Art reflects how we see women; now women are influencing how we see art

WOMEN IN THE PICTURE: WHAT CULTURE DOES WITH FEMALE BODIES by Catherine McCormack, W.W. Norton, 240 pages, $22.95

In the art world today, women are present in the rooms where it happens: making art in studios of their own; exhibiting in galleries and museums; studying, teaching, and writing; selling and buying; leading major institutions. While equity remains an elusive goal, evidence of increasing inclusion, diversity, and momentum is undeniable — from Washington, where women direct major art museums, to the 2022 Venice Biennale, the most important global art exhibition, where for the first time both the United States and Britain will be represented by Black women: American sculptor Simone Leigh and British Afro-Caribbean artist Sonia Boyce.

In Women in the Picture: What Culture Does with Female Bodies, British art historian Catherine McCormack invites us to walk with her through some of the rooms where art reflects and shapes our deepest beliefs. Moving past familiar works, mainly European paintings at the National Gallery and the Tate Modern in London, she aims a feminist, intersectional gaze at women as subjects and makers.

Speeding through art of the past five centuries, she introduces brilliant works by female artists who persisted and succeeded despite barriers to artistic production. But her primary interest is the representation of women’s bodies in the context of misogynistic, patriarchal legacies that, she argues, use images to control and limit women, making the unacceptable seem normal or invisible — from exclusion to rape, in art and in real life.

Mixing feminist polemic, a few blinding flashes of the obvious, and the cri de coeur of a working mother, McCormack grounds her analysis in feminist art history and theory, the insights of racial and sexual justice movements, and her own story as an emerging professional from a working-class background who moves in elite zones of the art world (she lectures at Sotheby’s on “Art, Race and Gender”). The book is structured as four chapters that interpret depictions of women in visual culture — in terms of the archetypal figures of Venus, maiden, mother, and monster — as a strategy for describing the troubled relationship among women, images, and power — or lack of power. The author puts herself in the picture, blending anecdotes based on her experience with discussion of historic and contemporary works.

McCormack begins with two stories. In the first, a man walks up to her in a museum as she stands, baby on hip, looking at a painting. He informs her that the message of the work is unfashionable. She fends off conversation, aware that he sees her “as a mother, and perhaps not so much as a mind,” but does not retreat. The painting she continues to study is The Story of Griselda, a 15th-century version of a folk narrative known as the “wife-testing plot.” The panel depicts “nothing unusual,” she says, just “a long-haired woman surrounded by a lot of men in tights.”

A group portrait of a lot of men in breeches painted nearly 300 years after Griselda is used to illustrate one of the major obstacles that confronted aspiring female artists: Professional education required life drawing, but women were barred from the rooms where male models posed. When Johan Zoffany painted his fellow founding members of the new Royal Academy in 1771-72, he solved the dilemma of portraying its first two female members, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, by leaving them out of the group but painting their images, framed as portraits, on the wall.

Fast-forward 250 years, and McCormack brings into focus all the paintings of “horizontal bodies of maidens [that] line our art galleries” — a shift in perspective that makes it impossible to ignore the implied content of the images of naked or barely draped female bodies and the “abduction” scenes that wallpaper museums. In one of many instances of her expressed outrage at sexual violence and its reflection in art, she calls out the “casual sexism” and “humiliating indignities” that she perceives in a curator’s comments about The Rape of Europa at a museum press preview introducing a major exhibition of Titian paintings in London.

Yet at times she seems to be fighting battles that have been won, as if unaware that much of the art world has moved on. She gives only minimal consideration to the question of what is to be done with problematic images of women if we can’t just lock them up. Part of the answer comes down to one word: contextualize. For example, when the Titian exhibition moved from London to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum last summer, it was not only a triumphal homecoming for Europa but a triumph of contextualization, from exemplary gallery guides to newly commissioned works such as Mary Reid Kelley’s video performance reanimating a Europa who speaks — in a poetic, satirical, and very funny voice.

McCormack’s chapter on mothers as artists and as subjects of artists is perhaps the strongest and most coherently argued. Weaving art history and personal story, anecdote and analysis, she discusses impressionist painter Berthe Morisot’s images of mothering and her “art of dislocation” as simultaneous outsider and insider. She provides glimpses of her own life as a mother who reads her children to sleep and then writes late into the night, suggesting that in both cases, the maternal juggling act is more difficult than it appears.

She mentions Virginia Woolf’s “angel in the house” — the one that Woolf had to kill to function as a writer. Several photographs offer variations on the chapter’s theme, including one from Eti Wade’s 2014 Migrant Mothers series in which an immigrant caregiver in London holds on her lap not her own child but a laptop computer with her daughter’s image streaming from the Philippines. The revelation is Therese in Ecstatic Childbirth, a photograph pulled from the archive of “radical midwife” Ina May Gaskin (who caravanned from San Francisco in 1971 to co-found The Farm in Tennessee). As McCormack says, Hermione Wiltshire’s photograph “radically makes visible something that is never usually seen: a body giving birth in pleasure and not in pain.” The very rarity of the image seems to prove many of McCormack’s points.

Readers might wish that Women in the Picture provided higher-quality pictures. Even though the book seems to be written for a general audience, inclusion of some of the conventions of art historical writing — an illustration list, index, artists’ dates — would make a welcome difference. Greater care should have been taken to give credit where due, such as by providing an attribution for the cover image. It appears to be a detail of Artemisia Gentileschi’s first (1612-1613) Judith Beheading Holofernes painting; oddly, considering the book’s theme, a text panel covers Judith’s eyes. Not least, the emblematic Zoffany story, so telling on the limits to female artists’ professional advancement, has been told before, by art historians Linda Nochlin, in the 1971 article that launched feminist art history, and by Whitney Chadwick in 1990. (If McCormack’s book whets readers’ appetites, Nochlin’s and Chadwick’s works, in recent expanded editions, provide the full meal.)

McCormack’s mad dash through and around the confluence of issues of gender, power, and representation in art is a passionate, serious, yet often entertaining introduction to issues that will be with us for the foreseeable future, their historic context and their implications for women. In addition to the four archetypes presented as symbols of women’s oppression, a new archetype emerges here, implicit but unnamed: the female artist as heroine, perhaps an aspect of “the heroine with 1,001 faces” described in Maria Tatar’s important recent history of the heroine’s journey in literature and film. McCormack’s own story is part of the new group portrait she has sketched of contemporary female artists, art historians, curators, critics, and museum directors who now have the power to look at, create, select, and interpret the pictures we see.

Women in the Picture opens with a story about fending off an unwelcome mansplainer in a museum. It ends by mentioning (Un)mansplaining, a performance by Indian artist Mithu Sen at the Venice Biennale in 2019, a challenge to an audience of art critics to “unmythologize” their writing about women. Next spring, when again women will be prominent in the pavilions at Venice, it is likely that McCormack’s Women in the Picture will also be present, on a shelf in the festival store among the guidebooks, art books, and continually expanding canon of feminist art history. 

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