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  • Angela Allyn

Women, Art History at the Art Institute of Chicago

Now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago are two exhibitions that lead one to hope that the 21st century will be kinder to talented women than the 20th century was. They are exhibits that also show the shift in art scholarship and curation and focus as we move towards a world that may not be just about the guys point of view.

To begin, Camille Claudel ,here until February 19, 2024, is the first North American exhibit of her work in this century and the collection of sculptures illuminates her process and starts to pull out what is hers and what was attributed to her employer and lover August Rodin. The second exhibit is Picasso:Drawing from Life, on view until April 8, 2024 which makes the case that he would not have been who he was without collaborators, many of whom were his lovers and wives, who sacrificed their own careers, lives and desires to allow him to pursue his career.

Claudel for me is a tragic figure: after achieving nominal success under the influence of Rodin, she broke away to find her own way, and the difficulty of making a living as a woman artist crushed her: her family had her committed to an asylum (long the solution for strong minded women) and she never left, giving up art making entirely. Collecting her work now for an exhibition is painstaking: curators must track down mostly private owners since Claudel destroyed much of her own output in her studio before being committed. The exhibition tracks her artistic growth from portraits made in her teen years, to her exquisite hands and feet made in Rodin’s atelier, and finally her variations on themes, where she reworked sculptural ideas in various media with her prodigious talents. Her work is moving and accomplished and one cannot help but mourn the loss of this sensitive artist’s talent and missing works. The patriarchy often punished women who pushed against its prescribed constraints.

This social pressure is also evident though less obvious in the Picasso exhibit. Picasso was known for his womanizing and he used mistresses and lovers as models, domestic organizers and mothers to his children. He famously said “Women are machines for suffering”, but perhaps that is because he felt uniquely entitled to inflict suffering upon them. His philandering caused him to leave heartbreak as well as artwork in his wake. There was an inherent misogyny in his work and supposed love of women, even as he pioneered unique ways to see them. One has to wonder at the power dynamic when his mistresses wanted to pursue their own careers: Dora Marr was a successful painter in her own right. Francois Gilot, also a successful artist is known as the only woman who left Picasso. She said: "Pablo's many stories and reminiscences about Olga and Marie-Therese and Dora Maar," she wrote," as well as their continuous presence just offstage in our own life together, gradually made me realize that he had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum." So relating to him and being the subject of his work was an assent in essence to being used. Picasso also continued to choose younger and younger women as he aged. There is speculation that Gilot’s career foundered as a result of her leaving Picasso because he contacted art dealers and told them not to sell her work, reminiscent of what Rodin did to Claudel.

After viewing these exhibitions I wish I could direct you elsewhere in the Art Institute to see works by women that were not frustrated by the Old Boys network of the art world, but unfortunately the AIC is heavy on the works of men. You will need to wait until next summer when the Georgia O’Keefe : My New Yorks exhibit opens June 2, 2024– pencil that in to your calendar because it leaves on Sept. 22, 2024

The Art Institute of Chicago is open Thursdays through Mondays. I recommend the Modern wing entrance to see Claudel at 159 East Monroe.

For more information and tickets for Claudel go to

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