Book Review: ‘The Lost Words’ by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane

The book entitled The Lost Words is a collaborative work highlighting the illustrations of artist and author Jackie Morris and the words of writer Robert Macfarlane, both based in the UK. The idea was conceived after a campaign involving artists, poets and writers, including Margaret Atwood, Andrew Motion and Morris and Macfarlane themselves, who were dismayed at the loss of certain words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Attempting to appear more relevant to today’s younger people, words often relating to the natural world, such as ‘buttercup’ or ‘lark’ were removed in favour of more contemporary terms such as ‘broadband’ and ‘blog’. The OJD, in doing so, highlighted a growing and concerning separation of children from nature and the outside world, indicative of a trend for a somewhat more isolated childhood spent mostly indoors and behind computer screens.

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It was Morris’ idea, at first, to address the issue by creating a ‘wild dictionary’ incorporating many of the missing words. After a meeting with Macfarlane however, a collaboration of poetic incantations and accompanying poignant artwork was born. The resulting book is not intended solely for children, but, the authors suggest, may appeal to everyone. In turn, it is certainly a work that aroused a melancholic nostalgia for my own lucky childhood making willow bows and hazel arrows in the hazy clover filled meadows of my memories.

As the illustrations here both metaphorically and literally weave around words as heather roots in pebbles or otters diving playfully in bubbling eddies, Morris aids in not only the retrieval of lost words but in the creation of a beguiling and hopefully not lost natural world. The illustrator’s use of perspective whether depicting heron or dandelion, situates the viewer within the landscape, thus cleverly creating a connection with the image. While stimulating the senses in this way, the book raises conservation concerns without overt instruction therefore, subtlety allowing consideration of the kinship between the death of specific language with the loss of many species of flora and fauna. In turn, and fittingly, part of the profits from the book will be forwarded to a conservation charity who work with disadvantaged children. The Lost Words has also been part of a campaign to place it into many schools, so that the message reaches a new generation, perhaps before it is too late. It is a work based on hope however, to maintain both language and natural life, and the bridge that connects the two, which is indeed a pertinent point for all to contemplate.

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It is obvious that this is a symbiotic work, both writer and artist gracefully enabling and enchantingly enhancing the other’s input. However, in the research for this article, it was apparent that much of the press coverage concentrated on Macfarlane as the main and sometimes only creative protagonist involved. In turn, a Google search indicated this shocking bias was widespread (certainly not the fault of Macfarlane himself who has always stated the equal and collaborative nature of the work).

Intrigued by this finding, I asked Jackie Morris if she had noted this lack of equity. The artist replied that this had been a common response and that a hierarchy of what she described as “word over image” was even apparent at an exhibition involving the artwork. The artist further added that in publicity events, Robert had been approached on occasions and asked to speak, while it seemed her own voice had been somewhat ignored and seemingly was “enough in images”. Articles had also focused on Macfarlane’s role in the project while illustrating the story with Morris´artwork and giving her only a minor credit. Morris declared a weary lack of surprise at the apparent sexism at work here, including an absence of support even from many fellow women in the business of promoting art…

“Why aren’t women more successful in the arts? Why are all the big names illustration men? I ____ wonder…..” the illustrator replied.

While certainly highlighting a familiar gendered bias, this lack of recognition also relates to a campaign Morris herself has supported. The Pictures Mean Business was created to raise concerns specifically for illustrators, from a common absence of sufficient credit, status and publicity to copyright issues. Judging from many of the responses to this collaborative work, these concerns are clearly justified.

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Such matters, however, should not detract from the book itself, a compelling visual and poetic feast of captivating imagery and winsome wordsmithing which delightfully and provocatively align a sense of the natural world with human well-being.

 

Fittingly, the last word on The Lost Words should go to the illustrator herself however…

“This book was crafted with author and illustrator working closely together with the wild and wild things, to try to give a voice to the wild and to give a focus onto the nearby wild that we often take for granted. Image and word hand in hand…..The idea and the shape of the book grew from two creative minds working together with the support of one of the best publishing teams in Britain today….

“I love how the book is finding its natural habitat; libraries, homes, bookshops, and the hearts of families, uniting reading across generations…”

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‘The Lost Words’ by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane is published by Hamish Hamilton, and is currently the subject of an exhibition at The Foundling Museum, London, until 06 May 2018.

Also read: http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/the-lost-words-sexism-and-the-press-the-curious-case-of-the-lost-illustrator/

Othering

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(Amrita Sher-Gil (Indian painter) 1913 – 1941 Tribal Women, 1938)

‘Othering’ is the process of viewing or treating a person or group of people as intrinsically different from and alien to yourself. It may be ascribed to the historical treatment of Western women artists (as discussed in the previous blog post) by the male-run art establishment. However, it also applies to the way in which the reading of art has been skewed to suit a particular Western narrative.

Western art history is viewed in terms of the development of European ‘high art’. This progression is considered to have Greco/Roman classical foundations, a Renaissance ‘rebirth’, progressing to the modern era. Particular ideas are associated with Western art, such as that of the individual artist genius. Great artists were not only perceived as male, but also as white and European.

Unsurprisingly such ideals were formulated and established by white European men.

When contemplating the work of women artists globally, it is therefore imperative to contemplate the impact of such dominating and oppressive cultural ideals.

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(South African artist Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2008)

Western art historians, when considering art created beyond Europe, perpetuated the values of Western culture as the template for all cultural and artistic standards. In turn, ideas of Western and ‘non-Western’ art were created with the assumption of superiority and therefore inferiority.

Such polarity was embedded by the use of certain negative assumptions and stereotypes  ranging from ‘exotic’ to ‘primitive’.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and the Thai Farmers, 2008, video

(In her short film The Two Planets (Dow Song Duang) 2012, the farmers of small Thai villages discuss several classic works of modern European painting while Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook fixes her camera on them).

Imperialist and Eurocentric ideas have been highly influential in the reading of art from many diverse cultural origins. When considering European analysis of Chinese art, for example, the wealth of Chinese written theory and a complex artistic tradition spanning two thousand years (pre-dating European definitions of ‘high art’) threatened the very concept of Western superiority.

Chinese art was therefore viewed from the perception of an advanced history of Western art history. Fundamental and complex concepts such as the significance of brush method as other culturally valuable expressions were often devalued, dismissed or misinterpreted.

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(Artwork by Guan Daosheng (1263-1316),  Chinese poet and painter who was active during the early Yuan Dynasty)

Western scholars often ignored or failed to recognise the variety of changing styles, subjects and evolution of ideas within Chinese art as part of a culturally rich and complex culture with its own canons and hierarchies. To emphasise the idea of the East/West binary opposition, Chinese art was largely labelled as ‘traditional’ and therefore not evolving in comparison to ‘progressive’ Western art.

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(Contemporary artist Jessica So Ren Tang explores Chinese-American cultural identity through textiles and embroidery)

Likewise colonial discourses from the West often considered the historically rich and culturally/religiously diverse India and the many countries and cultures of Africa, for example, as primarily ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’. Assumptions of a more enlightened, modern Western culture were part of the justification for colonialist rule therefore.

Ideas of acceptable forms of artworks to the West from specific cultures were also formed on the basis of concepts like ‘purity’. This meant that ‘non- Western’ art must suit the narrow and often racist assumptions of Western theorists. Artworks read through such Western eyes were therefore often misunderstood in terms of their cultural context, spiritual or social significance and their symbolism and function.

Within the enforcement of Imperialist ideologies, women, and therefore women artists, suffered not only under the influence of such colonialist ideals, but also in terms of being female. The combination of racism and sexism created a particularly hostile climate for women often already subject to their own patriarchal cultures. Women viewed as existing beyond the perceived ‘respectable’ boundaries of European norms of ‘femininity’ were classified as exotic toys for the Western male gaze or labelled as  animalistic and therefore sub-human subordinates. This, in turn, justified the many specific and normalised abuses perpetuated on women, such as sexual violence. The 19th century French male painter Delacroix, for example, promoted titillating myths of the harem in his work, thus creating an eroticizied idea of a ‘wild non-Western’ (and therefore untamed) womanhood to gratify the pornographic fantasies of rich white Western males.

(In her 1982 work, No To Torture (below), Algerian artist Houria Niati questions the exotic stereotype perpetuated by 19th century French painter Delacroix)

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The othering of people, of women, of cultures, and the creation of such ideals incorporating the dominating influence of European Imperialism and Christian evangelism sadly remain to some extent, producing a long shadow over the reading of artworks from many diverse and complex origins. However, ongoing challenges from post-colonial and black feminist discourses continue to highlight and counter both the racist and sexist narratives and assumptions which still pervade much of Western culture.

The Elusive Female Artistic Genius

The use of the masculine term ‘master’, or idea of ‘male genius’ encapsulates much of the assumptions of Western historical ideas of ‘the artist’.
However, the view that women artists absence from the canon is due to their incapacity for greatness has been challenged in recent years, citing lack of recognition. Talented Western women artists have always existed….. but often against all the odds….

The existence of women artists has to be recognised in a highly significant historical and social context of restricted female access to public life, lack of economic independence, education, art academies, patronage, family limitations and so on.

The very ideals of Western art were formalised in institutions in which women were excluded. This has, in turn, greatly impacted on ideas surrounding women artists, included notions of women’s creativity being afforded a lesser cultural status. In turn, male artists have created and controlled female representation, often coded as passive, decorative or sexually objectified, to suit a male consumer of art. This was both an image and a social landscape at odds with that of a capable, intelligent and professional female artist.

During the Renaissance, a sixteenth century Italian female context was one of extreme restriction, enforced dependence, and life within the limited arena of the family. In an era emphasising learning and the academy, female artists had to rely on the cooperation and kindness of male relatives to provide tutorage in the home, due to lack of access to public education.

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German Renaissance male artist Albrecht Dürer’s Christ-like self portrait, 1500

As male artists began to increase their wealth, power and status separating from craft, there was a corresponding strengthening hostility towards women in the arts. As females were perceived to lack the ability for ‘genius’ of their male counterparts, they were largely excluded from highly regarded fields/genres and therefore high artistic merit.Male creators of art began to produce self-portraits as signatures or bystander portraits reflecting status and accomplishments, to gain patronage and individual recognition. Although the act of painting was itself often personified as ‘female’, the tradition for depicting the male as artist (including the self-portrait) continued to develop. The few women who were lucky enough to gain some private tuition in painting, in comparison, had to promote the very idea that they even existed as artists, often having to depict themselves at the easel in the process of creating.As a trend for portraits of the wealthy (from the fifteenth century) began, ideas of femininity were embedded by male artists reflecting contemporary gendered social mores. Women were depicted by promoting their dependent status as decorative appendages, maidens, wives or widows (highlighting passiveness, modesty, honour, attractiveness, availability, for the ‘male gaze’/gendered viewer). If we compare the artwork of (rare) female artist Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait (1579)….

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…..and male artist Cornelis Cort, after Jan van der Straet An Ideal Roman Academy (1578), we are able to gain some interesting insights.

Fontana’s artwork is itself representative of a gendered restriction to the field of painting (rather than sculpture) and the lesser valued genre of portraiture. It is however, also a rare and challenging reflection of female artist within this historical, social, cultural context.

It is a particularly small painting, linking to the idea of female restriction, women’s tradition for embroidery and miniature painting. Fontana also conventionally reflects her respectable married status and wealth by foregrounding her wedding ring and (sexually modest) wealthy apparel.

As the painting was intended for display amongst male scholars (a rare honour) and aimed at a male audience, Fontana constructs her own image with significant care. Her outward direct gaze suggests control as she engages the viewer’s eye. By emphasising her knowledge and skill, placing herself within a defined scholarly and scientific space with classical statuettes and anatomical casts, she portrays herself as learned artist rather than crafts-person.

In production and representation Fontana cleverly and complexly depicts herself as both woman within the limitations of her society and artist.

Fontana’s work emphasises that the female artist has portrayed herself in a limited, isolated and introspective space.

In contrast, Cort’s engraving reveals a hectic scene of exclusive male learning, a busy masculine collective of shared skills and knowledge. The work reveals what we may refer to today as an absolute ‘boy’s club’.

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Cort’s composition and theme emphasises new hierarchical ideas of genres. The artist reflects much iconography of Renaissance humanist ideas. The acquirement of artistic skill and study is portrayed, for example, as learning anatomy from a flayed corpse, (reflecting one of many areas from which women were excluded).

Females are represented within the work only as objects/sculptures reflecting beauty (mid-right) and allegorical figures (top right). Cort presents the ‘ideal’ Renaissance academy, as the title reflects, a gendered model reflecting intrinsic assumptions for much future artistic practice in Europe, further embedded by male discourses on art (promoting the male artist and genre/canon hierarchies reflective of male dominance).

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A comparison of the work with Natoire’s The Life Class at the Academie Royale, Paris (1746) (above) reflects such influence. Here men are also presented as active participants requiring and sharing artistic skill and knowledge, while women are absent or only represented as decorative allegorical objects/sculptures. The representation of females in terms of beauty or mythological status interpreted for the presumed male consumer of art  is also reflected in Zoffany’s The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772-7) (below).

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Cort’s work may be considered therefore, as aiding in the creation of a gendered view of the artist and artistic practice and ideals of masculinity and femininity.

Although we may associate such enforced restrictions and detrimental norms on the female artist, and women more generally, as a thing of the past, such ideas have resonated through the centuries. In turn, even in our modern cultural landscape, women, including those who create art, still face many embedded gendered obstacles and inequalities.