Picturing Femininity: Marisa Portolese at McCord Museum

By Katya Conrad

At first glance, Marisa Portolese’s photographs may suggest an almost Instagram-style aesthetic that is merely blown up to fit gallery walls, however a deeper look into her residency at McCord Museum provides an insight into the impact of historical artistic tendencies upon contemporary art today.

Marisa Portolese’s collection at the McCord Museum takes a feminist approach to showcasing her research of the Notman Photographic Archive, containing works made by the photographer William Notman, and interpreting them in her own manner.  The artist-in-residence programme allows artists to exhibit a series of work based on research conducted within the archives of the museum. William Notman’s photographs capture his models in an unusually dignified and respectful manner for his time. Therefore, in accordance with the artist-in-residence programme Portolese aimed to create a connection within her art between representations of women in the present day and those of the past. This is done through posing women in a Victorian style, each with different backgrounds and props in their spheres of existence, borrowing a style that Notman used in his own photographs. However, Portolese adds her own contemporary style to the portraits by employing floral backgrounds, which are a nod to the use of nature in Notman’s own photographs, made to match each photographic protagonist differently. Notman’s aristocratic women are therefore transformed into Portolese’s students, professors and children in a manner which not only embraces femininity but also establishes a connection with the character and persona with each individual woman, allowing them to pursue their own individual dialogues through their unique portraits.


The way in which Portolese tackles the idea of the female within art and also within the realm of photography is incredibly refreshing. She allows everyday women to be presented as works of art and as beings worth discussing without the traditional convention of female muses being elevated by male artists. The women depicted come from diverse and inspiring backgrounds, ranging from 6th graders studying dance in high school to a woman who was raised in Saudi Arabia and now works as a doula and midwife’s assistant in Montreal. The exhibition therefore also shows a wide range of women, from various areas of the world who are now based in Montreal, showcasing the diversity of our own community through the elevation of these everyday local women. Thus, Portolese merges photography and autobiography to create pictorial narratives surrounding these women.
Her photographs are taken with an analogue camera to produce negatives which are then scanned and printed in a dark room on photographic paper. The only digital step is when the negatives need to be digitized, whereas Portolese aimed to keep the process of producing the photographs as analogue and true to past techniques as possible. The bright lighting and bold colours of each photograph allow the viewer to gain an even greater connection to the women depicted, in addition to the sheer size of the images which create life size models of these women for the viewer to interact with.
I viewed these pictures almost as sources of reassurance, the fact that women who are like you can be elevated to the realm of art is a message that affirms one’s own identity and purpose. These images inspire a sense of drive and determination through their powerful stances which demonstrate everyday identities. Children, students, older women are all shown as individuals yet equals.
The idea of space is also depicted in a reformative way, while women were traditionally depicted as being closed off in portraits, being confined in a usually domestic space. However, Portolese’s new interpretation frees these figures from the traditional visual language of confinement. She also incorporates two artistic mediums in her work, with painted floral backgrounds adapted for each woman blending in with photographic flowers and props that merge the worlds of modern and early techniques of art making. Thus, bringing to life aspects of everyday femininity, community and aestheticism often forgotten in our modern day lives.

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