Exhibits Honor Women's Historic Role On Pittsburgh Arts Scene

Feb 12, 2020

The art exhibit “Mary Ethel McAuley: Behind the German Lines” will probably be most audiences’ introduction to a famed Pittsburgher of century ago. And a concurrent show at the University Art Gallery seeks to connect the dots between important women artists on the local scene generations apart.

"Mary Ethel McAuley: Behind the German Lines" and "Three Artists (Three Women)," Feb. 13-March 28. (Opening reception: 5-7 p.m. Thu., Feb. 13). University Art Gallery, Frick Fine Arts Building, Schenley Plaza, Oakland.

McAuley, born in 1882, was a journalist, artist and educator whose achievements included reporting from Germany during World War I. She wrote for publications including the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch, and depicted what she saw in hand-drawn illustrations and oil paintings.

She was widely known in her time, said Sylvia Rhor, the gallery’s director and curator. And she was an inaugural member of Associated Artists in Pittsburgh. AAP, founded in 1910 and the oldest continually exhibiting visual-arts group in the country, is a partner on the exhibits.

McAuley, who died in 1971, is little remembered today. But Rhor said something does link her to Tina Williams-Brewer, Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer, and Fran Gialamas, the diverse trio of present-day Pittsburgh-based artists and AAP members featured in a sister show at the gallery, “Three Artists (Three Women).”

“What unites them really is this network of powerful women … who are driving arts in Pittsburgh from the early 20th century till today,” said Rhor.

"What unites them really is this network of powerful women who are driving arts in Pittsburgh from the early 20th century till today"

The exhibits were inspired, Rhor said, by the work of the Feminist Art Coalition, a group of about 70 arts institutions who plan to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment with shows promoting social justice in the run-up to this year’s elections.

The 10 works by McAuley – on loan from local collectors Rebecca and Tasso Spanos -- are her only known surviving paintings. From 1907 to 1917, said Rhor, McAuley traveled frequently between the U.S. and Europe; her longest stretch in Germany was from 1915 (after the war began) until shortly after the U.S. entered the war, in 1917. (You can find some of her war writings here.)

Mary Ethel McAuley's "Building The Strassebahn" depicts women working on a rail line.
Credit ART BY MARY ETHEL MCAULEY

The paintings were made between 1917 and 1919, and first exhibited in New York City, during that latter year, says Rhor. They depict scenes including Germans standing in a long outdoor line for butter, in mid-winter, and a group of women working on a rail line, in the absence of the men who were off at war.

The images – Rhor said they were intended to accompany a book of McAuley’s writings about the war -- are a stark contrast to depictions of Germany most Americans would have had access to.

"This exhibition is the first step in showing the public why McAuley should not be forgotten"

“As opposed to war propaganda that we’re seeing in the United States at that same time, which vilifies the Germans, … [McAuley] actually focuses on daily life, the role of women in wartime Germany as workers, as providers,” said Rhor. The paintings, she said, were themselves vilified by some critics as “Hun propaganda.”

“This exhibition is the first step in showing the public why [McAuley] should not be forgotten,” said Rhor.

“Behind the German Lines” was co-curated by Rhor, Emi Finkelstein, and Ana Rodriguez. The exhibit also features volumes of McAuley’s writings, and memorabilia from Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, including a German military helmet.

In her time, McAuley’s painting style was often labeled, even dismissed, as “untrained,” Rhor said. And it’s true, the oil paintings do recall folk art in their use of flattened perspective and minimal shading. But Rhor said McAuley – as some of her realistic drawings prove -- was trained: Her paintings’ style simply played on European techniques that were current at the time.

In “Three Artists (Three Women)," Williams-Brewer’s contributions will constitute a retrospective of the story quilts she’s best known for, many of which depict African-American history. Cuellar-Shaffer, who was born in Colombia, will debut three new paintings. Gialamas will offer a selection of her prints ranging from 1987 to today.

Gialamas has been active with the AAP, including in leadership roles, since the 1950s. Brewer has served on the AAP board.

Aside from being local arts leaders, the three modern-day artists share artistic themes with McAuley, adds Rhor. “They bring up issues of migration, of family, of home, but also of creating a personal style at a time when, in Mary McAuley’s case, that wasn’t necessarily a role for a woman,” she said.

McAuley's depiction of a butter line.
Credit ART BY MARY ETHEL MCAULEY / COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY

The University Art Gallery's "Year of the Woman" will also include, this fall, an exhibit honoring Selma Burke, the famed sculptor and educator. From the late 1960s into the '80s, Burke was active in Pittsburgh, where she founded the Selma Burke Art Center.

The University Art Gallery is located in the Frick Fine Arts Building, on Schenley Plaza, in Oakland. The exhibits include the Say Her Name Feminist Reading Room + Maker Space, where visitors can further learn about and interact with the art.

The exhibits open Thursday with a reception from 5-7 p.m. On March 19, the gallery will host a conversation with Williams-Brewer, Cuellar-Shaffer, and Gialamas, co-moderated by Rhor and AAP executive director Madeline Gent.

Admission to the gallery is free.