• Beyond the Canvas

Flashback no. 5: Joan Semmel at Jewish Museum, New York (26 August 2017)

We have all been there, we've all experienced that feeling when we step into a room and we feel a work of art is 'calling' us. And I, for one, love succumbing to that irresistible lure, to the power emanated by a painting that is working its magic leaving me humbled, intrigued and seduced. Well, this is exactly what happened on that rainy (if memory serves) day at the Jewish Museum in NYC, one of the smaller, but by no means lesser gems of New York's Museum Mile.


So what does Joan Semmel's Sunlight have that I found so irresistible? This dazzling self-portrait has form, scale, courage, light, shadows, honesty, warmth, freedom, truth, mystery, introspection, perspective, eroticism, innocence, empowerment, questions and answers. This is a painting that tells a story I could immediately relate to before knowing anything about the artist, there was no need to read the blurb to understand or connect.


Joan Semmel (b.1932) focuses her practice on the issues of representation of the body, sexuality and desire. In this painting, she is boldly looking at herself, unafraid of what she sees. Semmel's fearless gaze has the confidence every woman dreams of and should aspire to. In Sunlight, I felt she was reclaiming her own body, offering it to us free from any male objectification.


The separation between male and female art irritates me, I find it irrelevant. For me, there is only good or bad art. But arguably the female universe has been, and still is, vastly underrepresented in museums the world over. This is the artist's pragmatic response to the as of yet unanswered question posed by Linda Nochlin 7 years before this extraordinary painting was made: “If there are no great, celebrated women artists, that’s because the powers that be have not been celebrating them, but not because they are not there.”


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Joan Semmel, Sunlight (1971), Jewish Museum, NYC



Semmel in front of her work. How fabulous is she? Photo: Wikipedia

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