Category Archives: Feminist Art History

The Nude Self (Pinboard #2)

Paula-Modersohn-Becker, a German artist born on February 6, 1876 joined the Worpswede community of artists in 1899[1].  The Worpswede community consisted mainly of former German art students who had become frustrated with their respective art Academies.[2] In such an environment, Modersohn-Becker worked alongside male artists and as a woman artist enjoyed much more artistic agency than she could have elsewhere.  Despite such relative freedom her work was not always well-received and as a woman artist she struggled to be taken

Paula Modersohn-Becker "Self Portrait with Amber Necklace", 1906

seriously.  Modersohn-Becker completed a number of self-portraits that addressed the difficulties she faced as a female artist and her 1906 “Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace” demonstrates how such tensions manifested themselves in her work.

In this self-portrait, the artist has chosen to depict herself nude from the waist up in a full frontal position, filling the frame in an almost confrontational manner.  Her skin takes on a pinkish hue that is echoed in the pink flowers she wears in her hair and holds in her hands.  In addition, these mimic the shape of her nipples which are in turn emphasized by the use of a deeper pink.  The warm hues of her torso are complemented by the lush forest-green flora in the background. Her connection to this natural setting is further strengthened by the thick amber necklace that adorns her chest.  Attention is drawn to her head which is deliberately contrasted to the rest of body through the use of deep reds and oranges that feature bluish undertones as well as through an enlarging of her features and her eyes in particular. Although the nudeness of her body conveys sexuality, its sheer monumentality asserts itself within the frame.  The emphasis on her head reinforces her consciousness as subject and not object demonstrating awareness of own existence as well as that of the viewer.

By painting herself in the nude, Modersohn-Becker co-opted the subject matter of many of her male contemporaries- the female nude – in a manner that relied on the typical associations made with such works while at the same time undermining them.  Painting the female nude was a staple of male artists who used the female figure to demonstrate their own skill and creative energy.  Similarly, self-portraits served as the primary means of identifying oneself as an artist worth admiring. By combining these two subjects into one work Modersohn-Becker regains ownership of the female body while asserting herself as a both a woman and an artist.


[2] “Primitivism and the Modern” by Gill Perry from : Primitivism, Cubism and Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century. The Open University, 1993. P. 43.

Image Source: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/heritage_floor/paula_modersohn_becker.php

An Indeterminate Gaze

 

Emilie Charmy, La Loge, 1902, oil on board

Everything about Emilie Charmy’s La Loge  is indeterminate.

Charmy’s loose brushwork suggests rather than depicts. The composition is representational, but abstract. Objects and figures are not easily distinguished in the haze. In the foreground, a powdery blue carpet with a pastel pattern draws the viewer’s eye into the frame. The walls are salmon pink, and are lined with barely recognizable domestic objects, including a cabinet, a vase, paintings, and a blue folding screen. On the right, a nude female is seated in a chair, arms outstretched over a table laid with a green cloth, her attention directed towards a vase of flowers. To the left of this figure, a cluster of women circle an obscure black shape. One sits on the floor, another stands, and a third pitches forward over her crossed legs. Light reflects off of the standing figure’s back, drawing the viewer’s eye and anchoring the composition. She is further distinguished from the others by the green ribbon tied around her stocking. In the background, another group of undressed women are gathered around a table.

If we look closely, we realize that the women’s bodies are composed of a riot of natural and unnatural colors: peach, umber, lavender, white, aqua and acid green. The figures wear black stockings and little else; some are fully nude. The painting suggests a familiarity with the techniques of Post-Impressionism, including abstractions of real-life subjects, thick application of paint, visible brushstrokes, and unnatural coloration. We can also discern similarities between Charmy and the Fauves, but her coloration is not as brutal; her hues seem muted by comparison. Charmy’s loose brushwork renders the image hazy and difficult to parse, merely suggesting the shapes of people and objects. Nothing is explicit. Everything is open to interpretation. La Loge is suggestive. Flesh is suggested by the texture of the paint. Intimacy is suggested by the tight groupings of figures. Secrecy is suggested by room’s lack of visible doors and windows. These suggestions inspire more questions than they answer, leaving us to wonder: in what kind of environment do women sit around wearing nothing but black stockings? And what kind of lady painter frequents such an environment?

Emilie Charmy was born in 1878. She is known as a female Fauve painter, and was friends with Matisse and other Fauves, but the exact nature of her relationships with these painters remains unclear. She enjoyed an unusually high level of commercial success for a woman painter in her period, and saw her popularity peak in the 1920s. La Loge was painted before Charmy’s period of commercial success, when she was approximately 24 years old. Gill Perry suggests that the title is best translated as “artist’s dressing room”. [1] However, comparisons with contemporary paintings suggest that Charmy has painted a brothel scene: her figures wear the trademark black stockings that feature prominently in the works of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Perry asserts that a “respectable middle class” woman like Charmy would not have visited a brothel, suggesting that La Loge was not drawn from life. Perry claims that the representation of a space to which a woman would not have had access necessarily implies a male spectator, and that Charmy’s appropriates and reinterprets the male gaze. [2]

Alternatively, La Loge may not be an appropriation of the male gaze. Instead, we might read it as a thoroughly feminine expression of desire. Elsewhere, Perry has suggested that Charmy was bisexual. Many of Charmy’s portraits of women and female nudes are sensually charged. There is a furtive quality to the image, which implies an illicit experience, a project accomplished in secret or haste. Loge also means “theater box.” During the nineteenth century, a loge was a charged space where theatre spectators went to see and be seen. The performances taking place offstage were as important as the drama on the night’s bill. Theatre boxes were acceptable public space for women to be display themselves and be observed by others. The loge promoted a voyeuristic experience for both the inhabitant of the box and the audience below, wherein those in the box viewed and were viewed simultaneously. The architecture of the box promoted this interaction, framing the box’s inhabitants for display. Similarly, Charmy’s treatment of the brothel room suggests a performance by the women, for an unseen audience, in a space that frames them for viewing. Charmy’s title, which links the painting to a space where women and men could gaze freely, suggests that the gaze in play may belong to woman or a man.

[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 207.
[2] Perry, 209.

Women’s Work / Artist’s Work (Pinboard #2)

Mary Kelly (b. 1941) is an American conceptual artist. Her work is frequently text-based, or text-heavy, with what she describes as “a specific relation between the meaning of the text, its materiality, and the site.” [1] It is also highly theoretical, reflecting her second occupation: Professor of Art and Critical Theory at UCLA.

Detail from Post Partum Document, 1974, Perspex unit, white card, diaper linings, plastic sheeting, paper, ink

The image to the right is a detail from Post Partum Document, a six-part installation that documented Kelly’s relationship with her son from birth to age 6. Post-Partum Document became a seminal work of “feminist art” – although Kelly herself prefers to think of it as “art informed by feminism.” [2] Post Partum Document is seen as a physical testament to the feminist slogan “the personal is the political”; the work has been perceived as a political statement because it brought “private” elements of female experience – aspects of womanhood that have historically been marginalized – into a public space. When the installation was first shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) in 1976, Post Partum Document was considered highly controversial. Viewers were shocked by the display of dirty diapers, obsessive diary notes, and other material artifacts of motherhood.

Here, a soiled diaper on which Kelly has neatly typed the date, information about her son’s nutritional intake, and details of his bowel movements. Kelly’s obsessive documentation suggests maternal fetishization of the child, but Kelly ultimately investigates herself more thoroughly than her child. Her exploration of the everyday rises to the level of art precisely because of, rather than in spite of, its banality. Kelly’s compulsive, comprehensive attention to minutiae recharacterizes the value of “women’s work” by transforming it into “artist’s work.”

[1] Mary Kelly, interview with Klaus Ottmann, Journal of Contemporary Art Online
[2] Mary Kelly, in Chloe Wyma, “23 Questions for Mary Kelly”, Artinfo.com

Juxtapositions and Absences (Pinboard #1)

Sarah Charlesworth, Figures (from Objects of Desire I), 1982-83, Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame

Sarah Charlesworth (b. 1947) is a New York-based conceptual artist. She is frequently referred to as a photographer, but she claims that “I don’t think of myself as a photographer. I’ve engaged questions regarding photography’s role in culture…but it is an engagement with a problem rather than a medium.” [1] Her work frequently isolates, highlights, and explores subordinated messages and themes in popular culture, media, and art. Often, these messages and themes are related to feminine experience.

Charlesworth’s Figures (1983-1984), from her series Objects of Desire, is a photographic diptych. In the left panel, a dramatic silver dress is suspended against a black background. The figure’s truncated appearance, reminiscent of a fragment of classical sculpture, provokes the viewer’s imagination. The garment appears to be supported by a human body – the curves of breasts, hips, a navel, and a poised thigh are clearly visible – but the figure lacks a head, arms, and feet. On the opposite side of the diptych, a prone figure bound in silver fabric hovers against a red background. The bindings and dress fabric appear to be identical.

In Objects of Desire, Charlesworth engages questions about the roots of attraction. By appropriating and intensifying the products and strategies of advertising, Charlesworth questions the origins of desire as well as its objects. Images in the series – taken from magazines, altered, re-photographed, saturated, and blown up larger than life (here, 42” x 62”) – appear iconic due to their scale and intensity. However, the uncomfortable juxtapositions and absences employed by Charlesworth ask us to question the relationship between the desirous and the desired, suggesting that our longings may be motivated by perceived lacks, unacknowledged perversions, or deeply embedded cultural messages.

[1] Betsy Sussler, interview with Sarah Charlesworth, Bomb (Winter 1989/1990), 32-33.

Not Your Typical Harem Scene

In Jacqueline Marval’s Les Odalisques, five female figures occupy a stage-like space before a partially open blue green curtain. A servant offers tea to four members of a harem, who sit and lie in varying degrees of nakedness. The three figures at left look to the figure at far right, who faces them but turns her gaze toward the viewer. Another figure lies on her side, facing us as her body extends beyond the picture plane.  Although Marval used chiaroscuro to cast shadows throughout the picture, she chose to stylize the figures rather than model them fully into naturalistic representations of female nudes. The textiles are not nearly as elaborate and sumptuous as those that appear in classic Orientalist harem paintings, like Delacroix’s Women of Algiers from 1834. In Marval’s Odalisques, bright scarves and clothing are pared down planes of color, whose complementary hot and cool shades bring a chromatic balance to the painting.

Jacqueline Marval Les Odalisques 1903

Gill Perry suggests that with Odalisques, Marval hybridized the typical harem scene, insofar as “the models appear to be Western women participating in an oriental ritual.” [1] I agree that Marval is Westernizing the women by making them white-skinned, but that is pretty typical in Orientalist painting (see Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque of 1814). I also detect some room for racial indeterminacy, especially with regard to the figure lying on her side, whose pose and hair immediately make me think of the mixed-race youth in George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri of 1845. The part of Perry’s claim that really does not convince me, however, is that these are modern women. Their erect backs and smooth white bodies, which Perry acknowledges but only associates with lifelessness and coldness, make me think that Marval is combining classical archetypes of ideal female bodies with the voluptuous femininities typically associated with Orientalist harem scenes. Here are some examples of Aphrodite statues that contain the impenetrable gazes and rigid facial structures that I detect in Marval’s Odalisques.

Even though Marval used chiaroscuro to concentrate darkness on the faces of the two figures at right,  Perry emphasizes her link to the Fauvists, with whom she  exhibited at the much historicized 1905 Salon d’Automne (albeit not in the prime real estate of the cage centrale). Marval also appears to me to be participating in Primivitism, a current that was pulsing through avant-garde circles—including but not limited to the Fauvists—by the first decades of the 20th century. Artists engaging in Primitivism sought self re-invention through art that was either non-Western, ancient or both [2]. For these artists, art and ways of art-making that opposed traditional Western criteria of beauty represented the promise of fresh forms of artistic expression—the holy grail of modernism. Picasso famously approached African masks in this manner, while Henri Matisse had revelations in Morocco, August Macke praised the Easter Island statues, and so on. Marval may have been looking to the Ottoman Empire in a traditional Orientalist way, but she also engaged modernist Primitivism by filtering her subjects through an archaic lens in order to reinvent the harem scene. After all, the primitive was defined across two axes: time and space, and Marval was negotiating both of them by painting Turkish concubines with a touch of Greek goddess.

The statuesque women in this picture both arouse and challenge the male gaze. Two of the figures are making direct eye contact with the viewer, but their heavy, parabolic lids restrict access to their pupils, and the viewer cannot discern their emotions. Likewise, while a male viewer can see their naked bodies, he does not have full access because Marval’s figures are either turned away, partially clothed or extending their arms and legs in directions that obscure their breasts and genitals. While the Ingres harem scene that Perry uses as a comparison is a chaotic cornucopia of available flesh, Marval offers a much more disciplined  figure grouping in which the women actively govern access to their bodies and psychological state. The half drawn curtain, meanwhile, threatens that the women could disappear “backstage” at any moment. In a sense, Marval tricks the male gaze by inviting it into a somewhat inhospitable environment: For while her scene would have appealed to male spectators at the turn of the century who would have recognized it as heir to the titillating Orientalist paintings of Ingres and Delacroix, Marval’s women also elude the male gaze by countering it with inscrutable expressions and managing its view of their bodies.

1. See Page 207 in, Perry, Gill, ed. Gender and Art. New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1999.
2. For a comprehensive definition of Primitivism, see Leighten, Patricia, and Mark Antliff. “Primitivism.” In Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, 170–84. Chicago, I.L.: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Guns N’ Game: Harnett’s Masculine Still Life (Pinboard #2)

William Michael Harnett After the Hunt 1885 (source: Wikipedia)

An exploding cluster of hunting paraphernalia fans out from the central vein of an old wooden door with rusty metal finishes, such as a key hole in the shape of a Native American chief. The hunting gear includes a hat framed by antlers, a hand gun, a rifle, a walking stick, a knife, a flask, a satchel, a pipe and a brass horn whose loop anchors the clockwise visual reading given here. One rabbit and two birds are suspended by their feet. A small partridge hangs by its beak, radiating light that is otherwise subsumed by the shadows that darken the right side of the door.

The Irish-American artist William M. Harnett (1848-1892) painted four versions of After the Hunt between 1883 and 1885. While Harnett lived and studied in Munich between 1881 and 1885, he encountered both historical examples of Northern European still life painting, as well as contemporary revivals coming from the studios of artists like David Neal. Harnett submitted his 1885 version of After the Hunt, which was the largest and most baroque of the series, to the Paris Salon of 1885. The painting did not sell at the Salon, but rather found a buyer stateside in Theodore Stewart, who famously installed it in his Warren Street Saloon.

Harnett’s guns-blazing still lifes lend an important counterexample to the categorization of still life painting as feminine. Female painters and domestic subject matter have not monopolized the still life genre—clearly male painters and sporting subject matter have had a significant history as well. The irony is that Harnett’s showcase of antique, European hunting goods was intended to appeal to continental gentlemen, but wound up enchanting an American saloon owner instead. The salon to saloon trajectory of After the Hunt lays bare the currency that masculine subject matter had across institutions that were supposed to represent two distant poles in the hierarchy of taste.

Blindspots in the Male Gaze (Pinboard #1)

Morris Hirshfield The Artist & His Model 1945 (source: artstor)

A nude female model stands atop a trapezoidal bed, which is spread with a coverlet patterned in jewel tones. As she clings to a richly ornamented bedpost, she unveils a body whose blankness contrasts starkly with her densely drawn, fiery red mane of hair. The mustachioed artist looks on, nattily dressed in a deep blue robe. Although he holds his palette in one hand and three brushes in the other, the only canvas in sight is one that has already been painted. It hangs above his head, bearing a scene in which a kidney-shaped cat pursues a butterfly.

The Polish-American artist Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946) completed this work two years after his 1943 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Peyton Boswell, the founder of Art Digest, famously slammed the show, titling his review “The Master of the Two Left Feet,” a dig at Hirshfield, who had run a slipper manufacturing company where left-footed prototypes were used; Boswell points to this fact as the reason that Hirshfield could only paint left feet.  After the Hirshfield debacle, MoMA director Alfred Barr, Jr.  stopped organizing shows for artists like Hirshfield who had never received formal training.

The surreal nakedness of the female model is the most striking element of this painting. Throughout Hirshfield’s work, female bodies appear as gleaming white-pink canvases on which Hirshfield warily paints, going so far as to limn breasts and buttocks but steering clear of vaginas. Hirshfield’s painting thus illustrates an example of the self-limiting male gaze. Hirshfield, either because of a lack of skill or a sense of propriety (or both),  casts a sheepish gaze that seeks nakedness but can’t fully abide its radicalism. Hirshfield both takes advantage of the precedents set by art history, which has permitted male artists access to female bodies for centuries, and balks at this license.

Introduction: Framing the Discussion

Caterina van Hemessen (1528-c.1587                                                      Caterina van Hemessen (1528-c.1587) Self-Portrait

This week’s class was an exercise in locating- locating ourselves in the course as well as the locating the artists and works we are studying within an art historical narrative. Thus, the focus was primarily on establishing a basic mode of inquiry into the intersection of race, gender and art.  We discussed just what exactly terms such as “gender” mean within the context of the course.   In this week’s text, Gender and Art, Gill Perry provided the following definition of gender: “a cultural construction of femininity and masculinity, as opposed to the biological sex (male or female) which we are born with.” (Perry 8).

One critique of this definition, however, is its failure to locate the notion of gender within any sort of temporal or referential locus.  In the context of the 16th and 17th century, the need for a more rooted conception of gender manifested itself in our viewings of self-portraits created by female artists.  While these portraits by artists such as Catharina de Hemessen, Sophonisba Anguissola and Judith Leyster clearly conveyed culturally constructed elements of gender, they also asserted gender in a manner distinctly rooted in temporal and historical associations not captured by Perry’s conception of gender.

Another component of this week’s discussion was the use of several themes as a means of structuring the discussion and facilitating continued inquiry throughout the course.  These themes were – (re)claiming, looking, portraying, performing and making. In keeping with the notion of “locating” the themes were used to anchor our interpretations by framing the discussion in terms of various notions of “self” (e.g. us as viewers or the artist as creator) and “other” (e.g. diegetic audiences within the works or various external audiences). Thus, each theme enabled both broad and narrow exploration of the ways in which identity (meaning sense of self) is formulated, presented, projected, perceived and interpreted by artists and viewers alike.

– Jess Newman