Columbus Museum of Art brings in striking paintings from two women

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Two women who lived a century apart created fascinating, striking paintings—mostly of women—that are now on view at the Columbus Museum of Art.

“Robin F. Williams: We’ve Been Expecting You” presents works from the past 17 years by the Columbus-born artist, whose paintings comment (often with humor) on the status, perspectives and concerns of women. This is the first institutional solo exhibition for Williams, 40, who is based in Brooklyn, New York.

From across the Atlantic come the pastel paintings of French artist Marie Laurencin (1883–1956), a member of the Parisian avant-garde who moved in the circles of Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and others. Her works are largely portraits of women, reflecting the sapphic or lesbian lifestyle she adopted.

The paintings by the two artists are presented in opposite galleries on the ground floor of the museum’s Margaret M. Walter Wing, with each exhibit offering a stimulating and often quite beautiful representation of female life. Williams’ works are presented chronologically, gradually becoming more surreal and experimental.

“Swoon at the Water Pump” (2010) shows a Bo-Peep character lying under an old-fashioned water pump, her massive pink petticoat swelling and lifting her skirt. The painting is at once humorous and a bit unsettling.

Williams, who often references mass media and films, pays homage to “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Shining” with bold portraits (made from 2018 to 2021) of three of the film’s female stars.

Walking into another of the Williams’ galleries feels like entering “The Twilight Zone.” Female aliens, ghosts (including a pregnant one), swamp things and yetis hover in large paintings. One of the funniest is “Bechdel Yetis,” referencing the Bechdel-Wallace test that gauged the representation of women in films and other media.

Finding two women in a film talking to each other about anything except men was as rare as finding yetis in the wild. In Williams’ painting, two grinning female yetis walk arm-in-arm. Williams’ huge paintings are vivid in color and remarkable in texture. She has a way of applying oil, acrylic and airbrush oil that puts goosebumps on figures’ skin, tear drops on faces and areoles on cacti.

As bold and assertive as Williams’ paintings are, so, in their own fashion, are those of Laurencin. At the start of the exhibit, a timeline presents significant events in Laurencin’s often troubled life. Married to a German husband (later divorced), she was exiled from Paris during World War I. Upon her return, she became an important figure in the city’s 1920s cultural life as well as its sapphic subculture.

Her portraits of women, often seen in pairs, abound in shades of pink, lilac, and blue, with elongated faces and dark, expressionless eyes. One of the loveliest of these is “Raspberry,” a portrait of a waif-like young woman that is owned by the Columbus Museum of Art.

Marie Laurencin's "Raspberry" oil on canvas painting. The painting was a gift of Erika Bourguignon, in memory of her husband, Paul H. Bourguignon.

Laurencin also worked in fashion and design, including creating the set, curtain, and costumes for “Les Biches” (“The Does” or “The Darlings”), a 1942 ballet by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Recreations of the costumes, as well as film from the ballet, are featured in the exhibit.

The only two portraits of men in Laurencin’s exhibit are those of Paul Rosenberg, her agent, and Pablo Picasso. Laurencin clearly was more interested in the feminine aesthetic, captured in pastel colors, curving lines and enigmatic expressions.

The Laurencin exhibit, organized and first shown at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, was co-curated by Barnes Curator Cindy Kang, who called it “overdue.” In the artist’s day, she said, “how to value this overt femininity as equally modern” was a bit of a puzzle.

Nicole Rome, Columbus’ museum director of collections and chief registrar, added, “Seventy years after Laurencin’s death, this is long overdue.”