WASHINGTON—The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) presents Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger, the first major museum exhibition of visual artist and author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. In this mid-career retrospective on view June 21–Nov. 10, 2013, Niffenegger reveals a mysterious, strange and whimsical world, both real and imagined, through 239 paintings, drawings, prints and book art.
“Niffenegger’s captivating narratives, presented in both images and words, give insight into universal experiences such as the need and fleeting nature of love, the inevitability of death and the peculiar sensation of the passage of time,” said Krystyna Wasserman, exhibition curator.
Niffenegger’s fantastical body of work is reminiscent of renowned pen and ink predecessors such as Edward Gorey, Aubrey Beardsley, Egon Schiele and Horst Janssen, but with a brutally honest and unapologetically female perspective that touches upon the universal trials of life—death and decay, love, jealousy, redemption and constant change. Her works on paper, lithographs and aquatints reflect the often surreal narratives of her artist’s books. Through self-portraiture, she reveals her own self-assurance and whimsy alongside anxiety and loneliness often exploring the hopeless struggle with what Shakespeare called “this bloody tyrant, Time.”
“Niffenegger’s work as a visual artist may be less familiar to the public than her fiction, but it is an equally marvelous discovery,” said Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “Our museum’s collection has more than 1,000 unique and limited edition artist’s books, including Niffenegger’s first visual novel The Adventuress (1983–85), which was purchased in 1994. We are so pleased to have the opportunity to share more of Audrey’s mystery and mastery with new audiences.”
Although Niffenegger is well known as the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, she has also had many solo exhibitions in the United States and abroad. Her art has been exhibited by Printworks Gallery in Chicago since 1987, and she helped to found the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. Her most recent visual novel, Raven Girl (2012), has been adapted into a ballet by choreographer Wayne McGregor to be performed May 24–June 8, 2013, at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden.
The protagonists of Niffenegger’s narrative art are usually women. The artist understands the psychology and motives that drive women to unpredictable encounters, provoking powerful emotions and unfulfilled desires. Her heroines are occasionally doomed, they misbehave, but they are always daring, passionate and independent.
The exhibition Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger is organized around three themes: Adventures in Bookland, States of Mind and In Dreamland.
Centering on Niffenegger’s artist’s books and visual novels, the Adventures in Bookland section investigates dramas inherent in all relationships—among family, friends, partners and within societal structures, real or imagined. Her visual novels are often fairy tales inspired by reading, dreams and autobiographical details of her life. Three Incestuous Sisters (1985–98) is an imaginary tale, but growing up in a house of three sisters is part of the artist’s experience. The Adventuress features many elements of Niffenegger’s personal life, including the rooms filled with books and her fondness for cats.
The 22 self-portraits in the section States of Mind depict not only the artist’s non-idealized likeness, but also the raw, visual accounts of her moods, feelings, dreams and desires. The artist appears in many disguises—Medusa, jailbird and bad fairy—and is often accompanied by animals, representing her deep respect for the natural world. Moths of the New World (2005) serves as a metaphor for freedom and constraint. Self Portrait with Philip Treacy Hat (2007) presents the artist realistically as a self-assured, elegant young woman wearing a hat from the fashionable London millinery shop.
The third theme, In Dreamland, explores the darker corners of the human heart and mind, often revealed in dreams and fantasies. Her images are accompanied by poetry written by some of the greatest poets in the English-speaking world. The artist acknowledges the influence of 17th-century Northern European still-lifes, but instead of using wilted flowers and clocks to show the brevity of life, Niffenegger celebrates life, birth, love and death from a female perspective. In her 1989 portfolio, Vanitas, Death Comforts the Mother (1989) is juxtaposed with Anne Bradstreet’s poem “Before the Birth of One of Her Children,” expressing the fear of a young woman whose life may be threatened by childbirth. Other works are staged in the world of the spirits such as Lover’s Embrace (1989), a sensuous portrayal of a woman tenderly embracing death, corresponding with Thomas Campion’s poem “Dismissal.”
“My art is about paying attention,” says Niffenegger. “One of the reasons I use fantastic elements in my art is to startle people into noticing and paying attention. Strangeness makes us see more acutely.”
Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger has been organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Major exhibition funding has been given by Margaret M. Johnston, an anonymous donor and the friends of Audrey Niffenegger.
The exhibition’s full color, 120-page hardcover catalogue published by powerHouse Books features essays by Audrey Niffenegger, National Museum of Women in the Arts Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman, and Art Institute of Chicago Curator Mark Pascale. The catalogue will retail for $29.95.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Founded in 1981 and opened in 1987, NMWA is the only museum solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts. The museum’s collection features 4,500 works from the 16th century to the present created by more than 1,000 artists, including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker and Nan Goldin, along with special collections of 18th-century silver tableware and botanical prints. NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. It is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. For information, call 202-783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors 65 and over and students, and free for NMWA Members and youths 18 and under. Free Community Days are on the first Sunday of the month. For more information about NMWA, visit www.nmwa.org, Broad Strokes Blog, Facebook or Twitter.