Images of women are powerful, perhaps more powerful than we can allow ourselves to say or see. Because women have often been treated as the second sex, images of women are paradoxical in their power; and that power has been multiplied hatefully or lovingly by artists through mass production and distribution from the great ages of printmaking through the age of photography and down to our present age of digitization. It is a bitter irony that even misogyny has recognized this power. In fact, the phrase The Power of Women was often used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to refer to the power of women to seduce men otherwise known to be strong or wise. The assumption is that this was unfair, but nowadays one might wonder whether images of victory over strong or wise men don't prove the superiority of women or at least the hypocrisy of male image- making. On the other hand, the power of female saints and of the Virgin Mary were seen to be wholly good; and even the power of Venus or of Fortune or perhaps even of our sinful mother Eve were seen as not wholly bad. For centuries, there was a kind of public debate about the power of women for woe or life, good or evil. Though often misogynist, the debate found writers on both sides of the issue.
In the sixteenth century, Henricus Cornelius Aggrippa took a feminist position, as did Christine de Pizan in the fifteenth century. The title of this exhibition is inspired by phrases or ideas paraphrased from these writers. Is the Power of Women a power of woe or life? Are life and woe the same power? Is the power of life to be truly known through recognizing the power of the sorrow of women's existence, of the sorrow of the Virgin Mary, of the sorrow of human folly? Does this power of sorrow lead to higher or wiser life? Or is this simply sexist thinking in today's theorizing about such matters? Christine de Pizan, in her writings, turns traditional misogynist arguments upside down, while insisting on the power for virtue and understanding in women. At the same time, though she is often cheerfully affirmative and loves to bestow praise, she sees a connection between virtue, woe, life, power, and creativity. Her possible relevance to much of the work on display is such that she is quoted throughout the exhibition.
Obviously, Christine de Pizan may be most useful in provoking a response to earlier printmakers like Durer, Goltzius, Lucas van Leyden, or Jacopo Palma il Giovane. Despite her feminism and her sometimes modern insight, Christine does share their Christianity and even their tendency to use the vitally visionary experience of allegory and legend, wherein a visual code condenses meaning into sensuous enigma. Even misogyny may be unread in such powerful, multi-dimensional codes, as Christine herself advises. But Christine also possesses a rage for the justice of realism and the mercy of spirituality that may allow us to see anew printmakers of the nineteenth and twentieth ce nturies. Max Klinger, Kathe Kollwitz and even Pablo Picasso may seem stronger in both their woe and their hope. Isabel Bishop and the satirical artists of The Masses may seem even more genial and true. And we may appreciate even more the wildly honest or honestly wild awareness of contemporary women artists like Faith Ringgold or Gladys Nilsson, whose strength and humor at last allow woe to become hilarious life.
The prints on display come mostly from the collection of the Bayly Art Museum. We
wish to especially thank Lawrence O. Goedde and Stacey Sell for their sensitive
and scholarly insight into the Museums Renaissance and Baroque
© 1997 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia
University of Virginia / Charlottesville, Virginia / 22903