition  and director of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art at the Uffizi, Giovanna Giusti has been preparing the show for the last three years. In a conversation with her in her office at the Uffizi, I asked about the genesis of the exhibition, what inspired it and the discoveries along the way.

 

 

Giovanna Giusti: The Uffizi has a unique collection of 1,700 self portraits; it was started in 1664 by Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici and expanded by subsequent Medici rulers and directors of the gallery, but among these there are only 100 by women artists. My first intention was to show contemporary portraits because in the last 20 years the collection has increased considerably, with more than 500 new works, but very few by women artists, despite the fact that they have a strong presence in contemporary art. I wanted to bring the collection up to date, so I approached various artists to ask if they would donate works. There will be 19 new contemporary works in the exhibition, some executed especially for the Uffizi.

 

What made you choose the title for the exhibition?My knowledge of the work of contemporary women artists-the quality and range of their practice and the many different forms of expression that they use-made me think of Vasari's words as applicable to them. The exhibition will include paintings, works on paper, prints, photographs, poesia visiva (‘text works'), sculpture, collage and textiles.

 

But will the exhibition also include existing works from the collection?Yes, there will be 58 ‘historic' works on display, ranging from the works of sixteenth-century artists La Tintoretta and Lavinia Fontana, acquired by Cardinal Leopoldo, to artists such as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Angelica Kauffmann, who were famous in their own time and have remained so to the present day. One of the aims of the exhibition is to look at the collection and to examine how and why certain works were chosen and what they reveal about the patrons and artists of the past.

Vigée Le Brun's self-portrait interests me: she sits there in her lovely dress and whimsical hat, looking like an angelic child precociously painting a portrait of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France. But when I looked at the date of the painting, I saw that she must have been 35 years old at the time and had fled France after the Revolution to avoid execution. She wanted to convey a different reality, something carefree and effortless.

Yes, and the same with Angelica Kauffmann: she was 46 years old when she painted the self-portrait in the Uffizi collection, but she has idealized herself. She supplemented one small portrait of herself in the collection with a larger one after visiting the gallery and seeing her work close to self-portraits by Rembrandt and Rubens. But I am also including work of lesser quality by other artists-I am trying to ask questions and better understand the collection-to show how styles and choices have evolved, when works entered the collection and through whom. So, there are famous artists and artists whose names have been lost.Can you point to any particular discovery that you made that excited you while preparing the exhibition?Yes. When I recognised among the 20 works by anonymous women artists a work by Maria Cosway and was able, through archives and documents, to confirm the attribution. Cosway was an Anglo-Florentine artist who, with her husband Richard, worked in Florence and London in the late eighteenth century. She had a romantic liaison with Thomas Jefferson in Paris and they maintained a lifelong correspondence. A section of the exhibition will be devoted to her and to the objects and drawings that she bequeathed to the Uffizi and to a foundation in Lodi.Can you tell me which contemporary artists will be included?

Just a few of them: Jenny Holzer, Patti Smith, Carla Accardi, Vanessa Beecroft, Francesca Woodman, Carol Rama.Dr. Giusti does not want to give away much about these new works before the opening of the exhibition, but the few names she provided indicate its variety and scope: Jenny Holzer is known for her ‘truisms,' enigmatic texts projected in public spaces. Patti Smith is a poet and musician. Carla Accardi usually paints abstract works. Vanessa Beecroft photographs her performance pieces, referring to them as self-portraits though she does not feature in them. Francesca Woodman's photographs show blurred images of herself merging into surrounding walls and landscapes. Carol Rama deals with complex human emotions in paintings and drawings. All these women work in ways that defy easy categorisation.

 

The Uffizi's collection of self-portraits spans nearly 500 years, starting with a self-portrait by Andrea del Sarto in 1528, and offers a journey into the evolution of the autoritratto. Only a small fraction is on show, and even these are rarely accessible to the public as they are exhibited in the Vasari Corridor, currently only open to visitors by private arrangement. In choosing to focus on the work of women artists, Dr. Giusti stresses that she does not want to separate them from the mainstream, but to redress the balance within the collection and show works that have never been seen in public or are rarely seen.

 

Vigée Le Brun and Kauffmann knew how to manipulate their image to further their careers. But the self-portrait may be a part of the artist's continuous research and exploration: questioning, celebrating, searching for identity and a place in the world. What work has Patti Smith chosen, I wonder, to represent her in the Uffizi collection and how will it speak to us in the company of another artist and musician, La Tintoretta, who more than 400 years ago painted herself next to her harpsichord with a musical score in her hand?

 

 

Autoritratte: Artiste ‘di capriccioso e destrissimo ingegno' ritratte per gli Uffizi

Reali Poste, Uffizi Gallery, FlorenceDec 15, 2010 to Jan 30, 2011

Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm; closed December 25 and January 1. Free entranceWorkshops for children on Mondays; reservations required    

 

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