By ANA ESPIN
Leaping through the air in a flowing red dress that matches her lipstick, her perfectly poised bare foot extended in elegant punctuation, legendary dancer Carmen de Lavallade kicks off the beginning of “Fabulous! Portraits.”
The show, currently showing in Washington, D.C. at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, consists of 13 contemporary individual female portraits by French artist Michele Mattei in honor of the museum’s 25th anniversary.
With her large-scale photographs, the former journalist pays tribute to women who are large-scale themselves, thanks to their enduring mark on the fabric of American culture.
Situated amid clean white walls under bright track lighting in NMWA’s intimate Teresa Lozano Long Gallery, the exhibition emerges like a tour de force of estrogen-fueled inspiration.
Among the trailblazers showcased are writer and democracy advocate Bette Bao Lord, Harper’s Bazaar fashion photographer Lillian Bassman, minimalist painter Agnes Martin, pioneering printmaker June Wayne and NMWA’s co-founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay.
“It’s quite a statement on the impetus to create, and [that’s] something I identify with,” said D.C. resident Marcia Cole about the presentation.
“Creativity is something you can’t squash. If you do, it’s at your own detriment,” said Cole. “It’s kind of like hatching an egg – you just kind of ‘have to.’”
Christina Curan, 22, of New York, pointed to a stunning close-up of Louise Bourgeois. In it, the distinguished sculptor clasps her face, her eyes covered by her 89-year-old hands.
“This one is my favorite,” declared Curan. “I like all the texture in the photo: the fabric of her sweater and the wrinkles on her skin. And the strands of gray in her hair.”
Indeed, it’s a mesmerizing image. Mattei, who now resides in Los Angeles, uses the artist’s worn-out hands and vibrant mohair coat as evident symbols of her prolific career.
Rosemary Gluck and Sandra Sheinbein, two visitors from Phoenix, Ariz., called “Fabulous!” “the highlight of the museum.”
Neither hid their appreciation for how breathtaking the older subjects appeared.
“Longevity seems to be a common theme,” said Gluck. “[Mattei] captures the strength of these women.”
Sheinbein added, “And the poses are fantastic, powerful. Whether they’re on the ground or in the air, these women are gorgeous.”
Both ladies were quick to mention that the exhibit’s youngest subject, Lavallade, is 81. Soaring for Mattei’s lens in her 70s, there’s no question the woman dazzled.
They all do, said Gluck and Sheinbein.
One of the most moving portraits on display belonged to Wayne, who passed away in 2011. She’d been photographed by Mattei years earlier only to request a new portrait in 2004.
At the time, the visionary’s husband had recently died and she was now undergoing chemotherapy in her battle with cancer.
In the picture, Wayne is poised in front of a black-and-white photo of her younger self next to her dashing husband. As an older woman, she is seated in the center and dressed entirely in black, her bare scalp crowned by an ebony fedora.
When Wayne initially contacted Mattei about the new portrait, Mattei recalled hearing her say,“I think I look so much more interesting.”