There’s a pervasive creepiness and edgy hilarity to “Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons 1500-1650,” the current exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and it’s hard to define its source. Is it the abundance of ghastly versions of the apocryphal biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes (which, when presented in so many detailed ways, becomes grotesquely banal and acceptable)? Or is it the eternal hyping of humanity, seen in the various queens’ public-relations departments’ depictions of them? Or is it the deadpan seriousness of the scholarship behind the whole exhibit (since, from a contemporary point of view, this is one of the funniest shows — from its adolescent-street-talk title to its last dominatrix engraving of The Triumph of Wisdom Over Ignorance — to be organized in a long time)?
Focusing on a 150-year period in European history, “Women Who Ruled” is a scholarly project (a refreshing aspect of UMMA’S mission) that explores the representation of women in the (for the time) uncommon position of great power. The show also features representations from biblical stories or mythology that exemplify the historical manipulation of women’s identity.
Each of the exhibition’s six parts explores visual stereotypes through period illustration: Wives and Mothers, The Virgin, Seductresses and Other Dangerous Women, The Heroine, The Warrior Women and The Goddess. During the years explored, there were a number of female rulers whose positions of power challenged conventional notions of female identity and which interestingly coincided with the consolidation of the early nation-state and forays into imperialism.
Queen Elizabeth might be seen as the centerpiece of the show, and the painting of her by George Gower (pictured) features a gown burgeoning with symbolism — with her comparatively small head surrounded by a lace collar that gives another twist to the expression “head of state.” The constellation of pearls around her neck and on her gown celebrates her celestial power and virginity, and thus her “purity” and ability to govern with justice.
Wonderful portraits laden with complicated nuance, of Catherine and Marie de Medici, reveal the subjects’ status as devoted wives, mothers and preservers of the familial blood lineage.
Beyond the manipulation of queenly identity there are many more sinister uses of the images of women that from a contemporary point of view become outrageously illuminating. George Pencz’s Artemisia Preparing to Drink Her Husband’s Ashes (and thus become a memorial vessel and reliquary herself) is delightful. Fede Galizia’s Judith With the Head of Holofernes shows a heroic Judith with the face of her maid profoundly appreciative of her heroic resolve. The maid is holding Holofernes’ head on a plate while Judith holds a sinister dagger that has the artist’s name (a woman herself) signed on it. Its blend of scholarship, horror, visual intrigue and historical irony makes this show a most engaging experience (through May 5 at UMMA, 525 S. State St., Ann Arbor — call 734-764-0395).
With the recent death of Joseph Wesner (1955-2002), the Detroit art community has lost one of its premier creative forces. A Cranbrook Art Academy graduate, Wesner was a revered sculpture professor, guiding light and mentor for students for over 20 years at the College for Creative Studies. His modernist sculpture in the classic materials of stone, steel and bronze was informed by both European and world culture — while his mixed-media and video piece, Voyageur, in the recent Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition, “Artists Take On Detroit,” reflects Wesner’s subtle investigative strategy and openness to new forms. Voyageur will be on exhibit through the summer and has been added to the DIA’s permanent collection.
Glen Mannisto writes about visual art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]