[Image: Gertrude Käsebier, Miss N, c. 1901, photograph]
“In 1906 a woman many today term “the first supermodel” was a central figure in “the Murder of the Century”. Over the duration of the subsequent trial, New Yorkers daily indulged in the vicarious pleasure of reading in the yellow press about the luxurious lives and moral turpitude of the super wealthy. A love triangle involving a rich man, his model wife and a celebrated architect brought to the fore the depravity and social mores of New York high society.
“Florence Evelyn Nesbit (1884/5?-1967) was born into a middle-class family in Pittsburgh. When Evelyn’s father died her mother and daughter had to work to support themselves and Evelyn’s brother. The family moved to Philadelphia to find work, which meant that the children’s education was curtailed. The adolescent Evelyn’s beauty (“unblemished porcelain skin set against dark tresses […] Something magnetic and haunting about her large, smoky eyes and almost mournful smile”) caught the attention of a commercial artist, who asked her to sit to a portrait. She worked with a set of female artists who had been trained at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. After a year of Evelyn working as a model, mother and daughter moved to New York City 1900. Evelyn modelled clothed for photographers, artists and illustrators such as James Carroll Beckwith, Frederick Church and others; it seems she also modelled occasionally partially nude. She benefited from the advent of photography in newspapers, as well as being naturally elegant enough for illustrators producing line-block illustrations. For Charles Dana Gibson, she became a Gibson Girl, epitomising natural feminine beauty in his popular line illustrations. At a time when comely maidens were emblazoned on everything from sheet music covers and soap posters to toothpaste advertisements and cigarette cards, there was no lack of demand for appropriate models. In newspapers, Nesbit appeared anonymously in advertisements for major firms and also named in images accompanying articles on fashion and beauty. Nesbit became perhaps the first pin-up girl in numerous postcards and posters. She was in constant demand from artists, earning reasonable rather than impressive wages….”
I am delighted to announce the publication of Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism.
Here are the details:”From Banksy to Extinction Rebellion, artivism (activism through art) is the art of our era. From international biennale to newspaper pages, artivism is everywhere. Both inside museums and on the streets, global artivism spreads political messages and raises social issues, capturing attention with shocking protests and weird stunts. Yet, is this fusion of art and activism all it seems? Are artivist messages as subversive and anti-authoritarian we assume they are? How has the art trade commodified protest and how have activists parasitised art venues? Is artivism actually an arm of the establishment?
“Using artist statements, theoretical writings, statistical data, historical analysis and insider testimony, British art critic Alexander Adams examines the origins, aims and spread of artivism. He uncovers troubling ethical infractions within public organisations and a culture of complacent self-congratulation in the arts. His findings suggest the perception of artivism – the most influential art practice of the twenty-first century – as a grassroots humanitarian movement could not be more misleading. Adams concludes that artivism erodes the principles underpinning museums, putting their existence at risk.”
Alexander Adams, Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism, Imprint Academic, 2 August 2022, 200pp, paperback, mono illus., £14.95, Kindle version available
Alexander Adams, Women & Art: A Post-Feminist View, Academica Press, Washington DC, 1 August 2022, hardback, 272pp, mono illus. (illus. by the author), index, $49.95 (Kindle also available)
On Monday my newest and most controversial book will be published. Over the years I have often written as a critic about women in the arts: as artists, models, muses, collectors, administrators and writers. I have considered them simply in their roles and as individuals. I have never considered women artists as members of a group distinct from their male counterparts except when they have been presented as such – either by themselves (individually or collectively) or by others, in the form of exhibitions or publications. The reason is simple. I have not up to now seen in art a tendency which distinguishes female artists from male artists. As an art critic, my discussions have been of art not artists.
The programming, promotion and production of art grounded in feminist critiques has prompted me to write Women & Art. The steady stream of publications and exhibitions framed by feminism has made it hard to avoid such attitudes; when museum policy and exhibition quotas impose these approaches, it is impossible to do so. Therefore, it seemed necessary to tackle the impact on art of feminist interpretation and feminist production directly in a series of essays and reviews, which form the basis for this book.
In Women & Art I examine the truths and myths that underpin analysis of women in fine art. Were women artists discriminated against? Does the art market prove prejudice? Are women being excluded from the canon? Have women been erased from art history? Does a distinctly female art exist? Could positive discrimination improve the standing of women artists? I examine feminist texts first hand to summarise their arguments fairly, then I look at the data and current practice. Find out where I agree and disagree with feminist art historians. I look at some fascinating women who have appeared in art history – Camille Claudel, Tamara de Lempicka, Mary Cassatt, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Why is Ana Mendieta seen as a martyr by feminists? How did a murderess end up a Surrealist muse? Two essays study how women were treated in art – and how they functioned as artists – in the USSR and Nazi Germany.
A series of pieces finish the book: a data list of opportunities open to women artists from the Renaissance period to 1910; two translations make available in English for the first time key texts by Marie Bashkirtseff, a pioneering woman painter. With new data, an extensive bibliography and over 500 footnotes, this book may change your assumptions about the relationship between women and art.
Introduction; 1. A History of Women Artists; 2. Woman as Muse; 3. Feminisms, Art and New Criticism; 4. The Exclusion Fallacy; 5. Prices and Quotas; 6. New Facts and Figures; 7. Women Artists or Women’s Art? Essays: City of Women/Stadt der Frauen 1900-1938; Bauhäuslerinen; Women as Creators and Subjects in Soviet Art; Women in National Socialist Art; Conclusions; Appendices, A. Chronology of education and exhibition opportunities for women artists before 1910; B. Two texts by Marie Bashkirtseff; C. Methodology of data collection for “Women in the Arts, 2018-9”; Bibliography; Index
The ever-expanding field of Beat studies extends our knowledge and understanding of writers within the Beat Generation movement. I have previously reviewed the Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature here. Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, a new book from Beat scholar Dr Polina Mackay (University of Nicosia) in the Routledge Transnational Perspectives on American Literature series, examines the role played by women within the Beat Movement. Mackay adopts a division of women which splits up them into waves. Firstly, are the women (born in the 1910s and 1920s) close to the original generation of Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; secondly, those born in the 1930s who joined (or were associated with the Beats as they reached a public stage; and thirdly, those who were born in the 1930s and were inspired by the Beats but not necessarily personally close to the original Beat Generation. Mackay takes one female writer from each wave and examines them in detail in relation to feminist ideas and practice.
Mackay starts by acknowledging that participation in the Beat Movement – certainly for those individuals not personally connected to original members – was a matter of affinity and allegiance rather than one of conformity of style, theme or content. As Mackay notes, many of the Beat women were isolated from one another, some not meeting until the 1990s. Whether such seclusion was primarily driven by external or internal factors (or both), the point is that male editors and publishers were being exposed to female Beat writings less often and it is therefore unsurprising that little of that material was reaching publication in the 1950s-1980s period. The female absence (in terms of early-era publishing) that could be attributed to male hostility could just as easily be assigned to lack of access to material, no doubt exacerbated by ignorance and indifference. Seeing hostility towards women and absence of interest in women writers as equivalent would be an unhelpful conflation.
There is a thoughtful discussion of the literary place of Joan Vollmer Adams’s death at the hands of her husband William Burroughs in Mexico City. Burroughs, drunk, accidentally shot his wife with his pistol during a game at a party. Mackay outlines the various treatments of the incident. These include a few references in Burroughs’s writings and interviews (he did not present a fictionalised version in his novels), those written by associates and the writings of later authors. It is true but not informative to state that Vollmer’s life is written in her absence, as this is always the case when a subject does not leave any substantial written legacy. The author analyses how Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac used their memories and fantasies regarding Vollmer’s life and death in their writings. Mackay concludes, “A common thread in Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac is the intertwining of female presence in Beat textuality with autobiographical discourses, such as the development of the writer as a process of freeing from the biographical past (Burroughs), the conflation of poetic topic and the author’s poetic self-consciousness (Ginsberg), or the reconstruction of the past in writerly terms (Kerouac).”[i]
The core of the book is a discussion of Diane di Prima, Ruth Weiss and Anne Waldman as key women writers within the Beat movement, whose work exemplifies issues highlighted as feminist and female-specific within literature of the time. In her book Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima wrote of her relationship to the poetry and letters of John Keats, seeing her work as a writer in relation to the ground-breaking output of the Romantic poet. Mackay draws the obvious parallel between di Prima’s inspiration from Keats with the famous incident when Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake, in 1948. Mackay analyses di Prima’s poetics in Recollections and This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961) in terms of a response, extension and revision of Keats’s verse, writing both about him and through him, in a process of intertextuality. “Di Prima’s repurposing of Keatsian poetics [accentuates] Keatsian-like contemplative pieces with the Beat vernacular not only modernizes the meditative poem as a genre but also brings into it a new discourse created by the unique time and space of the work’s production, which was the New York countercultural scene of the 1950s.”[ii]
Ruth Weiss’s Desert Journal (1977) represents two Biblical narratives – of the journeys through the wilderness by Moses and Christ – in a book of 40 poems, symbolising the traditional length of the journeys of 40 days and 40 nights. A reinterpretation of theological stories provided Weiss with a space to explore her journey of spiritual self-understanding. The use of English, German and Hebrew adds to the multi-level sequence, which mirrors the double narrative of the journeys through the wilderness made by the fathers of two religions.
Diane di Prima’s Loba (1998) is a later book, which Mackay uses as a starting point for a discussion of de Prima’s knowledge of early Modernist verse and her responses to mid-century writers, such as Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. This complex book-length poem includes a cast of well-known women from history and, according to critics, contains contradictory attitudes that put forth a complex idea of femininity, not one wholly laudatory. Mackay’s chapter indicates how dense the levels of mythology are in Loba and, more than the other chapters, makes one wish to read the original.
There is a chapter on female performances at Nova Convention in November-December 1978, New York, held to celebrate the work of William Burroughs. These included Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, Patti Smith and Anne Waldman. The event marked a widespread acknowledgement of the influence of the Beats on the New Wave and punk movements and advanced a younger generation of creators to be seen as peers of Burroughs and Ginsberg. The performance of Anderson was a key step from being a performance artist known only to afficionados of the New York art scene of the 1970s to a widely known musician and storyteller, world famous by the 1980s. Tangentially related are Kathy Acker’s cut-ups (as found in her novel Don Quixote (1986)), which were expressly parodic in character and considerably less respectful toward Burroughs than were Anderson and Waldman’s performances.
Waldman’s poetry is considered as a form of activism, mainly through the light of her collection Fast Speaking Woman (1975, expanded 2nd edition 1996) and Iovis Trilogy (2011). Aside from generalised statements in support of women lacking power, Waldman makes explicit statements against war. She has been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy is a 1,000-page long Post-Modern, post-Beat “cultural intervention into public space”. Although this book is held up as a “clear link between writing as a woman and being an activist against various forms of oppression”[iii], this argument seems slightly light here. At least, we could do with more concrete examples that display how Waldman enacts activism through text, as opposed to simply displaying socio-political engagement. Is Waldman’s activism more explicit or direct here? Are there some distinct literary devices that support Mackay’s thesis or is it simply the prominence and urgency of Waldman’s politics that make Iovis Trilogy a landmark work?
The avoidance of jargon and clarity of argument makes Beat Feminisms a pleasing read, in a field that can become opaque with theory and advocacy. The extensive bibliography and a full index contribute to the book’s use as a study resource. Mackay’s book will prompt renewed consideration of the way prominent female Beats have viewed themselves as writers and is recommended for students of the Beat Generation and the wider movement, as well as for those researching feminist literature.
“We live in compromised times in which the allegory of an uncompromised self is isolationist, privileged, and dangerous.” So opens this book on motherhood and art-making seen through a feminist lens. The Berlin-based group Maternal Fantasies continues, “We reject the reproduction of social structures, which exclude children from most public dynamics and surrender mothers into domestic isolation suffocated by underpaid and/or unpaid care work. As artists, researchers, and mothers, our economic and political survival demands a recognition of our domestic labor and the context in which we produce creative/intellectual labor (work which is often also poorly compensated).”
The introductory artist statement raises a pertinent question. “How can art exist as a site for thinking of the maternal as a participatory practice, an affective enmeshment, and a situated political prompt – in order to promote new modes of thinking-with?” This raises the following issue for those who wish to appreciate the art documented in this book. If an artist becomes detached from aesthetic criteria, how are those without a personal stake in the art able to assess and absorb the resultant art? How are we to judge the worth of art?
The authors state that because art production – like childcare – is driven by love, it goes uncompensated. By their own admission, these artists have set themselves to making art that is defiantly not commercial (films, performances, installations, interactive art) and also complain that their art is under-recognised and uncompensated. Of course, it is possible that the art that they consider most appropriate for their maternal interests are best expressed through non-commercial forms. Yet, how could poor income from collective art of an ephemeral nature be otherwise? If one did apply some measurement to the rewards of art, how could any meaningful system of payment exist?
This is a problem which is (at least partly) due to the artists’ resolute rejection of the commodification of art production. If one wishes to live on an anti-capitalist basis then this is admirable but it necessarily precludes an obvious way of funding art production – selling art to private buyers. Readers may be sympathetic to the plight of poor artists, but they may be significantly less sympathetic towards a group of artists who complain of poverty and simultaneously reject the most obvious route towards compensation.
The egalitarian approach extends to organisation of projects. “In order to form an international and interdisciplinary collective consisting of diverse personas with differing temperaments, talents, and capacities. Maternal Fantasies has developed a rotational format as a working method. Teams take turns in conceptualizing, organizing, leading, and administering the different group projects. During our immersive residencies and studio sessions, we distribute and rotate the individual tasks, which may include conceptual development, directing, performance, pre- and post-production, marketing, grant-writing, and administration, as well as cooking, cleaning, and childcare.”
The poems and extracts from letters and journals present the thoughts of the women. There is a short entry on the practicalities and costs of daily life, which are enlightening and relatable. These outshine the photographs, which are underwhelming. The performances and events may have been more meaningful and satisfying but they cannot be properly evaluated on this evidence. The descriptions of events are rather vague. They seem to range from protests to children’s activities to mutual support. Some of the activities will be familiar to those who know the communes of the 1970s and squats of the 1980s. Many of the projects involved the children. There are some suggested projects outlined in the book. As art, it does not seem very pleasing but then the art was not made for me. As a book, Re-Assembling Motherhood(s) is engrossing and (inadvertently) revealing for the general art follower.
A long essay recounts the making of a group film, interrupted by COVID-19 lockdown. For all the freethinking regarding gender roles and art making, not a single doubt is expressed in this book about the efficacy or justice of indiscriminate lockdown of a healthy and free populace. Authoritarianism seems okay if the excuse is plausible. There is disappointing scarcity of resistance apparent in the writings. (They did not see one another during some stretches of lockdown.) If these mothers had wished to inculcate independence in their children, shouldn’t they have been defying arbitrary and cruel restrictions and presenting brave community action as a defiant response to the authorities?
There seems at least an apparent conflict between feminism and motherhood. The doctrines of female independence work against the maintenance of a nuclear family, which provides – or at least, did previously provide – a home and income to support the mother and child. The demands of motherhood can be viewed as a constraint on self-actualisation. This schism between personal duty and political action create friction. Always there is the contradiction inherent in this project. There is the recurrent focus on the personal experience (pregnancy, motherhood, emotion, memory, practicalities) and the insistent intrusion of politics. “As a collective, we strongly oppose the reduction of motherhood to a singular experience, which our individualistic Western culture tends to do.” In such entries, Maternal Fantasies appears driven by race and class guilt – a purgative, Spartan, communistic sisterhood, done to demonstrate goodness to spite the capitalist society which funds the collective. The obvious enjoyment of the members and their children undertaking the activities is heartwarming but undercut by the relentless feminism. Feminism, as a branch of progressivism/socialism, demands that “the personal is political” in an insistence of enforcing a joyless sex solidarity, contrary to the intimacy and spontaneity of family and parental relationships.
Another impetus maybe a desire for a disparate (largely expatriate) group to connect. The group is centred in Berlin incidentally. While the group – very multicultural and majority foreign-born – is strongly involved in their own feelings and relationships with their children, they rarely discuss interactions with non-artist Berliners, let alone other Germans. If this group is so concerned to form resilient communities, why does it seem so isolated from the native population? Why does the setting – cultural, linguistic, economic, architectural – not form a greater influence upon their outlook and art work? The collective was formed because of the rootless nature of the lives of the artists, something common in Berlin. “Having moved to Berlin to study more than a decade ago, most of us did not have the social infrastructure and network of extended family, aunts, or grandparents around for support, nor were we fortunate enough or willing to outsource care work to nannies and care workers from more precarious backgrounds than ourselves.” This anger directed at capitalist representative democracy could (perhaps with greater justification) be turned on the chimeras of feminist autonomy and socialist community, with their attendant illusions of self-sufficiency and self-actualisation.
Having lived in Berlin myself, I know it is possible to separate oneself from German Berliners and from the rest of Germany completely. However, I never did and always made an effort to understand and interact with Berliners, even if I did not have the money or opportunity to travel Germany. Berlin has hardly ever seemed as parochial and tiny as it does in Re-Assembling Motherhood(s). Of course, the totality of their existences cannot be measured in a single short book, but even so, this inward-looking approach is saddening.
The absence of men is expected. Today, for the anti-capitalist woman artist in Berlin, where she supplicates for income from a state-benefits system and artists’-grant panel, the state becomes father. Regrettably, the state is as tyrannically unreasonable as any bullying father, more controlling than any jealous husband, more intrusive than any village priest and more callous than any groping employer. The potential control, independence, dignity and privacy of a nuclear family seem – at the moment – a better bet than the modern authoritarian bio-security state.
Overall, this is a volume for those interested in feminist art, women’s creative collectives and those studying the sociology of art.
Sascia Bailer, Magdalena Kallenberger, Maicyra Leão Teles e Silva (eds.), Re-Assembling Motherhood(s): On Radical Care and Collective Art as Feminist Practices, Onomatopee, 2021, paperback, 180pp, 60 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 9493 148574
he life stories of Suzanne Malherbe (1892-1972) and Lucy Schwob (1894-1954) are the stuff of fiction. Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis is a new telling of a tale that has received increasing attention in the last two decades.
The Schwob and Malherbe families were friends and their daughters played together. Suzanne was a talented artist and Lucy wrote prolifically from childhood onwards. They collaborated on a book of drawings (Suzanne) and poems (Lucy), published in 1919. The book was published pseudonymously.
Professionally, Schwob adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun; Malherbe chose the masculine nom-de-plume Marcel Moore. They would be professionally known by those names, though their everyday and legal names remained unchanged. As this review is biographical rather than artistic, I, like Jackson, will use their given forenames. Jackson is alive to the way the pair have been appropriated as cons of transgenderism. He points out that although they presented themselves in ambiguous ways (Cahun shaving her head), “they always talked about themselves as women” and used female pronouns. Suzanne and Lucy arrived in the early 1920s from Nantes in search of fulfilment; mainly artistic and literary….
“”Where are the Old Mistresses?” That was the cry in the early 1970s among female art historians. The Women’s Liberation movement caused a wave of cultural reassessment to sweep through academia and it had no greater impact than in the field of art history. There was a scramble to find overlooked female artists and balance Old Masters with Old Mistresses. Artemisia, the currently suspended exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) at the National Gallery, is the most recent attempt to advance the status of women artists. The exhibition is now set to take place at the National Gallery 3 October 2020 – 24 January 2021.
“In 1971 Linda Nochlin published the landmark feminist essay “Why are there no great women artists?”. Nochlin theorised that women’s creativity had been sublimated into craft and that, consequently, Western high art was shaped according to male standards. Finding overlooked women painters and reassessing their abilities was beside the point, Nochlin argued, because the standards were discriminatory. It was a bold statement and strategically astute: women artists could never be found justly neglected due to deficiencies because they were being judged by masculine standards designed to exclude them. Therefore there would never be any Old Mistresses. Nonetheless, every year fresh books and exhibitions about female artists appear, evidence of a compact of curatorial, academic and commercial interests….”
“Catherine Hewitt’s Art is a Tyrant is a lively biography of groundbreaking French painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). Bonheur was the daughter of minor aristocrats Raymond, a portrait painter, and Sophie, a piano teacher. In an attempt to improve their circumstances, Raymond and Sophie moved to Paris when Bonheur was seven years old. It was in Paris that Raymond became a convert to Saint-Simonianism, a socio-political movement of religious character, that advocated communal living, sex equality and spirituality to counteract the perceived alienation generated by industrialisation. Raymond’s attachment to proto-socialist ideas made a lasting impact on the young Bonheur.
“Despite Raymond’s doubts about the financial security of an artist’s life, he supported Bonheur’s decision to pursue painting, providing her with some training and encouraging her to copy paintings at the Louvre. Bonheur was always especially attached to animals, so it was little surprise that they became her principal muse….”
“Before starting Women Can’t Paint: Gender, The Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art I was filled with apprehension. Having read dozens of books on feminism in recent months, I expected something turgid and dispiriting. I should not have worried. Women Can’t Paint is one of the funniest books of the year and unintentional comedy gold. If Titania McGrath had written a polemic on the art world, this is the book she would have produced. Andrew Doyle’s latest comic creation is pitch perfect. According to the back cover, Helen Gørrill is an “artist, futurist, writer, editor and educator”. In the opening pages, she describes how her article for The Guardian on gender inequality in the arts received so much derision that its comments section had to be closed. By page 2 I was laughing aloud.
In 2018, I wrote a new Access art and design course for a prestigious Scottish university,underpinning the contextual studies design with equality rather than the traditional white heteromasculinist canon […] Two male colleagues made attempts to remove this vanguard, but I stuck to my guns and received a tremendous backlash […] Sadly, as soon as I left the institution the vanguard was immediately quashed, with only a tokenistic selection of women and BME artists (less than 6 per cent of the total) represented […] The white masculine canon alas endures […]
“Moral indignation, grandiloquence, reduction of art to quotas, use of jargon and the lack of self-awareness typify the feminist woke scolds of art administration and university faculties. The author’s imperiousness and lack of humour allow her to deliver towering inanities and spiteful asides in a manner surely not even our most skilful comic writers could contrive….”
This book (a paperback edition of a hardback) collects essays by specialists on the relationship between the arts and the movement for female suffrage in Great Britain in the 1890-1914 period. (In this review “suffrage” will used a term applied specifically only to the movement for women’s enfranchisement in Great Britain.) There were a number of organisations supporting the suffrage movement, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Women’s Social and Political Union, Women’s Freedom League, Women’s Tax Resistance League, Women’s Liberal Federation and others. This collection focuses on the role of the arts and artists in the movement.
The production of pro-suffrage arts and crafts spanned the gamut of professional-level material made by skilled specialists to homemade folk craft. Some prominent supporters were artists and designers and they could produce and sell wares directly to their moneyed peers. Illustrated are tea sets, badges, brooches, banners and posters made for the cause, as well as some material opposing suffrage. The material was sold to demonstrate solidarity and also to raise money for the cause. To aid recognition, the movement developed a combination of colour: pale green, purple and white.
“Although the majority of artistic women did benefit from privileges due to their race and class, we wish to move away from the tendency to celebrate ‘exceptional’ London-based female painters, to instead reference a wider array of voices from across the country, particularly from those working in the applied arts, who often desperately needed to generate an income.” This is in line with the feminist Marxist critique, which holds to an aversion of discusses society in terms of individuals, instead viewing history as the movement of masses. There is a fear of falling into a seeming trap of admiring exceptional achievement.
The suffrage movement was seen – in its manifestations among the artistically inclined middle- and upper-class families – as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement. The attachment to socialism, collectivism and the moral value of craftwork (for individual, guild and society) translated naturally into the collective action, class solidarity and craftwork in support of women’s emancipation. Authors deprecate “the work of ‘great’ men […] William Morris [and] John Ruskin”. However much the authors dislike veneration for men and exceptional individuals, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement did not appear like morning dew; it was thought, discussed, explicated and propagated by Morris and Ruskin, among others.
Despite the active participation of some members, women’s arts societies remained aloof to the subject of the suffrage campaign, seeming in a wish to remain independent. Had the societies become seen as tied to activism, it would have impaired the perception of the societies working to promote art because of its quality and instead of promoting art due to its political content. (This is in direct contrast to the artivism of today, which measures art by its political/social utility.) Zoe Thomas’s essay describes how internal debate raged between the political radicals and those committed to maintaining group neutrality. As the women’s societies were locked into disengaged stances, the Artists’ Suffrage League was founded. The atelier was opened in 1909, producing posters, banners (used in public gatherings), postcards, curtains, book covers and other items. The Suffrage Atelier admitted male artists.
Other essays discuss the interior design work of prominent campaigners Agnes Garrett (1845-1935), Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), who used their work and social prominence to lobby for enfranchisement. The production of goods specifically aimed at pro-suffrage consumers is covered in Elizabeth Crawford’s text. Makers (many of them women) created newsletters (Votes for Women, The Common Cause, The Vote, The Suffragette), jewellery, leather goods, embroidered goods and clothing. Other pieces cover suffragette badges and portraits of suffragists. Oil paintings and drawings of prominent figures in the movement emphasise the resolution and composure of subjects; they were displayed and reproduced as a counter to the news photographs and negative cartoons which appeared in the press. Other essays consider the responses to the male supporters of male suffragists, the responses of Scottish and Irish women to the campaign in the light of nationalist sentiments in their nations and the representations of force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike.
The discussion of suffragette attacks on art provides details and background on these public events. The underlying rationalisation was that because the demands of a lobby had not been met that collateral damage to cultural goods – some owned by the general public – was a proportionate response. It was a campaign of cultural terrorism. Feminists have recently written approvingly of these attacks as an expression of opposition to gender roles and class subjugation. Krista Cowman’s essay is clear and broadly neutral, which compliments the readers’ independence of thought on that matter. Her essay is more informative than the essay in the recent Tate catalogue on iconoclasm.
Overall, this book is a handy primer for the scholarship and debates regarding the suffragette movement in relation to the arts in the Edwardian period. The ample source notes, bibliographies and index will assist historians, academics and students. The illustrations are well chosen and complement the text. This paperback edition makes the welcome and affordable alternative to the rather expensive hardback edition.
Miranda Garrett, Zoe Thomas (eds.), Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, paperback, 281pp, 16pp col./30 mono illus., $34.95, ISBN 978 1 35012867 5