New exhibit at FIA explores the works of women printmakers of the early 20th century

FLINT, Michigan — A new exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA) features works by members of one of the first generations of American women who were able to pursue careers as artists. “On Press: Women Printmakers of the Early 20th Century” is open from July 15 through Oct. 8, 2023, in the FIA’s Graphics Gallery, and includes 21 prints on paper by 14 different artists, all made between 1900 and 1950.

Women weren’t admitted to art schools until the late 1800s, but even then, those positions were often only available to individuals with wealthy families or a relation to a male artist. It would take a seismic financial disaster in the United States to spur a shift in societal norms.

During the Great Depression, new opportunities were available to artists through companies like Associated American Artists and American Artists Group, which aimed to stimulate the economy and chose not to discriminate based on gender.

“They were selling these prints through mail order catalogs and things like that,” said Rachael Holstege, Associate Curator at the FIA. “So they were really marketing them towards the wider public, who at the time were really interested in seeing these scenes that were very representative of American culture.”

Many items in the collection could be described as genre or domestic scenes which typically focus on everyday people engaged in work or recreation, depicted in a realistic style. “In the overall art world, this sort of realism was really popular at this time,” explained Holstege.

Peggy Bacon, American, 1895 – 1987, An Object of Interest, 1941. Drypoint on paper, 11 13/16 × 15 13/16 inches.Holstege is particularly interested in the works by Lucienne Bloch, a Swiss American artist, sculptor, painter, and photographer who went on to apprentice under famous muralist Diego Rivera and form a close friendship with Rivera’s wife, also a famous artist, Frida Kahlo.

“One of the main reasons I’m really drawn to her is because she was based in Flint for a long time,” said Holstege. “She worked with Diego Rivera on Detroit Institute of Arts murals, and she also taught classes at the FIA.”

Three prints by Bloch are included in the exhibition, two of which are actually different iterations of the same composition, called “Land of Plenty.” The scene evokes the theme of industrialization which was common in artworks of the time. 

The earlier version depicts a family of four walking along a crooked fence and a tall cornfield with electrical towers and power lines rising from the background and into the sky. “They’re kind of disheveled, they don’t have shoes on, and it’s sort of showing them navigating through this new time and how they fit in,” Holstege explained. 

In the later version, Bloch returned to the original woodcut and removed the family from the composition, though the outlines of their feet are still barely visible at the bottom edge. “I think it’s really interesting that she returned to this work,” said Holstege.

Alice Harold Murphy, American, 1896 - 1966, Umbrellas, 1937, Lithograph on paper, 12 5/8 × 17 3/4 inches. The women included in the exhibition were able to pursue careers as artists, a privilege not afforded to their mothers and grandmothers’ generations. Despite that progress, women of color were still much less represented in the art world at the time.

“It kind of started with women opening the door, and then we see in the next couple decades African American artists coming to the forefront,” said Holstege.

This exhibition serves as a spotlight on the changes that did take place in the art world in the early 20th century, highlighting the women who were able to break into the industry at that time.

“It’s looking through a very different lens, through a group of people who were kind of pushed to the sidelines,” said Holstege. “So it’s giving them their moment to shine.”

For more information about “On Press: Women Printmakers of the Early 20th Century” and upcoming exhibits at the Flint Institute of Arts, visit:
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Read more articles by Katy Kildee.