Category Archives: Identity

Pinboard #3: Life & Language of the Photograph: Eugenic “Family Album” (p. 276)

Page 367, The Crisis, December 1935

Page 367, Featuring and Image of George and Lucille Brantley The Crisis, December 1935

Crisis Cover: Aug-Sep 1951

Lucille Brantley, Crisis Cover: Aug-Sep 1951

In December, 1935, “The Crisis” annual children’s number, amongst Political Cartoons about Texas Lynchings, Ethiopia, and Educational Inequalities, there’s a studio portrait of a little girl and little boy sitting side by side (367).  The caption names them as “George and Lucille Brantley/St. Louis, Mo.”  George, in a sailor inspired outfit, smiles eyes wide, looking directly at the the camera. Lucille, in a dress with short lace sleeves, looks slightly to the right.  Sixteen years later, in August-September 1951 issue we encounter Lucille again.  No longer a child, she is the cover model for the Fortieth Annual Education Number. The biographical information explains that she is the daughter of G.D. Brantley, Principal of Sumner high school, who earned her M.S. degree in June of that year.

The early interrogation of The Crisis in Willis’ “Exposure” and the accompanying quote labelling it as “a kind of eugenic ‘family album’” (275) made me feel a sense of pride and confusion.  While the first photo is one I wasn’t familiar with, I’ve intimately known the second photo most of my life.  I know that in the photos Lucille is 5, and 21.  If you ask her if she remembers sitting for the cover, her answer is “Hell no!! It might just be my graduation photo from grad school” [1].  I know the narrative of her life outside of the photo because she is my Grandmother.  A blown up copy of her cover graces the walls of my grandparents’ house.

The tension of photograph as larger social marker (aspirations/types) vs. family memento helps me understand the multiple lives and languages inherent in photographs of human subjects.  As artifact, the Crisis is digitally available through Google. These photographs are available to anyone with a reasonable internet connection.  Without this action having been done, I would have never seen the photograph of my grandmother with her brother when they were children.  Nor would I have learned about the actions and photographs of their father that the Crisis chronicled throughout his career. For me the Crisis is a family album.
1. Phone Interview, October 26, 2012

Gallery

Images for Prairie Pinups

This gallery contains 6 photos.

 

Images for “The Consumption of Lynching Images”

Left: Unidentified Photographer , “Lynching”, ca. 1900
Right: Frank Hudson, “The Avengers of Little Myrtle Vance, and the Villian brought to Justice, ca. 1900

R.C. Holmes “Wilmington, Delaware” 1900

J.P. Ball & Son/ James Presley Ball, “William Biggerstaff”

Vivian Cherry, “Untitled” From “The Game of Lynching, Yorkville, East Harlem”, series, 1947

 

 

 

 

Psychoanalysis, Fetish, and the Nude

A set of widely varied readings from Gender and Art provided us with fodder for a lively discussion. We asked whether and when images can be seen as gendered, analyzed several modernist nudes, and explored the utility of psychoanalysis as an art historical methodology. By addressing a mixed series of images the early modern, modern, and contemporary eras, we delved into Perry’s assertion that “identity – or subjectivity – is not fixed or given [but] is socially and psychically constructed.” [2]

We reviewed several nudes by Edgar Degas, Suzanne Valadon and Emilie Charmy, and discussed the role of distortion in the construction of a “male gaze” and the existence of a female gaze. [1] Katie reminded us that distortion is always a value judgment, especially in modernist painting, wherein naturalism is not what an artist strives for.

Along with these examples from Perry, we reviewed Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude (1964) [right] in depth.Jade noted the resemblances to Manet’s Olympia (1863), while Jess remarked on the humorous contrast to be made with the removable features of Mr. Potato Head. Both comments suggested that Wesselmann’s gaze was historically grounded, informed by popular culture, and confident in its ability to construct its object. Dr. Powell reminded us that elements of Great American Nude suggested fetishism: the artist’s emphasis on a collection of items (including the choker, the leopard throw, and the breast-like ice cream scoops) rather than a coherent totality resulted in a flattened, collage-like composition that suggested psychological fixation.

We ended the session with a series of objects that have been interpreted as motivated by fantasy or fetish, including Eva Hesse’s Accession II (1967), Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Breakfast (1936) and Alexander McQueen’s “bumster” skirt (1998). We concluded that the role played by gender in the development of images and objects is sometimes obscure, and that psychoanalysis can prove helpful to interpreting embedded constructions of masculinity and femininity.

[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 265.

[2] For discussions of the female gaze (or lack thereof), see Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (3): 6-18, 9 and John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin Group, 1972), 46-47.

 

Visual Shorthand: The Female Nude

“Luxe, Calme et Volupté” 1904-1905 is a fauvist work by Henri Matisse. During the period in which it was painted, Matisse belonged to a group of young artists whose bold and unconventional works alarmed critics to the extent that they referred to them as“wild beasts” (les fauves).  Matisse’s work, in particular, embodied this new spirit utilizing color and brush strokes to convey feelings and sensations in a fashion that broke dramatically with the canon.

To See This Image Please Visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Matisse-Luxe.jpg
Henri Matisse “Luxe, Calme et Volupté”, 1904

The work is a leisure scene that shows six nude women each from a different vantage point as they bathe and picnic on a beach in St. Tropez.  Moving from left to right the viewer sees one woman from the back and another reclining with her nudity on full display.  Behind her a smaller figure is seen wrapped in a blanket. At the foot of the reclining nude another woman is crouched combing through her hair.  The penultimate figure is in a semi-reclined pose with her back to the viewer while the last is slightly turned such that her body is fully visible but her face is shown in profile.  Matisse has placed these women in an idyllic even pastoral setting showing them on the shores of a lake.  The only clues that this is a modern scene are the boat in the background and the picnic utensils placed in the left corner of the work.

In many ways this work is highly traditional.  The subject matter of nude female bodies as created by a male artist and in particular bathers in a pastoral landscape “can be traced back to the work of Poussin” an artist that epitomized the values of Academic painters.[1] Further, the title of the work comes from the chorus of a poem entitled L’invitation au voyage “which describes an escape to an Arcadian land of sensuality and calm.”[2] Such references to poetry are in keeping with nineteenth-century Academic traditions.

The poem referenced, however is by symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire and indicative of Matisse’s modernist tendencies. Similarly, Matisse’s technique can only be described as modern.  Matisse’s use of lozenge-like shapes reveals the artist’s every brushstroke.  The bodies are portrayed crudely, some are little more than the outline of a shape.  In addition, the use of the word “luxe” in this context conveys more than just “luxury” rather it suggests “voluptuousness, self-indulgence and sensuality” a well as a connection to the contemporary cult of “joie de vivre.”[3]

Gill Perry suggests that it is precisely the tensions in the work between technique and subject matter that serves to disrupt the notion that these women are merely objects of the “male gaze.” Rather the Matisse has portrayed the women in an unreal manner manipulating and distorting their figures such that their physical oddness “undermines any easy perception of these women merely as objects of male sexual desire.”[4] The question Perry poses in connection to this work is whether artistic processes can mediate social and sexual politics.  For me, however, this work raises another interesting question: how is gender being used as visual shorthand?

I fully agree with Perry that Matisse is able to use technique to disrupt reading this work as purely one of sexual objectification or male eroticism. However, this reading cannot be disrupted without existing as an initial assumption provided by the presence of female nudes.  The female nude provides a ready-made discourse that tends to imply the same categories of interrogation.  Thus this “female shorthand” freezes the notion of the female body in a specific set of meanings and discourse continuing to convey the same readings and associations in a manner that inhibits new interpretations.

For example, in discussing this work Perry speaks first of the male gaze and then of the sexual nature of the poses.[5]  Although Perry is by no means characterizing the work solely in terms of these elements or even suggesting that they are the primary themes of the works, the need to address such elements time and again seemingly conflicts with her notion that abstraction disrupts such discourse.

To me, the abstraction in this context suggests the assertion of the male artist as he can now control the body of the female.  Thus, the use of the female body as a form of visual short hand permits the artist to present the same ideologies and associations and emphasize the modernity of the technique rather than the subject matter.  In other words, the use of the female nude acts as Matisse’s acknowledgement of his familiarity with the traditional art historical canon while his technique demonstrates his innovations as an artist.  In this manner, this work becomes more about the emancipation of the male artist than it does of the female figures suggesting that abstraction does not truly disrupt traditional discourse.

 


[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 202.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Primitivism and the Modern” by Gill Perry from: Primitivism, Cubism and Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century. The Open University, 1993, p 54.

[4] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 205.

[5] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 205.

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxe,_Calme_et_Volupt%C3%A9:

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

Colonial Collection/ Context and Narrative (Pinboard #1)

Fred Wilson "Colonial Collection", 1990

Fred Wilson is an artist of African, American Indian and European descent and was born in 1954 in The Bronx, NY.  He attended Purchase College, State University of New York where he received a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree in 1976.  Wilson is best known for his site-specific museum installations and first rose to national prominence with his 1992 exhibition for the Maryland Historical Society, “Mining the Museum.”  In this and similar works, Wilson uses objects either not normally on display or typically displayed in a different fashion and juxtaposes them in a way that “alters their traditional meanings or interpretations.”[1]

“Colonial Collection” is part of the 1990 exhibition “Rooms with a View: The Struggle Between Cultural Content and the Context of Art” an installation in which Wilson took two works from 30 artists and then arranged them in three different rooms- a regular gallery space, a white cube and a room designed to look like an ethnographic museum.  This work comes from the ethnographic space. “Colonial Collection” features seven African masks hung on a rust colored wall.  Around each mask, Wilson wrapped French and British flags which cover the mouth, eyes and nose on the different masks.  Beneath the masks is a glass display case which features insect vitrines, a jawbone, Mylar labels, wood and glass vitrines and Harper’s lithographs depicting punitive expeditions between the Zulus and the British and the Ashanti and the British.[2]

Although the masks are trade masks and Wilson had the vitrines in the glass display box made specifically for the exhibit, Wilson’s presentation of the objects under “museum lighting” and within an ethnographic space led many visitors to believe they were seeing traditional ethnographic (or authentic) objects.  The work demonstrates the ways in which museums anesthetize and control the presentation of objects making them “hostages to the museum.”[3]  The masks are shown as objects, historical and yet devoid of context; they present the idea of a culture while obscuring the realities of how the objects came to be there in the first place.   Thus, Wilson demonstrates how context can control, co-opt or even create the narrative of a particular work.  In doing so, he raises not only the question of whether the meaning that’s being is correct, but also of who has the right to convey meaning.   Such questions arise most frequently in regards to ethnographic objects but are equally relevant contemporary art history.  When discussion art at the intersections of race and gender it is necessary to bear in mind not only what but whose story is being told.

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

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.

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