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The freedom to paint

The Western frontier — Southern California, in particular — represented a tableau of possibilities and artistic freedom for women who strived to be painters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Many of the artists who came here got to do things they never could have done on the East Coast,” said James Irvine Swinden, president of the Irvine Museum. “The other thing is that a lot of these artists were able to explore their talents much more than men could, and they changed their art style.”

The museum at 18881 Von Karman Ave. just opened an exhibition of mostly oil paintings by female artists who came to the Southland from the East Coast or the Midwest, and whose careers took off here during three different artistic periods, which ranged from the late 1800s to early 1900s, and the 1930s and ‘40s.

“Inner Visions: Women Artists of California” runs through June 7, and although it features works by many female artists, the show highlights five late artists: Anna Hills (1882-1930), a landscape painter who was one of the founders in 1918 of the Laguna Beach Art Assn., and its president from 1922 to 1925; Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), whose Art Deco style depicted exotic birds and plants; Meta Cressey (1882-1964), a modernist painter who belonged to a group that founded the Los Angeles Modern Art Society; Donna N. Schuster (1883-1953), a Cubist and Expressionist painter based in L.A., who spent her summers living and working out of a home studio in Laguna Beach; and Marion Kavanagh Wachtel (1870-1954), a muralist, watercolorist and landscape painter.

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The show comprises 36 pieces, mostly of paintings from the museum’s permanent collection. Sixteen were loaned to the museum by private Orange County collectors.

There are paintings from the Buck Collection in Newport Beach, as well loaners from Newport collectors Mark and Janet Hilbert, Peter and Gail Ochs, and Ranney and Priscilla Draper.

In addition, two paintings came from the Richard W. Silver and Robert Hayden Collection in Laguna Beach, and a bronze piece came from Laguna’s DeWitt Clinton McCall Collection, museum officials said.

The most prominent piece in the show — literally — comes from the museum’s collections.

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“Mural from the Oaks Hotel” — a 7-foot tall, 26-foot wide mural painted at an Ojai hotel by that name by Botke in 1953, with help from her husband Cornelius — depicts a scene of exotic birds and plants.

The museum has owned the mural, which was painted on two large canvases joined together, since the Oaks Hotel donated it as a gift in the early 1990s. The wall that it covered had to be torn down for hotel renovations. In the “Inner Visions” show, the piece’s two parts are displayed separately on walls facing one another.

This is the first time that the Irvine Museum is displaying the mural. Before that, it lived for 18 years at the Joan Irvine Smith Hall at UC Irvine. The museum, which is housed in a suite on the ground floor of an office tower, previously was located on the building’s 12th floor, but the Botke’s mural had to be kept off site because it was too big to fit into the elevators, according to a news release.

During a Wednesday night tour of the show, Jean Stern, the museum’s executive director, explained that women had a hard time breaking into careers in the visual arts on the East Coast because the arts scene there was older, more established and male-dominated.

When artists came to Southern California between the 1880s and 1930s, there was no rooted art establishment to speak of. Artists from both of the sexes could make a name for themselves here. Ironically, although male artists tended to have more opportunities for success, compared with their female counterparts, those men who had established reputations for a particular genre or style were confined by their success, leaving women to exploit opportunities in other artistic terrain, Stern pointed out.

“The benefit was they could do want they want[ed], they could paint anything they want[ed] because they weren’t at the mercy of the market, or of the art dealers or of the art critics,” he said.

“The women are more adventurous, and they’re the most daring of the artists in California because they will try new things,” Stern added. “They will try modernism … if they like an aspect of Cubism, they will work it into their paintings. If they like aspects of Fauvism, they’ll work that in, but they’re different than the paintings by men because they tend to be more progressive. They change a lot.”

imran.vittachi@latimes.com

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Twitter: @ImranVittachi

If You Go

What: “Inner Visions: Women Artists of California”

Where: The Irvine Museum, 18881 Von Karman Ave., Irvine

When: Through June 7

Hours: Open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Cost: $5 for general admission; No charge for children, students and seniors; Free admission on second Wednesday of the month

More information: https://www.irvinemuseum.org


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