These three films focus on the lives and achievements of women artists. The documentary Who Does She Think She Is? (84 min.) introduces five contemporary women, each hailing from a different region of the United States, and toiling in virtual isolation well outside the mainstream art world. Conversely, Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine (99 min.) delves into the work and personality of one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and respected women artists in the world. As a work of art in its own right, the lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s Lover Other: The Story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore (55 min.) is a creative homage to the French Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (born Lucie Schwob) and her stepsister, collaborator, and lover Marcel Moore (born Suzanne Malherbe).
Pamela Tanner Boll and Nancy Kennedy, producers of the highly acclaimed Born into Brothels,1 have created another documentary gem with Who Does She Think She Is? In following the lives of five women—four visual artists and one singer/stage actress—the film at times relies too heavily on the romantic notion that an artist creates out of “inner necessity.”2 Yet it also tacitly suggests that this trope is strategically useful for women who find themselves having to justify their artistic careers in the face of tremendous familial and cultural opposition. In addition to focusing on each woman’s particular circumstances, the documentary addresses the broader ramifications of institutional and cultural sexism, with a number of scholars weighing in on the pervasive historical devaluation of women’s creativity. To underscore this point, the filmmakers also conducted random interviews with people on the streets of New York. When asked if they could name any famous women artists, few respondents could cite any. These scenes seem more effective than do some of the scholarly discussions; in particular, the latter gives much weight to women’s recuperation of goddess cultures, yet only one of the featured artists identifies this as an important aspect of her work.
As much as it focuses on the plight of women artists, this documentary is equally concerned to raise questions about the other common thread among these five women: motherhood. With honest and raw emotions, each of the featured subjects speaks at length about the joys of having children, as well as the profound sense of guilt and self-doubt that comes with her concomitant desire to be an artist. Here the goddess theme looms large again, as the filmmakers want to establish a connection between female procreative and creative powers, as if to suggest that the one necessarily follows on the other. Wisely, however, the filmmakers avoid a facile ending: instead of pitching a generic message that women “can have it all,” they indicate that the confluence of personal relations, economic circumstances, and cultural mandates paints a far more complicated picture.
A highly accessible film, Who Does She Think She Is? seems appropriate for a host of introductory courses focusing on gender, history, art history, and the family. The issues it broaches both around women’s creative practices and their motherhood roles will no doubt spark productive conversations. The film’s attention to the center/periphery dynamic could also be a platform for more advanced feminist analyses of the underlying assumptions and ramifications of this hierarchy.
Family drama also looms large in Amei Wallach and Marion Cajori’s film on Louise Bourgeois. Based on footage shot between 1993 and 2007, this documentary tackles a difficult but intriguing subject. Though the filmmakers clearly set out to glean insight into Bourgeois’ art, their film ultimately reveals more about the artist’s mercurial personality and the deep-rooted insecurities feeding it. In one telling scene, the artist impatiently chastises her interviewers, telling them “you need to read between the lines when I talk.”
Viewers familiar with Bourgeois’ art will already know that much of its sources derive from painful childhood memories, particularly those associated with the artist’s parents. As such, this film yields few new insights. The artist’s private mythology will no doubt appeal to many viewers; however, on a pedagogical level it could also inspire critical discussion of the film’s interpretative frameworks. For more advanced students in art history and gender theory courses, the film’s overreliance on biographism and artistic intentionality could be productive parsed in conjunction with supplemental readings on methodology.3
The strongest moments of Louise Bourgeois occur when the discussion turns to specific works of art. Frances Morris, a curator at the Tate Modern, offers a thoughtful analysis of Bourgeois’ 2000 installation, I Do, I Undo, I Redo. Comprised of three steel towers, each around 30 feet high, the interactive installation incorporates ideas about travel, concealment, spectacle, surveillance, and imprisonment. While autobiographical references abound in this work, there is also much to parse here regarding the broader contemporary turn to installation practices and interactivity in the art world.
In terms of the film’s focus on a successful “woman artist,” instructors could usefully address a quip Bourgeois proffers early on in the film: “It is difficult to be a woman and be likeable.” Ultimately, however, this documentary is too drawn out to sustain the interest of students in lower-level courses. It is divided into three chapters (each named after one portion of the artist’s Tate Modern installation), which could be viewed individually, but here again, it has better competition: the PBS series Art:21 offers a comparable account of Bourgeois, and is available online.4
Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were stepsisters and lovers who often collaborated on artistic and literary projects. Having spent the 1920s in Paris, they moved to the Isle of Jersey in 1937. Hammer’s Lover Other focuses on this period, following the women’s lives through World War II and the German occupation of France. The video combines still images, interviews, archival film footage, quotations, and dramatic reenactments. In blending fact and fiction, it mirrors the lovers’ own sustained engagement with masquerade and performance. Cahun and Moore were radical on many counts—aesthetic, sexual, gender, and political—and Hammer successfully captures their avant-garde spirit without presuming to uncover the “truth” behind it. In this regard, the film’s attention to identity performativity has broad application in feminist theory classrooms.
At times Lover Other suffers from sloppy editing. Likewise, the dramatic reenactments, which are based on a “found” script, also fail to match Cahun’s and Moore’s sophisticated aesthetic. Nonetheless, the disjuncture reminds the viewer that this is, in the end, Hammer’s interpretation of these women’s lives; eschewing the ostensibly neutral gaze of the documentarist, the filmmaker openly foregrounds her own erotic investment in her subject matter. As such, Lover Other inspires important questions about the sexual and gendered dynamics of visual representation and spectatorship. In addition to the basic information it provides about the women’s lives and work, Hammer’s film could also be added to any syllabus that includes readings on viewing positions and spectatorial pleasures.
As a feminist art historian I see multiple possibilities for utilizing Lover Other as well as Who Does She Think She Is? Conversely, I am inclined to shelve Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine in lieu of more interesting material on this artist and related topics.
Susan Richmond (email@example.com) is Assistant Professor of Art History at Georgia State University with research and teaching interests in contemporary art and visual culture, art criticism, and gender theory. She is currently preparing a book manuscript on the early work of Lynda Benglis.
1Born Into Brothels, directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski (New York: HBO/Cinemax Documentary, 2004).
2The artists are Maye Torres (Taos, New Mexico), Janis Wunderlich (Columbus, Ohio), Angela Williams (Providence, Rhode Island), Camille Musser (Cambridge, Massachusetts), and Mayumi Oda (Kealakekua, Hawaii).
3Several scholars have usefully broached this topic in relation to Bourgeois’ oeuvre. See Anne M. Wagner, “Bourgeois Prehistory, or the Ransom of Fantasies,” Oxford Art Journal 22, no. 2 (1999): 3-23; Mieke Bal, Louise Bourgeois' Spider: The Architecture of Art-writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
4“Identity,” Art:21, season 1, PBS, http://video.pbs.org/video/1237561998/.