Couple shares their love of daring female photographers

David Appel, second from right, and his wife Carol, left, are seen at the vernissage of About Face with MMFA director general Nathalie Bondil, right, and the exhibition’s curator, Mary-Dailey Desmarais. (Sebastien Roy/MMFA photo)

Prominent Toronto arts patrons Carol and David Appel have chosen the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) to share their impressive collection of the works of three groundbreaking female American photographers who made viewers think about how women have been traditionally represented.

About Face, which continues until March 29, is an exhibition of more than 60 photographs by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Rachel Harrison, who coincidentally are all Jewish. Collectively, they staked their place in a contemporary art form that had been dominated by men.

Sherman, who was born in 1954, and Simmons, who was born in 1949, were part of the “pictures generation,” which emerged in the 1970s and ’80s and took photography beyond mere documentation, and sometimes to the surrealistic, but not the abstract.

They were concerned with how the mass media shaped female identity and employed irony and parody to make their point.

The younger Harrison, who was born in 1966, was influenced by Sherman and Simmons, but, judging by the pieces selected for this exhibition, went in her own direction.

The photographs by Sherman cover four decades, from 1976 to 2016. The MMFA is especially excited to be showing a rare complete set of Sherman’s Murder Mystery series (1976-2000). This is a grouping of 17 small black-and-white full-length photos of herself, each in a different guise taken from characters in novels and puzzles, and with hidden “clues.”

Artist Cindy Sherman turns the lens on herself in her Murder Mystery series, which is on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York)

The MMFA was pleasantly surprised when the Appels announced that they would donate the series to the museum.

Sherman is also her own subject in the History Portraits series (1988-1990). She portrays herself in a painterly style reminiscent of Rembrandt’s pensive women: one pregnant, another elderly – both semi-nude – and a third mob-capped, possibly a careworn housemaid.

Sherman takes a poke at Hollywood in the Untitled Film Stills series (1977-1980) of women in studied poses and settings, no doubt reflecting a male notion of femininity.

Just one of Simmons’ works is in the exhibition: her 1987 large-format Walking Camera II, in which legs clad in ballet leotards emerge beneath a giant old-fashioned bellows camera. Its companion is in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Harrison has a room devoted to her 2007 Voyage of the Beagle series, 32 quirky, equal-sized photos lined up along three walls, very loosely inspired by Charles Darwin’s trip around the world, on which he made discoveries that led to the theory of evolution.

The MMFA describes the series as “a photographic journey into the history of sculptural representations of the body – both human and animal – ranging from ancient menhirs to taxidermy deer, to modern-day mannequins.”

Their sequence encourages the viewer to discern a kind of evolution, but not a linear one. These will also be given to the MMFA.

“Nothing is more exciting or satisfying for us as collectors than being able to share with the public our vision of our art collection. This exhibition represents a true meeting of the minds, reflecting so well the journey we have travelled with the three featured artists, who are very important to us,” said Carol Appel.

She became interested in the two older artists in the early stages of their careers, which coincided with “second wave” feminism and her days as a McGill University student, when she was already a young mother.

“I identified with them. They spoke to who I am and what women are all about. For the first time, you started to see women creating images of themselves from their point of view and their vision of who they are in the world.”

For over 35 years, the couple has shared a passion for art, especially contemporary. In addition to their own collecting, David Appel inherited the collection amassed by his parents, well-known philanthropists Bluma and Bram Appel. Today, this collection is one of the largest in Canada.

“I like the fact that it’s so diverse and it doesn’t follow any set idea of what it should contain. Having said that, when I look at what we’ve collected over time, I see it’s something that follows a spirit of freedom and a willingness to try anything that would make sense artistically,” said David Appel.

The curator of About Face, Mary-Dailey Desmarais, the MMFA’s curator of international modern and contemporary art, noted that all three artists are concerned with “the codes and conventions that structure the way we understand the world around us and perceive ourselves.”

The title conveys the fact that Sherman, Simmons and Harrison “use photography to perform an about-face on the medium itself, suggesting that the deepest meaning and the truest self lie always outside the frame,” Desmarais said.

Nathalie Bondil, the MMFA’s director general and chief curator, said that they all ask, “What is a woman? In our age dominated by what the media shows us, their photographs become a mirror as the image becomes a screen.… They prescribe timeless visual therapy, as feminist issues about the place of women in society remain hidden.”

An accompanying catalogue with over 65 illustrations has been published by the MMFA, titled About Face: Photographs by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Rachel Harrison, from the Collection of Carol and David Appel.