Feminist Art History 101 with The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel

The second I saw the opening scene of “Look, She Made a Hat” (The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, S2E07) I gasped and immediately hit pause. I then stared at this enormous, warm-toned abstract canvas that matched seamlessly with Midge’s plaid dress for more than half a minute, trying to figure out who painted it or could have painted it.

The painting was screaming Abstract Expressionism at me, but I could not recall seeing any mid-20th century American artist’s work with similar brushwork and colour palette.

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To this day I am still dying to know who ACTUALLY painted it—definitely not the fictional artist named Solomon Crespi, likely some one on the show’s production team, but after which Ab-Ex artist’s style?

Anyway, I continued watching, and it turns out that Benjamin is totally obsessed with the Manhattan art scene. As he continuously name-drops all those famous post-War New York artists throughout this episode, the art history nerd in me totally geeked out and just could not stop looking for all the Easter eggs.

In terms of the plot development, this episode covers a lot of groundIt has been exactly one year since Midge took the stage at Gaslight Cafe after finding out Joel’s affair, and now it finally looks like they are moving on with their own lives. Midge is back in the makeup department at B. Altman, and her career in comedy is slowly taking off as well. Whereas Joel, left no choice by his imprudent parents, now takes on the responsibility of saving his family clothing business from bankruptcy. But then here comes another Yom Kippur, the Maisels and the Weissmans are having a family dinner together again. You could only imagine how disastrous that will be

While Joel is busy dating nameless models after work, Midge falls in love with the quirky, handsome doctor Benjamin who treats her like a gentleman. In this episode, Benjamin opens Midge’s eyes to the New York art scene by taking her to an art gallery and later introducing her to the alcoholic genius artist Declan Howell. 

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[To Benjamin, my fellow fanboy of the New York art scene]

As a fangirl of post-War Modern art like Benjamin, I am deeply intrigued by the opening scene at the gallery, where there are many not-so-subtle references to the 1950s New York art world. For this review, I want to start by discussing these easter eggs, especially a few homages to some important female figures in American Modern art.

 

A lady looks very much like Peggy Guggenheim comes up to Midge and asks her opinion on a painting, although their conversation does not end so well. Peggy was a New York socialite and the most important patron of the Abstract Expressionist school. Her gallery, The Art of This Century, hosted an unprecedented group show titled Exhibition by 31 Women in 1943, which gave space exclusively to Modern women artists at the time. 

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Midge then overhears a throwaway line, “it’s the coldness that gets you hung in the Whitney”—a direct reference to the renowned modern art museum in Manhattan, founded by women sculptor and art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

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As some Redditors have already noted, there is also a nod to Yoko Ono when a Japanese woman comments on a ladder then bites into an apple.

Bored by all the art snobs, Midge wonders into the backroom of the gallery and pays $25 for a portrait of a woman by Agnes Reynolds, an unknown women artist. She sees something special in this tiny square canvas that others deemed not worthy to be hung in the front room.

Then it suddenly hit me. Knowing the show’s feminist undertone, there is indeed a parallel between Midge fighting against the gender and class stereotypes to become a women comedian, and all the women artists in the 1950s’ New York making every effort attempting to gain the same level of recognition as their male contemporaries. Notice that all the Abstract Expressionists got name-dropped by BenjaminPollock, Kline, and Motherwellare all men? It is not because there were no women who painted in that particular style, but because they were marginalized during their careers, regarded merely as students, followers, or wives of the their male counterparts rather than boundary-pushing avant-gardes in their own right.  

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The plot would have been more believable if every one hates this painting, but only Midge seems to understand Declan’s idea behind it.

I am in awe of  all the layers and details in this episode, however, there are some parts that I find more laughable than believable. For example, I cringed when Declan reveals the allegedly “most beautiful painting in the world” to Midge. In real life, there is hardly ever any now-iconic artwork that was favoured unanimously by all art critics, art historians, collectors and spectators in its own time period. In fact, it is always criticisms and controversy that attract more attention to the work and make it more valuable decades later. If Declan’s painting makes every one happy, then it means he is merely copying the “beautiful art” that came before him and not taking any creative risks, which makes him the opposite of a genius artist.

Overall, I think the writers did a good job giving the audience a glimpse into the 1950s art world from Midge’s perspective as an outsider. For our beloved comedienne, this is a world that she does not quite understand, but somehow she feels a deep connection to all the struggles of being in it. So Midge’s discovery of Agnes Reynolds’ work is perhaps a subtle nod from the show’s writers to all the marginalized female artists left out of the canon, as well as symbolic of her own slowly-but-steadily rising reputation in the New York comedy circle up until this point.

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Fast forward to the end of the episode, Midge declares that she wants “to be the biggest thing out there.” Her secret career is finally out in the open with everyone in her family now. But is she really prepared to do this? What’s her next gig? What sacrifices she will have to make in order to get it? Two more episodes till the season finale, TITS UP!

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