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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Black Woman Speaks; 1960 by Elizabeth Catlett










Book Review: Renée Radell Web Of Circumstance by Eleanor Heartney


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.


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.


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



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.


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.


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’…..)


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.


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.


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.


Ana Mendieta (1948-1984).



Further info:


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





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).


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.


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.





Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis, Pioneering Sculptor

Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis (1844-1907) was a US sculptor and was the first artist of African-American and Native American heritage to gain international fame in the Western art world.

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Lewis began her art studies at Oberlin College, which was not only one of the first higher educational institutions in the US to admit women, but also to allow entry to people of colour.

In 1864 Lewis moved to Boston to pursue her wish to become a sculptor and it was here she gained a tutor in the genre. In an era of slavery, Lewis was utilised as a symbol by white abolitionists and by the abolitionist press. However, the sculptor began to create works reflecting her own perceptions of the issues surrounding her, depicting abolitionist, African American, Native American and also religious and classical themes.

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Edmonia Lewis: Forever Free, 1867 i. Celebrates the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves

In the following years Lewis moved to Rome where she worked relentlessly on her sculptures. She lived in a bohemian, expat colony and became involved in the lesbian art circles of the city. Lewis herself is thought to have had same-sex relationships. The sculptor was professionally supported there by lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer who were already established on this scene.

Lewis found a greater freedom in Italy than in the US as Rome appeared to offer a more tolerant and less racially divided society. She worked in a Neoclassical style and also in the area of naturalism. The sculptor continued to pursue themes which were integral to her personal and political outlook, concentrating on sculpture that related to African/Native American lives. However much of the work the sculptor created was deliberately appealing to a white European/Western audience as the white economically controlled market dictated certain aesthetics. This has to be viewed within the historical context of an oppressive and limiting culture.

However as Lewis’ work began to sell for large amounts of money, as her reputation and fame grew, she may certainly be viewed as a shrewd and highly influential pioneer within the art world for women of colour.

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Edmonia Lewis: Hiawatha, marble, 1868

Her work ‘Death of Cleopatra’ was perhaps the major turning point in her career. It was exhibited in Philadelphia, at the first official World Fair to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Few white women had access to exhibit their work on such a large stage in that era, let alone a woman of colour. Critics highlighted Lewis’s original approach and this, in turn, lead to later commissions from the President among others high ranking people in US society.


Edmonia Lewis: The Death of Cleopatra, marble, 1867

It is believed that Lewis spent the last months of her life in Hammersmith, London and that she is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in the city.

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Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis deserves huge respect for her place in the history of women’s art and significantly in the struggle of women of colour in the arts and wider culture.




See Red Women’s Workshop

The London based See Red Women’s Workshop came to life in 1973 and finally stopped producing artworks / posters in 1990. This women-only printing collective was foundered on the premise of counteracting and challenging the negative imagery focusing on females in the media and the advertising industry, later supporting a wide range of community projects.

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Part of the ethos of the collective was to create a positive environment for women to work within the group, which in turn reflected the feminist politics of the age. Many of those involved had already experienced women’s consciousness raising groups and had also previously worked in radical groups. In turn, the artwork that was produced was not credited to a single artist but regarded as a collective effort. This lack of ego, individualism and hierarchy, with a focus on the collective was certainly viewed as connecting to ideas of sisterhood and indicative of women-only collaboration.

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It is imperative to recognise the primary value of the women-only space that was utilised by the collective. This provided a sense of unity for the women printmakers and artists, enabling an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust in which the sharing of knowledge and skills was the foundation of the work they created.

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The group aimed to produce posters which would reflect the politics of the women’s liberation movement. Many of the posters produced were based on the personal lives of the women involved, such as issues of oppression regarding childcare, work or domestic situations. This highlighting of the common experiences of women of the era was clearly vital, not only in creating recognisable imagery, but in terms of bringing visual understanding to the feminist politics of women’s liberation.

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Many of the issues the posters raised, in turn, are still very relevant to women/feminism today and the work of See Red Women’s Workshop, therefore, is both timeless and highly valuable.

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for further Information:







Ceija Stojka, Painter of the Roma Holocaust

Ceija Stojka (1933 – 2013) was an Austrian-Romani painter, in addition to being a writer and musician. She was also a survivor of the Holocaust. Ceija spent the later years of her life creating artworks to raise awareness of the more than a million Roma estimated to have been murdered under the rule of the Nazis.


The painter’s haunting and deeply disturbing imagery recalls how Ceija and her family were the target of the Nazis, interned in Dachau, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. In the four years of suffering the artist endured, almost  200 members of her extended family perished.

During this period gypsies were forced to register as members of another “race” and their campgrounds were enclosed by fences and patrolled by police. In 1941, at which time Ceija was 8 years old, her father was deported to the Dachau concentration camp. He was later murdered. In 1943 Ceija and her remaining family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi death camp for Gypsies. Here Ceija’s mother saved her life by insisting her ten year old child was in fact sixteen and thus able to work. The family literally lived in the shadow of the gas chambers, under constant threat of hunger, torture and death. Ceija was twelve years old by the time the concentration camp was liberated in 1945.


(“Mama in Auschwitz”)

After the war there was little acknowledgement of the suffering the Roma community had endured. In fact Roma persecution continued in the post war period and beyond. Ceija did not begin painting until the age of fifty six, but her intent was to highlight the humanity and plight of her people by focusing on her own experiences. Ceija’s paintings range from a nostalgic view of Romani life before WW2 to the highly disturbing experience of Nazi rule and the death camps. Her work may be described as a hybrid between folk art and German expressionism,  a highly disturbing contrast between the simplistic and childlike and the horror of her subject matter.

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‘Even Death is Afraid of Auschwitz’ is an example of her work,  a series of ink drawings and gouaches that the painter worked on throughout the 1980s, which graphically convey the full horror of Nazi atrocities.

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The artwork and writing of the inspiring Ceija Stojka are not simply the legacy of her own suffering and survival, but, in turn, have brought international attention to the previously largely ignored Roma genocide under Nazi rule.


Ceija Stojka (1933 – 2013)










Camille Claudel, an Unromantic Reality

Until recently the life and work of French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) has been largely overshadowed by her much celebrated partner and fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin.  As Rodin’s lover, Claudel has often simply been reduced to an artist’s muse, a beautiful and tragic backdrop to the life of one of the art world’s greatest masters.

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(Camille Claudel c. 1884)

Inscribed into Western art history is the ideal of the artist as the lone male genius. In contrast to the genius of men, the artist’s muse is widely perceived as female. The artist commands the active role in this relationship. The muse is the passive decorative object on to which he may project his deepest desires, fantasies and fears. Picasso’s muse, for example, was famously Dora Maar, an artist in her own right, yet known more for her association with the painter than for her own work.

Camille Claudel, like Dora Maar, is often viewed through the lens of her lover’s perceived genius. Rodin was a much more prolific sculptor than Claudel, but it is believed he was enabled in this task by the help of his younger lover. The role of the muse is often to provide sexual, emotional and practical comfort, it is female sacrifice which in turn enables the work of the male heroic figure.

Many art historians now believe it was Claudel who was the more talented pioneer of the two however.

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(Camille Claudel in the studio, c.1896)

Claudel met Rodin at his workshop at the age of nineteen; he was twenty four years older and also married. Rodin would not leave his wife for Claudel, aiming to keep both women in his life. The male sculptor was a known womanizer, a reputation celebrated in the mythology of the male artist. Such a sexual affair between a much younger female student and an older male tutor is one which has been played out again and again, not only indicative of the art world however, but of the gender roles and negative power relationships of wider society.

Claudel faced many trials as a woman and as a female artist. Her talent was recognised and supported by her father but other members of her family were against Claudel’s involvement in the often scandalous art world.  As a woman in late 19th century French society, the support of her family was crucial to survival. The sculptor was also forced to have an abortion during her relationship to an increasingly unfaithful Rodin. As their relationship deteriorated, significantly Claudel’s work progressively flourished however, as she exhibited her work at the Paris Salon.

After the breakdown of the relationship, which many believed was connected to the rivalry her sculptures posed to that of her ex-lover’s, Claudel became more reclusive and obsessive about her work.  Despite her obvious talent, it was the fact that she was a woman that was a barrier to the support and funding she needed as an artist. After her father died her family also withdrew any financial aid and the artist was forced into extreme poverty. The sculptor accused Rodin of threatening to kill her and her brother is believed to have been extremely jealous of her talents. Sculpting was an expensive business and the hostility and neglect of her ex-lover, family and art world all took its toll on Claudel who was showing signs of great distress.

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(Camille Claudel, Torso of a woman squatting, 1885)

In the early years of the 20th century a form was signed by Claudel’s brother committing her in an asylum , despite the efforts of doctors who tried to tell her family it was inappropriate and that the artist was clear-headed. At this time it was common for women to be placed indefinitely in insane asylums for reasons from ‘hysteria’ to adultery, and often at the hands of male relatives who had authority over their sisters, mothers, nieces and daughters. During her incarceration the letters Claudel wrote to friends clearly showed she was lucid.

Claudel, however, was kept in the asylum for the remaining thirty years of her life. She died in 1943 and it is believed her brother did not attend her funeral.

Camille Claudel’s life was not romantically tragic, but indicative of cultural and societal persecution of women.

In recent years the work of this hugely skilled and pioneering sculptor has been more positively highlighted and the oppressive circumstances of her life dissected to create a more deservedly insightful view of Camille Claudel herself.  Her legacy is not only her work but the recognition of the life she endured as a woman, and a female artist.



Claude Cahun: Lesbian

The BBC recently commissioned an article on Claude Cahun by Aindrea Emelife http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/story/20160629-claude-cahun-the-trans-artist-years-ahead-of-her-time that suggested she was transgender, and not the lesbian artist, photographer and activist whose work was rediscovered by feminist art historians in the 1980s. On reading the article we are reminded of the importance of context – historical, political, social, cultural – and why neglecting it can have profound ramifications on how we perceive the past and consequently, the present.

The social and political landscape into which Cahun was born is entirely relevant to her subsequent art, political activism, her expressions of sexuality  – Cahun was a lesbian – and her values, all of which must influence and inform how we approach her as an artist and a woman.

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(Claude Cahun and lesbian life-partner Marcel Moore. Both used male pseudonyms as an act of rebellion in a patriarchal society and to significantly mirror each other. Both artists often worked together)

Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob in France in 1894, a fin de siècle Jewish child whose early years would be shaped by antisemitism, political and social upheaval, and then by the consequences of a devastating world war.

Three aspects of her existence would have a profound affect on her life and work as an artist; her sexuality, her race and her sex. Her work perpetually explores what it meant to be a lesbian, a Jew and a woman in a profoundly homophobic, antisemitic and misogynist culture.

Cahun began her association with the Surrealist movement in the early 1920s and both her art practice and politics reflected this.  Surrealism was a movement born out of the remains of World War I. The huge death toll, the injuries and trauma inflicted on those who survived, the loss of a generation of young men – all contributed to the sense amongst a disaffected artistic, political and philosophical youth that everything previously regarded as sacrosanct was now corrupted. The war had also done nothing to erase the pernicious anti-semitism in Europe, which had evolved at the turn of the century to consider Jews as a race to be inferior and not only the Jewish religion, a theory that would be expounded as Germany recovered from the humiliation of defeat, leading ultimately to the holocaust.

As the first ‘industrial’ war, World War I signaled to many that the great human experiment of The Enlightment had failed disastrously. Andre Breton, self-styled leader of Surrealism,  wrote that “All the institutions upon which the modern world rested -and which had just shown their worth in the First World War – were considered aberrant and scandalous to us. To begin with, it was the entire defense apparatus of society that we were attacking: the army, ‘justice’, the police, religion, psychiatric and legal medicine, and schooling”.  Added to this was the interest in the work of Sigmund Freud and his theories on the ‘unconscious mind’. Rationalism had failed humanity, now was the time for subversion and a re-imaging of society. It is no surprise that Surrealism also embraced anarchy.

However, despite its links to anarchism and its aims to deconstruct traditional values, at that time Surrealism as a movement was deeply sexually traditional with the main players being heterosexual couples. While lesbianism was tolerated, there is evidence it was (as in the case of Man Ray’s later images) regarded primarily as a performance for the men. Breton was notorious for his homophobic tirades, which sits uneasily with the Surrealist claim to be for the emancipation of human sexuality from state and religious constraints.

In fact, this reflected Parisian society’s attitude to lesbianism; considered an ‘inversion’ and an offshoot of prostitution, at worst it was regarded as a mental illness (even by Freud), yet tolerated provided it was for the pleasure of men or at least hidden from view. However, lesbians developed their own secret codes and created meeting places and it was not uncommon for women to ‘cross-dress’ at these social gatherings. The adoption of overtly masculine dress was a coded expression of lesbianism in a culture that degraded women, rather than a denial of womanhood.

Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, Paris, 1932 (5)

(Lesbian club in Paris , 1932)

In addition, constraints of gender within the art world and Surrealism meant that the female was so maligned, women who displayed less feminine and more masculine traits were more respected as artists. The archetype of mannish female artist and intellectual was alive and well and was adopted by many women seeking approval from the establishment. Indeed, Emelife herself resurrects  this archetype by writing that Cahun ’embodied the tropes of conventional masculinity’. In doing so she is in danger of suggesting that an artistic, intellectual, politically active lesbian must in reality have been more man than woman.

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(Examples of Cahun’s performances within her photographic work)

Within such a complex web of expectations and value judgements Cahun attempted to play out her anxieties and frustrations through her art, in particular, through her self-portraits. As readers of those images now we must, however,  remember three important things;

  1. Cahun made her images, not as modern ‘selfies’, but as carefully constructed and staged performance pieces. Her photography was not a casual snap-shot of her everyday life but an artistic creation informed by her cultural and historical place in the world.
  2. Cahun constructed fantastical tableaux of all manner of identities – fairies, men, women, Buddhas, weightlifters – she was not fixated on presenting herself as a man. Indeed, she reveals her naked female body without any sign of distress or self-loathing. Selecting only her ‘cross-dressing’ images is neglecting the entirety of her body of work and its complexity.
  3. Cahun’s images are accessible to anyone who has access to the internet or to a good bookshop. They have been viewed by many people, often with no understanding of the historical and artistic genealogy of the images. When they were produced by Cahun, they would have been shared with a very small group of close friends and Surrealist acquaintances. Within that closed world, Cahun would have felt safe to express aspects of her art and personality that may have remained hidden had it been known the whold world would be a potential audience.

Aindrea Emelife illustrates her article with various of Cahun’s self portraits, each of them showing a very obvious intention to ‘mask’ her true self through theatrical costume, makeup, role play and elaborate staging.


In one we see  Cahun with cropped hair, her face darkened by stage make-up and wearing a harlequin check jacket (above). She stands in front of a mirror while turning towards the lens. While  Emilife  chooses to read this as an image of ‘near death’ suffering, another reading could see this as an encaspsulation of Cahun’s whole art practice, her search for the real Claude Cahun whilst at the same time presenting herself in theatrical disguise. Ever conscious of antisemitism (which in the 1920s was gathering momentum in Europe and was hurtling toward its horrific conclusion), Cahun darkens her pale skin in a bravado acknowledgement of her ‘otherness’ as a Jewess.  Her ‘masculine’ appearance, rather than suggest transgenderism, challenges the stringent gender roles imposed on women even within the Surrealist movement. Finally, the harlequin coat is a further visual clue, pointing us to the theatricality of her performance, the stage-play at work.


(Cahun and partner Moore in intentionally ‘mirroring’ photographs, taken at the same time, as part of their artistic collaboration)

One of the dangers of ignoring context and imposing one’s contemporary vision onto the past is that it is often at the cost of historical accuracy. Historical rigour is the basis from which historians then apply interpretation and analysis. Neglecting, misrepresenting or reinventing facts not only conceals the truth but turns the historical project from one of unearthing facts to reveal the narrative to one of bending facts to fit into a desired narrative.

That desired narrative is to claim a lesbian artist as a transgender artist. Not only is this factually innaccurate, it insults the memory of a woman who took considerable risk in her life to live and love and practice her art as a lesbian. A woman who loved women and who wrote a series of monologues in 1925, Heroines, in which she pays tribute to inspirational women of art and literature.

cc cup

Claude Cahun was extraordinary, unexpected, risk-taking and original. She was not transgender. She navigated a world in which every aspect of her being – as a female artist, as a lesbian, as a Jew – was held up for scrutiny and found to be not good enough. Is it any wonder she tried on different masks and identities?






Social Realist photographers of N.E England

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and  Tish Murtha are both celebrated photographers known for (separately) documenting the lives of communities within the North East of England.

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 (Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, Girl on a Space Hopper, 1971)

Both photographers highlight the realities of Northern working class English lives in ways which range from humorous to disturbing. By recording the everyday lives of economically deprived communities, Konttinen and Murtha follow in the footsteps of such great photographers as Dorothea Lange and her documentation of poor migrants during the American Depression.

The documentary photography of Lange, Konttinen and Murtha aims to draw attention and give insights into the everyday. However, the social realism genre is also associated with social comment on the prevailing economic and political conditions. The work therefore often enables  a critical platform to view inequality within the structures of society, often focusing on the marginalised.

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(Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment series 1981)

Konttinen, who originated from Finland, studied photography in London in the 1960s,  moving to Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1969.  There she co-founded Amber Films, a film and photography collective which aimed to document and reflect working-class life in the area. Konttinen spent seven years documenting her neighbours in the working class east end of the city in which she lived, which culminated in her book Byker. The series captured a community on the brink of dispersal and drastic change, as many of the areas houses were about to be demolished making way for new housing developments. It is a view of 1970’s life which was being experienced by many working class communities across the land. 

Young woman in Mason Street, 1971.

(Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, Young woman in Mason Street, 1971)

In contrast, Murtha was born and bred in a Newcastle council house, therefore she aimed to reflect maginalised communities as an ‘insider’. Born into a family of Irish descent with nine siblings, Murtha documented life on her own doorstep and the experiences she was part of, in the impoverished west end of the city. The photographer’s work captured an era incorporating the bleak affects of Thatcher’s Britain on Northern communities. One of the photographer’s first exhibitions was called Youth Unemployment (1981), a series which was even used as a source of debate in the House of Commons. In turn, Murtha continued to use her photography to raise many social and political concerns for her home town, as well as for the country as a whole.

Youth Unemployment, Elswick, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1981

(Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment series 1981)

Both photographers highlighted a world perhaps unknown to many gallery spectators. While Konttinen affectionately focuses on an early 1970’s working class community before it was dismantled, Murtha’s work, photographed ten years later, however reflects a 1980’s community being socially and politically destroyed.

In doing so, Konttinen and Murtha have created a series of work that reflects a Northern working class social history which may be viewed with both nostalgic amusement and political concern.