The 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition requires little introduction for readers of this journal. What Wanda Corn accomplishes with her marvelous study is to shift the emphasis away from Daniel Burnham, the exposition’s formidable Director of Works, to the women who designed and decorated its Woman’s Building. The result is an important reinterpretation of the fair and of the importance of gender for understanding public art and architecture.
Women Building History is divided into four parts that address the history of the exposition, the history of the Woman’s Building, the history and content of the mural decorations, and the critical responses to the design and decorations of the building. Two additional features of this book are notable. First, it includes short biographical entries about the women who contributed to designing the Woman’s Building. Second, it includes sidebars to tell parallel and alternative stories about topics ranging from “the feminization of the banjo” to the “skirt dance,” subjects that shed light on the content of the building’s decorations where, Corn contends, there is more to the story than meets the eye.
Designed by Sophia Hayden, the Woman’s Building was situated at the intersection of the forces of “civilization,” represented by the White City, and the forces of “savagery,” arranged into ethnological and commercial exhibits along the mile-long Midway Plaisance. Both contemporary observers and later historians have noted that the Woman’s Building represented women as agents of “civilization” and bulwarks against roiling waters of “otherness” that constantly threatened to overwhelm Burnham’s well-ordered ideal city. What distinguishes Corn’s book is that it examines the interior world of the Woman’s Building and presents one of the finest analyses of the decorative arts yet published about any exposition.
For Corn, the chief value of the decorations is that they reveal “how some women used art to visually express their politics at the same time others were using words to register theirs” (10). With demands increasing for women’s political and economic rights, Corn writes, “[t]he decorations by women artists at the 1893 Fair offer a stunning case study of what female artists had to say on the rare occasion when they were asked to ‘speak’ in public.” Unlike male artists who depicted women in terms of “virtue and perfection, youth, and beauty,” female artists endeavored “to wrest the female body from the male gaze and make it speak to woman’s work, intelligence, and emancipation” (10).
Examples of these claims abound in Women Building History. Corn’s interpretation of Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman is a case in point. For one portion of this mural, which depicted three “Girls of Hope” (as Corn describes them) chasing a symbolic representation of “Fame,” Cassatt reworked an older allegorical form to convey the possibilities held out by women reformers in the Progressive Era, namely that women could “desire to be as famous and accomplished as men in the public sphere” (142). Artists such as Mary MacMonnies and Lydian Field Emmet gave expression to other contemporary concerns: women’s labor (in the case of MacMonnies’s mural Primitive Woman) and women’s pursuit of knowledge (in the instance of Emmet’s oil painting Art, Science, and Literature). Far from being simply ornamental, these decorations were instrumental in encouraging new ways of seeing women and the categories that had defined them.
How should we think about the Woman’s Building and its decorations? Corn notes that contemporary art and architectural critics gave the building’s design and decorations decidedly mixed reviews. Male architectural critics were generally dismissive of Hayden’s design and less than encouraging of women joining the ranks of male architects. Art critics judged the building’s decorative arts more positively, but measured women’s works of art against a standard of “femininity.” Allegedly, good art, like Primitive Woman, passed muster because it was read as embracing pastoral ideals and colors, whereas “garish” art, like Modern Woman, was, when not ignored, criticized for breaking with prevailing standards of harmony and for deploying colors in a manner that “assaults” the eye (10). For Corn, this criticism—even the most absurd criticism—of the decorative arts in the Woman’s Building spoke volumes about a moment when women artists and a woman architect determined to struggle for parity with their male counterparts and to insist on shaping the form and content of America’s public art.
However important, the success of women decorative artists at the 1893 exposition was bittersweet. As Corn puts it: “Not only was it the first occasion on which MacMonnies, Cassatt, and other women were able to work on a grand scale, but it was their last and only opportunity to fulfill a public commission.” “Not until the feminist revolution of the 1970s,” Corn insists, “when Judy Chicago and her many coworkers . . . in Los Angles opened a contemporary Woman Building (1973–91), did other all-woman endeavors take place on a similar scale” (9–10). Perhaps, but how then should we explain artist Sara Ward Conley? As Elizabeth Israels Perry explains in a recent essay, Conley, inspired by the 1893 Woman’s Building, designed the Woman’s Building for the 1897 Nashville Tennessee Centennial.1 This was a relatively large-scale building, crafted and managed by women, with two heroic sculptural representations of Maternity and Women in Art standing at its entrance. For at least some women artists and designers, it would seem that the effects of the 1893 Woman’s Building may not have been deferred for as long as Corn suggests. But Corn’s larger point about “parity” with male artists and architects is surely well taken, as is her insistence that the 1893 fair marked a watershed for women artists and their engagement with public art.
Elisabeth Israels Perry, “Memorializing the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Woman’s Building,” in Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World’s Fairs, ed. T. J. Boisseau and Abigail M. Markwyn (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 149–65.