Two Paintings from the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, England)

Greetings everyone!

If you’ve been following, you’ll see that I’m on quite the roll this week! I posted about the  Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth on Tuesday, and the Tate Liverpool yesterday. I’m blogging about my Euro trip in order, so this will be the last England post! I was very excited to visit the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool because the collection houses some of the world’s most famous Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art. Rather than analyzing an overarching exhibition, I will discuss two fascinating paintings from the collection. Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903) and The Punishment of Lust, by Giovanni Segantini (1891) reveal much about morality and gender politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903) is one of my favorite paintings. I believe I have reblogged it on my tumblr a minimum of seven times. Seeing the work in person was an absolute dream. Here I am posing beside this beautiful painting:

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And here is a photograph of the painting in context of the room, hung below another masterpiece:

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Echo and Narcissus tells the story of the Roman myth whose characters bear the same names. Echo was a maiden infatuated with Narcissus, who in turn was too self-absorbed to notice her advances. She withered away until just her voice– an echo– remained on this earth. As punishment for his behavior, Narcissus became obsessed with his own reflection, and could not bear to part from it. Here, we see Echo looking longingly at Narcissus:

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Note her body language. Rather than pointing towards the object of her desire, Echo’s torso is flush with the canvas. Her bent knees are positioned even further away from Narcissus. And yet she turns her face to look back at him, creating a thin line of taut muscle in her throat where she twists her neck. She clutches a tree in one hand while the other is used to steady herself on a rock. The tension in her body language demonstrates her convoluted emotions; part of her body turns away from him while the other part physically reaches out towards him.

Furthermore, her posture is that of a person trying to emulate a certain persona. Her knees and feet are kept modestly pressed together, covered in a draped pink fabric. Yet she allows the fabric to fall away, revealing the breast closest to Narcissus’ line of vision. Her gaze, too, affirms her desire. It is a bit difficult to see in this photograph, but t Echo’s eyes are wide open. Zoom in on this version of the picture to see better. The angle of her pupils points her focus directly on Narcissus. Waterhouse employs the tiniest of brushstrokes to indicate her slightly-arched right eyebrow, which lends her face a combination of intensity and distress. Echo’s love for Narcissus comes at the expense of her own composure.

Now take a look at the way the artist paints Narcissus:

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We are not able to see his face as it is focused on his reflection in the water. However, we can learn a lot from his body language. Narcissus lays down on the rock in order to get as close as possible to the water. His right hand reaches towards the lake. What could he accomplish in doing so? He cannot be using it to, say, drink water or catch a fish, because he is already engaged in an activity: looking at himself. Thus, the movement of his hand is part of this activity. He is reaching out to touch his reflection, which is by nature a non-tangible entity. He is so obsessed with himself that he disregards what he knows to be the properties of water in order to be closer to his reflection. This demonstrates the severity of his curse. There is also a moral lesson for the viewer behind this pictorial choice. Waterhouse seems to be warning the viewer that self-involvement engenders irrational, foolish thinking.

If you take another look at the zoomed-out picture you’ll see that there are a few yellow flowers growing by Narcissus’ feet. These are Narcissus flowers, commonly known as daffodils. The myth describes how these flowers sprouted when Narcissus finally died at this very spot.

What do you think Waterhouse was trying to accomplish in Echo and Narcissus? Was he warning viewers about the dangers of lust and self-absorption? Or was he simply fond of Roman mythology and its possibilities for Victorian painting? In the wall plaque, the museum states that unrequited love was a favorite theme of Waterhouse’s. Keep in mind that this was 1903, and gender dynamics were quite different. Perhaps Waterhouse’s paintings fetishize the stereotypical lonely female. They certainly do the protagonist no favors in rounding out her character. Though what I like about Echo and Narcissus is that neither character comes out unscathed. Echo is foolish to contemporary viewers, perhaps, but Narcissus is as well. Waterhouse makes less commentary on their genders than on the concepts they represent.

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Speaking of morality, the painter Giovanni Segantini painted his own tale of warning about vice in The Punishment of Lust (1891). Take a look:

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And up close:

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What we are presented with here is a supernatural scene in the midst of an ominous landscape. Two curiously identical figures float in mid-air, their torsos facing in opposite directions. Their hair- a beautiful golden red- rises in the air as well. Some strands float parallel to the earth while others blow gently in an invisible wind. The arms of both figures are relaxed. The figure on the viewer’s left floats easily, her arm resting in the air as if there is a bed beneath it. The figure on the viewer’s right floats just as soundly, though her hand rests on her belly. We are not given privy to the legs of either girl, as they are encased in a silvery fabric that stretches ambiguously up each of their bodies. It is not clear where the fabric starts and ends. There is the semblance of a visible breast on the body of the figure at right. The impressionistic quality of the brushstrokes and the similar coloring of the fabric, the girls’ skin, and the landscape behind make it difficult to discern fabric from skin and snow. We are also not given access to either girl’s face. They are turned towards the sky and powdered with droplets of color that blur their features. Tiny smudges of grey suggest the shadow of closed eyelids.

What other clues do we have, besides this analysis of the figures’ bodies? We have their desolate landscape. The earth is barren, covered in a thin layer of white snow. The scraggly bushes and trees around the figures are few and far between. It is not immediately clear if they are dead or simply leafless for the winter. There is also a stretch of black mountain uncovered by white snow. The world is not a frosted wonderland of snow mountains and evergreen trees. It is a wasteland, just too cold enough for proper greenery to grow, but not cold enough to create a winter wonderland. If my memory of 8th grade earth science is correct, this could very well be the tundra.

Because the figures are situated in such a desolate wasteland (and because of the title of the painting) it is clear that the figures are enduring a supernatural punishment for their sins- specifically, lust. Is this lust for each other? The two women are intertwined. Perhaps their lustful sin is the engagement in lesbian sex. They could also be sisters, or mirror images of one self. What do you think?

On the plaque at the museum it is written: “This is based on the 12th century poem, Nirvana, by Luigi Illica, which describes the progress of neglectful mother through a Buddhist purgatory. The tree symbolizes the tree of life. The floating mothers’ souls will eventually achieve Nirvana, a Buddhist heaven represented by the mountains. The painting may be the Italian artist’s protest against women’s emancipation.”

Wow, take a second to take that all in. No matter how much visual analysis I did in front of this painting, there was a zero percent chance I was ever going to land on that interpretation. I simply am not exposed enough to Buddhist imagery to have made that leap between tree and tree of life, or floating bodies and the achievement of Nirvana. However, with all that in mind, do you have any initial reactions? I am struck by two things. First, the fact that Segantini has painted two separate mothers identically. Surely the artist had the capability to paint women who look different, so why paint them the same exact way? Perhaps their neglectfulness as mothers renders them unworthy of individualistic depiction. Secondly, the fact that the artist actively protested women’s emancipation lends the work another layer of significance (and makes my blood boil). He clearly did not think very highly of women if he was against their emancipation. So, the depiction of women as sinful, neglectful mothers is a warning to lawmakers in society. If women cannot be trusted to perform their traditional duties as mothers, how can they be allowed to take on more societal responsibilities? (This literally pains me to write). And so, with this wall plaque to help us interpret The Punishment of Lust, we come away with a deepened understanding of both the artist’s personal politics, and the significance of the painting itself.

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It is sometimes difficult to be a woman and love Victorian art (or pretty much any art before the 1970s) as it often features women in objectified, fetishized positions. Rarely do I see a painting that is actually propaganda for misogynistic politics, but I am no stranger to the fetishized nude. What does this mean for me as an art historian, student, and woman? As I often say, learning about art is important because art is a reflection of how people feel and think. If you want to better understand history and conflict, you must look at the art being made by those living within it. And so, in order to understand the history of gender politics and make positive steps towards improving conditions for women, we must understand how we got to where we are. We must look at the history of gender roles and how people felt about these roles. One of the best ways to do so is through art. Sometimes this can be upsetting, as in the case of The Punishment of Lust. Other times it can be rewarding, especially when you find a painting that seems bizarrely feminist in a time when feminism was not being discussed at all. (Read: Olympia).

Let me know if you have any thoughts, feminist, artistic, or otherwise. I’m going to go look at some works by female artists and feel powerful again.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

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Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest (The New Museum- NYC)

Hi everyone! 

If you’ve been on social media recently, you’ve likely seen a picture from the Pipliotti Rist retrospective at the New Museum. This exhibition has garnered tremendous attention- in part because of how incredible the exhibit is, and also due to its nature as a major spectacle. Like Yayoi Kusama’s “Give Me Love” and Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest” attracts the instagrammers and the travelers, all eager to document their artistic adventures. Though these exhibits differ in subject matter and medium, they share an infectious aspect of spectacle. Visitors were eager to snap a picture of themselves covered in colorful polka-dots in the “Give Me Love” exhibition space. Just take a look at my icon on your left! Visitors of A Subtlety were just as taken with the spectacle of the massive Sugar Sphinx. The photo-snapping of white visitors angered many, creating a controversy about the role of the viewer that you can read about here. Evidently, the rapid proliferation of ‘spectacle art,’ as I’ll call it, has led many to question the usefulness of these exhibitions. Are these shows ‘selling out?’ in an attempt to attract viewers? Or are viewers polluting exhibits with their smartphones, diminishing the quality of the museum/gallery experience for other viewers?

The reason I bring up this controversy in a review of Rist’s retrospective is that Pixel Forest confronts this controversy head-on. Not only is Pixel Forest a spectacle; it is a commentary on spectacle. Rist achieves this dual effect through a variety of means including size, use of unconventional art-making materials, and visitor participation. In this post, I will talk about how Rist uses these tools to create a spectacle for the viewer and to simultaneously ask the viewer to contemplate the usefulness of spectacle.

Additionally, I’ll talk about some of the other themes featured in Rist’s work through the years, such as voyeurship of the human body, the relationship between the human body and nature, and the deconstruction of femininity. 

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The exhibition begins on the second floor. I took the stairs rather than the elevator, so the first work I encountered was Pickelmporno (Pimple Porno), (1992). Pickelporno is a video installation projected onto the wall in one of the side niches of the second floor. Take a look at a few of the snapshots I took of this rapidly moving video piece:

You can also watch the 10 minute video here. 

It has been shot- or cut in post-production- into an irregular parallelogram, which immediately creates a sense of unbalance for the viewer. It is difficult to get our footing in relation to Pickelporno. If we want to look at the video head-on, must we turn our heads to the right to make our eyes parallel to the slanting bottom line? Rist invites us to manipulate the position of our bodies in order to consume her work. This is an example of audience participation being used to engage viewers in a work and create spectacle.

The content of Pickelporno is fascinating. The camera skims the surface of the human body, taking in the tiniest details of human skin and hair with a sharply focused lens. We see the thinnest of lines and grooves in the palm and foot of an unnamed person. Hands tug at short black hair and we follow this movement, gazing at a mass of oily strands from root to tip. The close contact with this person initiated by the camera turns the viewer- no matter how innocent he may feel!- into a voyeur. By watching Pickelporno, the viewer inhabits the space of the lens, wandering over a body and consuming every detail. Now, depending on the personality of the viewer, this could make a person feel a number of different ways. Embarrassed perhaps, or maybe guilty. Another could feel amazed by the the intricacies of the human form, or even titillated by it.

The transitive process of the viewer stepping into the role of camera man is fascinating in and of itself, but Rist doesn’t stop there. She juxtaposes these shots of hair and skin with images of leaves, oranges, sunflowers, lava, jellyfish and the moon. These motifs are examples of entities found in nature (and outer space). The presence of these objects next to the human being consumed suggests a similarity between the human form and the natural world. Seen from up close, the skin of an orange is not so different from the skin of  a person. Thus, Pickelporno achieves a commentary on both voyeurship and the place of the human within the greater earth.

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In the center of the second floor are two screens at a right angle from one another. Projected on these screens are two videos that play one after the other: Sip My Ocean (1996) and Ever is Over All (1997). Below are two screen grabs of Sip My Ocean.

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You can also watch the entire 5 minute video here. 

Sip My Ocean features similar imagery to that of Pickelporno. The camera hovers over the human form, often zooming in on parts of the body, as shown in the image of pursed lips. These images are also juxtaposed with views of nature, namely, pixelated underwater views. The luscious underwater world is a playground of colorful shapes that bend and morph into otherworldly forms. Early video technology allowed Rist to manipulate the underwater footage, creating a sublime wonderland of bright colors and pixelated shapes that are in constant flux. This spectacular, real-yet-not-real setting is the space within which a bikini-clad woman swims. She is the focus of Sip My Ocean, even though stretches of time pass in which she is absent from the screen. She appears now and then between the waves. We are shown tantalizing views of her from all angles. The camera slides up her body slowly at times, focusing on her bouncing breasts. She is caressed by the camera, by the waves, and by us. All the while a haunting recording plays. She sings, “I never dreamed that I’d love someone like you/No I don’t want to fall in love.” This repeats for about 3 minutes, when she begins to scream over the song. She shrieks these words while the underwater landscape continues to grow and dissolve, glimmers of her body flashing across the screen and twisting upside down before disappearing altogether. It is as if she is drowning. Or perhaps the camera has taken ahold of her and is yanking her through the dimensions of this underwater world.

What is the message of Sip My Ocean? My major takeaway was that the protagonist- who is Rist herself- has little control for much of the video. The camera- and transitively, us- are voyeurs of her sublime body within a sublime world. Yet she struggles to gain control and assert herself, at the expense of the beauty around her. The more she shrieks, the more she disrupts the eerie landscape beneath her. It warps more and more quickly, fragments of waves and unnatural amoebas disintigrating as the voice rises in pitch. To me, Sip My Ocean is a representation of female struggle and female power, and a confrontation of the aestheticism linked to femininity. What happens when women fight this association- and refuse to fall in love? It dissolves around them into pixels of dust.

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Here is a sequence of four screen grabs from Ever is Over All (1997).

You can also watch the whole 2-3 minute video here.

In Ever is Over All, two sets of footage play on either side of the screen. On the viewer’s left, the female protagonist wears a blue sundress and red heels. Her hair is done in a neat up-do. She grins and saunters down the street carrying a long green object with a yellow and red oval top. As she walks, she swings the object back and forth in her hands until she reaches a car window. Then she smashes the object into the window, shattering the glass. She continues down the street, still grinning wildly. At one point a female officer passes her and salutes her. 

Meanwhile, on the viewer’s right, the camera zooms up and down the stalks of flowers in a meadow. These flowers have long green stems with textured yellow and red petals. They mirror the shape and colors of the object the protagonist uses as a weapon. The flower footage adopts the meandering ‘gaze’ that characterizes the camerawork in both Sip My Ocean and Pickelporno. We are made to feel like we are consuming the flowers as we trace our eyes slowly up and down them, moving closer towards them and flipping upside down to devour them from every angle. 

Flowers have an association with femininity, which the protagonist enhances with her sundress, heeled shoes and fancy hairdo. It is uncomfortable to see this beautiful woman wreck havoc on the street while wearing such a traditionally feminine outfit, surrounded by feminine symbols. Rist wants us to feel uncomfortable. In doing so, we are forced to ask ourselves what specifically is making us feel this way. A feminine-looking woman acting in an un-feminine way is initially startling and makes us confused- why is she acting this way? Rist responds, “Why would she not? Who says she has to act one way or another?” 

I assume, then, that Ever is Over All is meant to challenge traditionally ideas of feminine behavior, and the usefulness of the notion of femininity at all. Furthermore, the protagonist uses a weapon that is colored and shaped like a flower, but has the solidity and power to destroy a car (a typically masculine object). It follows that Ever is Over All is also a testament to female strength. Her strength is doubted because of her femininity- after all, the symbol attributed to her is the flower. And yet it is precisely a flower secretly made of metal that triumphs over the traditional symbol of maleness, the car.

The presence of the female officer saluting her introduces a female figure in a traditionally male role, further unraveling the viewer’s preconceived notions of femininity. 

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To the right of the screens projecting Sip My Ocean and Ever is Over All is a series of white sheets hanging from the ceiling. Projected on them is another video. This installation piece is entitled Administrating Eternity (2011). Here is a photograph of one of these projections: 

 

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If one were to pass in front of this projection, the pink and yellow sheep would become projected onto his or her skin. Thus, in walking through Administrating Emily, the viewer becomes part of the work.  Administrating Emily’s space depends on the viewers’ movements. Our bodies are additional screens, and our movements are perpetually constructing the work in new directions and manners. A man briskly walking between the sheets jostles them, making the images shake while 20 different colors illuminate his skin in quick succession. A woman standing  still before a sheet becomes a three-dimensional screen, her silhouette grey against the sheet, but the projection bright upon her back. The amorphous space of Administrating Emily is in constant flux because of variation in human behavior.

The importance of audience participation in Administrating Emily is part of what makes it such a fascinating spectacle. People enjoy the fact that their presence influences a work of art. The importance of human behavior in determining the space of the work points to the importance of the individual in the collective experience, and the relationship between man and the world. 

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The third floor is perhaps the most photographed (certainly the most instagrammed) of the exhibition. When one enters the space, this is what he sees:

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It is the titular work of the exhibition, “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest” (2016). Here are several other pictures.

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As you can see, Pixel Forest is always changing colors. It is composed of 3000 lights, each of which is one LED pixel that has been immersed in a polyurethane sculpture. As the viewer walks around, he is surrounded by whatever color the pixels are radiating at that moment. For a few seconds, the entire room is bathed in pink. Then the pink intensifies and turns red. Red gives way to a sensual purple, a bright blue, a vivid green. The colors of the pixels change in conjunction with the video being projected onto a screen behind the forest. I understood Pixel Forest as behaving in conjunction with these videos.  

Worry Will Vanish (2014) and “Mercy Garden” (2014) alternate on the screen. You can watch an excerpt of Worry Will Vanish here. You can watch an excerpt of Mercy Garden here. Below are a series of stills from both videos: 

The two videos continue Rist’s theme of combining close up, voyeuristic images of the human body with high-res nature footage. Digital technology has removed the pixelated quality so present in Pickelporno and perfected the fluid overlay techniques begun in Sip My Ocean. In one beautiful moment, the silhouette of a tree sprouts from the neck of a man. In another, a vivid red canyon can be seen from between the petals of green leaves. 

Large pillows are provided for viewers to sit down and gaze up at the colorful footage on the walls. When I sat down, it felt as if I had just journeyed through a forest and had landed in a small clearing. In this way the entire space on the third floor mirrors a series of spaces in the natural world, and the process of moving through them. 

Without a doubt, Pixel Forest constitutes a spectacle. It fulfills the basic criteria I outlined before: size, audience participation, and the use of unconventional art-making materials. The forest is vast- it takes up one third to one half of the entire third floor, stretching from floor to ceiling. Viewers are welcomed into the space and encouraged to participate by weaving their way through the strands of light, and making their way to the clearing to sit down. The use of LED lights in an artwork is unusual for the average museum-goer who may not study contemporary art. Even if he has seen art that incorporates light, he likely has not seen it at such a great scale. The result of all this spectacle is a sensation of awe. When I walked I walked through Pixel Forest, I wondered if this was how pilgrims felt when they walked into gothic cathedrals reflecting multicolored light through stained glass windows. There is something heavenly about a space flooded with light. It evokes sacredness, the supernatural, and the celestial realm. While not a religious work, the spectacular nature of Pixel Forest filled me with an overwhelming sense of the sublime. And so, Rist’s spectacle serves more purpose than to simply shock. 

“Is spectacle useful?” the cynic may ask. Rist’s response speaks volumes: a spectacle that can aid the viewer in transcending this world. 

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On the fourth floor, Rist instructs the viewer to lie down on a series of beds and look up at a video installation distending from the ceiling. Fourth Floor to Mildness (2016) is projected on two large screens. You can watch a short clip here. As you can see, the work continues Rist’s exploration of nature from different angles and perspectives. Below are several stills from the space, demonstrating the space between the beds and the screens as well as the shape of the screens. 

Fourth Floor to Mildness is a site-specific installation created for this exhibition. And so, it took the architecture of the New Museum into consideration. The two large screens fill the ceiling space in the center section of the fourth floor. The result is a sense of organic unity; it does not feel as if anything else could fit in the space, or that anything should be removed. 

The presence of the screens on the ceiling reverses the way in which we usually consume images. On the second and third floors we were asked to consume videos on the walls. There were also several videos projected onto the floor and through other unconventional means. The shift of the screen to the ceiling signals the final metamorphosis of image consumption. We are lying down, finally at complete and total rest. 

Additionally, Rist confronts the dichotomy between individual and collective consumption through the inclusion of large beds. This forces strangers to lie down together, breaking down social barriers about the normative ways in which we consume images. The smart phone is individual. The movie theatre is collective, though we sit in individual seats. Fourth Floor to Mildness is collective. If you want to consume, you must first take off your shoes- another socially inappropriate behavior- and lie down next to total strangers. 

The fourth floor is meant to be a culmination of the spectacle as a whole. It is vast, incorporates the audience in its representation and meaning, and questions social norms in a way that excites the viewer. I personally prefer Pixel Forest and its relationship to Worry Will Vanish and Mercy Garden in terms of spectacle and the usefulness of spectacle, but it is important to comprehend the exhibition as a whole. As the viewer makes his way through the different floors, he is asked to alter his body in relation to each work until he is lying flat on his back. I thought this was a fascinating curatorial choice, and was the most memorable part of Fourth Floor to Mildness for me. 

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I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the different works in “Pipliotti Rist: Pixel Forest.” I have often thought about the construction and usefulness of spectacle, and was happy to encounter an exhibit that I believe facilitates the understanding of both. I also hope that you come away from this post thinking about Rist’s main themes: voyeurship of the human body, the relationship between the human body and nature, and the deconstruction of femininity. These are topics that are relevant in our own lives, and issues that we can tackle both with and without art (though I prefer the former method).

One last thing I wanted to discuss is the abundance of documentation that I noticed in this exhibit. I went with a good friend and I believe we spent a good 20 minutes complaining about the people standing in Pixel Forest taking pictures of themselves. The sheer volume of people standing and snapping pictures made it extremely difficult for us to take a step in any direction. While I did manage to feel a sense of transcendence, it was not before jostling my way to the edge of the room, where there were less people with selfie sticks. We eventually spoke to a tour guide about this, and suggested there be an hour a day when cameras aren’t allowed in the New Museum. He brought up something we hadn’t thought about: Pipliotti Rist could actually be happy with the proliferation of screens in her exhibit. The whole show presented images in different shapes, on new surfaces, at unconventional angles. Administrating Emily was constructed on the idea that new bodies would forever create new screens, giving the work an amorphous, ever-changing, shape. Perhaps the millions of selfies taken per day in Pixel Forest were an extension of the work itself. Maybe the work is as big as our entire earth- or as far as a selfie bathed in pink light can travel. What do you think?

In the meantime, I very hypocritically still ask that you limit the amount of pictures you take per room to 5 (gasp) or you might find an elbow in your side.

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤ 

 

!Women Art Revolution (Film Huis Cavia-Amsterdam)

Last night I went to a screening of !Women Art Revolution at Film Huis Cavia in Amsterdam. It was easily the best movie I have seen all year. It was so good that my friends and I spent the next three hours talking about how the legacy of the feminist art revolution lives on today. The documentary was made in 2010 by Lynn Hershman Leeson, but it has been an ongoing project of Leeson’s for the past forty years.  !Women Art Revolution details the rise of the feminist art revolution in the 1960s and its development throughout the rest of the 20th century. It is an oral history, as well as a series of interviews featuring female artists, curators, and art historians. These interviews have been conducted over the past forty years- it was a unique and special experience to hear these women, some of whom have since passed away, speak about their experiences. Throughout the hour and a half of this incredible film, I was exposed to fifty years of history I had embarrassingly been devoid of in my artistic education. 

How awful is it, that I had only ever heard of TWO of these artists? I had studied Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” in AP Art History in high school, and bought Miranda July’s book,”No One Belongs Here More Than You,” from the Strand Bookstore. But the names Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringold, Miriam Schapiro, Barbara Kruger, and many, MANY more, were completely new to me. I hadn’t even heard of the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of female artists who protested discrimination and sexism in the art world while wearing gorilla costumes. Their humorous posters and literal guerrilla tactics raised awareness about these issues and put political pressure on artistic institutions to be inclusive of women and artists of color. When the Whitney put on a show featuring exclusively male artists, the Guerrilla Girls created a fake press release on Whitney stationary, exclaiming how proud the institution was to be presenting the first exhibition in New York City including 50% female artists. I could not believe I had never heard of this group of activists. I also could not believe I had never heard the tragedy of Ana Mendieta, a Cuban feminist artist who fell to her death from the window of her 34th floor apartment in 1985. It was widely believed that her husband, famous MALE contemporary artist Carl Andre, was responsible for her murder. As !Women Art Revolution points out, Andre’s contemporaries refused to speak against him. He was eventually acquitted, leading to a series of protests in Mendieta’s honor, in which posters of Mendieta’s face and the words, “Where is Ana? Ask Carl!” were scattered all over Andre’s work at the Guggenheim. 

Of course, I have to recognize that I have not taken a course in contemporary art yet, and it is possible that these artists are textbook requirements today. All of my contemporary art knowledge has come from my personal exploration in books, articles, and museum/gallery visits. However, there is something to be said for name recognition. So many male artists of the same era have penetrated the bubble of academic art history to the point where they are recognizable to the general public. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Sol Lewitt, Frank Stella… the male artists who were creatintat the same time as Ana Mendieta and Lynn Hershman are ENGRAINED in my mind. I know all of their names, so why don’t I know these women’s names?

This is why we still need feminism. The art world has definitely become more progressive. Lisa Yuskavage, Yayoi Kusama, and Marina Abramovic are three of my favorite artists. Marcia Tucker, who is interviewed in !Women Art Revolution, founded the New Museum to exhibit the work of living artists, including many incredible female artists. But the art world- the way art is exhibited and the way art history is taught- still has a long way to go. As !Women Art Revolution pointed out, omission is dangerous for the legacy of female artists. It directly leads to eradication. In one chilling segment of the film, an unseen interviewer asked passerby outside the Whitney, “Can you name three female artists?” Embarrassed people stutter and mumbl before finally offering, “Frieda Khalo?” as their only answer. The age-old practice of omitting female artists while they are alive has led to their eradication from collective memory. The feminist artists of the 60s and 70s fought for their work to be included in galleries and institutions. !Women Art Revolution reports that exhibitions of exclusively white-male artists remained popular in the United States through the 1990s. Leeson and her contemporaries describe stories in which gallery-owners repeatedly refused to represent them . One artist described an experience in which she was forced to get on her hands and knees to present her portfolio to a male gallery director, a humiliation surely no male artist was ever forced to endure. Another recounted a time when a buyer returned a painting to her when he found out she  was female, because he said the work had no market value. Today, circumstances are different. Women are not omitted from galleries and institutions. But we cannot forget the work of the feminist artists that we stand on today. We cannot allow these artists and their works to be omitted from history, or we risk their eradication entirely. 

And so, I urge you to find this film on the internet, and donate to !WAR here. 

The only way to prevent omission and eradication is by continuing to spread the work of female artists and information about their lives. Here are some links for further reading:

I hope that you check out these links and are also inspired to do more reading on your own.  After all, I have only scratched the surface with these artists. There are so SO many more to learn from.

If you happen to be in Amsterdam, Film Huis Cavia will be playing !Women Art Revolution again tonight at 8:30 PM! Tickets are 15 euro. 

Until next time! 

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤ 

 

 

Female Modernity: Manet vs. Rossetti (MFA, Boston)

So far on canvasandcrumpets I have shown you DIY crafts and exhibition reviews of museums and galleries. What I would like to do next is look at two famous painters- Edouard Manet and Dante Gabriel Rossetti- and see how these contemporaries  depicted women. I will look specifically at two paintings hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Manet’s Victorine Meurent (1862), and Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata (1859). The differences in these paintings reflect two distinct styles, impressionism and aestheticism, and also reveal the perspective of each artist towards women. This is a long post so feel free to skip around. I have organized it into several sections. The first is a look at the GAZE of each woman and what it reveals about the PERSPECTIVES of the artists themselves. Then I look at LIGHT, BRUSHWORK, and SPACE, to see how surface techniques depict the perspectives of Manet and Rossetti toward women. At the end, I take everything into consideration to make a statement about the overall effect of each portrait, regardless of the artists’ intentions.

To start, take a look at each painting: Victorine Meurent is the first, and Bocca Baciata is the second.

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THE GAZE

The gaze of each woman in Victorine Meurent and Bocca Baciata offers a look into the perspective that each artist holds of women, and a perspective that the VIEWER is projected into simply by looking at the painting.

In Bocca Baciata, Fanny (who happened to be Rossetti’s mistress) looks off into the distance. She does not look at us or acknowledge our existence. We, the viewers, are projected into the perspective of a male voyeur appraising her vibrant copper hair and soft, pale skin. Rossetti makes it clear that we are allowed and encouraged to fetishize her beauty without fear of being confronted. She will never meet our eye.

Rossetti’s View of Women

This projected perspective reveals several things about Rossetti’s own view of women. Rossetti wanted the viewer to enjoy women the way he did; he took pleasure in painting the smallest hint of a blouse at the bottom of the painting. He reveled in giving her red lips the roundest shape, twirling her delicate fingers around a strand of hair. And yet what was most tantalizing to Rossetti appears to be the unattainability of women. While the viewer and Rossetti himself may have access to Fanny’s body, she cannot be entirely consumed while she gazes at something, or someone, else. The resulting painting is deeply disturbing. Rossetti painted an overabundance of sexual female symbols and sensual details as a way to fetishize her, and to almost make up for the fact that he would never be able to attain all of her. One such symbol is the apple, representing fertility, unsubtly placed at the foreground of the painting, implying his ability to impregnate her. This can be seen as a play of both sexual desire, and desire for male power, in that pregnancy renders a female somewhat debilitated. Impregnating Fanny would be another way for Rossetti to claim her.

THE GAZE

Manet also paid great attention to the gaze of his female protagonist. However, Victorine looks right at the viewer, whereas Fanny gazes provocatively away. Victorine looks out through hazel eyes shaded by feathery yellow eyelashes. Her eyes seem separate from the patchy brushstrokes that served to both construct and deconstruct the rest of her face. The intensity of her gaze dissolves the space between subject and viewer. Victorine not only looks out of the painting and into our space; she has an active relationship with the viewer. Victorine holds the viewer at a distance, stopping us from coming closer. The mere suggestion that we would come closer reveals that the viewer is projected into the perspective of a male voyeur, the very same position we are given in Bocca Baciata. Victorine is aware and accepts that she is being appraised, but she does not pretend to enjoy the attention paid to her appearance. Her response to the invasion of her privacy and to our appraisal is to regard us with cool dignity and confidence. She will not attempt to stop us from looking at her, but she will also not let us do so without meeting our eyes. The effect is jarring. The viewer is made to feel like his thoughts and actions are exposed.

Manet’s View of Women

The entire experience of looking at this painting—appraising her and then catching her eyes and feeling uncomfortable—reveals Manet’s own attitude towards women. The discomfort felt by the viewer is dependent on the viewer’s inability to understand exactly who she is. While Manet would also never understand what it was like to be a woman in modern Paris, he attempted to give women a voice through painting, which reflects his respect for them. In depicting a woman unsatisfied with the confines of her gender, he recognized women beyond their typical roles as mothers, wives, or prostitutes. The painting is, in a way, his depiction of how suffocating he saw female modernity to be. Victorine wears a white blouse that evokes innocence, embroidered with black thread on the shoulders to emphasize her narrow frame. Her hair is tied back with a soft velvet headband. These feminine details illustrate how women were supposed to appear—modest and feminine. Victorine’s thin black choker draws attention to her femininity, particularly the smallness of her neck. Its tied bow functions to tie her to the surface of the painting, whose flaky brushstrokes threaten to dissolve her from representation. Furthermore, the tied choker glues her to the confines of her position in society. The velvet headband also bears a tied bow, doubling the symbol of the tied knot. She is stuck within the boundaries of her gender and class. Manet attempted to give her a voice that the realities of French female modernity did not provide. He did so through her gaze that quietly confronts the issue of male voyeurism and the power dynamic between men and women in modern Paris.

SURFACE TECHNIQUES

Specific surface techniques underline each artist’s perspective towards women.

Light

In Manet’s Victorine Meurent, the first oddity is the reflection of her earring. It reflects the light with one single fleck. This seems odd given that this side of her face is in shadow. No light is being shone on her ear to promote this effect. Perhaps it is meant to draw attention to the shadow itself, which creeps onto the right side of Victorine’s face with jagged edges. It is oddly dark in contrast to the chalky pallor of her face. No regular light fixture could leave a shadow with so many sharp edges, without any gradation from dark to light. It makes one wonder what is before her that creates that unrealistic, encroaching, shadow, so dark and bizarrely shaped. Is it a man? In which case, we are that man, as that is our projected perspective, and we are threatening to literally put her entirely in the dark. Darkness here symbolizes the silencing effect of modern Paris on the French woman. In this way Manet utilizes light to underline the constraints of female modernity.

The effect of light on Fanny’s face is more straightforward but equally in line with Rossetti’s view of women. Light hits her straight on so that her entire face is illuminated. Only a tiny shadow hugs her face to give her depth. However, the landscape behind her is not brightened at all. One can see dim flowers, but they do not shine with the same radiance as does Fanny’s face. It is almost as if there is a spotlight being shone directly on her. Spotlight lighting all the more supports Rossetti’s idea of the idealized beauty, on display for the world to see.

Brushwork

Manet and Rossetti also approached brushwork entirely differently. Rossetti strived for his brushstrokes to be as invisible as possible in order to render an idealized female, perfect enough to be fetishized. In contrast, Manet kept his brushstrokes visibly unfinished in order to reveal societal issues beyond pictorial depiction. Rossetti’s brushstrokes are so smooth that one must look very closely to even see the nature of paint on canvas. From a short distance away, the representation is lifelike, and the individual strokes used to construct Fanny’s face blend seamlessly into one another. The result is a licked surface and an idealized female, ready to be consumed by Rossetti and the projected viewer.

Manet’s looser approach to brushwork is no less careful, though its appearance may appear haphazard. He used thick brushstrokes with unfinished edges that created a smudged quality, especially around Victorine’s nose and chin. These smudged brushstrokes have a dual effect. Patched together, they form a recognizable image of Victorine’s likeness. Yet their unfinished edges unravel her face at the same time. The very strokes that construct her face also prevent representation from being completed. They threaten to unravel her completely. The patchy quality to her face can also be interpreted as a physical representation of her making herself up for presentation. The brushstrokes can be seen as iterations of the makeup brushes she uses to apply rouge. While she paints herself up to conform to societal standards, she covers up her identity. The result is a representation that is at once her and not her, with the surface of her skin a space of oscillation between construction and deconstruction.

Space

Interestingly, Manet and Rossetti had similar approaches to space, but for different ends. In both paintings, the female protagonist takes up a majority of the pictorial layout. A portion of each torso and the entirety of each head are visible. The backgrounds are also similarly ambiguous. Manet situated Victorine in front of a smooth, brown wall. As a result, this woman could be anywhere, in any home. She represents the woman behind walls in modern Paris. Too specific a location would take away from her universality. The painting also appears much larger than it is, in part because Victorine fills the majority of its seventeen square inches. Both the choice to fill the frame with Victorine’s figure and to reflect societal pressures on women through her image give Victorine Meurent its great visual impact.

In Bocca Baciata, the background is floral, but it is ambiguously so. One cannot tell if it is meant to be floral wallpaper or a landscape. We receive no understanding of pictorial space. The flowers mimic the flowers in her hair, and seem more like a part of her existence—her aura—than any space she is in. However, the purpose of maintaining a vague background was not to make the image of Fanny more universal. It was to crowd Fanny into her cage of femininity and sexuality. It is as if, the more she is objectified, and the more beautiful things that surround her, the more she belongs to Rossetti and to the viewer. Rossetti utilizes space further to attempt to ensnare her. The frame of the portrait cannot contain her flowing copper hair. It extends beyond the borders on either side. The painting cannot hold all of her, yet it tries adamantly to by keeping its size tiny, as if cutting her off at the edges will diminish her freedom. The frame’s width is roughly half the width of the painting itself. She is trapped within a small, golden prison. It is both a tantalizing thought—this wild, beautiful woman is captured for the viewer’s pleasure—and an uncomfortable one. And so, each woman is depicted without a distinctive background, though for very different purposes: Victorine, to maintain universality, and Fanny, to emphasize her imprisonment.

CONCLUSION

As you have read and seen, Manet and Rossetti approached the depiction of their models with an interesting degree of similarities and differences. Victorine Meurent and Bocca Baciata both project the viewer into the position of a male voyeur. Manet does so in order to create discomfort, which illustrates what he believes to be the oppressive nature of female modernity. His use of space, light, brushwork, and the female gaze all support this attitude. Meanwhile, Rossetti positions his viewer as a male voyeur in order to expose the female to fetishization beyond his own objectification. His attention to surface techniques contributes to the sensual and idealized image of the female. Because of Rossetti’s sexual, objectifying image of Fanny, it could be thought that she is meant to be powerless. She appears to exist completely for the gaze of men. And yet, is there not a kind of power in keeping part of oneself hidden when the rest is exposed? If Fanny’s faraway gaze is tantalizing to Rossetti in his quest to possess women, then there is a power in her resistance to meet his gaze. Looking away becomes a means of self-defense and self-preservation. Therefore, the women in these two paintings may not be so different after all. They both confront the male gaze, though Fanny does so by resisting it, and Victorine does so by meeting it. It is unlikely that Rossetti intended for this occurrence. His objectifying perspective would not support the notion of a confrontational female. However, it is something to consider when viewing the overall effect of each portrait. Manet and Rossetti presented females who confront the issue of the male gaze despite their different perspectives on female modernity and attitudes towards women. The viewer is able to comprehend Manet’s desire to illuminate female modernity and Rossetti’s desire to possess women through each artist’s careful handling of light, brushwork, space, and the female gaze.