As I took in the floral hues and diaphanous drawings in the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s newest installment, I was utterly mesmerized by the garden of femininity blooming around me. With its gorgeous sketches, ancient statuettes and pastel paintings, “Recasting Antiquity: Whistler, Tanagra, and the Female Form” is not your average art exhibit.
Co-curated by Ruth Allen, the museum’s curator of Greek and Roman art, and Linda Merrill, professor and director of art history undergraduate studies, the collection opened to visitors on Feb. 3. The exhibit explores changing attitudes towards classical antiquity and conventional Western notions of femininity. It primarily features the paper and lithographic works of U.S. artist James McNeill Whistler alongside several of the Hellenistic Greek pieces they are based on, terracotta figurines known as Tanagras. Other artists’ paintings, photos and sculptures that mimic or capture these classical artifacts accentuate these elements.
According to the exhibit’s introduction, “Tanagra” applies to any statuette unearthed at the namesake site in late 19th century Boeotia, Greece. The most common type of these figures depict seated, standing or dancing women draped in cloth. Each of these Tanagras, which are on loan from the Louvre Museum, contextualize one set of Whistler’s drawings. His choice to draw using paper, color lithographs and soft pencil gives the women an ethereal appearance, freeing his muses from the heaviness of their original clay material.
The third floor exhibition hall is divided into three sections, with the initial area splitting off into a room on the right and a room further back on the left. As I ventured farther into the first room, I could not tear my eyes away from the lounging figures and their elegant garbs, nor from the flowing lines that Whistler used to compose their forms. The allure does not come from the women’s bodies or poses but rather in the way they are absorbed in their tasks.
Around the corner, two of Whistler’s live models, dressed as though they had been pulled from the Panhellenic era, playfully pose for the camera in a blown-up photograph. The description panel notes how Whistler encouraged his models “to wander, dance, read or rest — anything to avoid the appearance of working.” I could see this direction shine through in the lightness of his drawings’ bodies and the movement insinuated in each one. These elements of leisure, softness and joy saturate every display in this remarkable collection.
A Tanagra of two girls playing a game reminded me that, even in ancient Greece, girls liked to have fun. A figure of the mythological Cassandra seeking refuge under a statue of Athena at Troy juxtaposes the girls’ antics. The exhibit demonstrates the crucial presence femininity has in both daily life and religion. When I looked up at the surrounding drawings, Whistler’s art further reminded me of women’s effortless beauty and the pleasures of girlhood that stretch back centuries.
The second room further explores history by detailing the creation processes of Tanagras. Around the room, pieces inspired by Tanagras demonstrate the ways people have recreated the traditional production process. I was thrilled to see a table on one side with art supplies where visitors and children could cut out and color their cardboard statuettes, and I was even more delighted to see a young pair of kids engrossed in the activity. Not only does the station encourage visitors to learn more about the crafting process, but it also enables them to experience the same pleasure the sculptors and even Whistler himself may have felt in creating their works of art.
The entrance to the third and final room is striking. The doorway opens right in front of a magnificent pastel painting by impressionist Childe Hassam, included to highlight the appearance of the Tanagra theme in U.S. art. The image is simple — a girl holding a Tanagra figurine — but the colors and brush strokes gleam in the light and radiate out of the frame and onto the pink and pale green walls. The effect pulls the viewer deeper into the exhibit and into the portrait at the same time, making the rest of the room feel like an extension of the painting. By organizing the layout this way, the museum invites its guests to contemplate the other pieces around them just as the young woman contemplates her Tanagra.
The rest of the room includes goddess statuettes, Whistler’s drawings of mother and child Tanagras as well as some of his chalk-on-paper creations. Looking at the soft shades and sketches of women living and lounging, I felt as though the images come from a fond memory rather than thousands of years of history.
Overall, the collection and Whistler’s art capture both the playful and ineffable elements of the different Tanagras beautifully. The detailed descriptions of Whistler’s inspirations, Tanagra creation, their discovery and resurging artistic portrayals make the statues alluring without sexualizing them, a feat for an exhibit entirely featuring the female figure.
Moving from drawing to drawing felt like a lesson in leisure and light, while the layout of the entire space brings the statues the same freshness that Whistler’s drawings gave them. In a world increasingly focused on impossible body standards, “Recasting Antiquity: Whistler, Tanagra, and the Female Form” asks that we, like Whistler’s drawings, free ourselves from the heavy weight of society’s expectations into the delight and lightness of existing. Together, the pieces paint a picture of timeless femininity, demonstrating the beauty girls have in simply being.
Erin Devine is a junior at Emory College of Arts and Sciences majoring in Film & Media Studies and English & Creative Writing. Outside of writing for the wheel, she serves as the social media manager for the Emory University Club Fencing team as well as secretary for the student theatre group Dooley's Players, and works various jobs on student film productions. In her free time, she loves to create stories, read novels, act in plays, and dance ballet!