Georgia O’Keeffe & Feminism

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Linda M Grasso’s aim in Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism (originally published in 2017, reissued this month) is to explore Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) in relation to two distinct phases of feminism (historically, first and second waves) in the 1910s and 1970s and the way O’Keeffe has been taken up as an iconic figure by feminists during her lifetime and since. This is a significant topic because O’Keeffe is one of the most prominent – perhaps the most prominent – female artists of the previous century; she lived through eras of feminist public activity and responded to it. The difficulty for feminists is that O’Keeffe had mixed responses to feminism and feminists – often decidedly hostile. So although O’Keeffe was a great and successful woman artist – and thus an ideal candidate as a feminist icon – her own reactions against feminism and to being classed a “woman painter” make her a problematic subject for feminists.

Grasso’s position is openly pro-feminist. The difficulty with a politically committed academic following a line of scholarship that has political ramifications is that the academic wants to advance a cause even if the evidence is ambiguous. Bearing this in mind, let us examine Grasso’s evidence, reasoning and conclusions.

“The feminism [O’Keeffe] embraced and practiced ennobled individualism, self-expressionism, and professional achievement as ultimate forms of liberty.” To the average person, this seems a positive good, yet this wilful individualism displays a distinct lack of the class solidarity which is necessary to effective feminist activism. While the ostensible goal of feminism is individual liberation, its nature demands commitment to group goals such as emotional solidarity, directed activism and conformity to shared principles. This is manifest in vehement denunciation of “choice feminism”. This is on the ostensible basis that individual choices of women – to work more or less, have children or not, adopt traditional standards of feminine dress or not and so forth – actually conceal the systematic nature of societal oppression and effectively act as a cover for the coercion of women. Thus choice feminism perpetuates the illusion that any woman is actually free to choose – or at least has equivalent freedom to that granted to men. In reality, one suspects that this ideological opposition to choice feminism is tactical. If women can opt in and out of feminism, express disagreement with feminist principles and enact independent discrimination in everyday life, feminism as a political movement – which relies on homogeneity and unity – becomes splintered.

Significantly, during the formative period of O’Keeffe’s adulthood (the 1900s and 1910s) she was in agreement with first-wave feminism which advocated for legal/electoral rights. It was this position she held throughout her life, that women should have the chance to act in whatever ways men acted and to choose what they did with such freedom. O’Keeffe was unequivocally a “choice feminist”. For today’s feminist, who views choice feminism as selfish individualism which perpetuates patriarchal structures, O’Keeffe’s views are incompatible with true feminism. (O’Keeffe’s responses to later feminism are discussed below.)

In Grasso’s very next sentence we encounter another plank of modern feminism. “Arguably, however, O’Keeffe’s art could have inspired women and men of all races, classes, politics, and statuses to imagine worlds not governed by industrial logic, stultifying labor, and multiple discriminations.” This is an example of intersectionality, the idea that we exist in multiple classes, often determined by demographic factors (such a sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and so forth) and that these categorisations intersect in ways that frame our existences in multiple co-variant manners. The idea that art by a producer of certain demographic(s) will be understood best by other members of that demographic(s) has become pervasive in leftist cultural theory. Grasso tentatively asserts that although O’Keeffe’s art may have been the result of an attempt to liberate the white heterosexual affluent woman artist, it may have performed a political function for others.

Grasso gathers evidence from the artist’s early years, when she was an indirect supporter of women’s suffrage through her friendship with active campaigners, to show that O’Keeffe later omitted this sympathy from her late-career management of her public image. Grasso may be correct to suggest O’Keeffe wanted to distance herself from the cultural expressions of artists-as-women that had become common currency in the era of second-wave feminism in the fine arts, causing her to neglect to mention activities that could be seen as affiliated to feminism (albeit of an earlier generation). Grasso’s observations seem apposite but the evidence presented is very limited. O’Keeffe was a member of the National Woman’s Party and was a sponsor of the World Center for Women’s Archives.

Alfred Stieglitz’s role in refining her ideas and promoting O’Keeffe’s art is looked at in a gendered way. O’Keeffe’s acknowledgement of the encouragement, ideas and publicity that Stieglitz’s provided her professionally is seen as a comparative dismissal of Anita Pollitzer, a friend who supported her before she met Stieglitz. An objective assessment of the relative amount and nature of the help Pollitzer and Stieglitz provided the artist must favour the latter. To cast Pollitzer’s role in O’Keefe’s career as valuable but subordinate to Stieglitz’s – as O’Keeffe did – is not unreasonable nor is it evidence of systematic privileging of man’s power over woman’s friendship. Grasso is correct in suggesting that O’Keeffe was begrudging in overlooking her friend Pollitzer in retrospective accounts. The artist blocked Pollitzer’s biography of her and used that manuscript to source material for her subsequently published autobiography.

Generally, the artist refused association with societies and events relating women’s art.  She refused permission for feminist writers to use her art and declined interviews with them. She was dismissive of the idea of women artists being distinct and claimed that her career had never been impaired sexual discrimination. Certainly, in public she wished to be known as a painter, a modern artist and an American artist but not as a woman artist. O’Keeffe’s view was that to achieve equality, her accomplishments should not be limited as “female”. She had to have her art accepted as she wished it to be: genderless and hung among the art of men. Other female artists thought the same, considering separate art to be a way of avoiding competition with the best and accepting lower standards. Of course, to many feminists O’Keeffe’s denial of her sex was a concession to earn acclaim as a desexed artist in a male-dominated field.

The book summarises the lifetime articles written about O’Keeffe, with a focus on how her gender was discussed. Special attention is paid to the attitude of female journalists. Wealthy women, including Elizabeth Arden and Abby Rockefeller, were among the artist’s collectors. The collection of fan letters written to the artist (and preserved by her) is mined to examine what women of the time found to admire in O’Keeffe and her paintings. In old age, she was a national celebrity and an icon of a liberated woman.

Although much of the information is useful, and discussions about O’Keeffe’s actions are plausible, these rest on a foundation of contentious assumptions. The idea that society is a system of mechanisms developed to suppress opponent groups (rather than a complex evolving structure of traditions, systems, values and hierarchies that favours people with different qualities in varying ways that alter over time) seems to be a goal-orientated assessment directed by political allegiance.

These assumptions can be seen in instances of over-interpretation.

In 1970 the Whitney Museum of American Art did not practise “exclusion of white and black women artists in their annual exhibition”. Declining art submitted to an open-exhibition jury is not exclusion. When feminists targeted the museum by “conducting sit-ins, demonstrating outside the building holding placards and blowing whistles, and utilizing theatrical tactics such as planting uncooked eggs and sanitary napkins inside galleries,” is it any wonder that O’Keeffe wished to disassociate herself from such a movement? An artist who had conquered the art world through tenacity and talent and who had never benefited from – or had need of – quotas had nothing in common with these activists.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe systematically stripped her autobiography of all traces of feminist example and enablement in order to present her achievements as being personal ones. Grasso’s position echoes the slogan “You didn’t build this”. She suggests that O’Keeffe’s work could only have come about following the advances in education, emancipation and empowerment achieved by pioneering feminist and proto-feminist activists generally, as well as the help certain specific associates of the artist (including critics, journalists, teachers and artists) whom Grasso classes as feminists. Well, so be it. Should O’Keeffe have acknowledged the scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians, soldiers and educators who made her country safe, prosperous and free? Grasso’s criticism is – most pertinently – implied criticism of choice feminism and a deprecation of O’Keeffe’s apparent lack of gender solidarity.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe’s life, art and example enacted a form of feminist practice. In aspiring for equality, even though she eschewed identification as a woman artist, O’Keeffe was a feminist in Grasso’s view. However, the artist’s distancing of herself from her gender, makes her “incomplete” for many feminists. With all its ideological limitations, even neutral readers will find Equal Under the Sky a thought-provoking book full of useful research and new perspectives.

 

Linda M. Grasso, Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism, University of New Mexico Press, 2019, hardback, 336pp, mono illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 8263 5881 3 (other editions available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

 

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Sylvia Plath: Alive in Letters

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I.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading the letters of Sylvia Plath, the advice I received was to take it slowly and take frequent breaks. The inference being that Plath’s letters would be a gruelling testament to suffering. It is a reasonable assumption. There is no major author in the post-war period more closely associated with numbing emotional isolation and excruciating depression than Plath. The short poems of her last weeks must be among the sourest, most sarcastic and seared expressions of suffering in modern poetry.

Those who know her work broadly know there is more to her but if you know little it is the last poems and her famous “Daddy” that you know. However, if one listens to the recording of Plath reading “Daddy” – that apparently bitter invective against a tyrannical father – you will hear the glee in her voice, undercutting the rage that a million young women have vicariously immersed themselves in. The likelihood that Plath wished to conflate into a single poem her mixed feelings about her father with the prevalent psychoanalytic preoccupation with the symbolic father figure – a poem as rife with absurdity as it is with anger – is not immediately obvious to the casual reader. The play of her humour and irony enliven the mosaic of cultural references she carefully arranged for us to find in her verse. This humour and learning is nowhere more evident than in her letters.

Born in 1932, Sylvia Plath grew up in a middle-class home in Massachusetts. The earliest extant letter is from 1940, the year her father died. Numerically, most of the letters are to Plath’s mother, the first ones written during summers spent with relatives, summer camps and at youth conferences. She wrote to a German pen pal for a number of years, explaining her life and displaying intense interest in German life. Her world was one of book-reading and stamp-collecting, cardigans, knee-socks, hamburgers and milk, blind double dates, picnics and bracing cycle rides.

She was accepted into Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. In almost daily postcards to her mother, she records her life. We follow her health, friends, studies and dates. Plath in these letters is an inquisitive, assiduous, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and creative young woman. She could be supercilious and self-impressed, as is only to be expected from an individual who had lived a sheltered life and received such praise and admiration while young. Even the most cynical reader would not be won over by her character.

She aspired to be a writer; she had been editor of the high-school newspaper. She started to write stories and poems. She wrote fiction that was published in women’s magazines and the new burgeoning market for girl’s magazines, such as Seventeen. At the same time she was submitting poems to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other publications. Poems are included in the text and we see Plath growing as a writer. Photographs of Plath, her family and friends and images of her illustrated letters are included.

The core of the group is those letters written to her mother. One can see Plath sharing her pleasures and problems, delighting in magazine cheques and competition prizes, all the time wanting her mother to be impressed and proud. Performing for an audience and meeting her own punishingly high standards proved too much. She exhausted herself through overwork. In the summer of 1953 she had a nervous breakdown, experiencing insomnia and depression, which was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. Soon after, she attempted suicide not once but twice. The first time she tried drowning. In the most powerful letter in the book – made all the more memorable for Plath’s offhand dry humour – she described her failure to die.

Well, I tried drowning, but that didn’t work; somehow the urge to life, mere physical life, is damn strong, and I felt that I could swim forever straight out into the sea and sun and never be able to swallow more than a gulp or two of water and swim on. The body is amazingly stubborn when it comes to sacrificing itself to the annihilating directions of the mind.

She continued:

So I hit upon what I figured would be the easiest way out: I waited until my mother had gone to town, my brother was at work, and my grandparents were out in the back yard. Then I broke the lock of my mother’s safe, took out the bottle of 50 sleeping pills, and descended to the dark sheltered ledge in our basement, after having left a note to mother that I had gone on a long walk and would not be back for a day or so. I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion. My mother believed my note, sent out searching parties, notified the police, and finally, on the second day or so, began to give up hope when she found that the pills were missing. In the meantime, I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in a dark hell…

The search for the missing co-ed – prizewinning young authoress – made the pages of over 200 newspapers and Plath had to recover in hospital a figure of minor notoriety.

Plath’s failed attempt to meet Dylan Thomas and successful encounters with W.H. Auden and literary scholar I.A. Richards while she was still a student, show Plath’s ambition to rise to the status of these figures. Part fan adoration, part intellectual curiosity, part careerism, these events are recounted in her letters. In a letter of 4 November 1954, Plath wrote “I am really beat but beatific: my status quo.” The following year she applied to teach English at the American school in Tangiers. How different her life might have been if she had been in the company of Bowles and Burroughs rather than Hughes and the Movement poets…

Plath recounted a bohemian scene of a carefree outing with a boyfriend.

I was so tired, having slept about two hours all night, that I curled up in the backseat of the little car driving to new haven and fell deeply asleep. I awoke to consciousness of sunlight and a circle of people staring at me in unfeigned curiosity. [Richard] sassoon had stopped at a merritt parkway gas station for coffee, and the sight of a touseled girl sleeping soundly in the backseat of a volkswagon in the midst of empty wine bottles and books of baudelaire attracted attention, to put it mildly.  

There are absences – not least many letters to boyfriends. Perhaps we should be grateful to have some intimacy withheld. There are no surviving letters to Richard Sassoon. We have some extracts that Plath copied into her diaries. They are the most literary, allusive and passionate of her early letters.

Plath was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and went to study at Newnham College, Cambridge in September 1955. Plath arrived in England and was enchanted to an almost comical degree.

London is simply fantastic. So much better organized (beautiful “tubes” with artistic posters, two decker red busses, maps everywhere, all black cars and cabs, guides to theaters, all posted) than NYC; more beautiful than Washington (Parks with roses, pelicans, palaces, plane trees and fig trees and lakes and fountains) and infinitely more quaint and historic (obviously) than Boston). The “bobbies”” are all young, handsome, and exquisitely bred; I think they’ve all gone to Oxford. Flower girls, fruit stands with enormous peaches, grapes, etc. on every corner. […] Oh, mother, every alleyway is crowded with tradition, antiquity, and I can feel a peace, reserve, lack of hurry here which has centuries behind it.

In February 1956, the concluding year of this collection, she met Ted Hughes and began a relationship with him. She wrote about how excited she was to be with him and how he helped her creatively. “Ted is the most wonderful man in the world; I am constantly incredulous with joy at how much I love him and how magnificently well we work together.” Included is the text for “Ode for Ted”. They married in the summer of 1956 in secret because Plath feared (apparently erroneously) that she would lose her scholarship were it to become known she had married. There are long letters describing an idyllic honeymoon in the small obscure fishing village of Benidorm (“probably too small to be on your map”). She did not approve of the bullfight she saw. “The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality.”

There are misjudgements in the editing of the volume. As is now house style for Faber & Faber correspondence present locations of letters are given (when that specialist information could have been given as end notes) yet no places are given for the location letters were written from. This is same as the Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot letters. This was not always the case. The Larkin letters (published 1992) do have locations given.

The notes are prolific and detailed, sometimes excessively. When Plath mentions enclosing stamp hinges what is gained by annotating “The enclosed stamp hinges are no longer with the letter”? The biographical notes refer not just to recipients but individuals mentioned. Likewise, many of these are useful but footnotes for passing mentions to schoolmates could be considered excessive. It is sobering to see biographical notes on Plath’s school and university friends reading “(1932-   )”. Plath too could still be alive now if she had not taken her own life over 50 years ago.

As this first volume closes, the prospect of the second volume offers us more varied correspondents – editors, authors, in-laws and so on – as she becomes a public figure in the British literary scene. It also promises insight into her final painful months.

Plath is much more than a victim. To underplay her complexity and her cool calculation as a writer is to ascribe to her little more than reactive emotionality. Indeed, if she were primarily the caricature of a hot-housed daughter, spurned wife and troubled mother – as many academics and students reduce her to – then she would be no writer at all. Above all the epithet “tragic” is a sweeping patronising description of a life as richly varied as any and presents the poet to be a helpless hostage in the grip of malevolent circumstances. Tragedy is a concept that is necessarily a retrospective judgement and is enmeshed in the idea of inevitability. Supporters of Plath who are driven by gender-political motivations exaggerate both her brilliant originality as a poet and the overwhelming influence of her husband’s infidelity in her choice of suicide. Plath was a great poet but very much a product of her time, influenced by her reading and her peers. Plath was distressed by Hughes’s infidelity but she was also subject to internal pressures and psychological issues present since her youth, not to mention the difficulty of coping alone with two young children whilst on powerful mood-altering medication. To understand anything about Plath the writer we must acknowledge her cunning, her craft, her ambition, her immersion in literature and her ambivalence. This understanding opens us up to acknowledging Plath’s complexity as a person.

There is no better way to understand that complexity than to read her letters.

II.

In 1740 Samuel Richardson published one of the first novels in English, titled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. In this book we are presented with a coherent directed narrative telling a story in the form of authentic letters between various characters. The author plays with boundaries of fiction and factuality, though readers can feel fairly certain they are reading a work of fiction. In this novel (and two subsequent ones) we get ostensibly independent documents which are really guided by the hand of the omniscient omnipotent author. We at once are immersed in a story, experience it through differing perspectives and appreciate the author’s ingenuity. It complements our intelligence and we in turn admire the craft put into this story. We enjoy the narrative and meta-narrative. Like Tristam Shandy, another experimental early novel, Richardson’s novels approach a near Post-Modernist play of pretence and self-awareness. The works were necessarily experimental as the English novel was only then being invented.

There is a peculiar aspect to reading collected letters by a single writer without replies. Unlike poems or stories, which although they might be related are individual communications, letters are incomplete. Lacking the chain of interchange, we confront something incomplete: a two-part musical score with half the pages missing.

Readers who are well informed about a subject find themselves reading letters through an external framework. If we read a book of collected letters in sequence, we read early letters with a degree of impatience, wanting to get to more accomplished writing and varied correspondents. We become tired of reading news repeated to multiple correspondents, especially in a complete (rather than selected) collection. We await significant career milestones, personal events and historical events, anticipating the writer’s responses. We search the last letter for profound insights into life or a final message to the world. Like attendees of a play we have seen before, we know what is in the characters’ future. The dramatic irony is that we know the accomplishments, tragedies, betrayals and reverses of fortune which lie ahead of the characters while those individuals do not. We are omniscient, watching characters struggling to overcome obstacles and challenges in their path, judging their morality and fortitude in their most private words. We have the power to skip ahead or go back – even of dismissing the spectacle by simply declining to read on.

Thus we as readers who consume a collection of letters have a unique response to the text – a text moreover that the author never actually wrote. The author wrote small texts and sent them to different readers without thought to how they would work together. It would be like printing a transcript of someone’s speech over the course of a day without context, pauses and responses. We encounter multiple discrete texts to different recipients in a totalised, cumulative and sequential manner. Books of letters do not have to be read in such a way and certainly researchers or students do use such books as reference resources. Our expectations adjust but we are beings formed of experience and temperament and it is impossible for us to entirely detach our expectations of narrative, drama and reading pleasure which colour our responses to a collection of letters. This is not to suggest that collections of letters and readings of them are misleading or intrinsically flawed. They are, of course, as every human endeavour and response must be but that is not the point. The point is that reading letters in collected form presents us with a distortion that we should constantly remind ourselves is a distortion.

Consider the case of diary reading. It has often been said that diaries are repositories of disappointment and disgruntlement, places where writers can unload their negative feelings to experience catharsis and meet no opposition or scrutiny. Consequently, diaries appear to readers as negative, bitter and petty. In truth they often are but they are a partial presentation of the self and as a record of character diaries can be very misleading, even if we constantly remind ourselves of the bias. With letters the matter we must bear in mind is not a distortion in the source (although it is natural that a writer communicates certain things and withholds other things on purpose) but that we are watching a film composed of multiple different silent films which flicker in and out and overlaying that is our historical understanding, which forms a continuous soundtrack which is anachronistic and not necessarily congruent with the film passages. Yet as we watch this film we naturally wish to consider it whole, narratively comprehensible and authored. Our human tendency forms this discordant fusion.

As long as we are aware of this tendency we can better understand our own reactions to reading volumes of letters and not succumbing to the temptation of believing we understand more than we actually do.

 

Sylvia Plath, (Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, eds.), The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956, Faber & Faber, 2017, hardback, 1,424pp, col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 0571 328 994

© Alexander Adams

Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900

 In the Studio (oil on canvas)

[Image: Marie Bashkirtseff (Ukrainian, 18581884), In the Studio (1881), oil on canvas, 60 5/8 x 73 1/4 in. Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Ukraine, KH-4234. Photo: Dnipropetrovsk/Bridgeman Images. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

“Recent gains in women’s participation in the arts now demands an assessment of those who have paved the way – both women artists who struggled to establish careers in art and art historians who reinvented the critical language to accommodate them.”

So states curator Laurence Madeline in her essay introducing a current exhibition on women artists. Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 (the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 9 June-3 September 2018; touring from Denver Art Museum and Speed Art Museum) gathers almost 90 paintings by 37 female artists from 11 countries, all of whom worked or trained in Paris. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The period examined by this exhibition and catalogue was a turbulent and rich one. Despite the rise of Naturalism, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, the Salon dominated public reception of art and academic painting was a significant proportion of the art produced and consumed. The studio system of training, the École des beaux-arts and Prix de Rome were important in the training of artists and this presented women with a number of hurdles to becoming full-time artists. Women were not admitted to the École des beaux-arts until 1897 and had limited choices in the studios they could study at. Académie Julian became a favourite not just of women students but adventurous male students and a large number of the most successful artists of that period and the immediately following era studied there. In 1881 the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs was founded to promote and exhibit women.

Statistical analysis in this catalogue indicates that female participation in the annual Salon ranged from below 10% to as high as 20% in a period when women as full-time professional artists were a rarity. This shows that women artists were recognised publicly in proportion to their participation in the fine-art field, even though it seems their art was less likely to have been awarded prizes and bought by the state. Such advantages naturally went to the most established artists, who were predominantly male. (Footnote 1)

Seeing a gathering of pictures by some unknown women artists seems to reinforce the impression that women are (or were) unduly discriminated against. Yet the art of twenty times that number of forgotten male artists from the period could have been assembled – with each of those artists as good as the women artists here. Go through any academy store room and you will encounter fine pictures by unknown artists, male and female. There simply is not enough wall space, book pages and public attention to cause these artists to be remembered. History bestows oblivion upon legions of capable professionals, regardless of gender. Fame is exceptional and, by definition, most artists are destined for obscurity. Nowadays, critics, curators and historians trawl archives and store rooms specifically in search of forgotten women artists to promote. Rescuing women artists from obscurity is an outcome of – and justification for – much Feminist art history over the last 50 years. Today there is no prejudice against women artists in the West. Women are rapidly becoming the majority of arts administrators and art historians. Today, among professionals and critics, there is an in-built favouritism towards women artists. Not a week goes by without a press release heralding the posthumous revival of a forgotten woman artist.

So, how good is the art exhibited here? Much of it is very good.

A number of artists need no introduction. Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond were respected and popular artists in the Impressionist circle, though the latter (who was married to acclaimed printmaker Félix Bracquemond and exhibited with the Impressionists) has faded from attention, partly due to her early retirement from art. Morisot, Cassatt and Gonzalès are presented fairly here, with first-class pieces.

Morisot_The_Cherry_Tree

[Image: Berthe Morisot (French, 18411895), The Cherry Tree (1891), oil on canvas, 57 5/8 x 35 in. Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll; Photo: CAPEHART Photography. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

A good case is made for Marie Bracquemond, with her Impressionist paintings of women and domestic life matching the quality of her more famous colleagues. Her reputation is likely to rise.

Naturalist painter of rural scenes Rosa Bonheur was celebrated in her lifetime as the equal of male painters. Bonheur was a phenomenon, becoming famous and being granted special privileges. Her art sold for high prices. Her paintings of farm animals were accurate and have an impressive physical presence but such art has become unfashionable and it is hard to see her name becoming common currency again. Fellow Naturalist painter Marie Bashkirtseff was very talented but one wonders if she would have left any more of a significant mark had she not died at the age of 25 in 1884. The adeptly executed In the Studio (1881) is one of the few large-scale paintings she painted in her short career. The Bastien-Lapage style of Naturalism she adopted was already verging on the fusty and sentimental by 1884. Was she capable of innovating or was she only a superior adherent of Cosmopolitan Realism?

Bastien-Lepage’s Naturalism became the dominant painting style in Scandinavia from his Salon success of 1878 until well into the Twentieth Century, long after his death. His approach was to paint scenes of rural life, including mild social commentary about the lives of working people. The doctrine of Naturalism through local colour, studying from life and painting at least studies en plein air won him legions of followers in France and Northern Europe. In this exhibition, nearly all the Nordic painters are indebted to him. Lady Elizabeth Butler’s patriotic scenes are more aligned to academic salon painting. Annie Louisa Swynnerton’s standing female nude is in the beaux-arts tradition, influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism. Amélie Beaury-Saurel’s pastel portrait of a young woman smoking and drinking coffee is bold, accomplished and lively. It is a very fine picture.

Grand claims for Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) are not borne out on the evidence presented here. There is a concise and beautiful painting of an interior (The Door (1884)); the only strong contrast in the picture is the glow of light coming through gaps around a closed door. However, the other pictures by her are weak stuff – a Botticelli copy, soft-focus social realism, a Whistlerian portrait. A strikingly modern self-portrait in a manner similar to Kitaj is not included, as it falls outside the dates for exhibited work.

Lowstadt_Chadwick_ Beach Parasol, Brittany (Portrait of Amanda Sidwall)

[Image: Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick (Swedish, 18551932), Beach Parasol, Brittany (Portrait of Amanda Sidwall) (1880), oil on panel, 11 7/16 x 19 11/16 in. Private collection, Stockholm; Photo: Lars Engelhardt. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]

There are idiosyncrasies in curation that are puzzling. The curators state that they deliberately avoided so-called typically feminine subjects such as flower paintings and portraits, yet included are maternities, domestic interiors and conversation pieces featuring women – all subjects that were particularly close to women artists’ hearts and the centres of their artistic production. Some of the artists are ones who visited or trained in Paris rather than living there for significant lengths of time. Paula Modersohn-Becker should not have been included.

The catalogue includes informative essays by Jane R. Becker on Marie Bracquemond and by Vibeke Waallann Hansen on the Nordic painters. Impressionist scholar Richard Kendall writes about the careers of the female Impressionists. A valuable biographical section presents data about each artist.

Bridget Alsdorf makes some unfounded judgements in her catalogue essay. She contends that in Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzalès painting at her easel, Manet appropriates Gonzalès’s painting  of flowers on her easel as “his own” by painting it in his own manner. Gonzalès was Manet’s student and her style is very indebted to his. Breaking the stylistic continuity within the portrait by transcribing a Gonzales painting idiomatically correctly would have been completely inconsistent within the aesthetic and practice of Manet. Alsdorf asserts that Orpen included the portrait of Gonzalès in Orpen’s own Homage to Manet (1909) in a way that “is perfectly ironic, a further travesty of Gonzalès’s already awkward image as a femme peintre”. Orpen was including the most celebrated and publicly available painting by Manet situated in the British Isles in 1909. There is nothing ironic about the inclusion. Women artists suffered inequality in this period. Inventing slights only distracts attention from the actual difficulties they faced.

There is some high quality art which we benefit from encountering, often for the first time, but are some of these artists unfairly overlooked? Not really. Bonheur and Bashkirtseff are scarcely more obscure to today’s gallery-goers than Bastien-Lepage and painters of the Barbizon or Hague Schools; Cassatt and Morisot are mentioned in every publication on Impressionism. What about the lesser-known ones? Schjerfbeck is capable but inconsistent; Virginie Demont-Breton is a competent Salon painter; Kitty Kielland is a skilful Norwegian landscape painter. Are these artists good? Yes. Are they better than the (male) artists who are more well-known? No, though some are equal in competence.

Yet there are hundreds of shadowy others at the elbows of Schjerfbeck and Killand, also ready to claim a seat in Parnassus.

On the opening of the Musée fin-de-siècle in Brussels, I was astonished to encounter the paintings of Hippolyte Boulenger (1837-1874). After 20 years of studying and writing about art of the period, I counted myself fairly familiar with the painting of the era, yet here was this painter who was the equal of Corot, who painted with the energy of Courbet and I had never heard his name. His landscapes are deeply immersive, full of bold brushwork and underpinned by acute observation, yet today not even one Belgian in a thousand would recognise his name. His art would have fitted into this exhibition – he deserves a monographic exhibition – yet there is no academic mileage in reviving the reputations of Belgian male painters. No cultural connoisseur or social historian will ever become indignant about the unjust neglect of Hippolyte Boulenger. Yet I would rather have hanging on my wall a Boulenger marine painting in preference to anything painted by Turner or Constable.

The canon is a limited field and it necessarily excludes the overwhelming majority of all art ever produced. Just as the newspaper acclaim and jury prizes of past eras do not secure a place in the canon for dazzling Salon painters, so too the perorations of art historians today do not permanently alter the course of history. The best approach is to look at art frankly (and sceptically) and assess bodies of work as honestly as possible. On that basis, there is plenty in Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 which is appealing and surprising and we can be grateful to have encountered it.

 

Laurence Madeline et al, Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, American Federation of Arts/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 288pp, 150 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 1 885444 45 5

(1) Prizes, awards and state purchases are not distributed equally according to the merit of exhibited art. It is in part dependent on the status of the artist and that artist’s reputation.

If famous artist A wins 10 prizes in a career, less famous artist B does not get a proportionate 8 prizes (equivalent to 80% of artist A’s recognition) but more likely 1 or 2 prizes in a career. There is a limit to the number of prizes available. Members of the public or prize juries may recognise a limited number artist names. The difference in recognition between being number 1 and 2 on that list is small; the difference between being number 19 and 20 on that list may be large. Similarly, a graph of all living artists’ income per annum would be flat at zero and near-zero for almost the entire X axis showing the low income of the majority, grow slightly for the small number who make a living income and then reach a sheer wall for the tiny number of super-rich artists. This is a form of winner-take-all situation.

Thus, prizes are awarded in a disproportionate manner. If the top ten most celebrated artists in any given cohort are male then the remaining 90 artists – regardless of whether they are male or female –who are less famous will receive 90% or even 50% of the prizes but about 10% between them due to the winner-take-all economy.

See: Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, 2014, Amsterdam University Press, 367pp, ISBN 978 9 0530565650

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

New Order

“Murder Machines

This year a sculpture by Sam Durant entitled Scaffold was erected in a sculpture park managed by Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The wooden sculpture juxtaposed elements of playground-activity structures and gallows. One minor aspect of Scaffold referred to the hanging of Dakota Native Americans in 1862 as part of struggles between the Dakota Nation and the American government. That reference had been missed until it was pointed out, at which time a campaign to remove the sculpture was begun by the Dakota. “This is a murder machine that killed our people because we were hungry,” said a member of the Dakota Nation, equating Scaffold with an actual gallows that hanged members of the Dakota. In May the museum destroyed Scaffold and the artist renounced his work.

This year there was a protest by some black artists against the display at the Whitney Biennial of a painting of murdered black activist Emmett Till. Black activists lobbied to have the painting by Dana Schutz, a white artist, removed as offensive and hurtful. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” said one protestor, claiming ownership and authority over the representation of a historical event.

In these two cases, activists claimed ownership over aspects of history in order to suppress art works. In one case it resulted in the destruction of art. Pressure groups have noticed the weakness of curators, administrators and politicians and their unwillingness to protect art from censorship. Sympathetic towards notions of social justice, administrators sometimes submit to emotional blackmail by groups which demand censorship…”

To read the full article visit The Jackdaw: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1750

Superheroes vs identity politics

“In November, there was a change in the senior management team of Marvel Comics, marking the latest stage in a bitter fight between creators and fans of one of the world’s most famous brands. To those who had been observing the conflict, this new development was easy to see coming.

Marvel’s survival gamble

In their postwar heyday, comics were a limited range of low-cost items widely stocked in general stores and sold to casual readers; nowadays, comics are a broad range of slightly more expensive items stocked in few specialist stores (and online) and sold to dedicated followers, often for the collector market. Despite shrinkage, the comics market in North America is worth annually about $500million in individual comic-book sales, excluding online and book sales. Although sales in 2011 were healthy, executives in comic-book production were nervous about their readership. The typical superhero-comic purchaser was a 40-year-old white male – a demographically shrinking and ageing profile not being replenished by new young buyers. Economic recession (which started in 2008) hastened the closure of many bricks-and-mortar outlets. Digital versions were cheap to distribute but did not satisfy the strong collecting-reselling-trading culture of comic-book fandom.

Anticipating a consumer crisis – and undermined by poor business decisions (including sale of film rights to leading characters, such as the X-Men) – Marvel looked for solutions…”

Read the full article online on Spiked, 29 December 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/comic-fans-take-on-identity-politics/20675#.WkZ9kVVl_IU

 

Trouble at the Tate

“With the opening of a new building adjoining the Tate Modern Bankside site, and the appointment of a new director, Dr Maria Balshaw, things seem buoyant at the Tate. Yet below the surface the organisation is headed towards crisis.

“Although you wouldn’t know it from the fawning accolades of newspaper profilers, Balshaw’s appointment alarms art historians. Balshaw, the new director of Britain’s largest fine-art museum, with four venues and £1.3 billion in assets, is not an art historian but a student of literature who attained a doctorate in critical theory, specialising in American authors. Critical theory is an academic branch of postmodernism that, preferring to concentrate on art’s ideological and social role, sees no qualitative difference between high and low (or popular) art forms. This might be a problematic grounding for the director of Britain’s largest collection of high art. Hitherto in her roles as head of the Whitworth and Manchester art galleries, she has demonstrated no detailed understanding of fine art or any willingness to defy fashion, exhibiting and collecting art on an agenda underpinned by identity politics and feminism.

“Indeed, Balshaw is a proactive and politically driven individual who will not be taking a backseat position. She has previously made statements that women and minority artists should be given a more prominent position in the arts world. As explained previously on spiked, the relatively low number of female artists in the Tate collection is due to historical restrictions on women artists that no longer exist. However, for feminists, that statistical imbalance justifies the promotion of women artists regardless of the quality of their art.

“If the Tate was a stable or manageable organisation, then a figurehead leader would be a viable proposition. Unfortunately, the Tate has huge and ever-increasing problems…”

Read the full article on on Spiked (25 September 2017) online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/trouble-at-the-tate/20339#.Wcjg-LKGPIU

This is an extract of a long essay titled “New Order”, available in The Jackdaw, issue 135, available via: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk