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Art historian examines feminist themes in works collected by Peggy Guggenheim

Jan 26 2021

In a recent presentation to Faculty Research Fellows, Stanford Art Historian and interim Chair of the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program Richard Meyer shared an excerpt of his work on Morris Hirshfield, a Brooklyn tailor and slipper maker who achieved international recognition as a self-taught painter in the 1940s. The talk focused on the staging of Hirshfield’s work, “Nude at the Window,” in the townhouse of Peggy Guggenheim, one of the most prominent and influential art collectors at the time. During the talk, Meyer explored how gender and sexuality unexpectedly shaped the display and the creative interaction among Guggenheim, her Surrealist circle and Hirshfield’s painting.

“Nude at the Window” features a frontal female nude parting a theatrical expanse of red curtains. The breasts and nipples of the nude figure are echoed by the half-circles on the edge of the curtains surrounding her. The original title for the painting, “Nude at the Window (Hot Night in July),” suggests both an explanation for the figure’s nakedness as a result of the sultry summer evening and the sexual heat that invigorates the painting.

The Nude at the Window, painting
"Nude at the Window," Morris Hirshfield,
oil on canvas, 30 x 54”, 1941

In 1942, Guggenheim acquired this painting and displayed it in her townhouse. Guggenheim not only collected artworks, but also actively engaged in creating imaginative interactions with her collections and later ran the pioneering Art of This Century gallery.  On at least one memorable occasion, her living room, furnished with movable art and objects, became a stage for experimenting with alternative ways of looking and being looked at.
In the fall of 1942, the photographer Hermann Landsorff shot a photograph: it showed the French writer, poet, and Surrealism founder André Breton, the French-American painter Marcel Duchamp and the German painter Max Ernst, Guggenheim’s then-husband, standing behind, holding and gazing down upon Hirshfield’s “Nude at the Window.” On their right side sat the British-born Mexican artist Leonora Carrington. She sits on a rocking chair, holding a large phallic-shaped gourd and turning toward the painting. Most surprisingly, on the far left of the scene stands a naked female mannequin with a fetish mask and one of Guggenheim’s fur wraps.
How might we interpret the display, especially the three female figures: the nude in Hirshfield’s painting, Leonora Carrington and the mannequin with Guggenheim’s fur? Meyer put forward this question and invited input. Relating to the biographical stories of Peggy Guggenheim and her then-husband Ernst, who had a romantic relationship with Carrington, Meyer was interested in exploring Guggenheim’s role in this scene and hinted at questions about domesticity and femininity. More importantly, Meyer also suggested reading the implication of the female mannequin through a Surrealist perspective. Many Surrealist artists, including the American visual artist Man Ray, had previously made works in which naked mannequins were fantastically ornamented and sexualized. Meyer quoted Man Ray on Andre Masson’s mannequin: “over the joy of her thighs is a complicated decoration for a double thrust of hiding and priding.” The display of the female mannequin with a mask and fur might be conceived as invoking the doubling of eroticism embedded in Hirshfield’s artwork, the “hiding and priding” of desire.

photo of mannequin, painting, artists
Hermann Landsorff, 1942, citation 

Indeed, being a religious man, Hirshfield had never allowed himself to work with a live model, because of concern about impropriety. However, as Meyer underlined, Hirshfield’s painting was emphatic about giving a voice to some kind of a desire. Important to notice here, Meyer said, Hirshfield was not doing what Surrealists did to the mannequins, which was to suppress female agency and imprison femininity. What became really fascinating about the display was how and why a conversation between Hirshfield’s painting and the Surrealist mannequin was set up. 
Hirshfield’s work appealed a lot to Surrealists; in Meyer’s words, “there’s a way in which reality is kind of collapsing into fantasy.” We could well detect Guggenheim and her Surrealist fellows’ interest in Hirshfield's painting, as they took it off the wall, positioned it at the center and activated it to be a sexualized fantasy dream. 
At the end of his talk, Meyer came to the “protruding nose” of Hirshfield’s nude figure – the nose of the figure is augmented to physically protrude from the canvas. He speculated that might be a cause for Guggenheim’s eventual rejection of the painting, because of her constant self-consciousness of her own nose’s appearance. But more importantly, Meyer conceived the “protruding nose” to be a good metaphor for Hirshfield, who was famous briefly in the ‘40s, but like many self-taught folk artists, was forgotten and written out of modernist-dominated accounts of 20th century art. Meyer ended by reflecting, “this idea of ‘protruding out’ from the canvas’ may seem offensive to some, but speaks to others in a way that most art cannot.  It puts a dent in the barrier between representation and reality."

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