Girls! Girls! Girls!

Photo by Chester Higgins Jr.I figured “Woman” would be nice. Instead, running through two galleries, it's a dizzying, overstimulating trove of photographs in columns stacked three deep, going deep into the 19th century. The beauty is sometimes stark, sometimes maternal and softened as though shot through a Vaselined lens, sometimes regal and indulged. It is rarely saccharine, and it rarely sacrifices the touching, human beauty of jiggly, real women for the impossible ideal attained with the help of a cadre of stylists. One can only imagine the breadth of the collection of Peter Fetterman, the gallery owner from whose private stash these amazing women were culled. The exhibit is extraordinary.

There's an abundance of fabulous movie stars in “Woman,” from Grace Kelly to Audrey Hepburn and a famous “vulnerable” shot of Judy Garland looking tres welfare-hotel. But for some reason—perhaps the fact that they're in the past—they don't make you feel as puny as today's perfect beauties do. (Especially the Judy Garland.) Since they're from a bygone era, they can be admired as semi-mythical fairy tales, instead of a boot on the neck of an average woman's self-esteem, and they're not presented as in any way superior to the nameless, normal women lining the galleries' other walls.

Many of the most breathtaking photographs are from the 1860s and '70s, portraits of native American women, Japanese women in their national dress, a woman from the Philippines in a lace Betsy Ross gown. Many, many people would never have seen a woman from the Orient; I can imagine the shock of seeing 1860's A Chinese Woman From Foochowby an anonymous photographer. She sits in a chair on a flagstone floor, holding her fan in her lap and looking off at a three-quarter angle while her shoulders recoil slightly from some unknown off-camera. Her face is whitened except for her lips, her hairline is plucked high and round like an Elizabethan lady-in-waiting, and her feet are shod in ornate block shoes that make them look as oddly round and small as a pair of oranges.

Another pleasure in “Woman” is in seeing the number of photos of the joy and sense of opportunity of the Harlem Renaissance from the '40s and '50s. Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald don't seem to have the weight of their nation on them; they have opportunity and satisfied achievement. It didn't go so well for Holiday, but you can't tell that from a 1949 photo in which she seems transported by the trills floating out of her mouth. There's also Max Thorek's Harlemesque from 1939, a modernist triumph of a bare-breasted black woman with her head thrown back while she clutches a cigarette holder. She is as independent and uncaring of stilted mores and “her place” as Josephine Baker in Paris, while Ernst Haas' Eartha Kitt, New York from 1952 is Miss Kitt at her most hissingly seductive. She will have the world—and your man while she's at it.

The black woman in Jack Delano's social realist Florida Migratory Farm Worker, meanwhile, may be more representative of black women in the era than the indulged, world-is-their-oyster songbirds. But with her pipe in her mouth and her hands on the hips of her slightly torn dress, she's about as cowed by her circumstances and second-class status as General Patton would be.

There's far more to the exhibit. Women of all the world's corners are caught silly and frivolous with their knickers showing; dignified and still, protecting their young ones or grieving quietly; Parisian and pampered as matinee idols. There are perfect Swedish models posed nude in Yosemite, where they are met by disapproving ancient elf ladies whose every body-bit rubs beneath black woolens. There are Pop photos of women as toy dolls, their frocks candy-colored and purposely Plasticine. There are overly elegant ballerinas and dancers of another kind—the perfectly blas Folies Bergere hoofers holding conversations backstage in bejeweled nudity. There is Jackie Kennedy, relaxed and happy before Camelot's end, and there's Grace Kelly, who looks like an icy bitch. And though all these women are either dead already or have certainly lost the rosy youth that glows through these photos like a thousand Clearasil commercials, happily the collection neglects completely the greatest reminder of mortality: there are no death portraits here. It's this world only, not the next, and in this exhibit, this world is a wonderful place to be.

Woman: A Celebration of Photographs at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thru Jan. 4, 2004. $5; students/seniors, $4; children under 16, free.

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