On the fourth floor of the Yale Center for British Art, a placard reads: “Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wrote of the masculine as ‘active’ and the feminine as ‘passive’; it is thus possible to extend the creative act into the realm of the procreative.”
Next to the placard are a depiction of the three graces, a traditional full-length portrait of a gentlewoman and a more modern 1930s painting of two women performing “As You Like It.” In the center of the room stands a statue of Venus sitting atop two copulating birds, her abstract face and limbs almost devoid of detail.
This objects present the prologue of the British Art Center’s “Figuring Women: The Female in Modern British Art,” the museum’s second annual student-curated exhibition. “Figuring Women” reflects upon the representation of women and femininity in art, gender conventions, the role of the active male artist and the role of the passive female as an object.
“Each piece brought out another aspect of the theme: hyper-femininity, performance, the female ideal of the three graces and modern abstraction,” student curator Andrew Lee ’09 said.
The exhibition is part of the center’s “Art in Focus” program, which allows student guides to gain experience in curating — from art selection to research, wall-text-writing and installation. Work on the exhibition began last September.
The challenge for the student curators was to condense the artwork from the museum’s permanent collection on the second floor into a new, smaller exhibition on the fourth floor. After selecting key pieces from the permanent collection, including a few of the museum’s prized Walter Sickert and Lucian Freud paintings, the student curators constructed the theme for the new exhibit.
“We had to dilute the floor to its essence,” student curator Adrienne Wong ’10 said. “We had to choose the small sample that best exemplified these works.”
“Figuring Women” draws upon paintings and sculptures primarily from the Center’s post-Victorian collection, but some previously unseen pieces were dragged up from the basement to create a collection that ranges from 1854 to 2004. The exhibit does not unfold chronologically; instead, both time periods and mediums are juxtaposed to reflect the theme’s different components.
“The new juxtapositions of the paintings force new associations,” student curator Jenny Braun ’08 said. “They almost seem like new paintings now.”
Much of the exhibition centers on Julie Robert’s 1994 “Gynecological Treatment Couch (Blues).” The huge wall-to-wall painting, which features an empty gynecological chair devoid of any female form, is at the exhibition’s end.
“We tried to keep an eye on the dramatic visual effect on the viewer,” Lee said.
Other curatorial considerations included balancing the museum’s prize pieces, pieces on loan from museums and personal collections and pieces that best exemplified the theme.
“The challenge was how much to affect how the viewer viewed it,” Wong said. “We don’t want to dictate what people see in the art.”
The curators met regularly with Linda Friedlaender, curator of education at the British Art Center, and Cassandra Albinson, associate curator of paintings and sculpture, to discuss the various aspects of artwork selection and exhibition installation. Many of the student curators said they considered the discussions the most rewarding aspect of the program.
“The fact that we have an initiative like this attests to the administration,” Lee said. “They are really committed to bringing students into the museum, and that’s often overlooked.”
“Figuring Women” opens March 28 and continues through June 8.