In the current political climate of gender issues and cultural reflection across a diverse array of ideas, the Ackland Art Museum’s newest exhibition, "Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment: French Art from The Horvitz Collection," is uncommonly timely.
"Becoming a Woman" explores the so-called “Woman's Question” that was pivotal to some of the most pressing debates of the French Enlightenment during the 18th century.
It is a thematic exhibit with 130 pieces of artwork ranging from drawings, to paintings, to sculptures, to prints — with only 10 of these pieces created by women. It conveys various depictions of the societal role of women spanning across 150 years of French art and will be on display from Jan. 26 to April 8.
The title of the exhibit carries a double meaning. It deals with the socialization of women in the period, how they were trained to be women through childhood, and the roles that they were encouraged to adapt, as well as what sort of behavior was considered appropriate for them.
“Certainly, it is an exhibition that speaks to how old master art speaks to the present. Not only in terms of the exquisite quality of the work, but also the issues,” said Peter Nisbet, the deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Ackland.
With naturalism, romanticism, rococo, the French Revolution and more, Nisbet described 18th-century and 19th-century France as “an enormously complicated period in ways that could be said to be roots of our modern world.”
With this, the viewer is left to decide whether "Becoming a Woman" is a historical exhibit presenting another world of thinking, or if it could be seen as evidence of the fact that similar issues remain in question today.
The exhibit is divided into nine sections, each of which embodies a different aspect of the perception of women. They include "The Fair Sex: Conceptions and Paradigms of Woman," "Women In Training," "What’s Love Got To Do With It?," "Married With Children," "Dressing the Part," "Aging Gracefully," "Work: Leaving it to the Professionals," "Pleasurable Pursuits" and "Private Pleasures."
“I’m actually really partial to the fashion section. I love fashion and textiles and I think it’s so rich and beautiful. Some of the pieces are just stunning,” said Audrey Shore, the communications assistant at the Ackland.
French art from the eighteenth century may be seen as a culturally distant topic to people today. However, that is why Emily Bowles, the director of communications at the Ackland, believes the exhibit will be surprising to the viewers.
“It’s a show that will surprise people because you know, you might think, '18th-century France, I don’t know anything about that and it doesn’t relate to me in any way at all,'" Bowles said. "But there’s so many issues that are relevant. I think it’s interesting, there are so many social cues in the art that might not be so obvious to us, but when you know them, you see that there’s actually a great deal being communicated.”
Bowles also discussed how the exhibit is a great chance to get up close with great examples of some serious talent, and with materials that are considered fragile.
"It's not often that you get to see 18th-century pastels because they fade and they get roughed up over time, but these are in great condition, so I'm really pleased," Bowles said.
"Becoming a Woman" is curated by Melissa Hyde, Professor of Art History and Research Foundation Professor from the University of Florida, and the late Mary D. Sheriff, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Art History from UNC.
Nisbet said the exhibit is really a homage to Sheriff, who was a beloved teacher at UNC and the profound mind that’s behind the show.
"Becoming a Woman" poses the question: are we truly alienated from the past?
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