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.

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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.

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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 herself spoke of the charged political atmosphere of the time, in which excitement and fear were never far away. Hengameh also 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 such vibrant resistance and intensity.

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

The protest itself ended in violence for many women and without the freedoms so many had been inspired to demand. The photographs captured by Hengameh not only documents the protest, but also the last day women could walk the streets uncovered.

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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.

Hilma af Klint: Female Founder of Abstract Art

Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) is now believed to be the first Western abstract artist.

Hilma grew up in idyllic rural Sweden and it is considered that nature and also a keen interest in mathematics were crucial influences on her later paintings. In addition, the sudden death of her sister impacted Hilma’s preoccupation with spirituality, another element associated with the artist’s body of work.

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Tree of Knowledge, 1913 – Hilma af Klint

Hilma’s talent for visual art soon became clear and she was able to enroll in Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts (1882), an educational opportunity which women in many European countries were still denied.  At first Hilma concentrated on landscapes and portraiture for her studies. However she had already developed an interest in theosophy, a mystical philosophy concerning the mysteries of life and nature.  Significantly this was a semi-religious and philosophical movement that did not discriminate against women and was in fact founded by a woman, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

The ideas and beliefs incorporated within this movement were simultaneously inspiring male abstract pioneers such as Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky and would have a profound influence over the work of these artists, including Hilma’s.

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Hilma af Klint

Hilma became involved with a group of fellow female artist known as ‘The Five’ who shared her interest in mysticism.  Together they worked on an artistic philosophy which centered on knowledge deemed beyond the senses, focusing on spirituality.  In 1896, Hilma began a series of ‘automatic drawings’ believed to be driven by forces beyond the natural and human world. Such work encompassed much of the geometric symbolism that the artist would later refer to.  Hilma later gained employment as a draughtswoman, another aspect of her life that would be reflected in her ensuing pioneering artwork.

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Hilma’s automatic drawings (1896)

In 1906, Hilma began creating abstract paintings in a series entitled ‘Primordial Chaos’. From this point onward Hilma produced a body of work encompassing and exploring the ideas of her day, from scientific discoveries of electromagnetic fields to musical oscillations, from prisms of light to the occult. The artist still studied the theosophical texts, drawing on a wealth of ideas which she translated into a visual philosophy aiming to depict a higher world beyond the everyday. Hilma created a large and pioneering body of work that incorporated a complex and new artistic language, within a movement that would be regarded as changing  Western art forever.

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Chaos, Nr. 2, 1906 – Hilma af Klint

Hilma’s ability to create as a woman artist was shaped by certain circumstances. The first is that she was from a fairly well off family which enabled her to pursue her artistic goals. The second is that she was allowed an art education, unlike so many other women artists who were systematically denied access to academies and art schools. Thirdly, Hilma was involved with a female-friendly philosophical stance, which enabled her to deeply explore particular theories, from which otherwise she may have been excluded. Fourthly, the artist was able to develop her ideas within a group of fellow women artists. Even if female artists could access art schools, they were seldom included in less formal groupings of artists there, unlike men who often formed ‘boys clubs’, such as the Pre-Raphaelites for example,  in which they could support each other to cement their artistic practices and goals.

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Altarbild Nr.1, Gruppe X, 1915 – Hilma af Klint

Hilma died in 1944, without ever showing her work in an exhibition. In turn, her hugely pioneering artistic achievements have never been properly recognised. The role of abstraction in Western art history is never the less, one of incredible significance. Hilma’s work is now believed to predate the work of Kandinsky, an artist usually credited with the introduction of abstract art. However, even today the work of Hilma is seldom referenced in the same breath as the innovative male abstract artists of the era.

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The Dove,No 13, 1915 – Hilma af Klint

Hilma af Klint, as founder of abstract art, surely deserves her place in history.

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Frida Kahlo, Retaliation, Independence and Assertion- A Painting Analysis

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) created the painting “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” in 1940. It was painted in the aftermath of her divorce to her husband Diego Rivera who had been unfaithful to the artist.

Kahlo was already known for her challenges to gender construction. As a younger woman she had posed in family photographic portraits wearing a suit, a shocking act of defiance in an era in which female dress codes were both limited and enforced by convention. Her androgynous appearance was therefore early evidence of a fierce independent and rebellious spirit which would translate to both the artist’s later life and work.

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Frida kahlo, family portrait, age 17, (far left)

Kahlo’s 1940 portrait is an embodiment of such bold defiance. Once again the artist steps outside the boundaries of social norms and also the perceived ‘feminine’ artistic practices expected of the female self-portraitist of her day, by presenting herself dressed in ‘masculine’ attire.

As a response to Rivera’s affairs with other women, the artist represents herself boldly in her ex-husband’s suit, as she seizes for herself the social privileges of her former male partner. Rivera was regarded as a great artist of his time and had gained both wealth and fame. Kahlo’s work, however, received little attention in comparison and her international success was only granted posthumously.

The 1940 portrait portrays a complex act of female retaliation, independence and assertion in reaction to a context of societal and marital female subordination and personal trauma. The out sized suit, as an embodiment of male authority to which the artist lays claim, acts as armour, a statement of both courage and self-protection. The figure’s gaze is defiantly engaging, the expression is one of strength.

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Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” 1940

In addition to wearing a suit, the artist portrays herself in the aftermath of cutting her own hair short. Kahlo subverts existing power structures, defying gendered conventions. In doing so she frees her painted self of the limitations of imposed femininity. Hair is strewn around the scene as if the subject of an act of previous rage and frenzy. The lyric at the top of the painting reads “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore”. The artist portrays herself as empowered by her own actions, her own self imposed loss, estranging herself from her former life.

Kahlo’s symbolic painting works as a personification of a woman’s anger, defiance and independence. The scissors are a tool utilised to reflect that the figure is in charge of her own destiny.

They are also significantly held at a level suggestive of castration.

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Public Art and Ideological Censorship

Women are hugely under represented in public art. Using the UK as an example, research carried out by campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez stated that out of over 900 public statues in Britain, only 158 are of lone women.

Despite exceptions, such as Queen Victoria, the most common representations of women are allegorical figures, for example representing ‘Justice’, or mythical and religious figures, such as near naked mermaids, goddesses and angels. Womanhood is thus publicly presented as abstract or illusion, objects of fantasy and projection, or vessels for announcement. This, in turn, is reflective of enduring practices to utilise women’s bodies in specific ways, including as titillation for the male gaze and as contemporary  commodities for advertisements.

That women are reflected in this way and not in terms of their lives and achievements is therefore not only indicative of their erasure from public life and societal value, but negates the idea of female humanity.

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Conversely, male-centric public representation endorses the idea that men alone have guided both history and culture. In fact such perceptions are so embedded that they have become virtually unquestionable norms.

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For centuries in the West public art has been utilised to communicate certain messages to a vast audience in order to sanction specific values and beliefs. In terms of figurative art, this may be encoded with signs of status, worth and power. A history of mostly male-only representation therefore is itself representative of a shameful gendered hierarchy, utilising visual propaganda and ideological censorship.

The failure to represent women, half the human population, is indicative of a failure of culture.

Campaigners have highlighted such inequality, aiming to raise the public profile of women as integral to a fair and just society. Taxes from women equally fund public art, yet public representation remains inexcusably male.

Womanhood, and indeed culture itself, can only benefit from the removal of such binding perimeters.

 

 

Elizabeth Catlett: Homage To My Black Sisters

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) was an African-American artist, printmaker and sculptor known for her focus on African-American issues, which often highlighted black female experience. She was born and raised in Washington DC and came from a family of freed slaves. Despite a mid-20th century culture of devastating racism and segregation in the US, Catlett became a highly educated woman and artist. She attended Washington’s Howard University, at which her professors included the artist Lois Mailou Jones, a highly influential figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

Catlett developed her art by focusing on her concerns involving social issues, which contrasted to the US art establishment’s promotion of fashionable genres such as Abstract Expressionism. After moving to Mexico for a period of her life the artist became highly influenced by the political activism of such organisations as the People’s Graphic Arts Workshop. In turn, Catlett saw an opportunity to give a voice through her figurative realist artworks, to the often silent endurance and strength through oppression of her fellow African American women.

In 1946 Catlett created a series of fifteen linocuts entitled The Negro Woman series. Here the artist highlighted inspirational African American women such as Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Also included was Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist who was born into slavery, and responsible for freeing  whole families of slaves through her activism with the Underground Railroad. The artist also highlighted Phillis Wheatley in her artworks,  celebrating the first published African-American female poet.

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In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery from The Negro Woman series; 1946 by Elizabeth Catlett.

 

However, Catlett included in her focus more anonymous and forgotten women, by creating work with titles such as ‘I have always worked in America’ featuring women doing household chores. In this approach the artist celebrated every  African American woman, from those  who gave the world songs, those who studied, those who struggled, who organised, to those who feared, in fact all who endured and fought back against the injustices of racism and misogyny.

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I have always worked hard in America from The Negro Woman series; 1946 by Elizabeth Catlett

 In her later iconic work The Sharecropper (1952) Catlett highlighted sharecropping, a Southern United States practice widespread after the emancipation of salves . This system largely upheld the practices and values of slavery as white landlords exploited their black workforces. Catlett had been raised learning stories of the horrific injustices against her own enslaved family from her grandmother. The image she created significantly reflects an African American female sharecropper, giving a platform to explore a particular and often neglected perspective of race, class in addition to gender role. The image itself is one embodying resilience and strength, not defeat, in which the artist clearly honors her female ancestors’ endurance despite the highly oppressive regime they lived through as African Americans and as women.

 

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The Sharecropper; 1952 by Elizabeth Catlett

 

Catlett followed this pattern of celebrating the strength of her sisters throughout her life and work. As a civil rights activist, educator as well as artist, she created work not only reflecting the struggles of various African American social movements, but also stayed true to the feminism which informed her art. From the Chicago Renaissance of the 1940s, to the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1970’s/80’s and beyond, Catlett created art which maintained black female representation and perspective. Utilising themes from motherhood to activism, while producing work such as Mother and Child, 1956 and Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968 the artist placed African American women at centre stage, on both a personal and political level.

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Mother and Child, 1956 and Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968 by Elizabeth Catlett

Black women have been cast in the role of carrying on the survival of black people through their position as mothers and wives, protection and educating and stimulating children and black men. We can learn from black women. They have had to struggle for centuries. I feel that we have so much more to express and that we should demand to be heard and demand to be seen because we know and feel and can express so much, contribute so much…. Elizabeth Catlett.

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The Black Woman Speaks; 1960 by Elizabeth Catlett

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Book Review: Renée Radell Web Of Circumstance by Eleanor Heartney

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Published by Predmore Press (New York) http://www.predmorepress.com

In 1971 art historian Linda Nochlin created the premise “Why have there been no great women artists”, exploring the historical, cultural and social limitations imposed on women artists. This is intriguingly where author Eleanor Heartney begins her exploration of American Figurative Expressionist painter Renée Radell in her new book Renée Radell Web Of Circumstance. 

Radell began to be recognised as a painter in a mid-late 20th century age incorporating artists approaching a variety of philosophical and political issues within their work. Movements such as Abstract Expressionism, underpinned by the theoretical perspectives of Greenberg, were no longer dominating US culture. The contemporary radical and multifaceted art of the era, characterised as the arrival of postmodernism, was certainly suited to Radell’s complex philosophical and existential themes in her work. However the artist was also creating her paintings in a context of rising social issues, including demands for women’s liberation.

Heartney’s introduction to Radell highlighting Nochlin’s provocative statement, therefore, is not only indicative of the challenging cultural nature of the era, but of an intention to explore the painter, her work and life as both artist and woman in an age of potential for radical change.

The author enables the reader an understanding of Radell by introducing her biography, her early life and achievements such as noting her education in the Detroit Arts and Crafts Movement. However it is her insights into the more personal aspects of the painter’s life which develops a more concise and importantly, more warmly perceptive picture of an artist, a woman, a mother, a wife. That Radell, when married and mother to five offspring, utilised her kitchen as a studio and her refrigerator as easel, is not only testament to Nochlin’s acknowledgement of gendered limitations and sardonic reference to “kitchen creativity”. It is also evidence of a woman’s ability to typically achieve against the odds, while provoking a darkly humorous insight into the challenges of family life, akin to the motifs within the work of the artist herself.

Heartney highlights Radell’s work and particularly female perspectives with such recurring themes as family, motherhood, brides and female aging. The author however reflects on the rejection of the sentimentality of artists like Cassatt, by pondering Radell’s work such as Solace (1958) in which the bond between mother and child is portrayed as both enduringly loving and darkly fraught. However Radell’s work is shown to portray many aspects of human life and Heartney allows the work to unravel in its own complexity, enabling the artist’s weaving of expressionism with allegory, realism with the existential, to become intriguingly unveiled.

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Renée Radell, Solace 1958, watercolor on paper 24 x 18 in

The author takes the reader on a journey through a lifetime of work, as Radell herself utilised the theme of the passage of time, in terms of choice and fate, life and death. It is not only a literal trek from a life in rural Michigan to the bright lights of the New York art world, but also an expedition through an artist’s exploration of the metaphysical and all that is human existence. The influence of the artwork of Käthe Kollwitz is acknowledged in reference to themes ranging from morality to social justice, community to isolation, reversed hierarchies to the darker undercurrents of the political system. All are probed against the backdrop of Radell’s own experience, such as her upbringing within Catholicism and her family experience of enforced economic demotion as a result of the Great Depression. In Radell’s international award winning work The Tide (1966), for example, Heartney highlights the painter’s grimly metaphorical reference to a prevailing current in which workers are passively doomed, while one figure’s resistance offers a glimmer of hope.

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Renée Radell, The Tide 1966, acrylic on Masonite 44 x 60 in.

In turn, Heartney fortifies the text with quotes from writers, poets and philosophers such as T.S Elliot, Emily Dickinson and Yeats, framing Radell’s complex artworks in the high cultural context they deserve. With many pages devoted to the artwork itself however, Heartney enables the reader to focus on the huge body of work Radell has enriched the world with herself, from sketches to painting and murals. Heartney ends Web of Circumstance referring once again to Nochlin’s article asserting that there have indeed been great women artists, and in the case of Renée Radell the reader will certainly be inclined to agree.

P L Henderson

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Ana Mendieta, Life and Death

Ana Mendieta(1948–1984) was a Cuban born artist who lived in political exile in the United States. She created her artwork, combining feminism with photography, and also land, body and performance art. Ana was a member of the AIR all-women gallery in New York.

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Ana Mendieta died in 1984 after falling from her 34th floor apartment in New York. Knowing her fear of heights, her friends did not believe the possibility of suicide. Many however, did think her death was also not an accident and accused her partner, sculptor Carl Andre, of pushing her out of the window in a drunken rage during an argument. Her friends stated that Ana was successful at the time of her death, more so than Andre and she was not depressed.

When the police arrived, Andre had scratch marks on his nose and arms. His statements to the authorities differed from his message to the emergency services. Andre was arrested and charged with murder. In court a doorman testified that he heard a woman screaming “No” several times, then heard the thud of her body as it hit the street below. Andre’s decision was to be tried by a judge rather than a jury, resulting in him receiving no cross-examination by the prosecution. He was eventually acquitted.

His lawyers used examples of Ana’s artwork to suggest that she committed suicide. Ana’s friends stated that many powerful figures in the New York scene had colluded in that. This reading of her work, however, failed to acknowledge the politics which informed Mendieta’s life and art. In turn, many believed that this lead to a conclusion on the death of Ana which enabled the system to discount the possibility of male violence.

Her artwork was actually often influenced by questions relating to ideas of home, place and boundaries due to her exiled status. However, this also related to her feminism, which often crossed the ‘borders’ on the expected in terms of female expression. Ana created “Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants)” in the early 1970’s, for example, a performance which questioned expectations on female representation and the restrictions imposed by ideals of femininity.

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Ana’s ‘Silueta’ series comprised of a series of outdoor performances which were documented in film and photograph. Firstly Mendieta preformed the event. The artist utilised her body to create imprints with low relief in various substances (e.g. earth, ice, gunpowder), to create the appearance of silhouettes on the ground. This was then followed by transformation of that image by differing processes (e.g. melting ice, weathering). The idea was therefore to represent an on-going, shifting process. This, in turn, may be viewed as the process of life itself (rather than relating to some kind of ‘death-wish’…..)

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The central motif of the artists’ goddess-like yet absent form, connects her female form to the land. In doing so Ana explored womanhood and the effects of subjectivity as well as the social processes that inform gender construction. In addition she highlighted issues of ethnicity, spirituality, ritual, territory, memory and loss of status, but always in relation her sex.

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Ana’s artwork is also perceived as yonic art-reflective and suggestive of female genitalia, all, in turn, indicative of Ana’s feminist ideals. Ana’s use of goddess imagery reclaimed not only women’s power but was an expression of her own identify, as she controlled her own female body within the image and her imagery. ‘Silueta’ highlights Ana as artist/subject which itself challenges how women are portrayed and treated as a result of masculinist ideals.

That her work was read so negatively in court can be viewed as a result of a culture which is continually misreading and in fact hostile to much female/feminist expression.

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In 1973 Ana also created a performance of the scene of a rape – ‘Untitled (Rape Scene)’ in which her use of blood was intended to carry a strongly political feminist message – to bring awareness of male violence against women.

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Ana Mendieta (1948-1984).

 

 

Further info:

http://hyperallergic.com/127500/artists-protest-carl-andre-retrospective-with-blood-outside-of-diachelsea/

Protesters Demand “Where Is Ana Mendieta?” in Tate Modern Expansion

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Gentileschi’s Revenge, ‘Penis Envy’ and the Male gaze

Despite her exclusion from art education and resources on the grounds of her sex, the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) became one of the most accomplished painters of the Italian Baroque period.

She often painted herself for her work as she was unable to access models, therefore imparting a sense of her own physicality, spirit and experience into the images she created. Her rare talent and skills eventually allowed her something even rarer- independent womanhood.

Gentileschi’s ability to carve out a profession as a female artist is an exceeding rare case in the context of Western history. It’s therefore interesting to consider how she presents her female subjects.

Unlike many of her male contemporaries who commonly highlighted women as objects of beauty, emphasizing their passivity or alternatively as seductresses (based on the virgin/whore dichotomy), Gentileschi created work highlighting the emotional, mental and physical power and/or suffering of her females.

Artemisia was, however, raped aged 18. Her attacker had previously raped his sister-in-law and wife. The artist was tortured during the resulting trial to “prove” she was telling the truth, as was common practice. Officers of the court routinely used thumbscrews on women in such cases which would sometimes break bones. Artemisia’s sexual history, ‘virtue’ and ‘honour’ were repeatedly questioned and she faced many months of intense and devastating public scrutiny. Eventually her attacker was found guilty. He was, however, soon released from prison on the orders of the judge.

Due to the apparent ‘shame’ brought to Artemisia’s character by these events, she was forced to move to another city and was sold off into marriage to an elderly friend of her father’s. They soon separated.

In the same year as her trial ended Artemisia produced this artwork (below).

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The title and subject matter depicts Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1620).

‘Judith’ was regarded as an icon of female power within the Baroque period. Artemisia’s heroine appears strong, muscular and dominating. The painting depicts Judith working in unison with her female servant as she utilises her sword to tear into her prone male victim as he is held down. There is a immediate impression of force, struggle and hopeless resistance and a shocking and bloody realism to the brutality of the violence.

It is not difficult to surmise that the artist has created an allegorical, cathartic work. She appears to subvert her own experience of male sexual violence by reflecting a role reversal of the violating, brutal act. As men were the main sex to buy, sell and view such works for many centuries, it may be presumed that Artemisia wanted her male audience to contemplate and feel the horrors and reality of being victims of extreme violence, as if it was their own experience.

Artemisia survived her abuse by both attacker and state and went on to live an unusually independent life through her art. She produced many more paintings depicting strong women struggling/battling against male dominance. And so she received many derogatory epitaphs as a result of unsettling the patriarchs…..

Having considered the context behind Artemisia’s painting which included her educational exclusion, her rape and subsequent rape trial, it interesting to compare the work with that of a male artist. Although Franz Stuck’s interpretation, ‘ Judith’ (1924) (below), features the same mythical scene, it incorporates very different messages for the viewer.

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Franz Stuck, ‘ Judith’ (1924)

Despite alluding to the theme of the myth, here Judith is still, statue-like, passive.The female figure is sexualized, an object of male fantasy for the male gaze as the painter directs the viewer’s eye to the naked female torso for their voyeuristic pleasure. There is a dream-like quality to Judith and despite the fact she is holding a sword, she is portrayed as more playful temptress to both male character Holofernes and male viewer alike, rather than the cunning assassin of myth.

The painting is also interspersed with allusions and motifs relating to the psychological theories of Freud, and the era in which it was created. Judith holds an erect sword, a phallic object, alluding to such condescending ideas as female ‘penis envy’, involving girls devotion to the father and blaming the mother for their female ‘disadvantage’. (Female oppression is therefore accepted as biological and not through patriarchal societal, economic and cultural repression). The work similarly implies castration anxiety, fear of emasculation, loss of male power and patriarchal control.

In contrast, Gentileschi’s version highlights Judith as a non-idealized woman, as the artist is more concerned with being representative of female strength, determination and struggle. Judith is portrayed in an active role, she is subject not object.

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” feminist Laura Mulvey highlights the male gaze, stating that women were/are objectified in film because heterosexual men are largely in control of the camera. In the art world, likewise, men have controlled the canvas artistically, socially and economically for centuries and the images they impart.

Not only is Judith used by Stuck as a vehicle and embodiment of male fear, but akin to the most common narratives in contemporary heterosexual pornography, the female is representative of a non-human vessel to hold and satisfy male heterosexual fantasy and desire.

Gentileschi’s perspective is that of a woman. Her painting is of metaphorical revenge and of expressing female rage in a culture colluding in the sexual, psychological, physical abuse of women by men.

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Male perspectives, like Stuck’s, however are still pervasive in Western culture, in turn normalising certain views of acceptable/unacceptable womanhood….in film, advertising, pornography, media……and so on.

This, in turn creates what feminist artist and writer Valie Export describes as ‘a masculine reality’ detrimental to the experience of actually being FEMALE.

 

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