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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Column: ‘She Had Many Faces’

Editor’s Note: Back in November 2011, I received an e-mail from Julie Praetzel in response to my column “The Artist’s Place.” Praetzel, who is an aspiring actress and filmmaker living in New York, revealed her struggling endeavor to tell a story about Juanita Guccione, an artist whose work has been buried in her son’s basement for years. Praetzel has chosen to dedicate her time and efforts to creating a documentary to expose the world to Guccione’s artwork and life. Touched by her passion, I asked Praetzel if she could share her story with MUSE readers. Below is her story.

I graduated in June 2011 from Hunter College in New York, with a self-designed degree in Women’s Film for Social Change. While I was a student, I interned for the women’s film organization CineWomenNY and helped organize screenings of films, such as the Oscar-winning short documentary Freeheld. As an actor I have performed at the Culture Project, which was a theater devoted to creating social justice by devising pieces which addressed the effects of domestic violence. So my interest in art is in its ability to affect social consciousness and work towards orchestrating social change.

A series of chance encounters, a big tenant of surrealism, led me to the work of artist Juanita Guccione. I was in the library researching the work of women artists for a short narrative film I wrote and directed for a class, and the book Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, by Whitney Chadwick, was falling off the shelf and nearly hit me on the head! I had no clue that there were any women in the Surrealist movement. When I opened the book, I was utterly compelled by the ghastly, grotesque and haunting – yet profoundly beautiful – paintings and photographs by women such as Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Lee Miller.

By chance, I was in England the following summer and there was a gallery exhibition of women Surrealist artists nearby. I read a book on Leonora Carrington by Susan Aberth, whom I immediately e-mailed and spoke with on Skype. She showed me the paintings of Juanita Guccione, who died in 1999 at the age of 95. Aberth revealed that no one knew much about her. Later, I met her only son, Djelloul Marbrook and interviewed him on camera. He showed me the vast collection of his late mother’s paintings, which he keeps in his basement. It was a magical world hidden underground filed with images of amazon-like warrior women, carnivals, wild animals and celestial planets — these images were beyond my wildest imaginings.

I was also captivated by Guccione’s story — she was a real renegade. She was born Anita Rice in Boston, but would change her name multiple times to Nita Rice, Juanita Rice, Juanita Marbrook and finally Guccione when she married Dominic Guccione. She was a fashion model in the glamorous 1920s New York City and traveled solo to Europe to study painting, which was in itself a defiant act of bravery. Guccione ended up living in Algeria for four years among a matriarchal Bedoin tribe called the Ouled Nails, of which she created many portraits. She crossed the Sahara desert twice. Much is made of the bravery of Lawrence of Arabia, but Juanita was herself a brave spirit.

When she returned to New York alone with her son, Guccione’s work was shown at the Brooklyn Museum alongside with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, who at the time were relatively unknown. The divergent paths Guccione, Pollock and Rothko’s lives took is evidence of the inequalities women faced in the art world. However, she refused to use her sexuality in the service of her career as some women did.

My film She Had Many Faces: The Life and Work of Juanita Guccione, named after her most autobiographical painting, began as a school project. I was awarded a research and travel grant for the film, which enabled me to travel to Los Angeles to interview Ilene Susan Fort, the curator of the current “In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States” and scholar Gloria Orenstein, who authored a catalogue essay on Juanita’s work.

Since graduation, I have encountered many obstacles to obtaining funding to complete the project. As a young woman and film crew of one, so far I’ve found it difficult to get people’s attention and be taken seriously as a filmmaker. I’ve been networking as much as possible, tried crowd fundraising on websites like Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com, on which I failed in reaching the target. I’ve also done radio interviews outside of New York, but to no avail so far. But I am writing and re-writing proposals with the determination that the right person will be able to help.

I have the firm conviction that art is a necessary component of life and society. We are able to understand both our individual and shared experiences through connecting to one another through art. Our ideas of what art is or can be have been very limited by education, popular culture and the media. Juanita Guccione’s life spanned almost the entirety of the 20th century, so her work is a record of all of the turbulent developments of an important timeline in history.

Guccione’s 1939 painting “Europa” comments on a growing fascism in Europe through its depictions of war planes, battlefield and cemetery. Her paintings also explore deep depths of the human psyche, illustrating the many faces we wear. So it is my intention to make people aware of the importance and value of the work of a neglected artist who had much to say but is in danger of being forgotten forever, and to also inspire with the story of a brave, liberated woman way ahead of her time.

I would like people to know that Guccione’s painting “Europa” is being shown right now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of its “In Wonderland” exhibit. I encourage people to explore the works of women Surrealist artists and demand that their work be taught in all art classes and challenge all conventional notions and ideas of patriarchal art history.

If you would like more information on JULIE PRAETZEL and her project on Juanita Guccione, visit www.indiegogo.com/She-Had-Many-Faces-The-Life-and-Work-of-Juanita-Guccione-Documentary. To contact UYEN CAO regarding this column, e-mail arts@theaggie.org.

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