What makes women so special, gives them their je ne c'est quoi? What does it mean to be a woman? What does womanhood mean to women and what does that mean to how they interact with their men? Did you stumble upon a gender studies course? Well, no, but such considerations are near to the heart of human existence and thoroughly explored photographically in The Art Institute of Chicago's show The Three Graces on display until January 22, 2012.
Using New York collector Peter J. Cohen's archive of snapshots - procured from flea-markets, second-hand stores, other galleries and collectors - the Art Institute has assembled a touching portrait of the Western woman. Comprising 538 unattributed photographs, The Three Graces gives us sly sophistication, pulp sexuality, and sisterhood. Beginning with the 1900s and advancements which led to photography being available to the common person, we are entreated by snapshots of our three graces played by the proverbial girls next door. And because our cast of characters, our photographers, subjects, settings are all anonymous - and therefore somehow more honest - a light glows threw the room. The things portrayed therein happened for the sake of the thing and not for the portrayal itself.
Art has a problem because it is always aware of itself. You become an artist as soon as you decide to do an action for art's sake and by then you are aware you are doing it. These pictures were never intended to be hung in a gallery and thus more intimate than the images we normally encounter. Granted, many of the erotic pictures (and there are quite a few) were paid sessions usually sold or sent out to small 'clubs.' Yet, even these "amateur" photographs were never intended for mass viewing. They're intimate in a more raw, 'dirty' sense, although highly revealing. Some of the more blatently suggestive pictures will make you blush to see in public, but the reaction they cause is highly rewarding as well. From very young boys snickering in bewilderment to a small group of female "don't call me 'senior' citezens" laughing like disobedient young school girls, people responded to the show. Responded, in part, to the Family Album-like arrangement of salon style photographs, responded, in part, to the sheer vibrancy of intimate reality: this existed, and was important, and then was discarded. This becomes especially interesting when contemplating a more sexually charged photograph, so charged, but how exchanged.
While the show is not displayed chronologically, it does seem to be approximately so, enough that most will assume that it is the case. When viewed this way, one interesting trend is exceedingly apparent. The sexuality of the photographs increase signifigantly. While there are many nudes from the earliest pictures in the exhibit, their demeanor is much more artistic. One picture in particular presents three nude women each holding onto the same long chain. There exists a certain sexuality, edging on fetish, but the women are calm and confident. They posess a stoic power. As the years roll by, the pictures become more sexually charged. This is to say, they are not so much more sexual as they are more charged. A series of images present us three women offering us their best, the center figure relishing the chance to own her sexuality almost to the extent where it's pornographic, almost to the edge of absurd. To consider how some of these images align with the feminist movement (and the much earlier photographs to women's sufferage), it's amazing to see how much women have been able to embrace their sexuality but also still be indentured to it.
For the most part, though, the pictures in The Three Graces are particular to their own time and place. They are illuminating, captivating, nostaligic. The prints range from shabby to exquisite, but you'll never notice the difference. You can just imagine an elder relative explaining the signifigance and story behind each and every picture. There is a computer terminal and several copies of the catalog (published by Yale with hundreds of pictures reproduced from the show) in the small gallery after the show that try and piece together the story, inferred at like anthropologists by the few clues included with the photographs or their discovery. The catalog is quite good and somewhat reasonably priced, but the terminal is full of supplimental information and provides links for a comments section and discussion. The program can be viewed online as well, here. Conscise, seductive, alluring, and fun aren't things we always get to find at the art museum, but here we are: The Three Graces - grace, charm, beauty.