The Story of Gerda and Lili

The artist Gerda Wegener (née Gottlieb) was born in semi-rural Denmark into a conservative and religious family. As a young woman with a promising artistic talent, she was later allowed to attend the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. It was here, in 1904, that Gerda first met fellow artist and landscape painter who’s given name was Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, but who would later become globally known as Lili Elbe.

It is believed they married at the ages of 19 and 22 years old.


Gerda Wegener

After Gerda graduated in 1907 the couple travelled around Europe, eventually settling in Paris. The artist hoped that the French capital would offer her an artistic opportunity in the world of fashion. Gerda’s work was shown at various exhibitions and she eventually gained a living in advertising creating posters. Here she developed a specific art deco figurative style. Her work, often featuring women and erotica, was considered too risqué in her homeland, but was readily accepted in the more relaxed atmosphere of Bohemian Paris.


Gerda Wegener, A Summer Day-detail, 1927

Gerda and her partner soon became well acquainted with the dancers, intellectuals, fellow artists and the radical lifestyle of the capital. It was at this time that Elbe began to present as Lili. The artist, like Gerda, had also worked as an illustrator to earn money and had been a successful landscape painter, even exhibiting at the Salon in Paris, but had ceased painting believing it was part of a former life.


Poples along Hobro Fjord, 1908 signed in Elbe’s former name.

Gerda, however, continued in her work, sometimes utilising Lili as model. Little did her viewers know the story behind her new muse. The circumstances of their complex bond both on a personal and artistic level was somewhat unconventional, even for the relaxed atmosphere of Paris in the early 20th century.


Lili Elbe, 1926

The couple continued a close relationship for many years despite Lili often being explained as a cousin of Gerda’s. In 1930 Lili became one of the first people to undergo reassignment surgery and became celebrated by many as a pioneering transsexual (a term appropriate to the era). However, due to complications involved in further surgical interventions Lili died. Elbe’s autobiography was published posthumously in 1933.

By this time Gerda had become involved in a new relationship which evolved into an unhappy marriage and a period of time spent in North Africa. Later divorced, she spent the last years of her life alone.

The story of Gerda and Lili, which inspired the film ‘The Danish Girl’, has been perceived by many as challenging the typical gendered power dynamics of artist master and model. Gerda’s work has also been praised for her bold depictions of independent women, including lesbian erotica, created from the female rather than typically male gaze.



“Lili y Gerda” by Gerda Wegener


The entwined bond of artist Gerda and former artist Lili, is certainly one of historical interest, and has a significant place in the history of both culture and art.

Adding the Blue: the collected oil paintings of Chrissie Hynde – A book review

Giving yourself to painting is easier if you don’t live with someone. Get a cat instead.” Chrissie Hynde.

Without formal training musician Chrissie Hynde began painting in her later years. As with many women in the arts, she started when her children left home and a space in her life opened to accommodate time for the genre. Having been enthused by art from an early age, Hynde recalls that it was her saviour subject at school. Her life, however took her down the route of music with her band The Pretenders as she became a pioneering and iconic female figure in the post punk, rock scene.

Adding the Blue is a newly created book featuring a collection of oil paintings created by Hynde in recent years. Displayed chronologically, this includes numerous still lifes, nudes, landscapes, self-portraits and portraits of friends and family, in addition to a host of abstract works painted by the artist in both her London and French studios. While attractively displayed in colourful full-page presentation, what defines the book is not only the quality of the paintings-and it is certainly quite a vibrant talent that Hynde possesses, but also the insights provided by her own accompanying texts.

While sharing anecdotes relating to her artworks, Hynde’s commentary states she approaches her painting as she created her music, with unpretentious enthusiasm.

It’s pretty much like writing songs. I might know what I want to write about, but generally I just dive in and see what’s down there” – Chrissie Hynde

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Hynde expresses feelings of being outside the world of art and artists. Considering her incredibly successful survival in a hugely male dominated music business where women have always been treated as ‘outsiders’, she does not fear rejection in her current role as painter however. Within her appealingly pragmatic and insightful statements within the book, Hynde claims her earlier life encompassing menial jobs gave her a humble perspective and gratitude for her present creative life.

Her work presented here at times recalls the flat modernist organisation of Picasso combined with the colour palate of Matisse. In terms of female artists, the flower studies of Georgia O’Keefe and the still lifes of Suzanne Valadon come to mind, with suggestions of the expressionist figures of contemporary artist like Nicole Eisenman. What the book reflects is how Hynde’s work has progressed with an authenticity mirrored in the honest reflections of her accompanying commentary. Hynde’s nudes are created, for example without the need to beautify, while reflecting a refreshing awareness of real humanity in their vulnerability and awkwardness at times. Her abstract work, in turn, has evolved in boldness, with a uniting of geometric and organic shapes incorporated in increasing balanced compositions.

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Art is a way of connecting to the divine”-Chrissie Hynde

Her portrait work is especially expressive, created with thought to character and mood which avoids sentimentality or fawning. The painting of Hynde’s friend, dancer Michael Clark, for example, reflects a heartfelt intensity perhaps only conveyed by someone close to the subject. Her self-portraits such as Thursday Self 1 and 2 created with sharp angular, chiselled features and stretched pink muscle sinews, likewise present an intriguing impression of the artist, devoid of any sense of self-aggrandisement or vanity.

Conveyed in a book that is both a visual and informative treat, Hynde clearly enjoys her paintings, creating a body of work that communicates in a candid and meaningful way.

Most importantly Adding the Blue not only offers an intriguing insight into the development of the work of Chrissie Hynde as an emerging painter. It provides an accessible approach that thankfully avoids the usual language and clichés of the art book, appropriately reflective of the artist herself…. certainly worth our attention.

CH Adding The Blue Trade Edition Cover

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The Abortion Pastels, Paula Rego

In 1998 Portuguese born artist Paula Rego created a series of work entitled Untitled. The Abortion Pastels.  Rego created her work in response to a referendum to legalise abortion in Portugal, which was very narrowly defeated. Each canvas depicted the image of a woman undergoing an unsafe abortion.


Rego was born in Portugal in 1935, into what she describes as a repressive, middle-class Portuguese life 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 propriety.  Then fascist Portugal was described by her father as a ‘killer society for women’.

After leaving her homeland in the late 1950’s to attend London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Rego recollected an era including coerced sexual encounters leading to secretive and often tortuous back street abortions. In turn, her Abortion series would be both inspired by her own experiences and that of her fellow female students, utilising what she had witnessed growing up around the small Portuguese villages of her formative years.


While Rego’s series depicted a theme uncommon in a Western cannon of art often only concerned with the idealisation of womanhood, its harsh realism exposed a hushed up, yet very real world for many women. The artist, however, did not reflect any particular emotion, nor are her subjects portrayed as passive victims. In fact their eyes often gaze blankly outwards at the viewer, thus putting the emphasis of judgement, of guilt, of collusion on those passively spectating.

The artist’s brutal images question the idea of ‘respectability’ in what she believed was a denial of reality for many women. Rego was enraged at her country’s inability to truly face up to the experience of women who would have abortions with or without choice, and whether legal or not. She recalled the women who had died.


Rego’s Abortion series is an intentionally unnerving and uncomfortable experience as a result. When the series was exhibited in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, Rego recalled the whispered secrets of women in the gallery while looking at her artworks. In turn, after being exhibited, her work is stated to have been integral in changing public opinion.

“It is imperative women have a choice” Rego stated.

Abortion laws in Portugal were liberalised to a greater extent on April 10, 2007.




Interview with Gail Orenstein, Photographer & Drone Journalist in Conflict Zones

Gail Orenstein has been a photographer for 23 years, and has travelled the globe documenting conflicts from Guatemala to Iraq. She was the first female civilian to drone in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq during the Mosul offensive in 2017 and her drone footage and photography work has been distributed globally to such organisations as CBS news, The Guardian, The Times, Washington Post, TIME, The BBC and more.

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Q1:         What initially drew you to photography as a medium?

I was always very interested in photography and my father, when I was younger, this was in the 60s actually, I don’t really remember the original footage because we had them re-digitalised, but my father used to have a Super 8 Bell + Howell super video camera and make movies all the time. The old Super 8 cameras. So my father was always making movies when we went to school and when we went to go skiing and at a very early age my father just loved film making.  The problem was that he tried to make some kind of cool films but often times he forgot to include our heads in the shots, so you see all these little kids running around headless.  So, I think he wasn’t familiar with how to use the eye piece.  When we sit around as a family we recognise, oh that’s me running around, that’s me running around, so you see a lot of children running around on film and you have to identify them as best as you can.  My father’s intentions were great you know to make these family movies, but he wasn’t technically very good.  So, lots of headless films of children and the attempt was wonderful though, you can see us fighting and playing in the snow, but it’s hard to identify who’s through the snowballs.

Q2:         Can you describe how your arts education and career path lead you to become a drone journalist?

Well I’ve been a photo journalist for 25 years. I think it was just a natural extension really, I studied undergraduate photo journalism at the Art Institute of Chicago and I received a master’s degree there in art therapy. I used photo therapy as a way to help people sort of use cameras to solve problems.  So, photography was always a big part of my family as well because my mother through the years as I was growing up and I was college and there was 8 of us.  She had eight children.  We always sent her photos, my mother kept my father’s World War II photos, my mother kept both grandparents photo albums.  So as soon as you would walk into our house it was sort of like a photo museum.  So, I think that had a really big impact on me and using this medium, because I was very familiar with it from my mother and my father and also, I came from a very, very social family.  So, there was always people around my parents, for dinner, for lunch for breakfast, visiting on the weekends.  So, I think it was a sort of a natural progression for me to become used to people always in an environment around me and large crowds and I really was you know, fearless.  That came from my parents, they were very social, and I was used to all ethnicities, black, white, Indian, everyone was welcome into our family.  And my parents had a lot of friends and they are very much still deeply loved for that. So, I really didn’t know until I was older really what a lot of racism was because my parents had everybody over, so as a photo journalist that was amazing really because I sort of came from an early point of view that you know, you just go and do your art and really discrimination just was not there.  You start to think about politics later on, my parents were not political, they were business people and they were smart about it and they sort of just, they really didn’t use politics as any kind of weapon ever and it wasn’t until as I said I was in University that I really became much more politically aware.  But I had that openness about ethnicity and welcoming all ethnic people and from all diverse backgrounds and also my mother was in a lot of women’s groups, so my mother was a great inspiration.  My mother helped a lot of women, my mother had a lot of female grandchildren and there were 7 girls that she raised and one boy.  So, my mother was always giving to women’s charities and really caring for women.  When she grew up she grew up taking care of a lot of women during World War II, her mother had a convalescent home that they rented above their house and my mother nursed a lot of women back to health.  I think my mother’s mother was responsible for a lot of the males coming in, but my mother was responsible, for a very young age she would talk to me being 15, 16, 17 and 18 being really happy to be able to take care of elderly women so that she could contribute to helping her mother. I think maybe they made $20 dollars a week or $100 a dollar, but that was a lot right after World War II.  So, my mother was extremely aware of poverty, my mother lived through it, my mother never judged anyone for their social class because my mother was very poor.  My parents worked extremely hard and became affluent later in their lives after building a business together for 50 years.  But never during that time did they, the only things that they put in their background from growing up poor was the determination to not to discriminate against the poor. And that a profound impact on my work.

Q3:         Can you give a description of the work involved in photo/drone journalism?

Yes, I think my photo journalism is a wonderful thing.  It’s wonderful to be a photo journalist and it’s a very unique thing to be able to do, to be able to tell a visual story.  And you know create some text with it.  I remember when I was smuggled into Syria in 2014 and I was with the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit and I was very interested in covering the female fighters the YPJ.  The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, that’s the female fighting unit.  And they took care of me, I was on the front line with them and I had a Nikon D3 and I stayed there and documented for a week the female fighters.  But I also documented the fight against Islamic State and I left around after Christmas.  So, when I got back to London after I was smuggled out of Syria in December 2014.  I came back and saw some footage by a Brazilian photo journalist named Gabriel Chaim, I saw Gabriel’s drone footage of his work in Kobani and it completely changed my life and it changed everything. I decided at that point once I saw Gabriel’s work that drone journalism would now be, using drones in part of my arsenal, my traditional cameras.  Using drones would always be the way that I would work from now on.  I thought that Gabriel’s, I thought that looking at that footage really got a much more in-depth story from using aerial shots. So, I studied that, and I brought from that really changed me and changed the way that I told stories.  Because you could really see the whole damage done in Kobani and using a done.  So, from that point I went to Iraq and I went to continue my work and now I carry a fleet of small drones with me. I started out using larger drones, but now I carry smaller drones and I use traditional methods such as my still cameras, my video and now I use drones.  So, I have quite a mix of hybrid technology now.

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Q4:         What particular issues arise from working in conflict zones?

Well as you can imagine one being danger because there are a lot of you know you have to be careful of a lot of different things, one is you’re at war, so there’s going to be a lot of gun battle, there may be bombs, airstrikes, drone strikes. I think you have to be very, very careful and one thing that’s changed using this drone technology as drone journalists, is that I can fly over an area now and review the footage and perhaps see maybe some areas that I want to stay away from now that before I might have had to walk to, I can use the drone as sort of a safety mechanism prior to.  So, I do a survey of the area before I decide now to walk around it.  I do a lot of pre-assessment drone journalism work of the areas, also its been fascinating change to work so closely now with Humanitarian Agencies and to work with mapping agencies and geographical agencies because I can now give mathematical formulations about the size of refugee camps.  You can use this footage when you drone over a refugee camp or a conflict area to really get a different picture and use it to help and assist aid and NGO agencies in a different way.  So, there’s picture telling still through traditional mechanisms and then as a drone journalist I have so many different other ways of using storytelling and assisting agencies using drones in conflict areas.

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Q5:         In your career have you encountered any issues relating to the fact that you are a woman?

That’s a great question because the answer is yes, and I think one of the biggest issue is that I don’t see many women in my job and I’ve always advocated.  I would love to see female photo journalists working in humanitarian and conflict zones very carefully of course.   I don’t encourage somebody to just go straight to Syria. I encourage that you study hard, you work hard and do a kind of internship perhaps with a news agency before you just start hitting the ground.  Other people may just say just go, but I’m a little more careful, I do realise I have a responsibility because these are very dangerous places.  And you really have to know what you’re doing.  So, I would say look around and see if you can do an internship and also take a hostile environment course, take all hostile kinds of training you can, and the Rory Peck has a hostile environment training.  Also, if you’re in University I would study war correspondence and journalism, I would really, really work hard at getting as much knowledge as you can before you go into any of these areas and that’s what I highly recommend.  Especially as a female, because you’re going to see a lot of male photo journalists, a lot of male film makers, a lot of male soldiers, a lot of male military.  So, you may encounter a bit of alienation, but you know work with everybody, I worked a lot with mainly with my male colleagues and when I do see any female colleagues of course you know I am so happy. But there are not as many, but I’m trying to encourage drone journalists, as many females to become involved as possible.  And I am starting a charity for teaching young females how to tell stories in their area, say in Rwanda or Uganda or Bangladesh. Training them as drone pilots, so that they can tell local stories using both traditional means which is photography and videography but also using drones. So, I am hoping that we will see a lot more women using this technology, using and becoming drone journalists.

Q6:         Do the specific problems of women globally have an impact on your work?

I think that’s a very important question as they all are. Remember I see a lot of women and children and when I’m working in conflict or humanitarian areas and it is usually the impact on these crisis’ the first affected are women and children.  So yes, globally there’s a huge crisis of women’s needs that are unattended.  Female hygienic needs that are desperately needed, baby formula that’s for young babies both male and female.  But it is the mother’s that are very, very hit hard in these global crisis’ and we need more, we’re always saying we need more humanitarian responses.  But one of the things I have seen over the years is that it’s very important that the response all be from well-trained locals because of the language and we need to train I think more locals, more female locals to deal with rapid response in humanitarian conflict areas that are hit hard.  These female locals they know the area, they know the language and I very much advocate the use of training locals in these areas to help females.  Training females to provide medical assistance when they are struggling in conflict or humanitarian areas.

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Q7:         Do you think there is something about your own character that has lead you into this field of work?

Well certainly I did touch on that with the synergy between my parents who have wonderful personalities and growing up around so many people and you know both my mother and father being involved in the visual arts at a young age.  I don’t think they really intentionally were doing these things, but I think by my father making films and my mother sort of making our house a photographic museum I think being surrounded by the visual arts that they had around the photographs of family, the photographs of my mother’s parents.  My father’s World War II photographs, all of this had a very much a huge impact on me because I saw it every single day as a child.  I saw it every day single, my mother had them on the walls all of these memories were ingrained in me as a child, they were very important, and I saw them through the visuals around the house, and through the stories.  My mother was a fantastic storyteller, she told stories, I would sit for hours and listen to her stories. My mother, the one thing I do regret my mother has passed away, but she still exists in my heart every single day and in my mind every single day.  And is with me on my journey still every single day.  But my mother, I wish I had recorded, towards the end of my mother’s life I did record many of my mother’s stories that she told about her upbringing.  But I do wish that I had smart as a teenager to record so many of the stories that she told me, that she suffered as poverty right after World War II and going through such difficult economic times in the late 30s, 40s and how much a struggle her family went through.  How much she helped her mother, those stories really had a profound impact on my work.


Q8:         How do you switch off from your work as a photo journalist or a drone journalist.

I think the thing is, I don’t really think that when you’re doing this kind of job you ever switch off, I think that this is part of who you are, this is part of your personality. And this is very much who you are as a person, so you live it, you breathe it, you are it.  When I’m walking down the streets I give to charity, when I see a homeless, I give to them.  When I document in Bangladesh I try to put my equipment down and try to help people.  I think it encompasses your life all the time, it’s part of your character, or you wouldn’t do that job. I think the job sort of reflects who you are, I don’t think everybody could be a photo journalist, I don’t think everybody could be a drone journalist.  I don’t think most people could go into a conflict zone and do what I do.  It’s a very unique job and I’m very blessed that I have the ability to be published where I can show people the faces that have been left behind and the faces that are struggling.  And even if one person or ten people see these that could have an impact and if I am the first there and news get to humanitarian agencies then that’s wonderful.  Because that information is passed along and then charities start coming and so we have the ability to have an impact, we can’t necessarily change the world so much, but we can let important people know that this is what’s happening on the ground, this is what’s being made so far available on the ground and can you send more help.  Can you send more aid, can you start a relief fund, so we do have the ability to change the situation, we don’t have the ability to necessarily stop the situation?  But even if you can save a life, then you can walk away feeling pretty good, if you can go back and visit and see that those people now have a regular home to live in, rather than a refugee camp.  I think you know, you can feel good about that, there’s a lot that I don’t feel good about I know people still living in refugee camps.  So, you never really switch off and especially when you’re in your studio looking at this footage, you always wonder what happened to this person, I remember this day when this family.  I remember this family leaving Mosel, I remember this family leaving Kobani in Syria.  Where are they now, that’s a question I always ask myself, it’s a question you know I live with but when you return, and you see sometimes there is rebuilding going on, sometimes there’s not and you have to live with those consequences.  So, you never really do leave, you never leave this, it’s always with you.  What you try and do is you try and out of it, you try to make an empowering situation for those that you have left through connections and through humanitarian organisations and through locals who you know have the power to change things on the ground. So, one hopes that you know when you show, and you have the power to also show your work in art galleries and things like that and donate some money and make a difference.  There are a lot of ways you as a person can go about doing your work, everybody does it very different when they leave a crisis situation but for me it’s just encompasses me all the time and it’s something that I am proud of and it’s something that you have to be a very social creature because when you finish, you still have a lot of people that you’re responsible too and so it never really does leave you, I think it stays with you forever and it helps you think of better ways as you get older especially using a drone.  Now I am thinking about how is it that I can go to these areas and do food drops as a drone journalist, so I think it helps you develop as a person, that’s what I hope it does for others, I can’t speak for others but for me I am always looking for ways to help people in my next journey.

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Thank you for this interview I hope you enjoyed it.

I did Gail, good luck in your work and thank you.


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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.



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.


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.


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…”



‘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:



(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.


(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.

Guan Daosheng

(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.


(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)


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.


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’.


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.


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.”

“… 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.


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.


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.

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‘Glasgow Girls’, designers/artists, 1880-1920 who helped create the movement known as The Glasgow Style

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.


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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Queen of Clubs, 1909, by Margaret Macdonald,

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 motherhood, 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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Girl in the East Wind with Ravens Passing the Moon, 1893 by Frances MacDonald

Despite the difficulties encountered by women, from restrictive gender role to artistic erasure via 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.

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Margaret Macdonald, The Three Perfumes, 1912,

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

“Margaret has genius, I have only talent.”