Like my previous 3 books list, this week’s reading recommendation starts with books by and of two women who played pivotal roles in the shaping of the 20th century Western modern art tradition. Not only for their accomplishments in the arts, they are both women of unique personal styles. Like the 2 books and 1 magazine list before, this one ends with a magazine called “The Gentlewoman” that celebrates modern women of style and purpose.
During early 20th Century, at a time when male artists dominated the avant-garde art scene, artist and dancer Maya Deren initiated the aesthetic and theory of experimental filmmaking. Her films such as “Meshes of The Afternoon” (1943), [see video above,] and “At Land” (1944) continue to inspire young filmmakers. Her work inspired me to embark my own film projects during my undergrad years. As for her theories, they may be dense but vitally important in the history of experimental films and non-linear narrative storytelling.
During her lifetime, Maya Deren’s artistic and intellectual curiosities were insatiable. She explored non-conventional ways of presenting and communicating reality through her lens. Today, her work has led her to become a mythic legend in the eyes of many. Needless to say, it would have been tremendously ambitious if one person tried to write a book to encompass all of her various artistic endeavors. “Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde” is a collection of essays by 11 contributors each exploring a different side of the artist. It is prefaced by the book’s editor, Bill Nichols with an outline her personal biography.
Unsurprisingly, besides being a writer, dancer, photographer and filmmaker, Maya Deren also had a reputation for her own handmade clothes and her ravishing beauty. Around 1945, she wrote an essay on fashion called “Psychology of Fashion” that was unfortunately never published. This book however does include one of Maya Deren’s texts on filmmaking and theory that has been out of print called “An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film.”
This book is a great introduction to Maya Deren’s work and her life as a feminist and political activist. According to the editor, she is the pioneer of the American avant-garde, and a legendary figure.
Located on the eastern stretch of the Grand Canal in Venice, the Palazzo Venier houses art from Peggy Guggenheim’s private collection amassed since the 1930s until her death in 1979. Born into a wealthy American family, Peggy Guggenheim had led a relatively lonely childhood, however, as a young women she had led a bohemian lifestyle surrounded by writers and artists. At times her lifestyle had been frowned upon by others who thought it was scandalous and promiscuous. She married only twice, first to Dadaist artist Laurence Vail of whom she met in the bookshop she worked before becoming interested in art, and to Surrealist Max Ernst after she saw his work exhibited in Paris. But, it’s not the two marriages that had gained her a reputation of promiscuity, it was her liaisons with the writers and artists such as Samuel Beckett, Constantin Brancusi and other artists her gallery showed.
From reading this book, you would not only learn about one of the legendary and pioneering women collectors, but also the stories about the now famous artists and what they were like during their lives. In Confession of an Art Addict, Peggy Guggenheim writes in a funny and candid voice. For example, she described of feeling insecure about her nose when she was young, but after an operation intending to fix it up, she ended up looking “undoubtedly worse.” (Later the people of her society had unjustly pointed out her fleshy nose when they found her lifestyle disagreeable.)
The book starts with Peggy Guggenheim’s description of her family upbringing, then about her first marriage, but dedicates most of it to her dealings with art. After traveling and learning about contemporary art of her time, she eventually opened art galleries in London and New York. She once said in an interview that it was Samuel Beckett who encouraged her to love contemporary art- art of her own generation. Ever since she had started collecting and exhibiting art, Peggy Guggenheim had helped launch many artists’ careers who were largely unknown at the time, but later became famous artists in our history, namely Jack Pollock.
After closing her gallery- Art of This Century in New York, she had showed her collection at the 1948 Venice Art Biennial, and had also opened her private residence of Palazzo Venier to the public to enjoy her art collection. I had read this book just before I got the invitation to attend the Venice Biennial a few years ago as a member of press. When I found the time to visit Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, (initially, an unfinished villa that Peggy Guggenheim purchased, its wide and expansive group floor was supposed to be built much higher in order to house its previous owner’s family), it was particularly interesting to walk through the rooms and see the works while remember how Peggy had talked about the place and the art.
I first discovered “The Gentlewoman” while browsing through McNally Jackson an independent bookstore in SoHo New York a few years ago, stumbling on their 4th issue. I immediately fell in love with the magazine for its stories of accomplished women from a wide range of profession and background.
The magazine focuses on women of intelligence, substance, and those overcoming obstacles to achieve their goals. All the women featured on the covers of each issues are women with not only brains but also style.
Until just a few days ago, I nearly forgot about this review I wrote when I first discovered the magazine in 2011. This article includes a story about an amazing young women who had lost both of her parents in a helicopter accident and how she expanded her family bakery business into an international luxury brand while still pursuing her university degree abroad. Her name is Apollonia, it goes on to describe how she managed to take over after the sudden tragedy, then transformed her modest family business. Highly admirable, no? It goes without saying, “The Gentlewoman” remains one of my favorite magazines for women.