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Nancy Spero: Articulating the Shared Experience of War, Violence and Womanhood
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Nancy Spero: Articulating the Shared Experience of War, Violence and Womanhood

Picture of The Culture Trip
Updated: 12 December 2015
Spero was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1926 and completed a BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois. Fascinated by the evolution of women though history, she also approached universal subject matter such as the cycle of life, violence and power relations. Spero alternated between provocative and disturbing themes juxtaposed with playful and experimental practice, and by doing so she questioned the artist’s role within society. These subjects were explored in a variety of media and processes including drawing, collages, print making, painting, as well as room and wall installations. The artist was also a fervent activist and collaborated with her husband, Leon Golub, throughout the Vietnam War and during the height of the civil rights movement.

Nancy Spero was one of the most profound female artists of her time, along with other established icons of the 20th Century such as Eva Hesse and Francesca Woodman. Her artistic career spanned five decades and her work persistently engaged with concepts of war, conflict and femininity. Zoe Ford analyses Spero’s work Cri du Coeur (2005) in the light of the artist’s life-long obsessions.

Spero went against the predominant trends of the post-war artistic movements, steering away from fashionable pop art and abstraction expressionism. Her work could be described as both eclectic and multidisciplinary, blurring the boundaries between practices. This is exemplified in the work entitled Cri du Coeur (2005), a wall-based piece that examines themes of bereavement and the ever-present threat of death, for which Spero drew inspiration from the disarray and unrest of the world around her.

This strong depiction of grief and loss shows a long line of female mourners who echo the decline of the world into chaos. The women stand in small groups within the line, their hands raised in a pleading way toward heaven. The blank wall above them infers that their prayers are in vain: in fact there is no one there to hear them. People gather around the base of the wall, almost emerging from the ground, spreading and winding round the gallery space like a frieze. This assembly refers to a congregation of Egyptian women from the tomb of Ramos of Thebes, which have featured in her preceding artwork. Spero’s handling of space within the gallery, creating an atmosphere and a human presence through the use of figures and silhouettes across the walls, conjures up Boltanski‘s use of puppets. This casts figurative images onto the surrounding area through the use of shadows, in particular in the piece Les Ombres (Shadows), 1986.

Though many may be unaware of Spero’s vast body of work, it is well worth exploring both conceptually, visually and materially. The artist speaks of a shared experience that a wide array of audiences can appreciate and relate to. Although she produced art at a key period in the making of modern America, her work still holds relevance in society today. Spero died in 2009, at age 83.