A Little Art in the City of Light

Text and Images by Kyle Beechey

Kristin McKirdy, Ceramic sculpture, 2016
Charlotte Perriand, Chair, 1954 & Sideboard, 1977

In mid-May an email arrived in one of our inboxes at team The Arc that granted us the opportunity to pass a couple of months in the city of light, love and all things art related. We happily traded in our North American existence for quite a substantive pied-à-terre in the Marais with very few questions asked.

Eager to maximize every French minute, we did a little research into the art offerings of the season. We found the Musée des Arts Décoratifs’s curiously titled “Travaux de Dames ?” (Women’s Work?). Those of you that know us understand that at The Arc we are in relentless pursuit of all things women in the arts related, so needless to say this was going to be high on our list of priorities.

Danielle Quarante, Chairs & Carpet, 1970-1972

A little context to the museum, it’s a branch of the organization Les Arts Décoratifs. Conceived in 1882, on the principle of prizing functional, yet beautiful objects. Since its inception it has also been a champion of women – philosophies that could not be more inline with our collection and perspective. It composed a committee of women who had the responsibility to hold classes, competitions and even guided museum acquisitions. The goal of this committee was to ensure female involvement in the applied arts. Evidently, France was a little ahead of the curve on female representation in the arts.

The goal of this committee was to ensure female involvement in the applied arts.

L’Atelier Paul Poiret, Artists Unknown, Decorative Wallpaper, 1912-1919
Works by Betty Woodman, Guidette Carbonell & Suzanne Ramié

The US and UK have recently become more focused on increasing the amount of female artists shown with large group shows at Hauser & Wirth, The Rubell Family Collection and Saatchi Gallery all within the past year or so. These shows and others like them have brought to light bodies of work that have been previously overlooked like Helen Frankenthaler, Carmen Herrera and Lygia Pape.

To return to the show, we fought off the lobby crowds and arrived at the peacefully empty 5th floor and to the prolific retrospective. The exhibit only occupies three small rooms, but it manages to cram in over two hundred works that span nearly 150 years. There is a taste of everything from textiles to photography to fashion design. A nice mix of familiar art/design stars, their lesser-known foremothers, as well as emerging & mid-career artists. A list that includes, Rei Kawakubo, Sheila Hicks, Hélène Henry and Matali Crasset, among many others.

Hélène Henry, Textiles, 1928-1929

Unashamed and satisfied to say, the show exposed us to some new artists, potentially household names in the European art world, but who haven't had much exposure in the US. Many of the show’s standout pieces were from our “new discoveries”; the hand woven textiles of Hélène Henry and the work of modernist architect Eileen Grey as well as monographs from lesser-known Man Ray contemporaries Germaine Krull and Laure Albin-Guillot.

Germaine Krull, Metal, 1927 © Les Arts Décoratifs
Eileen Grey, Dressing Table, 1926-1929 © Les Arts Décoratifs

After spending an hour clumsily attempting to translate the placards from French to English, we left inspired and a little elated to find such a progressive show in a city one often associates with large-scale French masterworks and male dominated impressionist painting. Don’t get us wrong, we have a warm place in our hearts for Raft of the Medusa and Déjeuner sur L’herbe, but now we can also take inspiration from some female French masters who don’t often find themselves on postcards. Amen to that, Amen.

Travaux de Dames ? is on view until September 17th at Le Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

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