Mid-Century Modern Women in the Visual Arts

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Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.
—Helen Frankenthaler

I’ve been interested in mid-century modern style and design for longer than I’ve consciously known about the concept. I grew up with children’s books with art from the period, and have always been drawn to the retro-futurism and space-age styles that came along around the same time. Growing up, I never thought about who made this art, or came up with these designs, but I’ve since learned that much of what I loved as a child was actually created by women.

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Out on October 6 is Mid-Century Modern Women in the Visual Arts, a new, inspiring anthology that profiles 25 creative and impactful women from this era covering the fields of art, design, and fashion of the 1930s to the 1960s. The book has a nice fabric cover in the style of older books while the inside consists of the thick, glossy pages of modern publishing. The book is introduced and edited by Gloria Fowler while the original illustrations are by Ellen Surrey. Fowler has done a marvelous job choosing meaningful quotes from each of the women, reflecting their wit and personalities, while Surrey has captured each woman’s contributions and personalities well.

Each of the 25 women (and in one case a pair of women) is given a two-spread treatment. The first spread has their name, a quote, and a small image representative of their work, and the second has a hand-painted portrait of them in a setting that reflects their style and contributions to art and design. Examples include Edith Head’s Oscars, followed by an illustration of her surrounded by her fashion sketches. Or Frida Kahlo’s bed, followed by an illustration of her with plants and monkeys behind her.

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Throughout the book, you’ll learn about 3-D artists, pattern designers, fashion designers, models, painters, furniture designers, and more. Some of these women are quite well known, while others you’ll be excited to learn more about. More than one has sent me to the Googles to investigate further. Here is a complete list: Ray Eames, Edith Head, Peggy Moffitt, Yayoi Kusama, Frida Kahlo, Maija Isola, Sister Corita Kent, Coco Chanel, Bridget Riley, Ruth Asawa, Twiggy, Mary Quant, Louise Nevelson, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Helen Frankenthaler, Eva Zeisel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Florence Knoll, Edith Heath, Alma Thomas, Vera Neumann, Eva Hesse, Alice Provensen, Greta Magnusson-Grossman, Mary Blair. At the very end of the book, a short biography of each of these women is included.

Most people will have heard of at least some of these women, such as Coco Chanel and Frida Kahlo, with a smaller number aware of Ray Eames, Edith Head, and Mary Blair, but, unless you’re an expert on 20th century women in the arts, there will be someone new for everyone to learn about. By their name or by their art, I only knew of 10 out of the 25 myself.

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This book is a perfect springboard to deepening our understanding of mid-century art as well as the significant contributions to it by women. Throughout the 20th century (and for the millennia before that), women’s contributions to, well, just about everything, have generally been minimized, with few exceptions. That’s one reason why I’ve been making a point to seek out women’s contributions to art, science, literature, and everything else, and this book is a perfect intersection of that effort and my intense appreciation for mid-century style.

Though there is very little text in the book, it’s a visual feast for the eyes, and illustrator Ellen Surrey does a marvelous job portraying these artists and their works. This book is ideal for casually paging through, but also for studying the images more closely, discovering little details that might be missed at first glance. It’s basically an art exhibit disguised as a book.

Without too many well-known female role models to look up to, these 25 women paved the way for many other artists, of all genders, to come.

Mid-Century Modern Women in the Visual Arts comes out on October 6 and is a lovely book for anyone who enjoys mid-century design and style, art history, or women’s history. It’s a perfect starting point for learning more about influential artists, both the famous and the more obscure; all are important contributors to the mid-century design world.

Note: I received a sample for review purposes. This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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1 thought on “Mid-Century Modern Women in the Visual Arts

  1. The idea of ​​the book is very impressive; it seems that no one has raised such questions for a long time. I think you are right about the fact that the role of women in the development of art and other areas is underestimated. Everyone remembers the great artists, but most of them are men. I am sure that there are many talented women who drew no worse than Davinchi. I’ll defenitly read this book.
    Thank you from Lira, a chif-editor at papernow.org

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