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.

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.

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The ‘Boys Club’ and 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.

 

Louise Bourgeois, Maman the Mother

Maman, the vast steel and marble sculpture in the form of a giant arachnid was created by the French artist Louise Bourgeois in 1999.

The sculpture, at thirty feet high and more than 30 feet wide, is one of the largest sculptures in the world. It was first unveiled as a commission of the artist for The Unilever Series, at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2000. However, several versions of the sculpture were cast in bronze, many of which were placed on permanent display at galleries around the globe, from Spain, to Canada and Korea.

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Evoking the nightmarish and surreal, Bourgeois’ huge spider installation may be viewed in terms of  Western arts ability to embody both wonder and terror. The 18th century Irish born philosopher Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime was one involving a complex physiological and emotional response, easily related to the feelings inspired by viewing Bourgeois’ own work. Burke stated:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Maman, with its sinewy long legs and towering presence, in turn, certainly excites the imagination, as if a horror creeping from the pages a Gothic novel or a malevolent invader from an apocalyptic B-movie.

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Despite an arachnophobic response to the artwork however, Bourgeois’ own philosophy regarding her work is both convoluted and surprisingly sensitive. The spider first appeared as a motif in the artist’s work in 1947 in a small drawing and has continued to be part of Bourgeois’ themes throughout her long artistic career. ‘Maman’ is the French word for mother and the sculpture itself is representative of Bourgeois’ own maternal parent.

The artist’s mother died when Bourgeois was a young woman, leaving a deep emotional scar. Her grief was so profound in fact, that a few days after her mother’s death the artist tried to drown herself. The trauma which began in her childhood, including her father’s infidelity which caused much instability within the family, was compounded by her loss. Rather than a symbol of horror, the spider is representative of a protective presence for Bourgeois therefore.  Her mother worked with tapestries and hence the connection of the spider spinner and weaver with maternal womanhood. Maman, while carefully storing her marble eggs, is not only a fierce female protector but also a repairer, both literally and metaphorically a mender of the emotions of fear, loss and abandonment. Her scale, in turn, is representative of her importance, while the structure itself is one of strength combined with a certain vulnerability.

“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”

“…..my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me…” Louise Bourgeois.

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Maman, the mother as a sculptural embodiment of fear, vulnerability, female protection and awesome power is an iconic and complexly beautiful artwork from a prolific and hugely gifted artist.

 

Jeanne Mammen & the Women of Berlin’s Cabaret

German painter Jeanne Mammen was born in Berlin in 1890, however she spent her early years living in Paris. Here, Mammen’s formative years were immersed in a love of French literature and the arts of the age. The artist’s privileged upbringing enabled her to study painting and drawing at various top academies in Paris, Brussels and Rome. With the outbreak of World War I, Mammen’s family had their assets confiscated as they were categorised as a foreign enemy, leading to impoverished conditions for the artist. Mammen, however, also benefited from the experience, as she was able to associate with a variety of people from various backgrounds, an eclectic world once hidden from the limited niceties of her middle class social circle. This, in turn, would have a major influence on her later artwork.

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After moving back to Berlin, in 1921 Mammen began a professional career in art, first as a poster designer for films and later as a magazine illustrator. However, it was the colourful and daring nightlife of the Weimar Republic that caught Mammen’s artistic attention. Between the period of the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, the artist began to create many sketches and watercolour artworks capturing the raucous nightclubs, cafes and cabarets of the city. Here Mammen could quietly observe, sketch and present the vibrancy of a world inhabited by Jewish intellectuals, fellow artists, bohemians, performers and a flourishing lesbian scene, amidst the chaotic pleasures and passions of  the metropolis after dark.

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Mammen’s work is especially noted for her focus on women. The artist did not simply portray shallow, passive props, but presented her women as subjects. Mammen’s females are alive, strong, confronting and confident in their sex and sexuality. Her portrayal of lesbians is ground-breaking from a female perspective, while ignoring both the taboos of the age and cliched sexualised presentation for the male gaze. Mammen’s watercolours often reflected a humorous narrative quality while portraying women simply enjoying the company of other women.

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The artist was involved in many art shows, including an exhibition of female artists in Berlin. However, it was Mammen’s  disregard for apparent ‘appropriate’ female submissiveness in her expression and her subjects which caused the Nazis to later ban her lesbian work and brand her work degenerate and ‘Jewish’. Despite this, Mammen refused to comply and join in with the Nazi regime’s artistic propaganda machine and for much of World War II the artist did no more artworks, even selling books from a cart to survive.

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Having survived the war, in her later years the painter moved into more abstract expressions of art. However, it was her observations of a particular period of German history which are perhaps most remarkable. Her courage to resist the onslaught of the Nazis and to observe and capture a much marginalised yet positive portrayal of life is certainly worth celebrating. The artist’s portrayal of women especially should be honored as a joyful and valuable expression of confident womanhood and sexuality.

In her final years the artist looked back on her work…

“I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others….”.

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Jeanne Mammen, in turn, continued her observations and painting until her death in 1976.

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The Glasgow School Sisters who Influenced Klimt

Despite being central to the “Glasgow style” of art, influential in the expansion of the Art Nouveau movement, sisters Margaret (1864-1933) and Frances MacDonald (1873-1921) were both born in England. The MacDonald family, however, moved to Scotland when the girls were still young.

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Margaret MacDonald

Due to their privileged upper-middle class background, Margaret and Frances received a rare female broad education in subjects ranging from Latin to science from a pioneering school for girls. After their earlier schooling, in the early 1890’s the sisters then enrolled at the Glasgow School of Art. Unlike many places of education, which still restricted and excluded on the basis of sex, the Glasgow School was described as providing a more “enlightened” space for women artists. Here the sisters and their fellow females were allowed to work towards a career in art by studying a variety of mediums, from textiles and embroidery to painting and metalwork designs.

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Central to this progressive atmosphere were specific women-only societies providing particular support and encouragement, such as the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists (founded in 1882). Such groups created spaces for women to exhibit their work in addition to meeting and exchanging advice and encouragement. This was pivotal to the foundation of women’s sense of self belief in an ongoing sexist and hostile society. Aiding in a sense of solidarity,  many of the female students and staff were also involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage. In fact, many of the artists were responsible for creating suffragist banners.

Buoyed by their experience, Margaret and Frances left the School in the mid 1890’s to set up their own shared art studio at 128, Hope Street in Glasgow. The sisters worked collaboratively on a number of projects and their work developed into a particular and distinctive style, as they drew heavily from folklore and mysticism for their themes. With their education and professional status as artists, Margaret and Frances may be described as prime examples of the eras “new woman” an early feminist ideal and term to describe independent, career women.

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Frances MacDonald

During their student days, both sisters had met their future husbands. Margaret later married designer and architect Charles Mackintosh and Frances wed James MacNair, a Scottish artist and designer. Their marriages, in turn, lead to a dissolving of the sisters’ artistic partnership as Margaret and Frances began collaborative work with their respective partners, as was expected of dutiful wives. During such work much of the sister’s own artistic input was credited to their husbands. However, the sisters exhibited their work internationally. Margaret’s artwork was shown in Vienna, for example, and has been highlighted as a profound influence on such renowned artists as Gustav Klimt.

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Margaret never had children, unlike Frances who gave birth to a son, and this was influential on both sister’s futures. Margaret, without the responsibility of children, was able to have a certain limited freedom and independence that Frances now lacked. The elder sister therefore received more attention and success. Also Frances and her husband suffered financial losses which impacted on their artistic careers. It could be said that such differing paths are evident in the work each sister produced. While both artists focused on highly stylized women and symbolic female experience within their artworks, Margaret’s figures are perhaps more positively portrayed than the sometimes later lonely and bereft figures created by her sister.

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Despite the difficulties encountered by women artists, from restrictive gender role to artistic erasure by male spouse, Margaret and Frances MacDonald did however, both gain from an era of burgeoning feminism. The importance of access to education, professional status and the support of fellow women can not be denied. Both artists, in turn, require full recognition for their vital, inspirational and unique role within Western art.

This was something Charles Mackintosh, husband of Margaret, himself could not deny. While he received international acclaim…he stated of his much lesser known wife…

“Margaret has genius, I have only talent.”

Amrita Sher-Gil, not ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) was not born in India but in Hungary, to a Sikh aristocrat father and a bourgeois Hungarian Jewish mother. Such heritage would, in turn, enable a unique artistic perspective for the future artist.

The family relocated to India when Amrita was a child, and here she continued to pursue an early talent for painting. The artist’s burgeoning self expression soon manifested in a declaration of atheism, a statement which enabled her expulsion from her convent school.

Later Amrita studied art in Florence and was hugely inspired by the wealth of Western Renaissance, avant-garde and modernist artworks which surrounded her. At the age of only sixteen, Amrita visited Paris and was already painting in earnest.

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The artist returned to India in 1934 however, as she longed to explore the traditions of Indian art as key to her own part Indian identity. Here Amrita was inspired by a rich history of Pahari and Mughal painting styles and philosophies. As a result her own work began to highlight her tours of Southern India, in not only terms of colour and atmosphere, but also reflecting an understanding and connecting empathy with her subjects. Amrita painted villagers and rural lives, with equal respect. Her painting The Bride’s Toilet (1937) for example, reflects the rights, rituals and limitations of female lives, one of many works enabling unique female themes and perspective for the era.

brides-toiletThe Bride’s Toilet (1937)

Despite her privileged background, Amrita was very much a proponent of challenging both poverty and injustice, while supporting political freedoms for an India still under the rule of the British Raj.

Amrita, who had married her Hungarian husband Victor, later moved to Lahore in early 1941, a city significant for both its role in the independence movement of India and Pakistan and for its then artistic community. The artist continued her prolific work here, while having affairs with both men and women. Amrita had already scandalised the art world with such paintings as the Self-Portrait as Tahitian (1937) reflecting her half naked body in an artwork which questioned ideas of cultural identity and exotic cliches. Despite white male artists placing their own ideology upon women of colour as object for centuries, an Indian female artist utilising her own body as subject was deemed shockingly unacceptable. Amrita however rejected the Orientalist stereotypes in Western modernism, by creating work which not only highlighted herself and other real people, but challenged Imperialist perceptions in an era of ongoing British rule.

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Self Portrait as Tahitian (1934)

In December of 1941, just before the opening of her first major Lahore show, Amrita became ill, went into a coma and died. The artist was just 28 years old. The cause of her death is not clear, but there are some suggestions that Amrita became ill after an unsafe abortion. The artist’s mother accused Amrita’s husband of her murder although no charges were ever brought against him.

Despite her short life, Amrita created a huge body of work which continues to be celebrated for its affection without sentimentality, its challenges without overt confrontation.

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The painter is often referred to as ‘the Indian Frida Kahlo’. However, it is more apt to refer to Amrita as simply herself, an artist and pioneer of modernist 20th century art, whose talent defies a need for comparison. Like Frida Kahlo, Amrita was an unconventional woman of her time, bold and pioneering in both life and in art. However, the artist was unique, creating a lasting legacy all of her own. Her work not only reflected and aided a growing insurgence of Indian strength in identity, but significantly linked both East and West, reflective of  Amrita Sher-Gil’s own sense of self and self rule as both artist and woman.

 

Hannah Höch, and the Deconstruction of The Beautiful Girl

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) was a German artist who was part of  the early 20th century European avant-garde art movement known as Dada.  Such artists emphasised the absurd and irrational in their art, aiming at protesting a bourgeois and capitalist society in the aftermath of World War one.

Höch was one of a small number of female artists involved in the male dominated movement. Her work clearly reflects the importance of a female perspective, amongst many male voices, as she sought to highlight specific themes in relation to women and society.  Höch created her photomontage,  Das Schone Madchen/The Beautiful Girl (1919-20), in an era which saw the rise of the ideal of the European ‘New Woman’.  This was a time of women’s suffrage, and demands for female rights as citizens in society and within the workforce.

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Höch utilised clippings from women’s magazines and other media to comment on the contradictions and complexities of female roles in a rapidly modernizing, yet also compromised post war German society. While a common medium today, the artist was one of the originators of photomontage.

The Beautiful Girl is a deliberately unsettling piece which highlights women not as a rising autonomous subjects but emphasised  as objects within a growing industrialised and corporate landscape. The work is created by considered deconstruction and reconstruction of everyday monochrome, sepia and colour pictorial media photographic imagery. The busy, disjointed arrangement of larger and smaller pieces, in turn, produces a composition which is deliberately disorientating for the viewer.

Höch’s work utilises realistic imagery which has been reorganised to be visually and compositionally confronting.  Female body parts and advertising imagery are placed in conjunction with symbols of bourgeois commodities and machine components, wheels and crankshafts. By foregrounding the dominating image of the cut out and detached, floating modern ‘feminine’ hairstyle, Höch points towards the gendered themes of the work while creating a top-heavy sense of disorder.

The Beautiful Girl was created during the Weimer Republic,  an era in which women’s roles where being explored, not only regarding voting rights and work, but also in terms of female sexuality and identity. However, the reality and struggle of women’s everyday lives was one that often contradicted the ideals and expectations being placed upon them.

Höch wanted the viewer to be disturbed by notions of gender in society as she presented conflicting ideas of femininity (and masculinity). This was in conjunction with her use of repetitive elements, e.g. oval wheel, circular badges and watch, to project a backdrop of chaotic capitalist fever. Höch deconstructs and subverts the intentions of the advertising and glamorous media imagery she utilises. Rather than attractive, the colours are sickly; the decapitated female figure is reconstructed as part commodity, while a model stares blankly out of a disembodied eye. Women are reflected as not only denied autonomy but humanity itself, as the processes of corporate modernism envelop them.

Höch is not simply addressing and protesting the issues of early 20th century European life like her male contemporaries, but enabling a vital female-centric reading of the themes presented.  The artist however struggled, as was the case with many women in the arts, to be recognised and valued on an equal basis as the men around her.  Höch stated that women artists were dismissed as “gifted amateurs’’ and denied professional status.

The fact that Höch was an innovative pioneer in both her artistic field and in highlighting a female perspective, despite the injustices of a male dominated culture, reflects both her talent and resilience – common traits for so many of her fellow women artists.

Book Review: Openings, A Memoir from The Women’s Art Movement, 1970-1992

“What is feminist art?” was a question posed to Sabra Moore in her newly published book Openings, A Memoir from The Women’s Art Movement, 1970-1992. As a New York based artist, writer, and activist who worked at the center of one of the most defining eras of Western feminist creativity, Moore is extremely well placed to answer.  The author, as former president of the Women’s Caucus for Art, member of the Heresies feminist collective and one of the instigators of a major protest at MoMA, played a vital role in the unfolding events of the time. Produced from years of intricate journal keeping, Moore presents her memoirs including her interlocking pathways, affiliations and friendships with the most renowned US female artists of the age, from Louise Bourgeois and Faith Ringgold to Ana Mendieta and Georgia O’Keeffe. In doing so the author not only creates insights into her own innovative artistic ventures and that of her female contemporaries, but provides an invaluable account of art and the women’s liberation movement which lays bare the very ethos of feminism.

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A sense of the era’s hopes wrapped in outrage are outlined as Moore highlights women’s struggle for artistic autonomy and personal self-definition, within a conjoined exploding world of civil rights activism, anti-Vietnam war protests and black arts movements. In doing so the author conveys an intriguing historical primary source inclusive of a tangible sense of the excitement of the age. Moore’s autobiographical journey through her late 20th century feminist activism painstakingly reflects the many groups and initiatives, studios, protests, publications and galleries set up to counter the sexism and racism involved in the mainstream art world. From the influential feminist Heresies collective, who sought both women’s artistic and human rights, to the Guerilla Girls and demonstrations against MoMA’s lack of female representation to which she was central, Moore highlights a continuous campaign of activism interwoven with the ongoing and related creativity of herself and fellow female artists. In a contemporary age perhaps removed from the significance and integrity of terms such as ‘sisterhood’, Moore’s insights into a diverse women’s artistic community lays bare the sheer effort, pain and joy involved in women’s collective labour to initiate positive change.

heresiesHeresies: Feminist Collective Journals

The personal is certainly political in Moore’s writing, and fascinatingly so as she entwines the era’s feminist artistic and political progress with her own private narrative. From the bonds and traumas of parental relationships,  poetic dreams and work in a newly legalised abortion clinic to the horrors of being subjected to intimate partner violence, Moore presents a candid viewpoint. In doing so, the descriptions of women’s activism are fleshed out and given added relevance within a significantly female story. In turn, Moore’s moving recollections of the circumstances surrounding the death and believed murder of friend and fellow artist Ana Mendieta are particularly poignant.  The rage felt by the author and her companions, such as artist Faith Ringgold, at the presumed male violence and colluding injustice of the authorities is palpable. Juxtaposed with ongoing recollections of the politics and artworks of the age, the author instills a real sense of feminist purpose.  Moore thus exposes the reader to a rare and unapologetically intimate and bold centering of women and the issues surrounding them by women themselves.

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Sylvia Sleigh, A.I.R. Group Portrait, 1977-78

Such attention to female bonding is also reflected in the artworks of the many women artists Moore highlights in her book. Sylvia Sleigh’s group portrait of A.I.R. (Artists in Residence), the first all-female cooperative gallery in the US, including such artist as Nancy Spero and Agnes Denes, is indicative of the era. In addition Moore highlights such innovations as Sleigh’s male nude series ‘the gaze returned’ and Faith Ringgold’s The Flag Is Bleeding . The artist Mary Beth Edelson is also recorded as creating her humorous and irreverent feminist version of the Last Supper, substituting the disciples with many of the women artists in Moore’s circle and replacing the Christ figure with a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe.  This, in turn is compared with Judy Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party (1979), both artworks emphasising and honoring the gathering together of women.  Moore’s own work, however, is described as having roots in the skill and creativity of her grandmother’s textile crafts. The author states ‘’Quilts serve a function; the context of women working together could serve as a model to change the art world’’, and so considering female collective effort and creativity with positive feminist/political transformation.

Women Artist 003Mary Beth Edelson, Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper, 1971

The book itself is dedicated by Moore to her grandmother, in homage to the often invisible skills and ingenuity of female ancestors. In doing so, the author reminds the reader that her own writing is an acknowledgement of past and present women, their struggle, rage, creativity, resourcefulness, bravery and community which goes far beyond the bounds of an artistic movement. Moore enables a focus on the female artist which is still relevant today, highlighting such issues as tokenism, lack of economic resources, and including artist Alice Neel’s advice to ‘stay healthy’ as success, if it comes at all, will ‘come late’ for women.  In conclusion, ‘feminist art’ is explained by Moore as ‘a way of life, a state of mind, a political commitment to other women’’.  This is not simply an intriguing autobiography or a valuable archive and resource on women artists and art history, this book is feminism……..please read it and learn.

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Openings, A Memoir from The Women’s Art Movement, 1970-1992 by Sabra Moore, Published by New Village Press, New York (2016)

Paula Rego ‘Secrets and Stories’ (BBC 2) Review

The Paula Rego documentary ‘Secrets and Stories’ (BBC 2) directed by her son Nick Willing, was never going to be the usual detached academic and clinical dissection of a painter and their work, and that is what made it so compelling. The relationship between director and subject quite naturally enabled a highly personal insight into the life of a notoriously shy painter. Willing places Rego at center stage, her meandering monologue acts as if a fascinating gift, painstakingly and delicately unwrapped.  What is revealed is exactly as the title suggests, the secrets and stories of a life at times bold and fragile, humorous and dark, loving and tragic, so often reflected in the complexities and often autobiographical narratives of Rego’s own paintings.

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Not dwelling on the painter’s eventual international success, Willing focuses on the earlier years of Rego’s life, her childhood, her life at the Slade, her pregnancy, marriage, affairs and widowhood. This is not a film focused on fame, but about the interweaving relationships that create a human existence. Willing, acting as gentle inquisitor, engages the viewer by sharing his quest to illuminate a mother who was at times both secretive and distant. Each stage of Rego’s life is pondered on, the painter’s, at times, wistful recollections accompanied on a chronological journey by relevant artworks, personal snapshots and home movies. All, in turn, not only permit the viewer to establish connections between the painter and her work, but to unravel who Paula Rego actually is.

That unraveling inevitably reveals Rego’s experiences in life and in art as shaped by her womanhood. Rego describes a repressive, middle class Portuguese life as one in which women were highly encouraged to do nothing, while working class women were forced to do everything. The painter recalls girlhood as a time of learning obedience to men, in addition to secretive and confused messages about puberty, sexual abstention and female middle class propriety.  Subsequently, after leaving 1950’s, then fascist Portugal (described by her father as a ‘killer society for women’), to attend London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Rego recollects an era including coerced sex leading to many secretive back street abortions. Her affair with highly regarded and married painter Victor Willing proved life changing as she was forced to leave for Portugal when pregnant and deserted by the male artist, who she eventually married.

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Speaking candidly to her son, Rego recalls her marriage as a complex mixture of artistic support, love, unfaithfulness, secrets and fear of abandonment, later further complicated by Willing’s debilitating health problems.  The documentary includes recollections of the painter’s two daughters whose anecdotes, despite their obvious respect and admiration, reflected their feelings of distance from a mother preoccupied with her work (a circumstance rarely negatively associated with Picasso or Lucian Freud for example). The artist herself commented on her own inability to provide absolute caring attention for her children and husband, an expectation of duty for many woman and one which often prevents career success.

Rego highlights her use of art as therapy, after lifelong anxiety and depression, a history she shares with her father. In her paintings, for example, her father becomes a comatose figure and incapacitated Victor is depicted as a dog to be treated with a cruel kindness. In artworks, Rego calmly states, you can ‘let all your rage out’, her coping mechanism. Despite her anxieties however, Rego’s strength, determination and own experiences are  exemplified in her ‘Abortion’ series highlighting the horrors of unsafe abortion after the failure of the 1998 referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal. Rego recalls the whispered secrets of women in the gallery while looking at her paintings. In turn, after being shown in Lisbon, her work actually helped change both public opinion and the law in 2007.

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Somewhat eccentric, steely, shy and charming, Rego, the gift, is slowly revealed. The  scratchy super 8 films of the younger artist’s hedonistic pleasures, dancing with Victor and friends, interspersed with the almost silent concentration of footage of present day older Rego still in the studio, reflect a women’s lifetime of experience and creativity.

‘Secrets and Stories’ is both a sensitive and honest conversation between mother and son, and also artist and viewer, that should not be missed.

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Available to watch in the UK for a limited time:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08kz9qz/paula-rego-secrets-and-stories

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Hengameh Golestan: 100,000 Women Protest the Hijab

Hengameh Golestan (1952-2003) was a pioneer among Iranian women photographers. Born in Tehran, she traveled extensively documenting the lives of women in both Iran and Kurdistan. As a woman herself she was able to gain access to intimate domestic settings, as well as the rituals, work  and practices of her fellow females’ lives.

Hengameh’s work was also politically motivated. In 1991, for example, she assisted her husband on the project `Recording the Truth`, a film which examined the role of censorship in Iran.

Perhaps Hengameh’s most captivating photographic work, however, documented the public responses of women in Iran in the aftermath of the exile of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic.

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During the spring of 1979 more than 100,000 women began to gather on the streets of the capital. This huge upsurge of female unrest was in protest against the compulsory hijab ruling which was sanctioned by the new Islamic government. Women, who had previously been allowed to dress as they wished, were now being forced by the state to wear a headscarf at all times in public spaces. This was not only an issue of enforced dress codes, but for many was indicative of the dismissal of women’s human rights.

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Hengameh, who was 27 at the time, documented this huge women’s protest, focusing on the scale, determination and bravery involved in such an uprising. The women protesters originated from all quarters of society, including nurses, artists, doctors, teachers, lawyers and domestic workers. The photographer spoke of the charged political atmosphere of the time, in which excitement and fear were never far away. Hengameh recalled documenting the protest, noting the difficulties of photographing such a huge crowd while also hiding from government officials. Never the less, Hengameh’s black and white imagery perfectly captures the vibrant resistance and intensity of the day.

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The photographer’s work was only publicly exhibited in recent years and in London, long after Hengameh’s exile in Britain in 1984. Hengameh herself continued to work as a photojournalist until her death in 2003.

The protest ended in violence for many women, some were even attacked and killed. It was also over without the freedoms so many had been inspired to demand. The photographs captured by Hengameh not only document the protest, but also the last day women could walk the streets uncovered, and the beginning of an ongoing era of hugely repressed human rights for the women of Iran.

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Hengameh’s photography, however, captures a unique moment in Iranian history, reflecting the strength and resilience of Iranian women, while raising concerns about the fragility of all gained female human rights and ongoing subjugation of women throughout the world.