“I glued fabric on the painted surface of the canvas. And that was really a no-no as far as New York was concerned. I had a show in 1973 at the André Emmerich Gallery, an enormous show of my work, and all the canvases had fabric on them. My colleagues were just astonished…. The fabric—which is really, in a larger sense, the fabric of my life—was so important to me. And then from that came my research into women’s traditional art.”
Mimicking the fanned shape and winged design of a traditional hand-held fan, Barcelona Fan by Miriam Schapiro (above) hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This three-dimensional wall sculpture – a fan-shaped canvas covered in lace-like fabric and acrylic paint – measures six feet tall by twelve feet wide and is an enormous rendering of a conventionally small object. Viewing the piece in person, the lace-like fabric brings to mind traditionally feminine associations, and its physical size creates a visual heaviness that amplifies the object’s significance.
Schapiro’s print In the Land of Oo-bla-dee: Homage to Mary Lou Williams (above) from the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum collection pays homage to one of the first female composers of jazz. Schapiro makes the choice to depict the fan on a two-dimensional page rather than rendering the object in three-dimensional space. And, by constraining the brightly alternating patterns within the shape of the object, the fan becomes the context in which the images within are understood.
The print below from the Mead’s collection – Saitan Surimono of an Open Fan – likewise represents a Japanese holding-fan, with the fan serving as the cultural context in which the text within is understood.
Centuries old and multicultural, fans have been used and associated with femininity as early as the 18th century, when Japanese women were trained as geisha and used fans to entertain their clients. The fan gained increasing popularity in Western cultures during the Victorian era, when women collected fans much like those displayed below from the collection of the Hampshire College Art Gallery. The patterns, feathers, and delicate fabrics of these beautifully crafted fans from before and during the 19th-century are now, in retrospect, the context for which Schapiro’s fans are understood.