Three current shows at three area museums explore the evolution of woman from the damsel in distress to the take-charge femme fatale. With a nod and a wink to George Bernard Shaw, this troika of shows taken together could be called “Woman and Superwoman.”
The Wolfsonian’s “In the Shadows: American Pulp Cover Art” features scarlet women in need of extermination and damsels in distress in need of rescue. At the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Salma Hayek exudes sensuality and embodies ancient Egyptian traditions in Youssef Nabil’s digital color video “I Saved My Belly Dancer.” While at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, Catherine Opie focuses the camera on the essence of Elizabeth Taylor as seen through the actress’ possessions in her Bel Air estate at 700 Nimes Road.
“In the Shadows: American Pulp Cover Art,” through July 9
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In much the same way as with political cartoons, the covers of pulp fiction magazines tell an entire story in a single image. Many of those images freeze-frame how women were perceived by men leading up to and immediately after World War II. As the years unfold, the imagery becomes increasingly more sexual and violent.
The pulps — so named because of the cheap pulp paper used to produce them — had their heyday from 1934 through 1954, said Frank Luca, the longtime librarian at the Wolfsonian and an adjunct professor of history at Florida International University. Four of his students curated the show. Joseph Perez focused on the “Demonization of Muslims,” Erica Melamed examined the “Sexualization of Women,” Tiffany Breslawski explored “Gangsters and Violence Toward Women,” and Mauriel Fernandez looked at “Pulp War Propaganda.” Together, the exhibit surveys western views of Muslims during the pre-World War II colonization of North Africa to sex and violence against women before, during and after the war.
Compact and concise, the exhibition is contained entirely on the museum’s third-floor landing. (As you take the elevator to the third floor, be sure to look up to see the verdigris gargoyles, originally from the New National Bank of Commerce in St. Louis.)
The elevator doors open onto two vitrines and a wall case filled with 28 pulp magazines and novels. Another wall includes an original painting by Rafael de Soto, an American illustrator from Puerto Rico. The painting featured a gunman in the sewer pointing a pistol through a grate at a woman in red. It became the November 1945 cover of the Black Mask periodical.
“I love this one because this is the underbelly of America,” Luca said. “You have this man. When I first saw this painting, I thought he was a peeper. He’s in the sewer, literally, and he’s looking up almost at the skirt of a woman dressed in red. And then I realized, oh, he’s not just a peeper. He’s got a gun in his hand. So it adds to that level of implied violence.”
The color the artist chose also conveys meaning in the language of the pulps.
“The red shoes and red dress are indicative that this is a fallen woman that’s probably ‘deserving’ of the fate that she’s about to get,” Luca said. “Blood-red lipstick is another clue. Sometimes redheads, sometimes blondes, but always the red is used as a sort of means to say, ‘bad woman, fallen woman.’ ”
On the same wall as the painting, a television plays loops of seven film clips that mirror the concepts colorfully depicted on the pulp covers. However, films often depicted sex and violence off camera or in the shadows to conform to the Hays Code, which set guidelines regarding what was suitable for American audiences.
“Once they started imposing the Hays Code — it was technically imposed in 1930, but they didn’t start strictly enforcing it until 1934 to about 1954 — they cleaned up the movies,” Luca said. “No more sex. No more violence, at least not overt graphic violence. Now it has to be behind the scenes or in the shadows.
“The pulps feed on this,” he said. “ ‘Wow, we’re not being censored. Here’s our chance to capitalize on it. All the young men who were going to the movies to see the gangsters, they’ll come and buy our magazines with that same sort of graphic violence depicted on the cover.’”
According to Luca, those who bought the pulps were mostly young immigrant men. They read the pulps to learn the language and immerse themselves in the culture. Some of the pulps featured love and romance and served as the precursor to the Harlequin Romance series. Those pulps appealed to the young female audience.
The characters depicted ranged from vulnerable virgins to bad-ass girls. The Current Detective magazine cover from June 1944 shows a woman in a brassiere. She holds a smoking revolver in her neatly manicured right hand that flaunts blood-red nail polish.
The kidnap theme is also prevalent. A Detective Novels Magazine cover from October 1943 shows a gun-toting gangster clutching a woman who has swooned in a dead faint. A Private Detective magazine from January 1946 shows a young woman with her arms behind her back being held against her will by a man with a white kerchief masking his mouth and nose. A Detective Fiction magazine from December 1941 shows a frightened woman with her mouth taped looking out from a checkered cab while a gangster wearing a green fedora and gold pinky ring points a submachine gun at the viewer.
“When you look at the women, they are either the poor victims or these women who stepped beyond their conventional gender roles,” Luca said. Stronger women emerged during and after World War II, directly resulting from the need for women to enter the workforce while the men were fighting overseas. This new role as working woman causes a lot of anxiety among the men upon their return.
“The Second World War is critical because you add six million women participating in the workforce during the war years,” Luca said. “That is a sea change. This is where women get their foot in the door, and that door never closes again. It’s absolutely a watershed moment, and these pulps are covering that watershed moment.”
“I Saved My Belly Dancer,” through October 1
While the woman in red traditionally represents the harlot who is doomed to die for her sins, Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil turned that notion on its head in his lyrical and lush color video “I Saved My Belly Dancer.”
In just under 12 minutes and with no dialogue, Nabil expressed an ex-pat’s longing for home and a desire for that image to remain unchanged despite the passage of time. Nabil also leaves the viewer with the not-so-subtle message that the West will be the salvation of his country and culture. Born in Cairo in 1972, Nabil left his homeland in 2003 and now resides in New York.
While the illustrators of the pulp genre used everyday Janes as their models, Nabil chose to feature film star Salma Hayek as a sort of super woman. In the video, Hayek — dressed in a golden bra, gold-trimmed scarlet skirt and diaphanous red shawl — plays the role of a Middle Eastern Wonder Woman. She is a metaphor for the culture of Egypt through one of its most recognized art forms, the ancient tradition of belly dancing.
Once a respected staple of weddings and nightclubs throughout the Middle East, belly dancing has come under repeated attack in Egypt. In late 1989, Muslim militants advocated flogging the dancers for wearing scanty outfits in public. Others sought relief from the courts. Galal Khalil Abdulrahman, both a fundamentalist and an attorney, filed a civil suit against the belly dancers, arguing that under Islamic law all belly-dancing venues should be banned. While the attorney failed nearly three decades ago, belly dancing has come under renewed attack in the wake of the January Revolution of 2011.
Upon learning that several belly-dancing clubs in Egypt closed after the 2011 uprising, Nabil first addressed this troubling social ban with his photographic essay “The Last Dance” (2012). He revisited this theme three years later in this video starring Hayek, who is of Lebanese and Mexican extraction, and Algerian actor Tahar Rahim.
The video opens with Rahim dressed in a traditional Egyptian robe known as a galabiya. He is lying on his side on the sand, looking out to sea. He is dreaming; before him appears a mirage-like tableau of a Middle Eastern wedding party, complete with bride and groom, two sheiks in long white robes, Egyptian soldiers, and nine belly dancers.
In the next scene, everyone appears sprawled out on the sand, felled in a bloodless attack. Rahim weeps at the image and manages to summon a more pleasant memory of Hayek as a belly dancer who proceeds to comfort him, first by seductively massaging his fully clothed body and then by performing a rhythmic dance. Her hair sweeps circles in the air with every sway of her head; her scarlet maxi-skirt, slit to her hips, reveals tantalizing glimpses of leg as she writhes to the music.
As the sun sets, they embrace. The sun turns the sky and sea to various shades of orange and red and forms a halo around Rahim’s head, leaving no doubt that he is destined to be a savior.
That role plays out in the next scene, where he and Hayek ride a white steed through what is obviously meant to represent the American West, with its buttes in the background and sagebrush throughout. He is dressed as a cowboy in a dark Stetson, plaid shirt and blue jeans, and a pair of pearl-handled pistols holstered on either side. Hayek remains in her gold and red belly dancer outfit, hugging her rescuer in gratitude as they ride off into the sunset.
NSU Art Museum
“Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road,” through June 18
Plenty of people have such oversized personalities that they can fill a room upon entering. Only those rare beings can do so by their absence. Elizabeth Taylor is one such Superwoman.
Catherine Opie’s photographic essay of Elizabeth Taylor is remarkable for what it doesn’t include. Opie never met Taylor, who became ill midway through the six-month project and died in 2011. While not physically present, Taylor’s essence resonates through Opie’s photographs, with some incorporating images of the actress in private moments. In one photograph, Taylor is shown giving a haircut to Richard Burton, the love of her life and her fifth and sixth husband. In another, they are uninhibited lovers, stealing a kiss on a dock.
But perhaps the most revealing photograph is that of a black-and-white image in a plain silver frame. Taylor has her eyes closed and her head thrown back. Her third husband, Mike Todd, nuzzles her cheek while peering down at their daughter who is sound asleep on Taylor’s chest. That intimate portrait stands out amid a collection of jewelry presentation boxes from the likes of Cartier and other well-heeled establishments. The position and dominance of the photograph leaves no mistake that Taylor considered family her crowning jewel.
As museum director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater points out, the Opie exhibit explores “what Elizabeth Taylor is when she’s not being Elizabeth Taylor.”
To be sure, the exhibition includes the public side of Taylor, too. There’s the famous Andy Warhol work in which the artist lavished aqua eye shadow on Taylor’s portrait and turned her iconic violet eyes blue. Opie inserted herself into the portrait, reflected in the glass frame.
Opie also included images of the famed 33-carat Krupp Diamond, a gift from Burton, and the Mike Todd Diamond Tiara. She also captured Taylor’s trophy case of sorts, which includes photographs of Taylor with the Clintons in 2001 after receiving the Presidential Citizens Award in recognition for her work in film and on behalf of AIDS sufferers. Also included in that case are Taylor’s three Oscars, including two Best Actress awards in the 1960s for her roles in Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Humanitarian Award of 1992.
Photographs of Taylor’s closets reveal an assortment of handbags, belts and boots. Her color-coded closets reveal a paint box assortment of reds, violets and blues in a variety of textures from quilted to lacy, weighty velvet to sheer spun silk.
Amid this elaborate collection of ornate jewels and ostentatious outfits, one image stands out — that of Taylor’s long-haired cat, Fang, amid several pairs of handmade Chanel shoes.
“The cat is sniffing,” Clearwater observed. “She’s gone, but her scent is in the shoes. It’s the scent of Elizabeth Taylor.”
There’s a sense of longing. It’s as if the cat is looking for the mistress who will never return. It is our loss, too.
If you go
Catherine Opie: 700 Nimes Road
NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, One E. Las Olas Blvd.; through June 18; nsuart-museum.org
Extra: While there, be sure to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibit. If you only see one museum exhibit in South Florida this year, this is the one to see.
In the Shadows: American Pulp Cover Art
The Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; through July 9; wolfsonian.org
Extra: ‘North and South: Berenice Abbott’s U.S. Route 1.’ From the photographer who captured images from Paris to New York City comes a photo essay of life along U.S. 1 from Maine to Miami (and beyond).
I Saved My Belly Dancer
Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; through October 1; pamm.org
Extra: Come see what the museum’s namesake and benefactor has to offer in this exhibition that opens this month: ‘On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Jorge Pérez M. Collection.’