I first encountered the artwork of Mabel Dwight when visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the fall of 2015. Her work was included in an exhibition titled “Women Printmakers of the Early 20th Century.” Despite being just one of several artists that comprised the gallery, her work consistently stood out to me, even before matching the pieces with the names of the artists responsible for them.
I had never heard of her before that day, and even though I am fairly certain I had never seen her work before, the overall spirit of her art emanated a timeless “everyvoice,” rooted paradoxically in both individual strength and the desire for communal solidarity. The pieces at the museum were all striking enough on first sight to hold my gaze, and it is only after my attention is captured that I really start to see the images and begin to decipher what they might be telling me.
The limited knowledge available indirectly puts the onus of message and meaning onto both the work as well as the viewer, as opposed to the artist and her public statements. At first, such a thing can be easily interpreted as a disability, or a hindrance to achieve communicated understanding. But this limited knowledge can also be seen simply as a rarity, one that can facilitate an equally rare event in the art world: understanding a work of art without knowing too much outside of it. A small detail such as that, in a way, sums up what little we know about Mabel Dwight. Ironically, all I was able to find out about Dwight, gleaned from numerous 50-words-or-under artist biographies on museum websites, was just enough to be able to view her works on a slightly deeper level than when I first laid eyes on them that day.
Dwight’s art career started later in her life even though she had attempted to establish herself as a professional artist in her twenties. After marrying another painter by the name of Eugene Patrick Higgins, she stopped painting and occupied the role of domestic help mate, a social condition known in some circles as “the Lee Krasner effect.” (The fact that this happened to Dwight before Krasner should emphasise two things: one, that we really, really don’t know who Mabel Dwight is, and two, that this particular form of gender inequality knows no timeline. Furthermore, this second point probably has a lot do with the first point.)
Dwight left Higgins after 11 years and pursued her art career in earnest, picking up the paint and watercolour brushes she had set down so long ago. It wasn’t until 1926, at age 51, that she discovered the medium she’d best be known for, lithography. After two years in Paris learning at the Atelier Duchatel, a studio run by the widow of the French lithographer Édouard Duchatel, Dwight continued honing this new craft of hers, which demanded not only technical precision but an equal emphasis on observational precision. Her lithographic works, especially those included in the exhibition I viewed in Philadelphia, are some of her most celebrated pieces. Not only do they exhibit tremendous technical skill, but many of them portray a slightly skewed-from-“normal” perspective that invites discussions of social commentary.
The social commentary prevalent in Dwight’s work not only set her work apart from the other lithographs in that exhibition but also leads back to the second important bit of knowledge we have on Dwight’s life. In addition to preceding Lee Krasner as domestic underdog to their male counterparts, Dwight was also known to be deaf. Her hearing disability has clearly informed the way she viewed the world around her, and it is this perspective that she presents to us through her art, a perspective quite unfamiliar to many of us.
The Whitney Museum in New York credits “an early commentator” who notes: “In many of her lithographs Mabel Dwight sees life as a two-sided show—the show on the stage and off—presented simultaneously, and offering rich chance for comparisons.”
In his seminal essay Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes: “To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach—though not necessarily within arm’s reach. To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it.” As a deaf person, the urge to communicate, a difficult act otherwise taken for granted, is an important and conscious act for Dwight in her work. Contrastly, viewing such work can just as easily be an important and conscious act. The dual pairing, Berger might suggest, has the possibility to bridge understanding through a communication without the utilisation of words. Berger once again: “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.”
The rest of Berger’s essay lays the groundwork for what he sees as an important goal of the people: putting art into the hands of the overlooked and underrepresented masses. What has traditionally been regarded as a “commodity of privilege,” if you will, contains all the power of voice and influence. If we aren’t careful, Berger points out, the continued placement of art in select hands can further segregate the masses by classes, while at the same time rendering information and education inaccessible to others. “When we are prevented from seeing [an image], we are being deprived of the history which belongs to us. Who benefits from this deprivation? In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms. And so, inevitably, it mystifies.” (Scarily enough, the same can be said of today’s news and popular media, the information distributors of our times.)
Socially concerned artists like Dwight (who, along with Berger, put forth Marxist undertones in her work) demystified the otherwise socially accepted narrative, such as her lithographs Danse Macabre and Merchants of Death, described as anti-Fascist and anti-capitalist, respectively, by Susan Barnes Robinson and John Pirog, editors of one of the rare catalogues of Dwight’s work. These two pieces, along with numerous other lithographs depicting the everyday working class as well as the larger-than-life upper class, almost work collectively as a nonverbal plea not to accept things at face value, to look more closely.
In many ways, Dwight is the perfect example of an artist doing what Berger feels artists should be doing. Here was a woman who all but gave up her artistic pusuits in favour of being married to a man, and had that marriage lasted, that self-proclaimed abeyance could’ve easily calcified into permanence. Her deafness, which undoubtedly behaved in part like a social quarantine, was another handicap that most likely made being a professional artist much more difficult. To most, this fact would appear debilitating, but perhaps to her, it increased the strength of another sense, her vision.
“If the new language of images were used different,” Berger writes, “it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.”
Dwight’s lithographs contain that possibility, through their simultaneous depiction of opposing perspective, as well as the social commentary of a truly gifted observer, to reinvent the common consciousness of the viewing public. That is the power of which Berger speaks, and despite a limited number of works and biographical information left behind, that is the power Mabel Dwight, in her own way, wielded quietly.