Bayeux to Mona to Sarah

Gender Agenda


Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda
Issue 1 Lent 2003
The magazine of


Women's Union

Bayeux to Mona to SarahClaire Hart

You can’t get away from the fact that up until the twentieth-century at
least, women were far more likely to be the subjects of art than among
it’s creators. If you find yourself with far too much time on your hands
and you happen to sit down and make a list of the first, say, ten artists
that come into your head, I’ll eat my pink, crochetted bobble-hat if
they’re not all blokes. Mona was a girl, Leonardo was a boy, can I make it
anymore obvious, as Ms. Lavigne would put it.

Certain women of rank and fortune have, however, always played the role
of patrons of the visual arts though; deriving enjoyment from the devising
of elaborate and innovative projects for artists to apply their talents
to. In doing so they have driven forward the engines of artistic
achievement to an extent that should not be under-estimated. The likes of
Cosimo de’Medici and Catherine the Great of Russia were also, of course,
the exception rather than the rule. Whilst, understandably, their names
have not necessarily been exalted in the same way as those of their
protegees.

But,as a group, women have made a noteworthy contribution to the
artistic achievement of Western society in their own right. Among the most
obvious examples are the making of impressive tapestries of epic
proportions by highly-skilled women in the Middle Ages, like the Bayeux
Tapestry for example. Moreover, as far as the quality of the respective
pieces are concerned and with the difference in media excepted, these
tapestries, overwhelmingly the work of women, are perfectly comparable
with the works being produced by their more illustrious male
contemporaries. Fast-forward a couple of centuries and the cultural
sensibilities of the eighteenth century can be seen to have promoted
female artistic achievement, at least on an amateur level. This world,
where marriage was virtually essential for women if they were to achieve
social and financial security, was most famously encapsulated by Jane
Austen. The only authentic, full-length portrait of Austen which survives
today being one that was painted by her sister Cassandra, whose artistic
abilities were nurtured and prized within her family circle. Austen gives
us what is the most notorious description of the ‘accomplished woman’ of
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in “Pride and
Prejudice” in the form of Mr Darcy’s exclamation that such a woman “..must
have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the
modern languages to deserve such a word..” Artistic achievement was thus
an ‘accomplishment’ valued by contemporary society in Austen’s day. Yet,
predictably, women would rarely have dreamed of competing with the likes
of Kneller and Gainsborough.

It was therefore not until the back end of the Victorian era and the
dawn of the twentieth-century that women, especially upper and
middle-class women, were able to emancipate themselves to the extent that
they could actually pursue careers of their own: doctors, politicians and
even painters. From this period of transition and social upheaval, there
emerges the first female artists whose names actually mean anything to us
today. Vanessa Bell, for example, despite largely being better known as
Virginia Woolf’s sister, was herself a gifted painter working in the
1920s, 30s and 40s. Bell’s painting of two of her friends, one male, one
female, painting and preparing canvases which uses the striking colours
and bold shapes that were on the crest of the wave of contemporary
artistic developments, stands amidst the sea of work produced by her male
counterparts at Tate Modern.

 


Bed by Tracy Emin, 1998.

In the Post-War decades the female professional artist became less of a
Siberian tiger and more of an Indian elephant, and she wasn’t necessarily
clossetted in the coccoons of exclusive, arty cliques like the Bloomsbury
group. Women in general were in a much better position to follow their own
dreams and ambitions than they had ever been before. The sculptor and
painter Eva Hesse, who has recently been the object of a major
retrospective at the aforementioned Bankside establishment, was doing her
thing in the 1950s and 60s before her life was tragically cut short in
1970. As an artist Eva was taken seriously and gained a great deal of
credibility in what was still essentially a man’s world, although she may
not have become a household name like Rothko or Pollock. This status was,
however, achieved by Yoko Ono, a performance artist who was responsible
for wild conceptual stunts during the 1960s and 70s. But I guess it has to
be said that had it not been for her alter ego, Mrs John Lennon, Yoko and
her artistic craziness would in all likelihood not be so firmly imprinted
upon the collective consciousness.

Recently, when I happened to find myself loitering in the ground-floor
shop at Tate Modern, in a desperate and, as you may have guessed,
ultimately not unfruitful attempt to find the exit, I stumbled across a
postcard which really caught my eye. Initially it was the fact that it was
almost completely covered in words, which, funnily enough is not what I
usually expect from a postcard, that made it stand out. What it had
written on it was very interesting though. “As artists women are open to
having their work labelled as feminist propaganda or the products of
egocentricity or penis-envy. They’re slated for being too feminine or too
masculine, too overtly sexual or too ‘prudish’, for failing to win prizes
like the Turner or winning them. And anyway, why is it that only two women
have won the Turner Prize since its inception in 1984? And the work of
male artists routinely tends to fetch higher prizes?”

OK, so to be fair this postcard did have something about it of the
hysterical ‘feminism’ from which we recoil today, but it certainly makes
you stop and think and wonder why it is that female artists seem to have
their lives made more difficult than those of their male
counterparts. There is surely no reason to suppose that women lack any of
the necessary flair and ability, whilst men possess oodles of the
stuff. It’s probably more a question of the effects of the playing out of
the age-old forces which have limited female potential in general and
female artistic potential in particular.

Things are definitely on the up for female artists at the moment
though. In 1997 there was even an all-female short-list for the Turner
Prize, which, regardless of your views vis-a-vis the value of this
competition as a worthwhile barometer of the state of modern art, has to
be a positive sign. There is much to celebrate in the achievements of
Angela de Cruz, Rachel Whitbread, Gillian Wearing, Tacita Dean, Catherine
Tass and Fiona Banner, amongst many others.

Two women who have become the cover girls for female British art are
Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas, ladies who are making the public sit up and
pay attention to what they’re saying, however much that public may feel
that their work is unsettling and brazenly flouts their preconceptions and
expectations. Both Emin and Lucas, who have forged a strong friendship
over the years, have built their reputations upon the shocking and
unexpected. In 1993 they collaborated on the making of a film called “The
Shop (Why carry a hoover)”. From the final shot of her “CV C***
Vernacular” (1997) which shows her curled-up, foetus-like, on the floor of
her flat in Waterloo, to the “Bed” complete with dirty sheets, bloody
knickers and used condoms which she exhibited in 1998, Emin bares her soul
and presents an unsanitised and uncensored picture of life. She tells it
how it really is, stripping herself, and the world around her, bare in a
way which some believe to be shocking but others see as liberating and
revelatory. Lucas has also developed a characteristic self-depiction which
can easily be compared with Emin’s work. But their pieces are essentially
different. For, while Emin’s self-confessional stories reveal her personal
life, Lucas uses her image in a more general way, blurring the distinction
between truth and fiction and playing on the viewer’s automatic
stereotyping response. A response which could well be said to represent
the product of the centuries of female domesticity and subjugation which
would have prevented Emin’s and Lucas’ great-grandmothers from scaling the
artistic heights which they have been able to attain.

 

 


 

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