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ART REVIEW : Progressive Era, Regressive Views : An exhibition of turn-of-the-century illustrations at the Huntington offers a disquieting survey of gender politics in an age that wasn't so innocent.

September 04, 1993|LIBBY LUMPKIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Anyone who is interested in the historical precedents for the cartoon controversy between Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown need look no farther than "From Allegory to Activism: Changing Images of Women in American Illustration, 1890-1920," an exhibition of 35 original illustrations on view at the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery at the Huntington Library in San Marino. These ink drawings, which were created for reproduction in the pages of such magazines as Puck, Life and Collier's, demonstrate some of the least progressive cultural attitudes of the Progressive Era, and provide a disquieting survey of the visual politics of gender in early 20th-Century America.

When curator David Brigham joined the Huntington last September, he combed its treasure trove to familiarize himself with the collection. There he came across the originals of nearly 3,500 American illustrations that had not been exhibited since 1937. Brigham has contextualized these illustrations with explanatory wall notes and organized them into a historical survey around three recurring themes: motherhood, fashion and sexuality.

As you enter the gallery, beginning on the left and circling back to the door, you are able to view the chronological evolution of these themes, but you don't view much progress. The brutish and bloomer-clad "Mrs. Henry Peck" in Samuel D. Ehrhart's "Emancipated Woman" (1895) chastises her spouse, who meekly bottle-feeds their child, as she prepares to take a "spin on her wheel," her new bicycle. The inscription that appeared with its publication in Puck says: "Here's this suspender button off these trousers yet, and I told you about it more than a week ago!"

The bicycle, of course, replaces the spinning wheel and serves as well as a nifty metaphor for social and technological mobility. Ehrhart's masculinized image of woman exploits the pervasive fear that there is only a finite amount of freedom, that whatever social freedom women gain, men lose.

This hostility and fear of the New Woman is no less apparent at the opposite end of the chronology, even though the figures of women are more positive. The emasculating "masculine" feminist that occurs consistently in the 1890s is replaced in the early 20th Century with the dignified suffragette.

John Tinney McCutcheon's "The Suffragists Paraded to the Convention Hall" (1912) portrays activists participating in the presidential nomination of Theodore Roosevelt. These women are rendered realistically (some may even be portraits); the men who accompany the procession with flag-waving fanfare, however, are depicted as grinning fools. In the essay that accompanies this illustration in a 1912 issue of Collier's, Arthur Ruhl describes the marchers at this event as women who "embody the modern spirit in its quintessential and perhaps most terrifying form."

As the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown contretemps demonstrates in a slightly altered context, the terror experienced by men in the Progressive Era, when women first entered universities, urban jobs and public life in great numbers, is a bit terrorizing still. So, curator Brigham, perhaps sensing that the contemporary viewer might suffer dangerous levels of culture shock (or cultural recognition?), has softened the unabashed negativity of the images by adding a few positive notes.

He includes a 1918 edition of the Woman Citizen, a pro-feminist journal that features on its cover the image of a female possessed of unqualified moral authority. He has also borrowed three "ladies' " outfits from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Department of Costumes and Textiles to complement the illustrations.

The costumes are intended to remind us of the "real women" that contrast with the "types" depicted in the illustrations. However, although the outfits are a nice addition to the exhibition, it is hard to be much comforted by the corseted immobility of the elegant, ruffled and trained "day dress"; or, the "innovative," floor-length, jacketed and bow-tied, brown wool golfing culottes; or even by the World War I uniform that reminds us that it took women's patriotic participation in the war effort to finally persuade the nation to give women the right to vote.

It is important, nevertheless, to keep in mind the differences between actual women and the images of women in these illustrations since, throughout the Progressive Era, the image of woman functioned as the primary device for symbolizing the hopes and aspirations of "a nation on the move." Along with traditional allegories of "Virtue," "Civilization" and "Progress," women were cast as universal types: "The Charmer," the "Outdoors Girl" and the "New Woman."

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