“Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman”

“Directions—Cindy Sherman: Film Stills”

Simultaneous Washington exhibitions of artwork by Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola and contemporary American photographer Cindy Sherman make it possible to examine the Western European tradition of female self-imaging as practiced by one of its originators and by its major modern exemplar. Considered together, these artists’ works summarize the complex issues of image and identity that have reverberated through Western society since the 16th-century, when concern with “self-fashioning,” appeared in its distinctive modern guise.

The shows are remarkable in other ways as well. The Hirshhorn is exhibiting all 84 photographs from Sherman’s “Film Stills” series together for the first time. The decision is a provocative one, as responses to the series are radically altered when its works are considered collectively. The National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Anguissola show is the first monographic exhibit of a 16th-century painter’s work ever presented in the United States. In addition to examining the mannerist style and the conventions of late-Renaissance artistic practice, it illuminates the conditions under which all artists, including educated women, of the period struggled to survive and flourish. Although not all of the important paintings from Anguissola’s oeuvre are included, it’s a rare opportunity for Americans to see paintings from a period whose works are usually deemed too fragile and valuable to travel.

By the standards of any era, Anguissola was a remarkable woman. Born into a noble family of Cremona as the oldest of five daughters, her early talent at drawing was cultivated when her father arranged for her to apprentice with a local painter. At the time and for centuries after, women artists only received professional training if they belonged to artistic families and could be trained in the family studio. But Anguissola’s father Amilcare was acquainted with Renaissance humanists who, as part of that era’s evolving debate about individual greatness, pursued philosophical investigations into the potential and proper education of women.

It has been suggested that Amilcare’s enthusiasm for female education was part of a strategy to enhance his daughters’ desirability as wives since he was, although a nobleman, unable to dower them properly. Whatever his motivation, Anguissola’s father assiduously promoted her reputation, writing to Michelangelo and to important northern Italian patrons to advertise her skills. Indeed, Michelangelo sent her drawings to study and commented favorably on her talent. The strategy paid off when, in 1559, the young woman was invited by King Philip II of Spain to become a lady-in-waiting to his new queen. The court appointment resulted not only in handsome gifts and a salary for the artist herself, but in payments to her family, presumably to reconcile them to the absence of their talented daughter.

In Spain, Anguissola painted official portraits, instructed the queen and her daughters in painting and drawing, and participated in courtly life. In 1573, the king arranged a suitable marriage for the artist and she retired to Italy with an impressive annual pension. Until her death in 1625, Anguissola continued to be active in Italian artistic life and to socialize with members of the Spanish royal family during their trips through Italy. (In some of its aspects, Anguissola’s life is similar to that of Flemish painter/scholar/diplomat Peter Paul Rubens, who visited her during his Italian sojourn in 1606.)

The exhibition at NMWA includes some of Anguissola’s royal Spanish portraits and four religious scenes that reveal the artist as a sensitive copyist of extant mid-16th-century models. But it is as a portraitist and self-portraitist that Anguissola is most interesting today. It is specifically her struggles with self-identity and image that link her creations to Sherman’s. She created more self-portraits than any other artist except Rembrandt in the mannerist and baroque periods. Of the dozen or so that survive, five are included in this exhibition.

For a Renaissance woman artist, self-portraiture presented formidable challenges. The female image had come, by Anguissola’s time, to have allegorical as well as idealistic significance. When women were not painted to reflect their status as the wives or daughters of important men, they were thought to symbolize ideal female types. Such images also stood for the perfection of ideal beauty, a concept associated with perfection in art, but not with individual women. Portraits of men and self-portraits of male artists emphasized their heroism, bravery, or cultural achievements. By contrast, the qualities admired in women stemmed from character and deportment—chastity, humility, obedience, purity—rather than worldly accomplishments.

What Anguissola produced, as witnessed by the self-portraits at the NMWA, was a model of woman and the woman artist as a subject and creator of art, not merely as a male ideal of beauty or decorum. Requests for her self-portraits from admirers and patrons often mentioned her double wondrousness as a beautiful woman and maker of beautiful images. The resulting paintings—of a serious, confident young woman soberly and simply dressed and often at her easel—disrupt her period’s expectations of female beauty and assumptions about women’s professional limitations. In the presence of Anguissola’s sensitively painted but unflinching gaze, suggestions about female inferiority seem not only irrelevant but downright vulgar.

The 400 years that separate Anguissola’s self-imaging problems from Cindy Sherman’s seem only to have sharpened the dilemma of female identity. Sherman’s photographs of her costumed and disguised self, particularly those from the “Film Stills” series, have assumed the status of cultural icons. They seem to have been created explicitly to illustrate depressing deconstructivist and feminist discussions about women’s inability to define themselves on their own terms. Sherman claims to have had no particular theoretical ambitions for the works, which were made in groups between 1977 and 1980, and says she began making them simply because she likes movies and likes to dress up.

The series includes 84 works, a few of which are widely known through illustration and from periodic exhibitions of 10 to 20 of the images. There is no way acquaintance with the more familiar images can prepare viewers for the insinuatingly disturbing cumulative effect of the 84 as they are presented at the Hirshhorn. Sherman herself arranged the installation, breaking up any possibility of literal narratives that the works shot together might suggest. Each photo still functions as a strong narrative presence in its own right, but the works remain nonliterary, cinematic, and definitely unnerving.

The artist uses her own face and body to impersonate various female personae loosely based on character types prevalent in movies of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Knowledge of the artist’s sources is unnecessary, however, because the implications of each scene so shrewdly reflect the cultural stereotypes that pervade society at large. In this work, the postmodern assumption that media images create cultural realities is rejected in favor of a more complex process of mutual influencing. Movies clearly drew on tensions and dynamics that already existed in American society, giving them back as stylized clichés. Sherman’s types—the career girl, the housewife, the battered woman, the glamour girl, the ingenue—certainly exist, but her versions possess an alienation that becomes a positive identity. In the photos, Sherman captures truths that the movie stills she mimics conspire to deny: the emptiness beneath the surface of modern life and the fear with which modern women live.

What links Sherman’s work to Anguissola’s is not her commentary on contemporary social isolation, but her investigation of female identity. Anguissola, a daughter of Renaissance humanism, presents a confident and singular self, while Sherman finds no certain identity as woman or artist. Both, she seems to assert, are manipulations and re-presentations of already existing codes dictating what an ideal woman or artist should be. Even her spectrum of models is limited, partly because the roles for women in Hollywood films reflect a narrow range of options, and partly because the ideals that have degenerated into today’s stereotypes still reflect the values of Anguissola’s day. This is confirmed by the few images from “Film Stills” that seem slightly out of place, particularly No. 37 and No. 60 (all the works are untitled). These show women in poses suggesting that they have just finished or are taking a break from work.

Sherman also abandons the position of artist as creator—as an active intelligence fashioning an imaginary world drawn from a world-shaping vision. Instead, she manipulates the creations of others, exposing distortions and limitations in popular notions of female identity by allowing her own to dissolve in the mediated space that is the contemporary world. The artist appears in every work, but in an essential way, she is never there. Her dilemma and her solutions consequently seem similar to Anguissola’s. By asserting a female identity, both engage—and find their images shaped by—the attitudes and definitions of others.