Say Her Name: Year of the Woman at the UAG

Mary Ethel McAuley, Women Working on the Strassebahn, Collection of Rebecca and Tasso Spanos


Say Her Name: Year of the Woman at the UAG

Author: Sylvia Rhor

Director, University Art Gallery

“I refuse to be one of the forgotten women!” Artist Lila Hetzel’s defiant words were published in an editorial letter to The Bulletin Index in 1938. Hetzel was writing in response to a critic’s assessment of the annual exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh (AAP), in which the author omitted the many women included in the organization’s inaugural exhibition in 1910. Among the excluded was a young woman named Mary Ethel McAuley. McAuley, a Pittsburgh native, was not only one of the inaugural members of the AAP, she was also a reporter, author, illustrator, painter and teacher. McAuley’s name was regularly in newspapers and on exhibition rosters, yet, despite exhortations like Hetzel’s, she has been nearly forgotten today. The upcoming exhibition in the UAG, Mary Ethel McAuley: Behind the German Lines sets out to find her again.

Although she has been referred to as an “untrained” or “outsider” artist due to her seemingly simple visual style, the research for this exhibition has shown that McAuley was far from it: She was a trained artist, conversant in modernist styles of her time, and deeply embedded in art networks, here and abroad. The collaborative curatorial team for the show, which includes Emi Finkelstein and Ana Rodríguez, has discovered a wealth of new information about McAuley, her painting process and her career. McAuley studied with Scalp Level artist Martin B. Leisser at the Pittsburgh School of Design, and, as early as 1910, pursued further training in Europe. When in Pittsburgh, McAuley taught weekend drawing classes in a downtown studio and exhibited frequently between 1903 and 1921 in galleries, department stores and museums in Pittsburgh and New York. A prolific writer and illustrator, she contributed regular columns to the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch and illustrated popular books. McAuley was a modern woman, forging a career as a painter and writer, and travelling the world at a time when women of her background were often expected to marry and raise families.

The set of paintings that form the core of Behind the German Lines, was created around 1919 to illustrate McAuley’s first-hand account of life in Germany during the First World War, while she was a correspondent for the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch. From ration lines for butter and beer to the building of the railway. McAuley’s paintings depict scenes that she witnessed as an American woman. She captures the nuances of quotidian life at that time, paying special attention to women in wartime. Her paintings depict German soldiers in uniform standing alongside chimney sweeps in town squares, women shoveling coal, mothers and children alone on the streets while fathers and brothers were on the front line. The exhibition includes objects from the collection of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, including German World War I helmets, to provide a context for McAuley´s work. 

Examination of the paintings by conservator Rikke Foulke revealed more about McAuley’s unique painting process. The works were painted or mounted on materials such as artist’s portfolios and board, and McAuley seems to have used a red linen as a painting surface in other works, heavily building up the layers of paint on the canvas. Ultraviolet light inspection uncovered heavy overpainting in certain areas, raising questions about interventions at a later date.

The ten paintings in the show – the only known extant works by McAuley – were loaned by collectors Rebecca and Tasso Spanos. Mr. Spanos purchased the works in the late 1960s from Harry Eichleay, a local art dealer, who, in turn, had seen McAuley’s works in a gallery window in New York City. Shortly after buying these paintings, Tasso Spanos contacted McAuley, who was living in Squirrel Hill at the time. Though he never had the chance to meet her (McAuley died in 1971), Spanos vowed to exhibit her works and bring more attention to an artist that he feels is on a par with other modernist artists of the early 20th century.

The UAG has also partnered with the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh (AAP) on a companion exhibition: Three Artists (Three Women). This exhibition highlights the work of AAP artists Tina Brewer, Fran Gialamas, and Sheila Cuellar-Shaffer. The exhibition is conceived of as a dialogue – across generations and across media – with McAuley’s works. The artists in this show draw on personal and cultural symbolism to explore issues of migration, identity and history in their works. Together, the two exhibitions allow us to ponder how women artists across generations explore these topics. 


Mary Ethel McAuley: Behind the German Lines and Three Artists (Three Women) will be on view through March 28th. The opening reception for both exhibitions will take place on Thursday, February 13th from 5pm to 7pm. Related programming includes a gallery conversation on March 19th at 5pm, with AAP artists Gialamas, Brewer and Cuellar-Shaffer. We will also offer drop-in maker activities in the “Say Her Name” Feminist Maker Space + Reading Room in the gallery’s historic rotunda throughout March 2020.


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