Self-Confessed!

The inappropriately intimate comics of Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel moves off of the page and on to the wall at the Fleming Museum of Art.

Fleming Museum of Art
Alison Bechdel moves off of the page and on to the wall at the Fleming Museum of Art.
In Alison Bechdel's solo exhibit at the Fleming Museum of Art, her astutely self-reflective works show that graphic arts are right at home in the fine arts world.

In Alison Bechdel's solo exhibit at the Fleming Museum of Art, her astutely self-reflective works show that graphic arts are right at home in the fine arts world.

Ecco-HarperCollins, 2008

“Vermont,” from State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America.

Bechdel’s consummate ability to tell her own story is reflected in every aspect of the exhibition.

Before she was a renowned graphic memoirist and winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant Alison Bechdel was an archivist of the self. She plundered the flotsam and jetsam of her childhood to unearth the richly layered complexities of her adult life that became the subject matter of the work now featured in her first major exhibition at the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum.

The core of the exhibit revolves around three major projects: Dykes to Watch Out For, the syndicated comic strip she wrote and drew for twenty-five years; her graphic memoirs, Fun Home/A Family Tragicomic (2006), chosen Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, and also the basis of a Tony Award-winning musical of the same name; and the acclaimed, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (2012), a New York Times, USA Today, Time, Slate, and Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year.

Bechdel’s consummate ability to tell her own story is reflected in every aspect of the exhibition. It was Bechdel who came up with the title for the show, Self-Confessed, and she who designed the graphic iteration of it that sits above a near life-sized drawing of herself, in black ink, directly on the wall, scooping poop out of a cat-litter box. Spontaneous, self-deprecating, and humorous we immediately feel the artist’s presence, inviting us to enter her world. Moving into the exhibition we are confronted by another large scale wall drawing, Plate # 27 From Dykes to Watch Out For “Marianne, dissatisfied with breakfast brew…” 1983. This character was the first “dyke to watch out for” appearing in a letter Bechdel wrote to a friend. The artist is now playing with the power of scale in this age of handheld screens. The elongated limbs, the full frontal, spread-legged female, her clearly defined pubic triangle traced in nervous, itchy-twitchy lines is reminiscent of the erotic, deeply psychological portraits by Egon Schiele. Viewers who are familiar with Bechdel’s work on the printed page will encounter an artist to be dealt with in a new arena. Just as she narrates her own life in graphic novel form, Bechdel now becomes the arbiter of her work in the citadel of “fine art”, the museum.

While excited by the opportunity to organize her work for a museum show, it represented a new role for Bechdel, who “struggled with the idea of the artist in our culture. Being a cartoonist was a way to rebel against the idea of high and low art.” Despite that, Bechdel recognized that tackling her fraught relationship with her father in Fun Home felt “intimate and not quite so silly. I had to reconnect with the fact that I was engaged in making art.”

Pages 146-147 from Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2006

Pages 146-147 from Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Dykes To Watch Out For, “Great Romances That Never Were.” 1985
Fleming Museum of Art

Dykes To Watch Out For, “Great Romances That Never Were.” 1985

Pages 32-33 from Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2012

Pages 32-33 from Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama.

Alison Painting
Fleming Museum of Art

Alison Bechdel painting on the gallery walls at the Fleming Museum of Art.

Alison Painting
Fleming Museum of Art

Alison Bechdel painting on the gallery walls at the Fleming Museum of Art.

Fleming Museum of Art
Fleming Museum of Art

Installation view of "Self-Confessed!" at the Fleming Museum of Art.

Fleming Museum of Art
Fleming Museum of Art

Installation view of "Self-Confessed!" at the Fleming Museum of Art.

Fleming Museum of Art
Fleming Museum of Art

Installation view of "Self-Confessed!" at the Fleming Museum of Art.

Thanks to an enthusiastic collaborative effort made possible by Fleming curator Andrea Rosen and collections manager Margaret Tamulonis, Bechdel has created a vehicle that opens the door to an audience unfamiliar with the artistry inherent in the medium of the graphic novel. Rosen recognized, “mapping, the graphic representation of place, played a significant role in Bechdel’s work,” several examples of which are on display in Self-Confessed. Bechdel uses a map in Fun Home to encapsulate her father’s life: “a circle a mile and a half in diameter circumscribes Dad’s grave, the spot on route 150 where he died near an old farmhouse he was restoring, the house where he and my mother raised our family, and the farm where he was born.” Place and our relationship to it is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition.

Although it was a random act that drew Bechdel to Vermont 27 years ago, it is not accidental that she remained and established her studio here. “I so love Vermont! And this exhibition was a great statement of faith in my work.” On April 6th 2017 famed New Yorker cartoonist and fellow Vermonter Edward Koren passed the title of Vermont Cartoonist Laureate on to Bechdel. The only state that so enshrines its graphic art, the honor was initiated by the academic Center for Cartoon Studies, a professional, MFA degree granting institution in White River Junction, Vermont. Gallerist Anni Mackay, owner of the well-established BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vermont handles the work of Edward Koren. Mackay represents artists, “deeply dedicated to exploring what fine art means: both to create and experience.” She also acknowledges her role in “driving interest to her artists work”, but unlike many art dealers Mackay feels “reducing the value of art to a dollar sign is distorting the story. Art is about creating dialogue, selling to collectors is a side effect, not my goal.”

Other graphic artists have paved the way for Bechdel and Koren in the fine arts. Chris Ware has long straddled the worlds of popular culture and fine art. In 2007 Ware curated an exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum titled Unlinked: Paintings, Sculpture and Graphic Works by Five Cartoonists. Ware has indicated that he, “found inspiration in artists like Joseph Cornell.” Concurrently showing at the Fleming is the exhibition Honoré Daumier’s Bluestockings (1844), a series of lithographs satirizing French upper-class women who defied gender norms. Fleming Director Janie Cohen intended this exhibition to serve “as a counterpoint to the work of Alison Bechdel, who sites Daumier as an early influence.” While Daumier’s skill and graphic style inspire, his mocking of uppity French women is a message in direct opposition to Bechdel’s.

Self-Confessed includes original sketches from Bechdel’s Great Romances series, on loan from the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, a repository for primary sources in women’s history. These enlightening examples revealed the artists process moving from rough pencil layouts through storyboarding, text placement, and use of color as accent and visual unifier.

For Bechdel, “the act of writing and drawing at the same time remains a mystery.” But she perseveres, “my next book, The Secret of Superhuman Strength is about fitness, aging and mortality.”

About the Author

Cynthia Close

With an MFA from Boston University, Cynthia was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources – a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.