Imagine a museum that boasts the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe. Now imagine that an intrepid female curator puts all the men's work in storage and fills the permanent collection galleries with a new version of 20th and early 21st century art history, the one that women created.
Would the curator emerge as a champion, finally proving that female artists are as good as — or better than — the guys? Or would she simply expose weaknesses of the museum's collection and the art itself?
"It's a risk," says Camille Morineau, who has organized "elles@centrepompidou," which opened May 27 and runs through May 24, 2010, at Centre Pompidou.
"Excluding men and showing only women is a revolutionary gesture of affirmative action. But the museum is avant-garde. It's part of the Centre Pompidou culture to do things differently. And we like a lot of drama. This is going to be dramatic in a big way."
By any definition, the installation of about 500 works by more than 200 women is an ambitious project — a standout among museums' efforts to pay more attention to women. If not the first such exhibition in the world, as advertised, it's certainly the first on such a grand scale. And it will run for a year, with periodic additions and rotations of works.
As Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, puts it: "When you have an institution of the scale and prestige of the Pompidou devoting its entire hang of its collection thematically to women artists, it's making a very serious statement."
Beginning with early 20th century paintings by French artist Suzanne Valadon and ending with works by up-to-the-minute figures such as Japan's Mariko Mori, Switzerland's Pipilotti Rist and England's Rachel Whiteread, "elles" will offer an international array of paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, prints, videos, furniture and architectural models.
Visitors who stroll through thematic and chronological sections spread across two floors of the museum will find a mixture of mainstream art, functional design and feminine attitude. Niki de Saint Phalle's towering sculpture of a monstrous bride will be there, along with a sleek aluminum cabinet by Janette Laverriere, a soft-edge abstract painting by Helen Frankenthaler and a Sanja Ivekovic video of a woman cutting holes in a black veil that covers her face.
Some of the artists have subtle sensibilities; others deliver a punch. In a text panel by Barbara Kruger, an awestruck exclamation — "What big muscles you have!" — overlaps sappy terms of endearment such as "My better half," "My sugar daddy" and "My ticket to ride."
In Life Size Portraits, a huge painting by Agnes Thurnauer, female versions of famous male artists' names — Annie Warhol, Francine Bacon, Jacqueline Pollock — appear on 11 of 12 circles of bright color. But the first name of Louise Bourgeois, a sculptor who has garnered almost as much notice as her male counterparts — has been changed to Louis.
"It's a very un-French thing to do," Morineau says of the exhibition. "In France, nobody counts the number of men and women in exhibitions. Very few people notice that sometimes there are no women."
Feminism has had a stronger effect in the United States and other parts of Europe, in art and in society, she says. The Pompidou's project is certain to get lots of attention — and scrutiny.
"You need to have a strong collection to do this," Morineau says. "You want the result to be good."
Cornelia Butler, chief curator of drawings at New York's Museum of Modern Art, views "elles" as an exciting development among many other efforts to raise the visibility of female artists.
"It falls into this category of 'What happens next? What are we doing in a concrete way to follow up on all this material that has come to light lately?' " she says. "What do you do? You think about acquisitions, collections, exhibitions, all of that."
Still, says Barron, "at the end of the day, what matters is the quality of the work. One would hope that today we are beyond a numbers game and really trying to look thoughtfully."
Surprising as it is, "elles" is part of a Pompidou tradition. The third thematic presentation of the collection, it will follow "Big Bang," an explosive mix of artistic ideas and media in 2005, and "Movement of Images," an exploration of art and cinema, in 2006-07. The new installation is meant to be an alternative history, not a feminist tract.
"I am really happy I could do this," Morineau says. "In the States, you think about women's art. In France, never. It's not a subject. If the subject does not exist, there is no possibility of discussion. For me, that's the big issue about doing this. We are turning it into a subject."