Lesbian art in America
by Harmony Hammond
Reviewed by Jim Van Buskirk

Harmony Hammond is in a unique position to write Lesbian art in America. As one of the most important practitioners and documentors of lesbian art in America, she has had first-hand experience with its birthing and coming of age. Finally, the book we have long been waiting for, a history from Hammond’s perspective.

Bits and pieces of much of the artistic, political and social ebb and flow of the past thirty years have appeared in a variety of books (e.g., Damn fine art by new lesbian artists by Cherry Smyth. Cassell, 1996), exhibition catalogs, (e.g., In a different light: visual culture, sexual identity, queer practice. City Lights Books, 1995) and magazines (e.g., Lesbian art and artists issue of Heresies, 1977). But here in a chronological order, decade by decade, are the stories that woven together form the missing history of contemporary lesbian art in the United States.

Conceptualizing lesbian art “as a braid with three strands, gender, sexuality, and art.” Hammond is equally attentive to the additional threads of history and identity. Hammond wisely, if understandably defensively, defines her terms: “When I talk about lesbian identification, I am not talking about a fixed, closed, preexisting identity, and when I talk about lesbian art, I am not talking about a reductive, essentialist, static imagery, style, sensibility, or aesthetic.”

Hammond’s attendance at art exhibitions, studio visits, interviews, correspondence as well as her personal archives and collection of lesbian art coalesce into this welcome resource. Beautifully designed with many well-reproduced color and black-and-white images, LAIA includes profiles of 18 prominent lesbian artists including: Fran Winant, Kate Millett, Judith Baca, Laura Aguilar, Millie Wilson, Catherine Opie, Deborah Kass and Hammond herself. One design peculiarity is that the placement of some of the short artist profiles interrupts the flow of the chapter text. Throughout the text are the names of and works by many of our own active caucus members, including Tee Corinne, Flavia Rando, Sallie McCorkle, Erica Rand, and Deborah Bright. Among the references to San Francisco artists/activists important in the movement are L.A/Happy Hyder, founder of Lesbians in the Visual Arts, Lenore Chinn, Ann Meredith, Kim Anno, and E.G. Crichton.

“This book could not have been written thirty, twenty, even ten years ago,” states Hammond. It also could not have been written by anyone else. It is a personal history as well as a social history. It is refreshingly subjective, with an effort to be as inclusive as possible. It attempts the impossible and does a damn good job at it. I can’t think of any individual, lesbian or not, artist or not, who would not be absorbed by this fascinating exploration, which as Hammond acknowledges, “is not a conclusion, but a passage.”

Jim Van Buskirk
San Francisco Public Library

Anna Klumpke: a turn-of-the-century painter and her world
by Britta C. Dwyer
Reviewed by Ray Anne Lockard

Britta C. Dwyer has made a major contribution to the literature on nineteenth century women artists as well as the field of biographical writing by examining this American painter’s life through the lens of lesbian and gay studies. Having written her dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh on the education of nineteenth century women artists, Dwyer discovered that there was extensive coverage of Klumpke in contemporary Pittsburgh newspapers. That, coupled with the scholar’s discovery of archival material at the Chateau de Rosa Bonheur in By/Thomery, France, is what led Dwyer to study this forgotten artist.

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1856-1942) was a native of San Francisco who became renowned in France as a portraitist by acquiring the right American connections and working the Parisian Salon circuit, as all successful artists of her day did. Klumpke studied at the Academie Julian and began to receive her first commissions in 1882. Her work was so well executed that it attracted the attention of critics, artists, and the wealthy public. 1889 was an especially fine year for Klumpke. She exhibited in the 1889 Salon, received the bronze medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, was the first woman to receive the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’s Temple Gold Medal, and first met the famed French painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). At the time of their meeting, Anna Klumpke was 43; the renowned French artist who was grieving the loss of Nathalie Micas, her companion of 30 years, was 76.

Eight years later in 1897, Klumpke wrote to Bonheur asking her if she would sit for a portrait. The answer was positive and Klumpke returned to France the next year after a one-woman exhibition of her work in Albany, New York. The famous first portrait that Klumpke painted of Bonheur showing the artist at her easel was completed between June and July 1898. This was followed by Bonheur’s invitation to Klumpke to stay on with her at By to be her companion and biographer. The couple’s new life together began the following month. They both exhibited in the 1899 Salon, Klumpke exhibiting her second portrait of Bonheur (with Skye Terrier), the older artist showing her “Cows and oxen at Auvergne.” Three months later, Bonheur died suddenly. The two artists had shared their lives together for only nine months.

Klumpke, true to her partner’s wishes, struggled to settle Bonheur’s estate and wrote her partner’s biography even though Bonheur had died before she had completed a full account. Published in 1908, Klumpke’s Rosa Bonheur, sa vie, son oeuvre, consisted of her account of the artist, Bonheur’s story of her life as compiled by Klumpke, and Klumpke’s narrative of Bonheur’s final days and death. It was only translated into English during 1997 by Gretchen Van Slyck, one year prior to the centennial of Bonheur’s death.

Dwyer’s book, which sets the story of Klumpke’s life and her partnership with Bonheur, is well researched and set within the historical and social context of the two artists’s lives. The scholarly apparatus is extensive, including a list of Klumpke’s portraits, and a bibliography enriched with archival collections and interviews. The well-organized index includes the “l- and h-words” still excluded in the indexes of many published books.

Ray Anne Lockard
University of Pittsburgh