The National Museum of Women in the Arts: Loïs Mailou Jones, Elisabetta Gutt, and Leonora Carrington

2010-10-25 16.13.20
(A sculpture installation outside of the museum; photo by Ann.)

We had an extra day or two in Washington DC after the Capclave convention (post about the con here). So we looked over the lists of museums and realized we were burned out on natural history museums and the like, but the National Museum of Women in the Arts looked really interesting. So we went, and are we glad we did—it was one of the highlights of our trip.

In addition to the permanent exhibits, they were featuring the book-art of Italian artist Elisabetta Gutt and a full-on retrospective of the entire career of African American artist Loïs Mailou Jones. The two collections were stunning for completely different reasons. Gutt had taken something specific and focused on a very narrow range to create something universal. Jones had taken in everything and, using many different styles, had incorporated her experiences in the United States, Europe, African, and the Carribean to create just amazing art over a lifetime.

Gutt’s work has a kind of streamlined, deceptive simplicity to it. Here, for example, is a book housed in a nut and a decorated page from the Koran, taken from the exhibit’s catalog.


Here, on the left, she’s created a Kafka cigarette using a page of his writings. On the right, she’s taken sheet music to create an insect exploding three-dimensionally out of the page. I immediately think of the immediacy of cricket song and love the idea of being able to show form, movement, and sound in this piece. Although I must say the description of the Kafka cigarette is one of my favorites. When challenged about Kafka not being a smoker she reportedly said, “Well, I imagined him as a smoker,” end of story.


Jones’ work struck us by its continual evolution. She didn’t paint in one style just as she didn’t live in one place, and she let all of the places she visited into her work. We were also struck by quotes from her about how living in France had allowed her to really focus on her art in ways that being in the U.S. hadn’t—as well as the effect Haiti had on her.

There’s a wonderful photo in the exhibit of her painting along the Seine in the 1950s. Even more wonderful–she was still painting well into her eighties and what she was painting wasn’t a pale imitation of what had come before. It was vital, strong, assured.

Here are just two examples because I’m not sure if doing more would still constitute fair use.

(Reproduced in the context of an article in part about the crisis in Haiti)

(Taken from here.)

This doesn’t even begin to get at the richness and variety of her paintings, but perhaps gives you a small glimpse. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but there were a few paintings from her seventies in which she’d combined a kind of symbolic-surrealist approach with themes from Haiti and Africa that we found particularly compelling. (Unfortunately, I can’t find these online.)

Of course, the permanent collection had a lot of variety as well, including a Kahlo…but the moment of wow came to us when we rounded a corner and were confronted by a Leonora Carrington original: “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” which you can see as a reflection here and as a sculpture here. That one really got to us, in part because we’ve acquired a Carrington story for our The Weird anthology and in part because our sympathies are always going to be with the surrealists, and she is one of the best–94 and still going strong!

I think seeing the Carrington toward the very end like that, too, just made it all that more emotional. It was like seeing part of the history of surreal fantastic–a part that’s still vital and in the world. The museum’s highly recommended.

…and in that vein, do go check out Ann’s latest artist profile on io9, The oddly disturbing royal portraits of Carrie Ann Baade, one of which I’ve reproduced below.


  1. Ben Jones says

    I saw the Carrie Ann Baade Ann put together last night, and found it amazing. Of the other three artists you talk about I’m only familiar with Carrington. Have to do something about that.

  2. says

    yow, the Elisabetta Gut stuff looks fantastic! the NMWA online store seems to be closed for now; hopefully the catalog will eventually end up for sale…!

  3. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Amal: It is a pomegranate, not a “nut” as I described it. LOL. Yeah, that was one of our favorites.

  4. says

    I have to brag for just a moment… I went to high school with Carrie Ann Baade. (and her father’s been my dentist for 20 years…) I got to visit with her last year for the first time in ages. I’m so happy that her work is getting more and more attention.