"A Tiny Little Nervous Breakdown": The Magic Feminism of Ruth Miller Kempster
|Ruth Miller Kempster, Self-Portrait (unfinished), c. 1950|
The biggest find may be Ruth Blanchard Miller Kempster (1904-78), an inventive painter and muralist who worked in a Magic Realist mode. In her unfinished 1950 self-portrait, Kempster casts a withering side-eye at this man's, man's, man's world. She holds her paintbrush like Cruella de Vil would.
Born in Chicago to a wealthy family, Ruth Miller feigned what she called "a tiny little nervous breakdown" to avoid being packed off to Vassar. Convinced that Ruth was a basket case, her family agreed to send her to art school.
She studied in Pasadena, New York, and Paris. When she ended up living in Florence with an Italian artist, her family went ballistic and demanded she return to the U.S.
(The story so far may recall the saga of Flora Mayo, subject of Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler's installation Flora, now on view at LACMA. Kempster's oeuvre survives, while Mayo's does not; yet Mayo may presently be better known than Kempster is.)
|Ruth Miller Kempster, The Struggle, 1932|
Kempster's prize-winning painting, The Struggle (not in the show), intuits the globe's conflicts as male and racial. That turned out to be a premonition of the 1936 Berlin Olympics of Hitler, Jesse Owens, and Leni Reifenstahl.
|Ruth Miller Kempster, Housewife, c. 1935|
|Ruth Miller Kempster, Death of a Christmas Tree, 1941|
|Ruth Miller Kempster, The Search, c. 1950|
|Ruth Miller Kempster, Working Stiff, c. 1934 (not in exhibition). Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento|
|Ruth (Miller) Kempster, signature on Death of a Christmas Tree, 1941|