Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

‘If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.’ (Dr Leete. Chapter 12)

It is 1887. The narrator, Julius West, is full of plans to get a new house built in a stylish part of Boston – a project which is delayed because of strikes by the workmen – and worrying about marrying his fiancée.

All this stress exacerbates his insomnia so at the end of a trying day he retires to the sound-proof, purpose-built, cement-lined cellar he’s had built in his current house, and sends for the local mesmerist (Dr Pillsbury) who he’s been relying on for some time to help him get off to sleep.

When he wakes up in a strange room, the kindly people around him tell him it is the year 2000 and he has slept in that underground bunker for 113 years, three months and eleven days. Bellamy spends a little effort conveying West’s disbelief, and then a page or so on his sense of horror and disorientation, but these are gestures. The effort and bulk of the text goes towards the political theory, for the book quickly becomes an immensely thorough vision of The Perfect Society.

In the few pages devoted to describing life in 1887 the narrator had spent most of his time lamenting ‘the labour problem’. By that he means that since (what turned out to be) a prolonged economic depression had begun in 1873, the working classes had woken up to their plight, organised unions across all industries, and been striking for better pay, better conditions, shorter working hours and so on.

Society as giant coach

In an extended metaphor West compares the society of his time to an enormous coach which is being pulled along by thousands of wretched workers, whipped on by those who’ve managed to clamber up into the driving seat of thousands of companies and corporations.

Right on top of the coach, not doing any work and enjoying the sunshine, are those who’ve acquired or inherited the money to live off the labour of everyone beneath them. As the coach blunders along its muddy track some people fall lower down the coach, ending up pulling on the reins or fall right into the mud and are crushed, while others manage to escape the slavery of pulling and clamber up the coachwork bit. Even those at the top live in anxiety lest they fall off. No-one is secure or happy.

Society 2000

As you might expect, society in 2000 appears to have solved these and all the other problems facing society in 1887. The people who’ve revived him – Dr Leete, his wife and daughter – have done so in a private capacity. They were building an extension to their house when they came across the concrete bunker, all the rest of West’s property having, apparently, burned down decades earlier and, on entering it, discovered West’s perfectly preserved barely breathing body.

Waking him gently, the father, mother and (rather inevitably) beautiful daughter, carefully and sympathetically help West to cope with the loss of everything he once knew, and induct him into the secrets of Boston 2000. Dr Leete explains that the society he has arrived in is one of perfect peace and equality.

Leete then begins the body of the text which turns into an enormous, encyclopedic description of the Perfect Society of the future. Capitalism has been abolished. The ‘market’ has been abolished. Everything is controlled and managed by the state which represents ‘the nation’. All industry has been nationalised and all production is planned and administered by civil servants. Everyone is supplied with whatever they need by the state.

All citizens are born and raised the same. Everyone pursues education until aged 21, educated to the highest level they can attain, and then undertake three years working as a labourer. During this period people find out what their skills and abilities are, and then opt, at age 24, for a career, from coal mining to teaching Greek. And then they join ‘the army’ of workers, organised and co-ordinated like one of the armies of 1887, and inspired by the same martial sense of patriotism and duty – but an army devoted to maintaining peace and creating wealth for everyone.

Equality is maintained by making those in unpleasant jobs work relatively short hours for the same rewards as those who work longer hours under more pleasant conditions.

And there is no money. Everyone has a ‘credit card’ and the state pays everyone the same amount every month. How you ‘spend’ that credit is up to you, but it is all you get every month and there is no way to increase it, because individuals are not allowed to buy or sell or barter anything.

It is a sustained attempt to work through the 19th century socialist adage of ‘from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’ (popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program).

And how did all this come about? Was there a violent revolution to transform the values of Bellamy’s day and – more to the point – to combat the vested interests of capitalists and bankers? The opposite, explains Dr Leete.

Now I just happen to have recently read Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

In it Engels explains that historical materialism uses the philosophical notion of the dialectic to explain how new social systems arise out of the old. Thus, in Marx and Engels’s view, out of the anarchy of super-competitive capitalism, thronged with competing companies, in the late nineteenth century were slowly emerging larger companies, which bought each other up to create cartels of a handful of giant companies, thus creating monopolies. This appears to be the natural development of capitalism, if unchecked.

Engels shows how out of this natural development of capitalism, quite naturally and logically emerges state socialism. For already in various Western countries the state had decided to take into state ownership ‘natural monopolies’ such as telegraphy and the Post Office.

Engels explains that, as the other industries (coal, mining, steel, ship-building, railways) also become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands it will become obvious that the State should step in and run these as well. In other words, out of the anarchy of capitalism will emerge the order of state socialism.

That’s exactly what happens in Bellamy’s version of history. One by one the state took over ownership of every industry until it had taken over all production. And the state, representing all the population, proceeded to reform them in the interests of the whole population, along the lines which Dr Leete explains to West in pedantic detail.

Was there a violent revolution? No, because people had by that staged grasped the trend and seen how government efficiently managed other big concerns. People realised that it made sense. It was all quite painless.

Bellamy loses no opportunity to ram home the contrast between the squalor of his day and the wonder of the perfect Society. Not only do Dr Leete and Edith Leete explain things – at great length – but towards the end of the book West is invited to listen to a sermon delivered by one Dr Barton, who has heard about the discovery of the sleeper, and takes it as a peg on which to hang a disquisition about the change between West’s day and the present. Here is Dr Barton describing the glorious revolution which, about a century earlier, overthrew the old order and instituted the Perfect Society.

‘Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us. Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?

‘You know the story of that last, greatest, and most bloodless of revolutions. In the time of one generation men laid aside the social traditions and practices of barbarians, and assumed a social order worthy of rational and human beings. Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became co-workers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. ‘What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?’ stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, ‘What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?’—its difficulties vanished.

‘Poverty with servitude had been the result, for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of the serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth. Human slavery, so often vainly scotched, at last was killed. The means of subsistence no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor, was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table. It was impossible for a man any longer to use his fellow-men as tools for his own profit. His esteem was the only sort of gain he could thenceforth make out of him. There was no more either arrogance or servility in the relations of human beings to one another. For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another. Humanity’s ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages, at last was realized.’ (Chapter 26)

You don’t need me to point out the way that, the nearer an author gets to a difficult subject, the more flowery and evasive his language becomes – ‘when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race’ etc.

Here is Dr Leete’s version of the Great Event:

‘It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.’ (Chapter 24)

‘a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn’

Instead of specifics, Bellamy gives us windy rhetoric. Instead of practical human steps, Bellamy gives us poetic visions.

Thus, by virtue of this bloodless revolution in human society, politicians and political parties have been abolished because the committees which make up the nation adjust and control things in the interests of the people.

Thus laws and lawyers have been abolished because nine-tenths of 1887 law was about protecting, gaining, winning and disputing property. Now there is no way to gain private property except by spending the monthly credit which everyone receives, now there is no money and no buying or selling or any other way whatsoever of acquiring valuables – there is no need for almost all the law.

Even the criminal law has fallen into disuse since nine-tenths of violent crime was robbery or burglary or mugging designed to get money. In a society without money there is no motive for crime.

And so, for 200 rather wearing pages, Mr West and Dr Leete sit in a room while the former asks dumb questions and the latter wisely and benevolently explains how the Perfect Society works. It often feels like one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, in the sense that West is simply the straight man who asks the questions – what about the law? what about crime? what about education? – which prompt Dr Leete to roll out another highly detailed and well-thought-out explanation of the Perfect Society.

Hardly anything happens. West accompanies young Edith Leete on a shopping expedition but this is solely so she can explain to him the huge advantages of a planned economy where the state provides everything its citizens require through central production and distribution, thus eliminating competition with the enormous waste of resources spent on advertising, different brands and makes, countless different shops all offering complicated deals and 0% finance and all the rest of it. All gone. You go to the one and only local megastore and buy goods which are available everywhere in the country, at the one fixed price. And it’s all cheap precisely because there are no middlemen and advertisers and so on to raise costs.

Similarly, one evening he goes out for dinner with the Leetes, which is the pretext to explain food production and distribution, and the way public food cooked in public restaurants is now cheaper and infinitely better than it was in 1887, while the waiters and so on are simply performing their three-year labouring apprenticeship and are not looked down on as a different class. Dr Leete himself was a waiter for a spell. Everyone is equal and is treated as an equal.

Critique

Painting visions of the future is relatively easy – although Bellamy’s vision becomes more and more compelling due to the obsessive thoroughness with which he describes every conceivable aspect of the Perfect Society – the difficulty is explaining how it came into being. This is often the weak spot in the writing of utopias. Often the author invokes a catastrophic war to explain how the old world was swept away and the survivors vowed never to make the same mistakes again.

Because it’s the most important, and often the weakest part of a utopian narrative, it’s often the most telling. And it is, I think, is the crux of the problem with Engels and Bellamy – the notion they both have that the state somehow, magically, becomes the people. Notoriously, Engels speculated that the state would simply ‘wither away’. Once the people had seized the means of production and distribution, once they had overthrown the exploiting bourgeois class, then ‘the state’ – defined as the entity through which the bourgeoisie organised its repression of the people – would simply become unnecessary.

Bellamy and Engels conceive of the state as solely a function of capitalism. Abolish the inequalities of capitalism – abolish ‘the market’, indeed all markets – and the state disappears in a puff of smoke.

Instead, the entire history of the twentieth century has taught us that the state does the opposite: given half a chance, it doesn’t weaken and fade, it seizes dictatorial power. More accurately, cunning calculating people – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – will seize absolute power from weakened states – Tsarist Russia, post-war Italy, Weimar Germany -and then institute absolute control, using all the tools of modern technology and propaganda.

The last hundred years have revealed ‘the state’ to be something more like an arena in which a host of competing interests can just about be brought into alignment, held, contained, managed, with frequent political and economic crises and collapses. We now know that when ‘revolutions’ occur, they do not overthrow the state, but simply entrench a new and generally more oppressive state than the one that preceded it – Russia 1917, China 1949, Iran 1979.

More important than how the old regime was overthrown, at the heart of the description of all utopias is a debate over ‘human nature’. In Looking Backward West asks the obvious question: how have you manage to revolutionise human nature? to which Dr Leete, in his calm, wise, man-of-the-future way, explains that there has been no change in human nature: changing the system people are born into and live under allows real human nature to blossom. People are, says Dr Leete, naturally co-operative and reasonable, if you let them. The Perfect Society is not a distortion of human nature, it is its final, inevitable, true blossoming.

This is the crux: we in 2018 find this difficult to credit because we have the history of the twentieth century to look back on, an unmitigated catastrophe in which, time after time, in Europe, Asia, Africa, China, South America, people have been shown to be irreducibly committed to pursuing their own personal interests, and then the interests of their family, tribe or kinship group, their community, or region, or class, or ethnic or racial groupings – rather than to any vague concept of ‘society’.

In my view the real problem with utopias like Bellamy’s or William Morris’s News From Nowhere (published just two years later) is that – although they deny it – they both posit a profound, and impossible change in human nature, but not quite the one they often identify and refute.

My point is that in their books, everyone in society is like them – gentle and well-meaning, middle-class, bookish and detached. It is symptomatic that West wakes up in the house of a doctor, a nice, educated middle class man like himself not, say, in the house of a coal miner or factory worker or street cleaner or sewage engineer.

So many of these utopias are like that. One well-educated, middle-class white man from the present meets another well-educated, middle-class white man from the future and – they both magically agree about everything!

In a way, what these fantasies do is magic away all the social problems of their day, hide, conceal, gloss over and abolish them. It turns out that two chaps in a book-lined study can solve everything. Which is, of course, what most writers like to think.

Most writers have this problem – an inability to really grasp the profound otherness of other people – beginning with the fact that most people don’t even read books, let alone fairy tales like this, and so never hear about them and their fancy plans.

It is symptomatic that when the daughter of the house, fair Edith, wants to cheer West up, she takes him to a library which contains leather-bound volumes of Dickens, Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley and all the rest of the classics. He is instantly reassured and at home. In a fantasy world of books. Exactly.

Practical problems

There is no money and so no greed in this future society. Dr Leete says people don’t pass on inheritances because you cannot now convert goods into money, so heirlooms are just so much clutter. As I read that I thought, but people will barter and exchange. Why? Because people enjoy it, as my mum used to enjoy going to car boot fairs. And as soon as you have fairs and markets and people bartering and exchanging, you give goods a value, a higher value to some than to others – and people will start collecting, hoarding, exchanging, building up reservoirs of valuable goods – and it all starts over again.

Somehow all these utopias ignore the basic human urges to value things, and to swap and exchange them. My kids are collecting the Lego cards from Sainsburys and are swapping them with friends in the playground. My mum loved going to car boot fairs. My wife likes watching Antiques Road Show which is about money and value. Maybe these are all tools of the capitalist bourgeois system to keep us enslaved to a money view of the world. Or maybe they reflect something fundamental in human nature.

This may sound trivial but whether people had the right to sell goods was the core of the problem Lenin faced in 1921, after the civil wars with the white Russians were more or less finished, and he faced a nation in ruins. And so he instituted the New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants and farmers to keep some of their produce i.e. not turn it all over to the state, and allowed them to use it or sell it as they saw fit. I.e. Lenin had to buckle to the human need to buy and sell. It was Stalin’s insistence that all agricultural produce was taken from the farmers by the state authorities that led to the great famine in the Ukraine which led to some three million people starving to death.

Which all reminds me of the terrifying stories in Anne Applebaum’s book, Iron Curtain, about the lengths communist authorities had to go to in post-war Eastern Europe to ban freelance buying and selling. As soon as a farmer sells eggs from a chicken or milk from a cow which are surplus to the state’s quota, he is laying the basis for capitalismAny display of independent buying and selling had to be banned and severely punished. Hence Applebaum’s accounts of farmers and workers and even schoolchildren, being arrested for what seem to us trivial amounts of marketeering. Each and every incident was, to the communist authorities, a crack in the facade which threatened to let capitalism come flooding back.

In Bellamy’s Perfect Society prices are set by the state, everything is supplied by the state, and you ‘buy’ things based on your fixed monthly income from the state. There is no competition and so no bargains or special offers. We now know that, when something very like this was put into effect in Soviet Russia, the result was the creation of a vast black market where normal human behaviour i.e. bartering, buying and selling for profit, returned and triumphed. In fact, the several accounts of the last decades of the communist experiment which I’ve read claim that it was only the black market i.e. an unofficial market of bartering and trading everything, raw material, industrial and agricultural produce, which allowed the Soviet Union to stagger on for as long as it did.

What the Russian experiment, and then its extension into China and Eastern Europe, showed is that the socialist concept of society proposed by Marx, Engels, Bellamy or Morris, can only exist by virtue of an unrelenting war on human nature as it actually is – selfish, stupid, criminal, lazy, greedy, sharp and calculating.

Only by permanent state surveillance, by the complete abolition of free speech and freedom of assembly, by the creation of vast prison camps and gulags, and severe punishments for even voicing anti-socialist sentiments, let alone tiny acts of rebellion such as bartering or selling goods, could ‘socialist societies’ be made to artificially survive, despite all the intrinsic ‘human’ longings of their inhabitants.

And even then it turned out that state planning was inefficient and wasteful and completely failed to produce any of the consumer goods which people cried out for – cars, fridges, TVs, jeans.

Bellamy’s encyclopedic approach

Then again, it’s not necessarily the function of utopias like this to portray a realistic society of the future. Bellamy tries to, more than most, paint a really persuasive picture of what a Perfect Society would look like. But ‘utopias’ at the same time can also perform the less arduous function of highlighting the absurdities and injustices of the present day society – and here Bellamy, in his slow, steady, thoughtful manner, is very thorough and very effective. His targets include:

  • competition over wages
  • the anarchy of a myriad competing companies
  • the inevitability of regular crises of over-production leading to crashes, banks failing, mass unemployment, starvation and rioting
  • state encouragement for everybody to rip everybody else off
  • the system whereby a lengthy number of middle-men all cream off a percentage before passing products on to the public thereby ensuring most people can’t afford them
  • advertising and hucksterism, which he ridicules – now abolished
  • political parties representing special interests – all gone
  • demagogic lying politicians – rendered redundant by universal altruism
  • rival shops stuffed with salesman motivated by commissions to sell your crap – replaced by one shop selling state-produced goods
  • how greed, luck and accident forced most people into a job or career – rather than his system of allowing people to choose, after long education in the options, the vocation which suits them best
  • having to travel miles to concert halls and sit through tedious stuff before they get to anything you like – in the future ‘telephones’ offer a selection of music piped straight to your home
  • international trade is managed in the same way, by a committee which assigns fixed values to all goods
  • travel is easy, since American ‘credit cards’ are good in South America or Europe
  • when the Leete family take West for a meal, they point out that communal canopies unroll in front of all buildings in case of rain, to protect pedestrians
  • at the meal there is a lengthy diatribe on how the waiter serving them comes from their own class and education and is happy to servile, unlike 1887 when the poor and uneducated were forced into ‘menial’ positions
  • state education is a) extensive, up to age 21, b) designed to draw out a person’s potential
  • sports is compulsory at school in order to create a healthy mind in a healthy body (Chapter 25)
  • women are the equals of men, and all work, apart from short breaks for childbirth and early rearing
  • all the false modesty of courtship has been abolished, replaced by frank and open relationships between the sexes
  • and – with a hint of eugenics – Dr Leete claims that now men and women are free to marry for love instead of for money, as was mostly the case in 1887, this allows the Darwinian process of natural selection to operate unobstructed and it is this which accounts for the fact that the Bostonians of 2000 are so much taller, fitter and healthier than the Bostonians West knew in 1887

All come under Bellamy’s persistent, thorough and quietly merciless satire.

Style

A comparison with the science fantasies which H.G. Wells started writing a few years after Looking Backward was published, sheds light on both types of book.

The key thing about Wells’s stories is their speed. One astonishing incident follows another in a mad helter-skelter of astonishing revelations. Wells is heir to the concentrated, punchy adventures – and the pithy, active prose – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. He takes their fast-moving adventure style and applies it – instead of to hunts for treasure in colourful settings – to the scientific ideas which he found being discussed by all around him as he studied for his science degree in South Kensington.

Bellamy couldn’t be more different from Wells. He is slow – very slow. His book is really a slow-paced, throughtful political treatise, with a few romantic knobs on.

And his prose, also, is slow and stately and ornate, pointing back to the Victorian age as much as Wells’s points forward to the twentieth century. Here is Dr Leete giving another version of the crucial moment when the capitalist world of monopolies gave way to one, state monopoly.

‘Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.

‘In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.’ (Chapter 5)

Wordy, isn’t it? You have to slow yourself right down to his speed to really take on board the power of his arguments.

But it’s worth making the effort in order to savour and mull them. It is, for example, a clever rhetorical move to make the American rejection of capitalism seem a natural extension of the American rejection of monarchy a century earlier.

Here is Dr Leete explaining why, in the new system, money isn’t needed.

‘When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.’

Clever, isnt it? Clear, rational, sensible. And totally unrelated to the real world.

Epilogue

And the West wakes up and it was all – a dream! I kid you not. Like the corniest children’s school composition, that is how the book ends. West finds himself being stirred and woken by his (black) manservant and experiences a crushing sense of loss as he realises the future world he was just getting used to – was all a fantasy.

There then follows the most imaginatively powerful passage in the book where, for ten or so pages, West dresses and goes out into the Boston of 1887, walking past the confusion of shops, the bombardment of advertising hoardings, down into the industrial district where noisy smoky factories are employing children and old women, screwing out of them their life’s blood, wasted in violent and unplanned competition to produce useless tat (‘the mad wasting of human labour’), then wandering up to the banking district where he is accosted by his own banker who preens himself on the magnificence of the system, before walking on into the slums where filthy unemployed men hover on street corners and raddled women offer him their bodies for money.

All the time comparing every detail of this squalid, chaotic, miserably unhappy and insecure society, with the rational, ordered life in the Perfect Society which he (and the reader) have been so thoroughly soaked in for the preceding 200 pages.

The contrast, for the reader who has followed him this far, between the beauty of what might be, and the disgusting squalor of what is, is genuinely upsetting. It was a clever move to append this section. It is the only part of the book which has any real imaginative power, and that power is fully focused on provoking in the reader the strongest sensations of disgust and revulsion at the wretchedness and misery produced by unfettered capitalism.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked with the effluvia of a slave ship’s between-decks. As I passed I had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship, retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look upon the woeful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a knife!

And then – on the last page – there is a last twist. He wakes again, and is back in the Perfect Society. His vision of waking and wandering through the Golgotha of Boston in 1887 was itself a dream. He rouses himself hot and sweating. He looks back in horror at the life he led and the values he accepted. And he is filled with shame, bitter recriminating shame and overwhelming guilt that he did nothing, nothing at all to change and reform the society of his day but acquiesced in his privileged condition, enjoyed the wine and fine women of his class, ignored the poor and brutalised, and didn’t lift a finger to change or improve the world.

The fair Edith appears picking flowers in Dr Leete’s garden and West falls at her feet, puts his face to the earth and weeps bitter tears of regret that he stood by and let so many people suffer so bitterly.

And I confess that, despite all the rational objections to his Perfect Society and to the rather boring 200 pages which preceded it, these final pages are such an effective accusation of all us middle-class people who stand by and let people endure appalling poverty and suffering, that it brought a tear to my eye, as well.


Related links

Reviews of other early science fiction

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
1898 The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells

1901 The First Men in the Moon  by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1929)

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham (1925)

After all they had gone through, when they were living amid these scenes of horror and desolation, it seemed inept to attach importance to the ridiculous act of fornication. When death stood round the corner, taking lives like a gardener digging up potatoes, it was foolishness to care what this person or that did with their body. (Chapter 57)

Love, marriage, infidelity and jealousy are frequently the topics of Maugham’s novels, plays and stories.

This is the story of a frivolous middle-class girl, Kitty Garstin the daughter of a particularly pushy mother (‘Mrs Garstin was a hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious and stupid woman’) who, four seasons after ‘coming out’ into society is still not married and beginning to panic about it. When her younger sister announces that she is to marry a baronet, Kitty accepts the next half-decent proposal that comes along, from a short, shy, unprepossessing man, a certain Walter Fane, who is a bacteriologist in Hong Kong and back in England for a long summer break.

He was not her type at all. He was short, but not thick-set, slight rather and thin; dark and clean-shaven, with very regular, clear-cut features. His eyes were almost black, but not large, they were not very mobile and they rested on objects with a singular persistence; they were curious, but not very pleasant eyes. With his straight, delicate nose, his fine brow and well-shaped mouth he ought to have been good-looking. But surprisingly enough he was not. When Kitty began to think of him at all she was surprised that he should have such good features when you took them one by one. His expression was slightly sarcastic and now that Kitty knew him better she realized that she was not quite at ease with him. He had no gaiety.

Kitty marries in haste, ships off to Hong Kong and within months realises it has all been a ghastly mistake. Walter is punctiliously polite and considerate but has no style, dash or adventure. Worse, as a scientist his social standing in the colony is very low.

Which goes to explain why she is easy meat for the tall, handsome Charlie Townsend to pick up and seduce. Charlie is the opposite of Walter in every way, breezy, confident in all social situations, graceful, an excellent dancer, a stylish lover and, above all, Assistant Colonial Secretary with every possibility of one day ending up Governor of the colony. True, he is married with three children, but he keeps telling Kitty he has never loved his wife: it is only Kitty that he loves.

He was tall, six foot two at least, she thought, and he had a beautiful figure; he was evidently in very good condition and he had not a spare ounce of fat on him. He was well-dressed, the best-dressed man in the room, and he wore his clothes well. She liked a man to be smart…  Though he had not said anything very amusing, he had made her laugh; it must have been the way he said it: there was a caressing sound in his deep, rich voice, a delightful expression in his kind, shining blue eyes, which made you feel very much at home with him. Of course he had charm. That was what made him so pleasant.

The book opens dramatically with the adulterous couple caught red-handed in Kitty’s bedroom as they are both surprised to see the bedroom door handle turn. Luckily it is locked, but then the handles of the french windows are tried too, before they hear footsteps going away, and then hurriedly get dressed. Who was it? And do they suspect?

The following pages give us Kitty’s backstory, her pushy mother, her father a not very successful KC, the social environment in which Kitty ‘comes out’, the balls and parties, the ‘Season’, Ascot, Cowes. I felt all this was done with tremendous knowledge of this social milieu and with great psychological insight into the character of Kitty, her mother, her father and sister. It was like stepping into a lost world.

We follow Kitty’s hurried and embarrassed marriage to Walter, then whistle through her seduction by Townsend in order to get back up to date, to the ‘Present’ in which the novel is set. Now the book spends several pages describing Kitty’s psychological agonising as she wonders whether it was a servant sneaking up and trying the door or – was it Walter, her husband, trying the door to her room? Does he know?

To cut a long story short, it was and he does. For the next few days Walter treats Kitty with frigid correctness  (and what is marvellous is the way Maugham describes her changing moods, from panic, to regret, to shame – and then to resentment at the way Walter is being so cold to her, and then to anger that he doesn’t raise the subject directly – until Kitty comes right round to believing that it is she who is being persecuted and Walter who is in the wrong: this is quite marvellously believable).

Finally Walter sits her down for a chat and comes straight to the point. He knows all about her adultery. He has evidence and proof. Now, there is a cholera epidemic going on in mainland China. He has volunteered to go and help. She must come with him.

Kitty hyper-ventilates with terror, and gaspingly asks for a divorce. He laughs coldly, looking at her and talking with clinical logic. He’ll give her a divorce alright, if she can persuade Charlie Townsend to divorce his wife and marry her (Kitty) within a week! He sweeps out leaving Kitty bewildered.

Her head full of Mills and Boon fantasies about how Charlie will hold her to his manly bosom and say, ‘Of course, my dear – at last you can be mine’ etc, Kitty hastens to Charlie’s office to put to him Walter’s ultimatum. Of course Charlie is appalled, blusters and there follows a classic bounder-tries-to-drop-his-inconvenient-mistress scene.

Realising he’s got a hysterical mistress on his hands, Charlie is careful to emphasise his ongoing love for Kitty but also comes up with all kinds of excuses why he can’t leave his loyal wife and children.

Again this is not exactly an original scene, but I thought Maugham does it really persuasively, portraying all too well the interplay of Kitty’s increasingly bitter accusations with Charlie’s red-faced attempts at damage limitation. In a nutshell, No, he will not divorce his wife: she’s been so good to him, it would upset her too much, and then what about the children… etc.

Thoroughly disillusioned, Kitty returns to the family home only to find that Walter had already instructed the Chinese servants to pack her bags. With a new insight, she realises that Walter concocted his deadline purely to get her to see what a snake Charlie Townsend really is. With a heavy heart she agrees to accompany him on his medical expedition into mainland China; she has no real choice.

Part two

The book isn’t actually divided into parts, but it might as well be. Part two more or less jumps to the cholera-infected town of Mei-Tan-Fu. Kitty and Walter are brought to a bungalow on a hill outside and overlooking the actual city. It’s the bungalow of the Christian missionary to the city, who died early in the epidemic.

They immediately meet the short, jolly, clever if permanently tipsy Deputy Commissioner, Waddington. they quickly settle in (with the help of numerous servants) and Waddington becomes a kind of chorus to the action – explaining to Kitty (stuck at home all day in the bungalow) what marvels Walter is working putting into place public health care plans, arranging care of the sick, the burial of the dead and liaising with Colonel Yü of the Chinese military to maintain order.

On another notable occasion, over dinner, when Waddington is tipsily gossiping about the colony back in Hong Kong, Kitty asks a casual question about Charlie Townsend and Waddington needs no further prompting to describe him as a good-looking cad who gets his underlings to do all his work, has the full support of a loving and forgiving wife, and amuses himself by seducing a string of second-rate, silly young colonial wives. Kitty flinches as she realises she was just the latest in a long line of conquests for this heartless beast. Slowly she realises there is a wider world around her and her silly fantasies, and how she fits into it, and how she appears to others.

One day Waddington takes her down into the stricken city to visit the French nuns who are doing sterling work looking after the orphans of parents who’ve died from the epidemic. In the presence of their authority and quiet devotion, Kitty feels like an awkward schoolgirl. They praise Walter to the skies and hope she is taking good care of him. She blushes. The reality is that Walter only comes home late at night and they barely talk. Kitty is ashamed of herself.

By this stage, about half way through this 240-page novel, the reader realises that whatever else is going to happen, the book is describing Kitty’s psychological awakening and maturity. For the first time, here in this disease-ridden town, she is grasping that there are other people in the world, who matter, who have lives and loves of their own, and she begins to learn the nature of work, working for others, devoting your life to others.

She volunteers to work with the nuns, overcomes Charlie’s objections and gets up every morning to be carried down to the ferry over the river, taken by a guide to the convent and there looks after the orphans and little children. She slowly grows to like the Chinese. She gets to know the different nuns with their stories and characters. She is taken out of herself. Small incidents highlight their selfless devotion. Kitty watches and learns.

Waddington, a little unexpectedly, also plays a part in the process. She realises that despite being fat and tipsy, he is in clever and sensitive. Before she started with the nuns they had got into the habit of going on soulful walks, especially up to the ancient monument to a rich man’s dead wife, up on the hilltop overlooking the city. These continue and mark Kitty’s growing understanding of the world as a big, big place and herself as just a tiny atom in it.

They sat on the steps of a little building (four lacquered columns and a high, tiled roof under which stood a great bronze bell) and watched the river flow sluggish and with many a bend towards the stricken city. They could see its crenellated walls. The heat hung over it like a pall. But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy. (Chapter 54)

The nuns tell Kitty that Waddington is an immoral man, for he lives with a Chinese wife, and not just any old Chinese: she comes from a super-aristocratic family, from Manchu blood. He tried to escape her several times but she has followed him everywhere. Next time he sees her Kitty hesitantly asks Waddington if he may meet his wife and he says yes. In a vivid and memorable scene Kitty meets this slender, elegant, motionless, painted lady, with her thing fingers and long painted fingernails. East meets West.

But on another morning of working at the convent, Kitty suddenly faints and comes to, being tended by the nuns and feeling hot and flushed. She is terrified that she has finally caught the cholera, but they burst out laughing. No, silly – she’s pregnant! Back at the bungalow she anxiously waits for Walter to come home. We have, by now, spent many pages alone with Kitty and her anxious thoughts – while she was given the cold shoulder by Walter at the start, when she was waiting to see Charlie at his office, when she spent days alone in the bungalow. We have spent a lot of time alone with this woman and come to know here pretty well.

Walter, finally arrived home at the end of another long exhausting day, pours himself a whiskey and Kitty tells him she’s pregnant. He asks the obvious question – Is it mine? – and there is a brilliant page where Kitty realises that all she has to say is Yes. Say yes and it will begin the process of healing their marriage, say Yes and it will make Walter so happy, say Yes and she will go some way to making amends for ruining his life. She thinks this all through carefully and clearly and then says… I don’t know. It is a classic Maugham moment, not exactly brutal but… in the context of these posh, scrupulously polite pukka chaps… unexpectedly hard. It has the helpless clumsiness of real life.

Once she’s said it it’s too late to retract. She regrets but carries on, visiting the convent each day, getting to know the nuns more deeply, and listening to a long explanation from the Mother Superior of the immensely liberating effect of giving yourself to God, of giving away your self, of living entirely for others.

One night she is woken by banging on the door. It is Waddington come to fetch her. Walter hadn’t come home. He is in the army barracks, very ill. Kitty dresses and rushes down the hill, across the river, through the deserted streets of the city (accompanied by Waddington and a few soldiers). Walter is in a rough bed, facing the wall, his face empty and wasted.

‘Walter, I beseech you to forgive me,’ she said, leaning over him. For fear that he could not bear the pressure she took care not to touch him. “I’m so desperately sorry for the wrong I did you. I so bitterly regret it.’ He said nothing. He did not seem to hear. She was obliged to insist. It seemed to her strangely that his soul was a fluttering moth and its wings were heavy with hatred.

He dies. Kitty is numb. The Chinese Colonel Yü is present and weeps more than Kitty. He and Walter had become very close. Waddington helps Kitty back to the bungalow. Next day Walter is buried, Colonel Yü in attendance.

Part three

Kitty continues going to the convent but the Mother Superior gently breaks it to her that she must leave. the epidemic is waning. New sisters are on their way to replace those who have died. They will have no more need for her services. But above all she must think of the baby. She must go back to Hong Kong or even back to her family in London to make sure the baby is safe. With many words of wisdom and tears, Kitty acquiesces. On a human note, the Mother Superior gives Kitty a package of handkerchiefs to post from Marseilles to her family in France.

Waddington arranges for her to be taken back across country to Hong Kong, accompanied by guards and servants. the journey passes in a daze, like one of those long Chinese scrolls showing an unfolding landscape of quiet peasants and lumbering buffalo. It dawns on Kitty that for the first time in her life she is free.

The city of the pestilence was a prison from which she was escaped, and she had never known before how exquisite was the blueness of the sky and what a joy there was in the bamboo copses that leaned with such an adorable grace across the causeway. Freedom! That was the thought that sung in her heart so that even though the future was so dim, it was iridescent like the mist over the river where the morning sun fell upon it. Freedom! Not only freedom from a bond that irked, and a companionship which depressed her; freedom, not only from the death which had threatened, but freedom from the love that had degraded her; freedom from all spiritual ties, the freedom of a disembodied spirit; and with freedom, courage and a valiant unconcern for whatever was to come.

And this is where the Hollywood version would end, with a strong empowered woman facing the future bravely as the credits rolled. But Maugham isn’t like that. When Kitty’s ship across the bay docks in Hong Kong she is greeted by Charlie Townsend’s wife. The whole colony has heard about the tragedy. She has volunteered to look after the martyred wife. Kitty simply must come and stay with her while she recovers. She is more or less forced into it.

At the Townsends’ posh house high on the fashionable Peak Kitty meets Townsend. In deepest China Kitty had slowly persuaded herself he was greying, ageing, fattening and repellent. Unfortunately, seeing him again in the flesh she realises with dismay that he really is tall, dark and handsome, unfailingly polite and considerate. Anyone who’s read much Maugham knows that a good deal of his fiction is about couples who practice adultery with suave smoothness, and Kitty is disconcerted by the way Townsend strikes exactly the right note of polite concern for her in front of his wife, despite having had a passionate affair with her and got her pregnant. He is all concern and, puffing away on a cheroot, assures her that he’ll try his damnedest to get her a good pension. Walter was a splendid fellow, heroic of him to go and help the Chinese like that etc etc.

Only after a week or so do they finally find themselves alone in the house without his wife present. And then he pounces. He listens to her recriminations, he agrees, he laments, he condoles, he holds her hand, she gets up and strides into her bedroom, he follows, puts his arm around her and… she feels herself melting and swooning. they make love. The text cuts to afterwards. he dresses and exists with a jaunty air – and why not?

Kitty stares at herself in the mirror with tear-filled red eyes.

Then, letting her face fall on her arms, she wept bitterly. Shame, shame! She did not know what had come over her. It was horrible. She hated him and she hated herself. It had been ecstasy. Oh, hateful! She could never look him in the face again. He was so justified. He had been right not to marry her, for she was worthless; she was no better than a harlot. Oh, worse, for those poor women gave themselves for bread. And in this house too into which Dorothy had taken her in her sorrow and cruel desolation! Her shoulders shook with her sobs. Everything was gone now. She had thought herself changed, she had thought herself strong, she thought she had returned to Hong Kong a woman who possessed herself; new ideas flitted about her heart like little yellow butterflies in the sunshine and she had hoped to be so much better in the future; freedom like a spirit of light had beckoned her on, and the world was like a spacious plain through which she could walk light of foot and with head erect. She had thought herself free from lust and vile passions, free to live the clean and healthy life of the spirit; she had likened herself to the white egrets that fly with leisurely flight across the rice-fields at dusk and they are like the soaring thoughts of a mind at rest with itself; and she was a slave. Weak, weak! It was hopeless, it was no good to try, she was a slut.

Next morning she goes to the P&O office and books a ticket home on the next liner. The clerk says the ship is full but when she gives his name, says he’s heard about her sad story. Everyone in the colony has. And so he fixes her up a berth of her own. Back at the Townsends’ house she finds Charlie alone again. In their final scene he wants to be reassured that it isn’t he who is driving her away. In other words, he not only wants to seduce her in the family home, but he doesn’t want to feel bad about it. He wants her to leave on good terms. He wants his ego to be completely untouched and spotless. But Kitty, although she ‘fell’, has developed a sense of her higher self.

‘I don’t feel human. I feel like an animal. A pig or a rabbit or a dog. Oh, I don’t blame you, I was just as bad. I yielded to you because I wanted you. But it wasn’t the real me. I’m not that hateful, beastly, lustful woman. I disown her. It wasn’t me that lay on that bed panting for you when my husband was hardly cold in his grave and your wife had been so kind to me, so indescribably kind. It was only the animal in me, dark and fearful like an evil spirit, and I disown, and hate, and despise it. And ever since, when I’ve thought of it, my gorge rises and I feel that I must vomit.’

On the ship home she gets a series of cables announcing that her mother is ill and then, at Marseilles, telling her that she’s died. She arrives back to the pawky flat in London to find her father in mourning. There then follows another psychologically persuasive final scene. Right at the start we’d been told that Mr Garstin was much put upon by his domineering wife. She it was who persuaded him to try for silk (to become a King’s Council or senior barrister) because she wanted the social kudos even though it actually resulted in him getting less work and being poorer. She it was who relentlessly pressurised her daughters into the ‘best society’ and to marry well. And the wife and daughters never paid much attention to Mr Garstin, regarding him simply as a work horse and source of money and position.

Now, as she sits with him in the living room of their flat, Mr Garstin announces to Kitty that he has been offered the job of Chief Justice of the Bahamas and has said yes. To his horror Kitty asks if she can come too. She watches his face crumple and – using her newfound wisdom – she realises why.

For the past thirty years he has sacrificed his life for others, for his wife and girls. Now, finally, he is free, and this move to a distant colony offers him the first breath of freedom in a generation, the opportunity to start again. His pregnant daughter coming with him would mean the same old straitjacket all over again. Kitty realises this in a flash and bursts out crying, saying she understands how he has sacrificed his life to them, how she will not be a burden, how she will let him be free – she just can’t stay in London on her own.

Feminism

And on the final page of the novel she gives a heartfelt expression that the new life she’s bringing into the world will be of a liberated woman who can learn from all her mother’s mistakes:

‘Have you already made up your mind about the sex?’ Mr Garstin murmured, with his thin, dry smile.

‘I want a girl because I want to bring her up so that she shan’t make the mistakes I’ve made. When I look back upon the girl I was I hate myself. But I never had a chance. I’m going to bring up my daughter so that she’s free and can stand on her own feet. I’m not going to bring a child into the world, and love her, and bring her up, just so that some man may want to sleep with her so much that he’s willing to provide her with board and lodging for the rest of her life.’

She felt her father stiffen. He had never spoken of such things and it shocked him to hear these words in his daughter’s mouth.

‘Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person, independent of others because she is possessed to herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.’


China and the Chinese

In Hong Kong there are various servants and ‘boys’ catering to their every whim. Only in Mei-Tan-Fu do you get more of a sense of the real China although even here it’s the French nuns that Kitty gets to know. I don’t think a single one of the Chinese servants even there, is named. In fact the only Chinese person we are introduced to is Waddington’s wife.

Kitty shook hands with her. She was slim in her long embroidered gown and somewhat taller than Kitty, used to the Southern people, had expected. She wore a jacket of pale green silk with tight sleeves that came over her wrists and on her black hair, elaborately dressed, was the head-dress of the Manchu women. Her face was coated with powder and her cheeks from the eyes to the mouth heavily rouged; her plucked eyebrows were a thin dark line and her mouth was scarlet. From this mask her black, slightly slanting, large eyes burned like lakes of liquid jet. She seemed more like an idol than a woman. Her movements were slow and assured. Kitty had the impression that she was slightly shy but very curious. She nodded her head two or three times, looking at Kitty, while Waddington spoke of her. Kitty noticed her hands; they were preternaturally long, very slender, of the colour of ivory; and the exquisite nails were painted. Kitty thought she had never seen anything so lovely as those languid and elegant hands. They suggested the breeding of uncounted centuries.

It would be easy to say that Maugham is remiss for not naming or introducing a single Chinese character (apart from the princess). But then again, even in England, in his plays and novels, only a handful of characters are ever named, set against the teeming multitudes of London or the anonymous fishermen and farmers of the kentish town where Cakes and Ale is set. Even in England Maugham is mostly concerned only with the posh and upper-class characters, with a range of servants, butlers, nurses and maides who only barely have identities.

Similarly, in the Chinese city, the strongest character is the French Mother Superior who, characteristically, isn’t just a good woman but comes from an unbelievably smart aristocratic family – as she tells Kitty in a beguiling chapter.

Though the Mother Superior talked with Kitty not more than three or four times and once or twice for but ten minutes the impression she made upon Kitty was profound. Her character was like a country which on first acquaintance seems grand, but inhospitable; but in which presently you discover smiling little villages among fruit trees in the folds of the majestic mountains and pleasant ambling rivers that flow kindly through lush meadows. But these comfortable scenes, though they surprise and even reassure you, are not enough to make you feel at home in the land of tawny heights and windswept spaces. It would have been impossible to become intimate with the Mother Superior; she had that something impersonal about her which Kitty had felt with the other nuns, even with the good-humoured chatty Sister St Joseph, but with her it was a barrier which was almost palpable. It gave you quite a curious sensation, chilling but awe-inspiring, that she could walk on the same earth as you, attend to mundane affairs, and yet live so obviously upon a plane you could not reach.

In fact, given that Kitty can’t speak a word of Chinese, it’s hard to see how she could have got to know and talked to a Chinese character, even if Maugham had needed one for the kind of morality tale he was aiming to write.

Chinese landscapes

This is a gentle and evocative text. There are quite a few descriptions of landscape, designed to echo and amplify the feelings of the characters, mainly Kitty.

Her eyes travelled over the landscape at their feet. The wide expanse on that gay and sunny morning filled the heart with exultation. The trim little rice-fields stretched as far as the eye could see and in many of them the blue-clad peasants with their buffaloes were working industriously. It was a peaceful and a happy scene.

I wonder if Maugham consciously set out to echo the calm misty feel of traditional Chinese scroll paintings with their idyllically peaceful landscapes and cityscapes. His word pictures certainly achieve a sense of serenity and give the novel a wonderfully dreamy, evocative atmosphere.

Dawn was breaking now, and here and there a Chinese was taking down the shutters of his shop. In its dark recesses, by the light of a taper, a woman was washing her hands and face. In a tea-house at a corner a group of men were eating an early meal. The grey, cold light of the rising day sidled along the narrow lanes like a thief. There was a pale mist on the river and the masts of the crowded junks loomed through it like the lances of a phantom army. It was chilly as they crossed and Kitty huddled herself up in her gay and coloured shawl.

The gaining of wisdom

Whereas the tight little colony of Hong Kong encouraged the characters to magnify their petty affairs and jealousies, the sheer size and scale of China makes them feel small and insignificant

For a moment she thought of the future. She did not know what plans Walter had in mind. He told her nothing. He was cool, polite, silent, and inscrutable. They were two little drops in that river that flowed silently towards the unknown; two little drops that to themselves had so much individuality and to the onlooker were but an undistinguishable part of the water.

Not only its scale, but the sense that its culture is ancient, far older than bumptious Western pretensions. When the ancient Britons lived in mud huts, the Chinese had emperors and palaces. This is the purpose of the Manchu princess figure. In real life Waddington’s mistress would probably have been an anonymous local girl, but Maugham needed an emblematic figure who would epitomise the antiquity and nobility of Chinese culture which he himself responded to so powerfully, and which is another element in Kitty’s education.

Kitty had never paid anything but passing and somewhat contemptuous attention to the China in which fate had thrown her. It was not done in her set. Now she seemed on a sudden to have an inkling of something remote and mysterious. Here was the East, immemorial, dark, and inscrutable. The beliefs and the ideals of the West seemed crude beside ideals and beliefs of which in this exquisite creature she seemed to catch a fugitive glimpse. Here was a different life, lived on a different plane. Kitty felt strangely that the sight of this idol, with her painted face and slanting, wary eyes, made the efforts and the pains of the everyday world she knew slightly absurd. That coloured mask seemed to hide the secret of an abundant, profound, and significant experience; those long, delicate hands with their tapering fingers held the key of riddles undivined.

At the conclusion of her meeting with the Manchu princess, Kitty asks Waddington what these riddles are.

‘I’m looking for something and I don’t quite know what it is. But I know that it’s very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I’m with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me. I don’t know why it came into my head that if I saw this Manchu woman I should have an inkling of what I am looking for. Perhaps she would tell me if she could.’
‘What makes you think she knows it?’
Kitty gave him a sidelong glance, but did not answer. Instead she asked him a question.
‘Do you know it?’
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
‘Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whisky and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads nowhither.’

And of course, the epidemic raging all around them, the daily burials, the teeming orphans of dead parents who fill the convent – death is all around them. Kitty comes to feel powerfully not the futility of life so much as its insignificance.

The size of China; the ancient nobility of Chinese culture; the epidemic of death sweeping all round her; the selfless dedication of the nuns – these are the factors which educate her, which show her her own insignificance, which show Kitty that pity and charity are the real values – which allow her the insight into her father’s plight – and which fuel her determination to give her daughter a better life.

The movies

It is a powerful book – with a strong central female role, with the power of a fable or morality tale, and with very atmospheric scenery of rural China and the urgency of the plague-filled city. No surprise, then, that it has been adapted for the screen three times:

  • The Painted Veil (1934)
  • The Seventh Sin (1957)
  • The Painted Veil (2006)

The BBC made a radio adaptation in 2012.


Related links

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Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham (1927)

CONSTANCE: I’m tired of being the modern wife.
MARTHA: What do you mean by the modern wife?
CONSTANCE: A prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.

Another spiffing comedy of manners in three acts. As usual it is a cynical-amoral-witty take on modern marriage making comic capital from the way the professional upper-middle classes talk lightly about fidelity and infidelity and make sweeping comic generalisations about husbands and wives; but The Constant Wife is distinguished from the other two Maugham plays I’ve read by the surprisingly blunt and unillusioned viewpoint of the central character.

Act One

Constance is married to the successful surgeon John Middleton. After 15 years of marriage he is as attentive and loving as ever but often absent at work. Constance’s mother (Mrs Culver) and sister (Martha), come to visit her, both of them bursting with the news that Constance’s husband is having an affair with her best friend, Marie-Louise.

Also visiting is Constance’s friend Barbara, a successful businesswoman, head of an interior design consultancy, who is offering to take Constance into partnership.

Both Mrs Culver and Martha ask Constance probing questions about her relationship with John, with Barbara chipping in. This adds up to a quartet of women all making sweeping and witty generalisations about men, women and marriage designed to prompt knowing chuckles from the audience. Maugham is never as sparkling as Wilde but his ‘sophisticated’ drawing room banter, and the jaded air with which the women discuss men, men’s nature, men’s simplicity, men’s guilelessness and so on, is often quite funny.

‘Do you really think that men are mysterious? They’re like children.’

‘They’re like little boys, men. Sometimes of course they’re rather naughty and you have to pretend to be angry with them. They attach importance to such entirely unimportant things that it’s really touching… I think they’re sweet but it’s absurd to take them seriously.’

‘Men go off so dreadfully, don’t they? He may be bald and fat by now.’

And much more in the same vein.

More striking to me was the moment when Constance dismisses one of her mother’s generalisations about women with, ‘You are not what they call a feminist, mother, are you?’

I knew we had the New Woman in the 1880s and 90s, that the Edwardian era was the Age of the Suffragettes, the 20s the decade of the Flapper – in other words women have been in process of rising up and speaking out in more or less every decade since the 1880s – but I was surprised to learn that our contemporary word ‘feminist’ was in sufficiently widespread use that Maugham could deploy it in what is designed to be an accessible, middle-brow comedy to raise a laugh.

Similarly, I was very struck by the way Barbara is portrayed quite simply as a no-nonsense businesswoman who approaches her friend to join the firm (seeing as Constance has a good sense of interior decoration and design). Struck that here on the popular stage in 1927 – 91 years ago – women are presented as perfectly capable businesswomen with no irony or humour:

CONSTANCE: I don’t think John would like it. After all, it would look as though he couldn’t afford to support me.
BARBARA: Oh, not nowadays, surely. There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t have a career as much as a man.

Modern feminism gives the impression that pioneering women only broke into the world of business in the last few decades and are still struggling for equal pay and senior positions. (On the same theme, it’s notable that the wife of Charles Strickland, the painter who runs off to Paris then the South Seas in Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence, in order to support herself sets up her own typing agency which becomes a great financial success – all this sometime in the Edwardian decade.)

Anyway, the four women discussing how awful men are, and husbands in particular, with lots of hints about the state of John and Constance’s marriage, are interrupted by the arrival of the very same John and – by a coincidence – of pretty little Marie-Louise. There’s polite chat for a bit, then Marie-Louise complains of a knee injury and John invites her into his consulting room to ‘examine’ it. The other women all look at each other. I think we are pretty much meant to realise that John is having a fling with Constance’s best friend. The other women depart.

Having established the framework of Constance’s friends, and the main issue – John’s adultery – the second part of Act One introduces an old flame of Constance’s, Bernard Kersal, who has just arrived back from Japan, where he runs a business.

There is some preliminary comedy – Constance had kept her mother with her in case Bernard turned out to be fat and awful, so she could quickly dispense with him; but since he turns out to be tall with a good figure, Constance bustles her mother out of the room so she can recline graciously on the divan and listen to his charming compliments.

Bernard says he has always loved her and that is why he never married. ‘Really, darling, how frightfully sweet of you,’ Constance drawls. After she’s enjoyed Bernard’s adulation for a while, John re-enters the room to say he’s just off to his club. Constance introduces him to Bernard and John suggests Bernard come round that evening to keep his wife company for dinner, while he’s out, unintentionally setting them up for further romantic dalliance…

Act Two

Two weeks later in the same setting, in the same room at Constance’s house.

Martha is alone with Bernard and takes the opportunity to tell him that Constance’s husband, John, is having an affair with Marie-Louise. Bernard can’t believe it, they seem like the perfect couple, John is such a gentleman etc.

Martha leaves as Constance comes in and Bernard tells her he loves her with all his heart while Constance puts him off with amused witticisms.

Bernard and Constance exit as Marie-Louise arrives in a tizzy to see John. She is in a panic because she thinks her husband, Mortimer, suspects their affair, John tells her to calm down.

Martha and Bernard return, then Constance and Mrs Culver (Martha and Constance’s mother) so that the cast is pretty much all there when Marie-Louise’s husband – and John’s best friend – Mortimer Durham bursts into the room red in the face with anger. In front of everyone he accuses Marie-Louise of having an affair with John, on the basis of finding his cigarette case under her pillow.

At which point Constance, gripping Marie-Louise’s hand and looking meaningfully at John to stop him saying anything, performs an absolute tour de force of creative lying, swearing to Mortimer that it is her cigarette case, that it is there because Marie-Louise came round for dinner with her and John last night, then she (Constance) accompanied her on the walk back to her (Marie-Louise’s) house, went up to her rooms to chat while Marie-Louise got ready for bed, then sat chatting to her for a while: she’d been wondering where the dratted cigarette case had got to. Her explanation is a lot longer than this, but this is the gist, along with offering to call in her servants to confirm the whole story.

Very slowly Mortimer is talked out of his fury until he ends up puffing and gasping and eventually meekly apologises to Constance and to Marie-Louise for making this baseless assertion. Marie-Louise now speaks for the first time and finds herself having to act the Aggrieved Wife, dissolving in floods of tears and saying what a beast Mortimer has been, humiliating her in front of all her friends etc. Eventually Mortimer begs to make it all up to her, and goes off with Constance’s strong recommendation that he buys his wronged wife the fine pearl necklace at Cartier’s which she’s been pining for.

So Mortimer leaves and the assembled cast breathe a great sigh of relief. Then all the follow-ups take place, most notably both John and Marie-Louise are forced to confess that they have in fact been having an affair. Constance calmly and adroitly deals with John and Marie-Louise in turn, then with her sister and her mother.

Constance puzzles all of them by being so matter of fact about it. In fact she shocks husband and mother by bluntly stating her rather cynical position: being a modern wife in the upper classes means being a kept woman, supported in a life of luxury in return for sex and running a disciplined and respectable household.

She stuns John by telling him what a great relief it was to her when, ten years ago, at the same time that she realised she had stopped loving him, she realised that he had stopped loving her too. Since then she has kept up all appearances but has no illusions about men; if John wants to have his little dalliances, well, why not?

‘But he’s having an affair with your best friend!!’ squeals her mother. All the better replies Constance. She knows Marie-Louise is a woman of good character who won’t corrupt her husband; comes from a good home, so won’t want to steal him; and has lots of money, so won’t bankrupt him – she is the Perfect Mistress.

Many of the ways Constance phrases her rather breath-taking cynicism are very funny and have something like the real Wildean bite.

CONSTANCE: I think most married couples tell each other far too much.

I particularly liked the way Constance complains about how she’s had to spend six months fighting off the hints her mother, sister and other friends have been dropping like crazy about John’s affair in order to give the appearance that she didn’t know. ‘It really is so tiring trying to keep oneself in the dark, you know!’

One by one the others leave, until she is alone with her old boyfriend, Bernard. He too is stunned by the stark cynicism of her beliefs:

CONSTANCE: When the average woman who has been married for fifteen years discovers her husband’s infidelity it is not her heart that is wounded but her vanity. If she had any sense, she would regard it merely as one of the necessary inconveniences of an otherwise pleasant profession.

And:

CONSTANCE: Even if I did [love you], so long as John provides me with all the necessities of existence I wouldn’t be unfaithful. it all comes down to the economic situation. He has bought my fidelity and I should be worse than a harlot if I took the price he paid and did not deliver the goods.

The Act ends with everyone having left the stage except Constance, who phones her friend Barbara to say that, Yes, she would like to go into business with her.

Act Three

Exactly the same setting, one year later. Martha and Barbara bring us up to date, explaining that immediately after the scene we just saw in Act Two, Marie-Louise persuaded Mortimer to take her on a year-long holiday round the world. Now Constance announces to them that she is taking a six-week holiday in Italy. She’s been working hard for her friend Barbara’s company, and is now taking a well-earned break.

There is then a sequence of broad comedy: John learns that Marie-Louise is on her way round to see her oldest bestest friend (Constance) and so hesitantly asks Constance if she could tell Marie-Louise that their affair is absolutely positively over. Alright says Constance. He exits. Then Marie-Louise arrives, all smiles and gifts from round the world and stories about how she quite made it all up with Mortimer (‘For a man, he’s really quite clever’) before hesitantly asking Constance if she thinks she could possibly tell John that their affair is positively definitely over. Constance promises to break it to him gently, while the audience chortles at the way both lovers are saying the same thing to Constance.

But knowing her best friend pretty well, Constance knows this can only mean one thing: sure enough, Marie-Louise confesses that she and her husband met a simply charming colonial officer on the ship back and she’s now madly in love with him. Which is where Constance gives another demonstration of her point-blank unsentimental honesty, which upsets Marie-Louise and still has the power to unnerve a modern audience. She calls Marie-Louis a tramp to her face.

CONSTANCE: You take everything from your husband and give him nothing that he pays for. You are no better than a vulgar cheat… I think you a liar, a humbug and a parasite… but I like you.

Marie-Louise departs understandably miffed. John re-enters and asks whether Constance told her what he asked her to. Oh yes, she told her alright.

Feminism

Now commences the most surprising part of the play, for it turns into a bit of a feminist tract. Constance explains to John why she has been working really very hard in her friend’s business. It’s not because she was bored, it was to earn money. Why? Because only money can make women really free.

CONSTANCE: There is only one freedom that is really important and that is economic freedom.

And now she drops the bombshell: she is going away on holiday, yes, but she is going with Bernard. Why? Because she wants to feel loved again, one last time before she becomes middle-aged. She forces John to concede that she and he don’t really love each other any more, they just live in companionable partnership. Why shouldn’t she enjoy her prime while it lasts?

John is understandably miffed but Constance keeps wryly pointing out how understanding, indulgent and forgiving she was of his affair with Marie-Louise, so why can’t he be as tolerant of her little peccadillo. And this is where her financial independence comes in:

JOHN: What makes you think that I am going to allow you to go?
CONSTANCE [good-humouredly]: Chiefly the fact that you can’t prevent me.

At this point Mrs Culver (Constance’s mother) enters, is apprised of the situation, and delivers the social wisdom of the older generation, namely that men are biologically made to be unfaithful and women just have to put up with it:

MRS CULVER: Men are naturally polygamous and sensible women have always made allowances for their occasional lapse from a condition which modern civilisation has forced on them. Women are monogamous. They do not naturally desire more than one man and that is why the common sense of the world has heaped obloquy upon them when they have overstepped the natural limitations of their sex.

And much more in the same vein. Constance is equally cynical but in a new, improved, liberated way. She replies that modern wifedom is a form of parasitism and prostitution. A wife exchanges her freedom for room and board. Well, she has just paid John for her estimated room and board for the previous year and so is morally in the clear.

CONSTANCE: [Women in the past] were dishonest [if unfaithful] because they were giving away something that wasn’t theirs to give. They had sold themselves for board, lodging and protection. They were chattel. They were dependent on their husbands and when they were unfaithful to them they were liars and thieves. I’m not dependent on John. I am economically independent and therefore I claim my sexual independence.

I dare say the West End audience was meant to exit the theatre and discuss and argue about these ideas all the way home. I don’t really understand the Daily Telegraph critic when he called Maugham a misogynist: for the third play in a row it is a woman who comes out on top as the cleverest, shrewdest, free-est agent in the play, while the men appear – and are explicitly described as – vain, narcissistic, emotionally shallow and easy to manipulate.

Constance [to John]: A man thinks it is quite natural that he should fall out of love with a woman, but it never strikes him for a moment that a woman could do anything so unnatural as to fall out of love with him. Don’t be upset at that, darling, it is one of the charming limitations of your sex.

Comic climax

The final scene reverts from this rather serious debate to a more obvious comedy of manners: John becomes more outraged the more Constance calmly describes her intention to spend six weeks with her old flame touring Italy, but Constance has a clever riposte to each of his protestations and underlying all of them the threat that she will reveal to ‘society’ everything about his fling with Marie-Louise. This would ruin his reputation and jeopardise his career (demonstrating that it wasn’t only women who were oppressed by the social mores of the times).

Instead, Constance forces John to grit his teeth and greet Bernard who now arrives to collect her. At this point Maugham squeezes more comic potential out of the scene, because Constance hasn’t told Bernard that she’s told John everything. Bernard thinks that he and Constance going away together is a great big secret and so he makes a big thing of saying an elaborate and fake Goodbye to Constance, purely for John’s consumption, even though we – the audience – know that John knows everything.

Why? Constance had explained to John that it would hurt Bernard’s sense of ‘honour’ if he felt John knew he was spending six adulterous weeks with his wife: therefore, to salve his ‘manly’ sense of ‘honour’ both Constance and John must pretend to Bernard that she hasn’t told John anything.

Thus Constance plays a final game on her lover, making him appear foolish, and on her husband, making him appear and feel even more foolish. Men are so silly, aren’t they?

And so it is that when he is shown into the room by the butler, Bernard makes a big show of asking whether Constance is definitely travelling alone (she says yes) and then casually remarks that he, too, has planned a little trip abroad – maybe they’ll bump into each other in Naples, which is where he’ll have to catch his ship back to Japan? ‘Yes, perhaps,’ Constance says, pretending to be surprised.

Throughout which John, her husband, is forced to nod and smile and say ‘Yes dear’ to this gruesome charade, all the time knowing she has him wrapped round her little finger!

The Constant Wife has the last laugh.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (1869)

This is Flaubert’s third novel, and in fact it’s the last one he finished, if we categorise his fourth book, the temptation of Saint Anthony, as a theological fantasia rather than a novel.

With the previous two novels, Flaubert had established a reputation as a highly literary writer, becoming famous for his meticulously detailed realism. He had also gained a reputation for ‘immorality’: Emma Bovary, the heroine of his first book is shown progressing – or declining – from shy convent schoolgirl, through dissatisfied wife, to reluctant seducee and then seasoned and cynical adulterer. But Emma’s small-town tragedy was eclipsed by the astonishing violence and exotically sensual atmosphere of his second book, Salammbô, a historical novel describing in loving detail the stupefying cruelties of 3rd century BC Carthage.

A consequence of Flaubert’s meticulous craftsmanship was that he took a very long time writing each of his books, sometimes spending a whole day crafting a sentence, searching, as he put it, for le mot juste – for just the right word to create the effect he wanted. There was a seven-year gap between Salammbô and this third work – plenty of time for critics and readers alike to wonder which course he would follow – another realistic tale of contemporary French life, or another oriental phantasmagoria.

In the event it was the former. Sentimental Education is sub-titled ‘The history of a young man’ and that is exactly what it is, the story of a young Frenchman’s emotional, intellectual and social development in the years 1840 to 1851.

Among Flaubert’s entertaining and very readable correspondence, are a number of places where he explains his aim in the book. To one one correspondent he wrote that:

I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation – or, more accurately, the history of their feelings. It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays – that is to say, inactive.

The guiding idea is that the young hero is a romantic, who wants to have a pure and romantic love – but he lives in a ‘fallen’, ‘bourgeois’, business-minded age, an age which cannot sustain him or his dreamy ideals, in which his ‘ideals’ seem to be hopelessly frustrated and compromised and he himself eventually becomes – as we shall see – cynical and manipulative.

Now whether this is the fault of the age, with its ‘bourgeois’ values, or of the protagonist for being such a naive fool, is left for the reader to decide.

The plot

Sentimental Education is divided into three parts, is very long (420 pages in the Penguin paperback version which I read) and exceedingly complicated. My summary is consciously as rambling as the plot itself i.e. I haven’t tried to simplify and regularise it; as a reader I found the book often baffling and sometimes incomprehensible.

Part one

We meet the hero, young Frédéric Moreau, in 1840 when he is an eighteen-year-old student, come from his home in Normandy to study law in Paris. The core of the plot is his enduring love for an older married woman, the wife of the art dealer Jacques Arnoux, who he sees on the Paris-to-Normandy river boat (along the river Seine) and spends the rest of the novel pursuing.

All this is completely autobiographical – Flaubert himself hailed from Normandy (his father was a surgeon), he studied law in Paris and he fell in love with an older married woman, like his hero. Looking back at his romantic younger self, Flaubert gives Frédéric numerous flights of romantic reverie, indulging what was obviously his own early lyrical sensibility. But the older Flaubert is much more world-weary, cynical and pessimistic, a tone which is prevalent in the third person narrative, and above all in the course of events, and the cynical outcomes of almost all the characters.

More interesting than the character of Moreau himself is the network of acquaintances Flaubert creates around him to convey the Parisian artistic and intellectual life of his generation. The art dealer Arnoux is depicted as a crook, inciting artists to paint meretricious works for money and ripping them off in all kinds of dodgy deals. He runs a magazine, L’Art Industriel, and every Wednesday he holds open house for painters, critics, writers, composers and so on to come round and chat. Moreau bumps into the young joker Hussonet and via him worms his way into becoming a regular at these open days, with the sole view of talking to Madame Arnoux who, however, rarely appears.

Meanwhile, his old schoolfriend from back in Nogent, Charles Deslauriers, turns up in Paris to study law and the pair share rooms, drinks, jokes. Frédéric organises a Saturday soirée for his friends. In one or other of these settings, we meet the following characters and follow their endless arguments about art and politics. It turns out to be necessary to really get to know them since they all reappear over the course of the next 12 years or so, playing key roles in the complex personal story, and background political developments, of the age.

  • Baptiste Martinon, law student
  • Marquis de Cisy, nobleman and law student
  • Sénécal, math tutor and uncompromising Republican
  • Hussonet, journalist, drama critic and joker
  • Dussardier, a simple shopworker who Moreau and Hussonet help after he’s wrongfully arrested for assaulting a policeman
  • Regimbart, ‘The Citizen’, a fiercely doctrinaire revolutionary
  • Pellerin, a painter with more theories than talent
  • Madamoiselle Vatnaz, actress, courtesan, frustrated feminist

The ‘plot’ i.e. the tangled sequence of events over the next 11 years (1840 to 1851) involves the appearance, disappearance and reappearance of all these characters, shedding light on their changes and developments, generally in a pessimistic downwards direction. For example, Frédéric’s childhood friend Deslaurier fails as a lawyer and would-be politician, turning to journalism where he writes scurrilous pieces for other papers and nags Frédéric to loan him the money to set up his own.

Whenever there is political turbulence, we can be sure of hearing about Sénécal and Regimbart, who, in different ways, rage against the ruling classes and the king. Over the eleven years they follow drastically different courses, Regimbart becoming a monosyllabic drunk, Sénécal  undergoing a complete volte-face to become a violent reactionary.

Pellerin is a broadly comic character, reminiscent of Homais in Bovary, in that he is mechanically predictable: whenever we meet him he is in thrall to yet another theory of art, changing his allegiance from Michelangelo to Titian to Velasquez and so on, never achieving anything, always complaining.

The plot is complex and multi-layered, but two key elements are Frédéric’s love life and his career (both ill-fated).

Love life (1)

Frédéric sees Madame Arnoux on the boat to Nogent and it is love at first sight. He inveigles his way into Monsieur Arnoux’s confidences with the sole purpose of seeing more of Madame. However, he finds himself being taken up by the cheery, good-natured Arnoux himself and initiated into the fact that Arnoux keeps a mistress in a set of rooms. Arnoux takes him there, and Frédéric meets the rather bony, dry, sharp Madamoiselle Vatnaz.

This adulterous relationship of Arnoux’s is one of the revelations of a Big Night out, when almost all the Parisian characters go to the opening of a new cabaret, the Alhambra. In a scene which is very filmic, they encounter each other in different rooms, drink, gamble, bump into each other later in the evening, are introduced to girlfriends, mistresses and courtesans and so on.

Career

As she sends him off to Paris, his loving mother hopes that Frédéric will work hard at his law studies, become a lawyer, stand as a deputy to the National Assembly and become a minister. Needless to say, none of this happens. Frédéric fritters away his money and his time on pointless love affairs, and looks every possibly gift horse in the mouth. After getting into the arty set around Arnoux’s magazine, he decides to become a painter (cue comic advice from the inept painter Pellerin). Later, Frédéric thinks he might become a journalist. In actual fact he ends up becoming a well-heeled wastrel. This becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader, and by about page 300 I really wanted to give Frédéric a good slap and tell him to sort his life out.

Right from the start Frédéric is advised by Frédéric’s mother’s friend Roque to go and contact a high society banker, Monsieur Dambreuse, to whom he is given a letter of introduction. Over the next 300 pages Frédéric only occasionally goes to see Dambreuse who: offers him the low-down on buying share in a new company which is bound to succeed – distracted by yet another love visit somewhere, Frédéric fails to do this. Then Dambreuse offers to make Frédéric secretary in the new company, in exchange for him purchasing shares: again Frédéric misses this opportunity because he just has to go and visit Madame Arnoux (yet again).

The most unaccountable stupidity is when, after being rejected by Madame Arnoux, Frédéric returns to his mother’s house in rural Nogent, and discovers that the little girl next door who he used to play with, the daughter of his mother’s neighbour, old Roque, has blossomed into the lovely young woman, Louise. They immediately get on well and it becomes clear that Louise is infatuated with him. The parents, of course, are totally informed and approve the match, Frédéric’s mother because old Roque is loaded and, if he marries Louise, Frédéric will inherit all his money – old Roque because he wants his daughter to gain a title and buried deep in Madame Moreau’s past is, in fact, a landed title, which Frédéric could revive.

Louise and Frédéric become so close that they are allowed to walk out together, the Nogent community is informed that they are engaged, and they themselves expect to marry. This goes on for some time, maybe a year, until Frédéric wakes up one fine day to find that a distant uncle – uncle Barthelemy – has died and left him a substantial fortune in property, from which he will be able to extract a very comfortable annual income.

This goes straight to his head and he tells his mother and Louise that he must go back to Paris to make his Great Career. Off he goes, hires himself an enormous apartment, decorates it in the finest fashion, hires a showy carriage and servant, and generally behave like a shallow idiot. What does he do with his position? Does he make careful plans to further his career by, for example, re-contacting the rich Dambreuse? No. He plunges back into the pointless vortex of love affairs and mistresses.

What is incomprehensible to me is that, after Frédéric returns to Paris, he promptly forgets all about Louise who is not mentioned for the next two hundred pages while Frédéric falls back into the same mind-numbingly boring routine of carrying a torch for Madame Arnoux, visiting the Arnoux household, getting caught up with Arnoux’s mistress, and so on.

Love life 2

Back in Paris Frédéric discovers that Arnoux has moved. It takes him some trouble to track him down, whereupon he discovers that Arnoux has completely changed career, selling his art magazine and investing in a pottery factory outside Paris. Moreover, he has dumped Mlle Vatnaz and his new lover is one Rosanette, a courtesan.

There is another Big Party scene, a fabulous masked ball. At this point I realised that Flaubert likes Big Set-Piece Scenes. Madame Bovary features a Rural Wedding, the Agricultural Show and a Rural Funeral, all reminiscent of big mid-Victorian panoramic paintings. As befits a novel set in the Big City, Sentimental Education includes similar Set Pieces but with an urban setting – The Cabaret Party in part one and The Masked Ball in part two, both described in loving detail, at length, and opportunities for Flaubert to display his ability with complex scenes featuring numerous characters, all displaying new and unexpected aspects of their personalities and unexpected relationships between each other.

A feature of these scenes, as with the several Big Dinner Parties given by M. Dambreuse, is that the reader is often as confused as Frédéric by the gossip, mutterings, sniggers behind fans, people looking at him with raised eyebrows, and so on. Whatever Frédéric does, social gossip is always one step ahead, and it’s a feature of the book that he’s not only the last one to find out various important facts about other characters, but that Flaubert makes the reader share in Frédéric’s imperceptiveness, his dimness.

Frédéric likes Arnoux’s mistress, Rosanette, and has Pellerin paint him a portrait of her (giving rise to many comic moments highlighting Pellerin’s ineptitude as an artist). His old schoolfriend Deslauriers is resentful of Frédéric’s new wealth and asks 15,000 francs of him to set up a new newspaper. Frédéric listens to the unrealistic proposal for it, but promises the money anyway.

However, just as he receives the money from his own solicitor, Arnoux comes bustling round to his apartment to tell him that he desperately needs about 12,000 francs as he is about to be declared bankrupt: just for a week, two at the most. Still obsessed with his ‘love’ for M. Arnoux, in the vague hope that by helping the husband he will get ‘closer’ to the wife, Frédéric gives Arnoux the money, and then has to make up some excuse for letting down Deslaurier who, not surprisingly, is bitterly disappointed. Frédéric himself is then let down when cheery Arnoux is unable to repay him next week, or the week after and, as the months go by, Frédéric realises that the money is lost.

Frédéric begins pursuing Rosanette in earnest and takes her to the races, but she goes home with a man named Cisy. At dinner one night at Cisy’s opulent home, Cisy reveals that he had gone home with Rosanette to win a bet. The guests talk about Arnoux and lewdly suggest that Madame Arnoux has been a mistress to many men. Frédéric throws a plate at Cisy, and the argument escalates. The men agree to a duel and Flaubert depicts the formalities of such an event in painstaking detail – but on the appointed day, Cisy faints and the whole thing – symbolic of all the romantic dreams which fizzle out in sordid disappointment – is a damp squib.

Thinking of money has raised the spectre of working with or for Dambreuse, who Frédéric goes to meet and who offers him job but – Frédéric fails to keep the appointment they make to discuss it in detail, because he hears that Arnoux’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse and he makes a wild goose chase visit out to the factory in the country outside Paris to see Madame Arnoux – again. The journey, the countryside and the factory are all interestingly described, but I really want to shake Moreau and tell him to grow up.

Frédéric hesitatingly makes his feelings clear to Madame Arnoux who brushes him off with very sensible nostrums about how duty comes first and brief affairs never lead to happiness. Rebuffed, Frédéric goes straight back into Paris and to the apartment of Rosanette, who he has fancied since he met her. Only after he’s left, does Madame Arnoux have an epiphany and realise that she does love Frédéric.

The Rosanette connection becomes more and more complex in the final third of the novel, because Frédéric discovers that, as well as Arnoux as a lover, Rosanette has for some time had an elderly ‘sponsor’, M. Oudry. Later, in part three, we discover that she is seeing a rich Russian aristocrat. And then in another twist, Frédéric discovers that she seems to be in love with a pretentious Paris actor, Delmas.

None of this prevents Frédéric pursuing her and eventually having sex with her so that (presumably) she becomes ‘his’ mistress. At some point I had to give up and confess I didn’t understand the ‘love’ story in the novel at all. I don’t understand how Frédéric can be passionately in love with Madame Arnoux and yet dedicate so much time to seducing Rosanette, all the time knowing that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved’s husband and continues to see other men, and then in the rural scenes back at Nogent, go walking out with Louise and declare to her that he has never been happier.

It’s not a question of him being a cad or a ‘sexual predator’ as modern usage has it – it is much weirder than that. Throughout the novel I had the sense that Flaubert was describing a set of values and a mindset which I just simply don’t understand.

In the concluding scenes of Part Two Frédéric finally gets Madame Arnoux on her own, without her maid or small children, and there tells her he loves her and – for the very first time – she admits that she loves him too. For some reason there is no kissing or sexual contact at this moment, instead – as in so many of these 19th century fictions – they are left on tenterhooks of love and sensuality but…. make an appointment to meet the next day. The reader can’t help thinking this is a convention created purely and solely to create problems and misunderstandings, as in a bedroom farce.

And sure enough, the next day, Mme Arnoux’s son is seriously ill with croup and so, of course, she doesn’t keep the rendezvous. So Frédéric – thinking he has been jilted – promptly goes round to Rosanette’s place and for the first time really oversteps the bounds of 19th century caution, kissing her, putting his arm round her waist and – we are led to believe – finally having sex with her (the first time he’s done it with anyone, as far as we can tell).

Part three (1)

I am hopelessly confused by the love life aspect of the story. Frédéric knows that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved Madame Arnoux’s husband, has been attached to a rich old geezer, Oudry, as well as the rich Russian prince, and discovers that she holds a torch for the Parisian actor and yet still thinks he loves her.

The political scenes come as a relief from the love life because at least I understand their logic. The February 1848 revolution breaks out right at the end of part two, and Frédéric associates the sense of liberation and freedom in the air of Paris with his ‘love’ for Rosanette, who he is now regularly sleeping with.

Part three follows straight o from this, with Frédéric getting caught up in the February street fighting, which is described vividly.

French politics – an interlude

In 1830 France had one of its many revolutions and, in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ of July, overthrew King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, and replaced him with his cousin Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans.

The reign of Louis-Philippe was characterised by a wide range of political factions, who jostled and bickered for the next eighteen years: on the right some dreamed of restoring the legitimate line of Charles X (hence ‘the legitimists’) – the ‘Orleanists’ supported Louis-Philippe himself – some ‘imperialists’ wanted a return to the glory years of Napoleon. In the ‘centre’ were all sorts of middle-class republicans, who thought France would thrive best without a monarchy, although they all disagreed about who ought to lead the government of this hoped-for republic. On the left was a florid assortment of socialists who wanted to see society reorganised for the benefit of the working class, and even the newly-coined term ‘communists’, who wanted the abolition of private property and the inauguration of a completely utopian, propertyless, and so completely equal, society.

There were insurrections and attempted coups against Louis-Philippe in 1832, 1834 and 1839. These disgruntlements are the backdrop to the occasional political arguments among the characters mentioned above. But it was a bad harvest and industrial depression in 1847 which threw both peasants and urban workers out of work, many of them making their way to Paris in search of employment. These men provided the mobs which rose up in February 1848 and marched on the royal palace carrying torches and muskets. Louis-Philippe fled out the back door and made his way to exile in England (as so many continentals did during the 19th century, monarchs and revolutionaries alike). A republic was declared, a Provisional Government cobbled together, and three years of instability and uncertainty followed.

Flaubert captures the confusion, and the violently opposing political opinions, very well, as Frédéric a) sees for himself the fighting on the streets in February b) hears how the cross-section of pals from his soirees back in part one have fared in the disturbances (shot, arrested, imprisoned, hero of the revolution etc).

In a farcical scene Frédéric is encouraged to go along to one of the countless political clubs which have flourished after the revolution, and stand for election as a deputy. Initially greeted as a hero because he had (more or less accidentally) spoken up against Louis-Philippe at a society dinner given by the banker Dambreuse, when he protests about a Spanish ‘comrade’ giving a long speech in Spanish, the fickle crowd turn against him and just as vehemently attack him for being a member of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’. He is forced to make a speedy exit, the whole scene embodying Flaubert’s contempt for ‘the mob’ and for politics in general. ‘Stupid’ and ‘stupidity’ are words which recur in Flaubert’s descriptions both of crowds and mobs, but also of high society with its reactionary clichés and stereotypes.

Months of political uncertainty follow, against which Frédéric finds out that Arnoux is still Rosanette’s lover. He tries to get Rosanette to choose between them, but she refuses and so – sick of politics and her vacillation – Frédéric takes Rosanette on a prolonged holiday in the beautiful countryside surrounding the royal palace at Fontainebleu. This four or five-day trip is described in minute detail, the precise itinerary of each day’s outings, with exactly what part of the forest and landscape they saw, what the light was like, and what they ate that night for dinner.

This is odd, because they are on this holiday precisely during the notorious ‘June Days’, the decisive event of 1848. Under Louis-Philippe, National Workshops had been set up to provide a dole for the large number of unemployed in Paris. After the February revolution the Provisional Government commissioned a report into the future of the Workshops, and the right-wing leader of the committee recommended closing them down to save money.

As soon as these findings leaked out, socialist leaders roused the working classes and barricades went up all over Paris (again). The government asked the newly appointed Minister of War, General Cavaignac, to put down the insurrection, which he did with great bloodshed. As many as 3,000 people were killed in the resulting street fighting and all the socialist leaders were arrested and put in prison. Cavaignac was appointed President of the Council of Ministers, becoming effective dictator, until the presidential elections which were held in December 1848.

Part three (2)

Anyway, Flaubert must get his hero back into the thick of things and so he invents the pretext that Frédéric reads that his long-standing working class friend, Dussardier, has been wounded. Despite Rosanette’s bitter protestations, Frédéric travels back into Paris (itself difficult because the coaches have stopped running) only to be arrested by various members of the suspicious and angry National Guard.

Flaubert vividly conveys the atmosphere of completely random violence and terror created by insurrection and street fighting. Frédéric is locked up in various ad hoc barracks and prisons, before finally convincing someone in authority to let him proceed to Dussardier’s house, where he finds the working class hero being tended by none other than wiry Mlle Vatnaz. Being a good chap – if also, as we know by now, hopelessly indecisive and weak-willed – Frédéric goes back every day for a fortnight to offer help and moral support.

Things move on. Frédéric attends a dinner chez Dambreuse which is fraught with currents and counter-currents, since Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are there and so is Louise, Monsieur Roque’s daughter, the one Frédéric is meant to be engaged to. Maliciously, the other male guests bring up the subject of the portrait Frédéric persuaded Pellerin to do of Rosanette. In a cameo moment earlier in the story, when Frédéric refused to pay for it, Pellerin had displayed it prominently in his window, with a caption proclaiming that Rosanette was Frédéric’s mistress. As the guests remember and discuss this incident, both Mme Arnoux and Louise realise that Frédéric is her lover. Nonetheless, as they all leave the dinner, Louise walks arm in arm with Frédéric, reminding him that they had pledged to get married. Frédéric makes a fool of himself trying to wriggle out of it.

Meanwhile, life with Rosanette is serene and pleasant. He has moved in with her. They tend the window boxes and watch passersby, neither of them needing to work for a living.

But that doesn’t stop Frédéric – upon hearing gossip that Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are becoming estranged – from going straight round to see Madame Arnoux and – finding her alone – blames her for not coming to see him the morning of their rendezvous. She explains that she had stayed at home to tend her ill son. All is forgiven and they declare their undying love for each other, and indulge in a long, lingering kiss. Then they hear a creak of floorboards and look up. Rosanette is standing there. She had followed Frédéric, and got past the front door, any servants, up the stairs and into the room unimpeded. For me this felt like almost any moment from Eastenders or a Whitehall farce. Somehow everyone involved takes it calmly, Rosanette asks Frédéric to come home with her, Madame Arnoux waves goodbye from the top of the stairs.

Back in their apartment, Frédéric has a furious row with Rosanette, accusing her of following him, in the middle of which she reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Eastenders. This argument makes him realise he despises Rosanette. From that point onwards, Frédéric continues to live with her but is increasingly repelled by her commonness and vulgarity. The happy honeymoon in Fontainebleu, the lazy days staring from the sunny balcony, are completely gone.

Whereupon – and this is the kind of turn of events which genuinely mystifies me – Frédéric decides to seduce Mme Dambreuse in order to gain social standing. The Seduction Scene is described in some detail and Frédéric, who is becoming expert at this, is astonished that Madame Dambreuse gives in so quickly, lying back on her sofa with her eyes closed, which is the signal for him to kiss her.

Once this intimacy is established, Frédéric is astonished to discover just how much Madame Dambreuse hates her husband. It turns out (rather inevitably) that he has also had many mistresses, and that the ‘niece’ they have brought up in their household – Cécile, who we’ve met at their parties and dinners – is in fact his love child by one of his mistresses, who Madame D agreed to raise, but loathes. To his astonishment, she asks if he will marry her.

In quick succession, two key events follow: the previously hale and hearty Monsieur Dambreuse falls ill and dies, and Rosanette’s new-born baby dies. (In one of the many aspects of the novel which seem incomprehensible to the modern reader, as soon as the baby was born she had farmed it out to a wet nurse who lived out in the country – why? – and on the one time Frédéric goes to visit he is appalled by the squalor of the hut the baby’s being kept in, the goats wandering round, the animal manure around the building: why?).

During M. Dambreuse’s illness his wife reveals to Frédéric that, what with her own dowry, all her husband’s business interests, she will be worth some three million francs! Given that Frédéric is living very comfortably on about 15,000 francs a year, this obviously represents an absolute fortune and – being the impractical dreamer that he is – Frédéric starts planning extensions to the house, the creation of his own personal library, a bigger, grander carriage, more servants etc.

Monsieur Dambreuse’s funeral is another typically Flaubertian Set-Piece, with great detail about all the practical arrangements, leading into satire on the starchy behaviour of the high society invitees, and then their unbuttoned conversations at the post-funeral reception.

But Frédéric comes round a day or two later to find Madame Dambreuse sitting on the floor surrounded by a sea of documents, safes, folders and papers, crying. Turns out her husband had destroyed the will in which he left everything to her and instead – has left everything to the love child, Cécile. Frédéric’s dreams go up in smoke, but he still pledges his loyalty to her.

From this point onwards, Frédéric secretly splits his time between the two women, spending the afternoon with Rosanette, going to see Madame Dambreuse every evening. He congratulates himself on his cleverness, on using the same phrases, reading the same poetry, with each of the women. He enjoys his own ‘wickedness’.

Money

As in Madame Bovary it is money troubles which trigger the multiple crises and bring the long rambling plot to a climax.

  1. Rosanette is unable to pay off some debts she owes, and when she tries to cash in some shares which Arnoux gave her, discovers that they are worthless. She takes him to court and her suit is a contributory cause of the final collapse of all Arnoux’s financial scams.
  2. We learn from multiple sources that M. Arnoux has finally been overtaken by his financial difficulties and is preparing to flee the country, along with Madame A.

Initially Frédéric hears gossip that M. Arnoux only needs 12,000 or so francs to remain solvent. In fact he hears it from the painter Pellerin, who he and Rosanette (bizarrely) commissioned to paints a portrait of their dead child. Petrified at the thought of losing Madame Arnoux (if she flees Paris), Frédéric asks for money from Mme Dambreuse, making up a cock and bull story about a friend being threatened with prison.

But M. Arnoux’s debts are much bigger than a measly 12,000 francs and by the time Frédéric goes round with the money he discovers they have fled to Le Havre, presumably to flee the country and his debtors.

Madame Dambreuse discovers his motive for borrowing the money and confronts him in a big shouting match. She accuses him of having multiple lovers, which is close enough. Now earlier in the story we had been told how Frédéric’s oldest friend, Deslaurier, had himself made a pass at Madame Arnoux (is seducing each other’s wives and mistresses all these people do?). When she rejected him, he conceived an obdurate hatred for her. As part of his ongoing attempts to ‘get on’ he had then made himself a sort of legal adviser to Monsieur Dambreuse, and then to his widow.

Now, like the serpent in the garden of Eden, Deslauriers spitefully suggests to Madame Dambreuse that she sell some of the debts which Arnoux racked up with her husband on to a debt collector.

She does so, the debt collector acts with typical aggressiveness, and this results in the bailiffs declaring a public auction of all the Arnouxs’ furniture and possessions.

A few days later, on one of her Frédéric’s lazy afternoon coach rides, Madame Dambreuse deliberately makes the driver ride by the auction house and – as if on a whim – insists to Frédéric that they go in.

Frédéric is horrified to realise what is going on – the auction of all Arnoux’s possessions – but is forced to watch as all the intimate belongings of (despite everything) his one true love, are auctioned off – the carpet she tiptoed across, the bed linen she slept in etc.

Madame Dambreuse watches Frédéric’s discomfiture with real upper-class scorn. When a trivial object of Madame Arnoux’s, a silver keepsake, comes up, Madame Dambreuse insists on outbidding everyone else in order to own it. Frédéric begs her not to, to have pity on his heart – but she insists. It is a very powerful scene.

When they finally exit the auction house, Frédéric sees Madame Dambreuse into her grand carriage, shuts the door, bids her adieu and walks away.

It is over. It is all over. His love is dead. His heart is crushed. He hates Madame Dambreuse; there will be no reconciliation. He knows Rosanette has other lovers; their child is dead; he hates her too. And the only woman he ever loved has gone away, he knows not where.

Sick of Paris and its ‘high life’, he retreats like a broken animal to his home territory, catching a train and stage coach back to Nogent. But as he comes closer he hears church bells and – as a in a fairy tale – he arrives at the church just in time to see Louise in a wedding dress exiting the church on the arm of her new husband, none other than his oldest dearest friend, Deslauriers.

Here and there, in the previous hectic fifty pages or so, had been carefully inserted references to Deslaurier’s absence in Nogent. Now we realise (as does Frédéric) that his best friend had been a) badmouthing him to his own mother, Old Roque and Louise, telling everyone about his married mistresses b) working his way into the affections of both Old Roque and Louise c) using Old Roque’s influence to stand as deputy for the whole region – in all of which he succeeded.

Frédéric is crushed. All his hopes lie in tatters. There remains one last, brutal disillusionment. Frédéric returns to Paris and Flaubert engineers a scene whereby Frédéric witnesses a bit more street fighting (the timeline has moved on to 1851 now) and he sees the good simply working class man Dussardier mount a final barricade and be brutally hacked down with a sword by a policeman of the new order, the Second Empire of Napoleon III. And this enemy of the working class is none other than – Frédéric’s old friend, the violent republican Sénécal, who has completed an intellectual volte-face from fire-breathing socialist to murderous imperialist, a flaring symbol of the utter stupid futility of politics.

Coda

The last few pages of the novel are genuinely emotional. Burnt out, abandoned, Frédéric leaves France and goes travelling to lose himself and when he returns, is a broken man.

He travelled.
He knew the melancholy associated with packet-boats, the chill one feels on waking up under tents, the dizzy effect of landscapes and ruins, and the bitterness of ruptured sympathies.
He returned home.
He mingled in society, and he conceived attachments to other women. But the constant recollection of his first love made these appear insipid; and besides the vehemence of desire, the bloom of the sensation had vanished. In like manner, his intellectual ambitions had grown weaker. Years passed; and he was forced to support the burden of a life in which his mind was unoccupied and his heart devoid of energy.

‘Towards the end of March, 1867, just as it was getting dark, one evening, he was sitting all alone in his study, when a woman suddenly came in.’

It is Madame Arnoux. She and her husband are living in obscurity in rural Brittany. She and Frédéric swear their undying love to each other. Maybe their love has survived and meant so much because they were never together. She takes her cap off to cut a lock of her hair for him, and he is stricken to see that her hair has gone completely white. She is an old lady. She leaves. It is the last time they will meet.

In the final final scene, years later, Frédéric encounters Deslauriers again and the novel ends the way it began, with the pair swapping stories of the past. On the final page they decide that their best memory is of being about 16 and trying to sneak into the town brothel in Nogent. Like simpletones they picked nosegays for the girls but, once inside, all the girls laughed at their sweet innocence and, overcome by embarrassment, first Frédéric and then Deslauriers had fled.

Now they sit by the fire, too old men reminiscing and agreeing that, yes, that was probably the happiest moment in their lives.


Paris

Rosy clouds, scarf-like in form, stretched beyond the roofs; the shop-tents were beginning to be taken away; water-carts were letting a shower of spray fall over the dusty pavement; and an unexpected coolness was mingled with emanations from cafés, as one got a glimpse through their open doors, between some silver plate and gilt ware, of flowers in sheaves, which were reflected in the large sheets of glass. The crowd moved on at a leisurely pace. Groups of men were chatting in the middle of the footpath; and women passed along with an indolent expression in their eyes and that camelia tint in their complexions which intense heat imparts to feminine flesh. Something immeasurable in its vastness seemed to pour itself out and enclose the houses. Never had Paris looked so beautiful. He saw nothing before him in the future but an interminable series of years all full of love. (Part one, chapter five)

If Madame Bovary was a portrait of rural France, Sentimental Education, although it includes a few other settings (Frédéric’s home town of Nogent, the Fontainebleu excursion), feels like a portrait of Paris, its streets, its geography, the wide river Seine, its colourful nightlife, and then as a setting for street fighting and revolution.

The two big parties I mentioned are complemented by smaller but still grand affairs – a formal dinner at Monsieur Dambreuse’s, where Frédéric is surprised at how boring and staid the banking-class guests are – a day at the races in the Champs de Mars (where Madame Arnoux sees Frédéric accompanying Rosanette, one of the many small incidents which add complication to the endless bedroom farce of his love life). Here is Frédéric mingling his dopey romantic feelings with the street life of the city.

The dinners were now renewed; and the more visits he paid at Madame Arnoux’s, the more his love-sickness increased. The contemplation of this woman had an enervating effect upon him, like the use of a perfume that is too strong. It penetrated into the very depths of his nature, and became almost a kind of habitual sensation, a new mode of existence.

The prostitutes whom he brushed past under the gaslight, the female ballad-singers breaking into bursts of melody, the ladies rising on horseback at full gallop, the shopkeepers’ wives on foot, the grisettes at their windows, all women brought her before his mental vision, either from the effect of their resemblance to her or the violent contrast to her which they presented. As he walked along by the shops, he gazed at the cashmeres, the laces, and the jewelled eardrops, imagining how they would look draped around her figure, sewn in her corsage, or lighting up her dark hair. In the flower-girls’ baskets the bouquets blossomed for her to choose one as she passed. In the shoemakers’ show-windows the little satin slippers with swan’s-down edges seemed to be waiting for her foot. Every street led towards her house; the hackney-coaches stood in their places to carry her home the more quickly; Paris was associated with her person, and the great city, with all its noises, roared around her like an immense orchestra. (Part one, chapter five)

There are plenty of descriptions of sunrise over Paris, of Paris at twilight, of the fires burning over revolutionary Paris, of the excitement in the air of spring in Paris, and so on. Paris is intellectual ferment, the hustle and bustle of the streets, money and glamour but above all, the sensual promise of women.

The Seine, which was of a yellowish colour, almost reached the platforms of the bridges. A cool breath of air issued from it. Frederick inhaled it with his utmost energy, drinking in this good air of Paris, which seems to contain the effluvia of love and the emanations of the intellect. He was touched with emotion at the first glimpse of a hackney-coach. He gazed with delight on the thresholds of the wine-merchants’ shops garnished with straw, on the shoe-blacks with their boxes, on the lads who sold groceries as they shook their coffee-burners. Women hurried along at a jog-trot with umbrellas over their heads. He bent forward to try whether he could distinguish their faces—chance might have led Madame Arnoux to come out.

The shops displayed their wares. The crowd grew denser; the noise in the streets grew louder. After passing the Quai Saint-Bernard, the Quai de la Tournelle, and the Quai Montebello, they drove along the Quai Napoléon. He was anxious to see the windows there; but they were too far away from him. Then they once more crossed the Seine over the Pont-Neuf, and descended in the direction of the Louvre; and, having traversed the Rues Saint-Honoré, Croix des Petits-Champs, and Du Bouloi, he reached the Rue Coq-Héron, and entered the courtyard of the hotel. (Part one, chapter seven)

The role of women

Obviously, the main line of the plot is Frédéric’s extraordinarily tangled love life – which I found incomprehensible from start to finish. Saying he carries a torch for a beautiful, sensitive, married woman but ends up going out with a courtesan makes it sound too simple and comprehensible; in fact his love affairs proceed through a sequence of scenes with Madame Arnoux, Rosanette, Mlle Vatnaz and others, every single one of which is difficult to understand – their dialogue, their expectations, their attitudes – all seemed completely alien and unreal to me.

Lengthy dialogue which seems to completely miss the point, alternates with abrupt scenes which skate over what would – for a modern person – be profound emotional or moral issues. And they recur again and again. As an example, as the June Days approach, Frédéric bumps into the banker Dambreuse (who has shifted with the times to become a devout republican), who unexpectedly praises Arnoux for saving his life the last time the mob invaded the Chamber of Deputies and surprises Frédéric by announcing that he has been elected a deputy. In response to this news:

Frédéric, after he had quitted M. Dambreuse, went back to Rosanette, and, in a very gloomy fashion, said that she should choose between him and Arnoux. She replied that she did not understand ‘that sort of talk’, that she did not care about Arnoux, and had no desire to cling to him. Frédéric felt an urge to leave Paris. She did not offer any opposition to this whim; and next morning they set out for Fontainebleau.

So their ‘honeymoon’ trip to Fontainebleu is Frédéric’s response to the fact that his mistress refuses to stop seeing (and presumably having sex with) the husband of the woman he really loves??

I found the endless indecisiveness of the central ‘love story’ more remote from my understanding of human nature  than something out of Chaucer or an Icelandic saga. Why does Frédéric ping pong between just these two women – are they the only two women in Paris? Why is he proud at making Rosannette his mistress when he knows that she continues to see Arnoux, as well as old M. Oudry, the Russian aristocrat and who knows how many others?

Putting that to one side, I think even if you aren’t particularly feminist in outlook, it’s also hard not to get upset at the way women are discussed and treated in the book. Whenever the men get together (which is a lot – Frédéric’s one-on-ones with friends, Frédéric’s house parties, Arnoux’s regular ‘at homes’, in nightclubs, in restaurants, at formal dinners) the conversation among men left to themselves quickly turns to ‘women’, with the men discussing the merits of this or that mistress, or type of woman, or women in general, usually dismissed as fickle or shallow.

When the young lads go for a night out at a new nightclub, the Alcazar, in part one, the aim is to pair off with one of the women there, who are categorised as ‘courtesans, working girls or prostitutes’.

The conversation turned on women. Pellerin would not admit that there were beautiful women (he preferred tigers); besides the human female was an inferior creature in the æsthetic hierarchy.

‘What fascinates you is just the very thing that degrades her as an idea; I mean her breasts, her hair…’

‘Nevertheless,’ urged Frederick, ‘long black hair and large dark eyes…’

‘Oh! we know all about that,’ cried Hussonnet. ‘Enough of Andalusian beauties on the lawn. Those things are out of date; no thank you! For the fact is, honour bright! a fast woman is more amusing than the Venus of Milo. Let us be Gallic, in Heaven’s name, and after the Regency style, if we can!’

Entry-level feminism will be outraged at the relentlessly secondary role given to women, often nameless, judged only on their appearance and seen as appendages to the named and ‘interesting’ men.

Sénécal placed his glass of beer on the mantelpiece, and declared dogmatically that, as prostitution was tyrannical and marriage immoral, it was better to practice abstinence. Deslauriers regarded women as a source of amusement – nothing more. M. de Cisy looked upon them with the utmost dread.

A little to the side of this obvious perspective, I was interested in the way that the objectification and denigration of woman helped the men to bond: Discussing women is a ‘safe’ activity – as opposed to discussions of either art of politics, which lead immediately to bitter arguments. Discussing sex may have its own disputes, but is essentially a unifying exercise at which older men nod and boast about their conquests, while younger men brag and lie.

Flaubert’s overall artistic intention – as stated in a series of famous letters – was to eliminate the intrusive narrator’s voice from his fiction. Narrators had cheerily interrupted their novels to point a moral and make suave generalisations for a hundred years or more. Flaubert very self-consciously set out to reject this entire tradition. The author’s tone was to be everywhere felt but nowhere explicitly visible.

Another aspect of this approach is that Flaubert claimed to be just presenting reality as it is.

If Charles Bovary is weak, if Emma Bovary is a bad mother, if Rodolphe is a sexual predator – it is not Flaubert’s fault. He is presenting humanity in all its weakness.

Ditto, in Sentimental Education, if Frédéric is weak-willed, a prey to feeble sensuality, in thrall to stupid ideals of romance, utterly unable to make the most of the opportunities life presents him with, it is not Flaubert’s fault. If a group of men at a dinner party or a nightclub end up talking about women, Flaubert is showing what the life of his time was like (and the life of men has been right up to the present day).

He would claims that men are like that and he is simply showing it, warts and all.

On the plus side, Flaubert presents the character of Mademoiselle Vatnaz, an avowed feminist and a reminder that, like the arguments of socialists, the arguments of feminists have existed, been published, promoted and discussed, since at least the time of the French Revolution.

The ill-temper of Rosanette only increased. Mademoiselle Vatnaz irritated him with her enthusiasm. Believing that she had a mission, she felt a furious desire to make speeches, to carry on disputes, and – sharper than Rosanette in matters of this sort – overwhelmed her with arguments.

One day she made her appearance burning with indignation against Hussonnet, who had just indulged in some blackguard remarks at the Woman’s Club. Rosanette approved of this conduct, declaring even that she would take men’s clothes to go and ‘give them a bit of her mind, the entire lot of them, and to whip them.’

Frédéric entered at the same moment.

‘You’ll accompany me – won’t you?’

And, in spite of his presence, a bickering match took place between them, one of them playing the part of a citizen’s wife and the other of a female philosopher.

According to Rosanette, women were born exclusively for love, or in order to bring up children, to be housekeepers.

According to Mademoiselle Vatnaz, women ought to have a position in the Government. In former times, the Gaulish women, and also the Anglo-Saxon women, took part in the legislation; the squaws of the Hurons formed a portion of the Council. The work of civilisation was common to both. It was necessary that all should contribute towards it, and that fraternity should be substituted for egoism, association for individualism, and cultivation on a large scale for minute subdivision of land.

The Woman’s Club? This is the only mention made of it in the text. It is fascinating to learn that such a thing existed in 1848, and that all the characters take it and the various arguments for women’s liberation entirely for granted, much as they take the arguments of the legitimists or the socialists, or any other political point of view.

Like Flaubert I am pessimistic about political change. The socialists in this book argue passionately for a change to the system which will abolish poverty and inequality. The feminists argue for a transformation of relationships between the sexes to make men and women truly equal.

170 years later, the arguments are exactly the same and being put with exactly the same vehemence, as if the Great Day of Freedom and Equality is just around the corner, just within reach, only requires a handful more newspaper articles, a couple more stirring speeches and… human nature will be transformed forever. Always mañana.

Summary

Early on I stumbled across the criticism made by Henry James – who adored Madame Bovary – that Sentimental Education lacks charm. He is right. The first hundred pages or so seemed qualitatively superior to the remaining 300. The boat trip to Nogent, Frédéric’s reunion with his old school friend, his poor student days rooming with Deslaurier, his mother’s fussing concern, old Roque the neighbour and his little daughter – all this have a charm and novelty.

But once he has inherited his fortune and goes off to Paris, Frédéric and the novel settle into a boring and repetitive pattern of him repeatedly visiting a) the Arnoux household to be ignored by Madame b) the apartment of Rosanette, where there are hundreds of pages of incomprehensible 19th century etiquette, before he does the simplest thing in the world and puts his arm round her waist and kisses her – at which point she ‘succumbs’ and becomes his mistress. Which is complicated in the final hundred or so pages with the addition of Madame Dambreuse. I freely admit I just didn’t understand the behaviour, motivation or psychology of any of the characters in Frédéric’s three-cornered love life, and so I failed to really understand the core of the book.

That said, as with Bovary the pleasure of the text is in the precise description of almost any individual scene – you can open the book at random and soon come across one of Flaubert’s wonderful descriptions of scenes and settings, large or small. Take this excerpt from the big dinner party chez Dambreuse.

Under the green leaves of a pineapple, in the middle of the table-cloth, a dolphin stood, with its snout reaching towards a quarter of roebuck and its tail just grazing a bushy dish of crayfish. Figs, huge cherries, pears, and grapes (the first fruits of Parisian cultivation) rose like pyramids in baskets of old Saxe. Here and there a bunch of flowers mingled with the shining silver plate. The white silk blinds, drawn down in front of the windows, filled the apartment with a mellow light. It was cooled by two fountains, in which there were pieces of ice; and tall men-servants, in short breeches, waited on them.

There are many moments of lucid clarity like this.

But that said, where Madame Bovary seems to me superior is that its narrative is carried forward in a much more dynamic and straightforward way, with a kind of tragic inevitability – the book is the record of her decline and fall which unfolds with the unstoppability of a Greek tragedy. Whereas Frédéric in Sentimental Education is more like a hamster who just goes round and round in his wheel for hundreds of pages, shilly shallying between one women or another, his personality and his situation never really changing or developing, not till towards the end anyway.

You could be clever and argue that this quality of stasis, of the hero being stuck in a rut, is itself a critique of the limitations, the paralysis, of ‘bourgeois’ society.

But plenty of people in 19th century France lived wildly exciting and achieveful lives, went abroad to run its growing empires, or developed new technologies, industries, made scientific discoveries, even rebuilt Paris – during this period. Fortunes were made, political careers forged, and new arts and designs created – the ‘Second Empire’ style in furniture was created and, as Flaubert was writing this novel (1862-69), the young generation of painters who would be dubbed ‘the Impressionists’ were developing entirely new ways of thinking about art and reality.

Flaubert’s era was one of staggering change and innovation. In other words, the choice of a bumbling ne’er-do-well as protagonist, like the earlier choice of a small-town adulteress, reflect Flaubert’s personality, temperament and aesthetic, rather than the reality of his era.

To make a really sweeping generalisation – insofar as Flaubert is often seen as a patron saint of modern novelists, you could say that he helped to create the stereotype of the author as outsider, as ineffectual bystander – despite living in one of the most dynamic and exciting eras of European history.

Flaubert helped create the reputation of literature as carping and critical of contemporary society – and as deliberately getting its own back on the society which increasingly rejected it, by dwelling on the one area where it could hurt and sting bourgeois culture – by deliberately and provocatively defying conventional sexual morality, by focusing on increasingly degraded or deviant ideas of sexuality.

The political timeframe

Anyway, back with Sentimental Education, I haven’t really brought out the very artful way Flaubert sets the entire story against the fraught political events of 1840 to 1851; how he creates different political points of view for the gang of characters we meet early on and then shows how their initial political beliefs develop, triumph, fail, mutate or are disappointed.

Not only does the final third take place against the revolutionary turmoil of 1848, but the final scene of the auction, when all his hopes and illusions are utterly crushed, is made to coincide with the coup mounted by the President Louis Napoleon, who will go on to have himself crowned the Emperor Napoleon III.

This is a deep and fruitful aspect of the novel but it would require a separate review to do justice to it.

Conclusion

Sentimental Education is a complex, rich, deep, carefully organised and in many places beautifully written novel, but which I really struggled to understand or sympathise with.

The final pages – Madame Arnoux’s appearance as an old lady, and the final scene of two wistful old men reminiscing about their schooldays – are immediately understandable and moving: but too much of the preceding 400 pages was psychologically and morally incomprehensible, so completely alien to modern behaviour and values, that I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


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Women and ethnic minorities in the art world

I’ve recently read a number of feminist critiques of the art world accusing it of being an all-male patriarchy which women can’t enter, of having a glass ceiling which prevents women from reaching the top, and of systematically underplaying or denying the achievement of women artists.

While I’m not really qualified to tackle all these issues in their entirety, the books did make me start paying closer attention to the gender of the artists featured in the London art exhibitions I visit, to the gender of the exhibition curators, and to the gender of the people running the main London art galleries which I frequent – with the following results:

Recent art exhibitions and their curators

  1. Frida Kahlo – Making Herself Up – Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa ♀
  2. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba – Melissa Blanchflower ♀
  3. Aftermath: Art in the wake of World War One – Emma Chambers and Rachel Rose Smith ♀
  4. Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy – Achim Borchardt-Hume and Nancy Ireson ♀
  5. Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds – Alona Pardo ♀
  6. Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing – Alona Pardo and Jilke Golbach ♀
  7. I Am Now You – Mother by Marcia Michael – Renée Mussai ♀
  8. Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers – Mark Sealy, Renée Mussai ♀
  9. Shirley Baker
  10. Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive – Nathalie Herschdorfer ♀
  11. Tish Murtha: Works 1976–1991 – Val Williams, Gordon MacDonald, Karen McQuaid ♀
  12. Monet and Architecture – Rosalind McKever ♀
  13. Print! Tearing It Up – Paul Gorman, Claire Catterall ♀
  14. World Illustration Awards 2018 – committee
  15. Killed Negatives – Nayia Yiakoumaki ♀
  16. ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies – Emily Butler ♀
  17. The London Open 2018 – Emily Butler ♀
  18. Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire – Christopher Riopelle
  19. Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire – Tim Barringer, Christopher Riopelle and Rosalind McKever ♀
  20. Quentin Blake: Voyages to the Moon and the Sun – Olivia Ahmad ♀
  21. Tomma Abts – Lizzie Carey-Thomas (assistant curator Natalia Grabowska) ♀
  22. Enid Marx – Alan Powers, Olivia Ahmad ♀
  23. Edward Bawden – James Russell
  24. Under Cover – Karen McQuaid ♀
  25. Lee Bul – Stephanie Rosenthal (Eimear Martin, Bindi Vora) ♀
  26. Adapt to Survive – Dr Cliff Lauson
  27. AOP50 – Zelda Cheatle ♀
  28. Andreas Gursky – Ralph Rugoff
  29. Age of Terror – Sanna Moore ♀
  30. Neo-Romantic Book Illustration in Britain 1943-55 – Geoffrey Beare
  31. Charmed lives in Greece – Evita Arapoglou, Ian Collins, Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith ♀
  32. Post-Soviet Visions – Ekow Eshun
  33. Made in North Korea – Olivia Ahmad, Nicholas Bonner ♀
  34. Ocean Liners: Speed and Style – Ghislaine Wood ♀
  35. All Too Human – Elena Crippa (Laura Castagnini, Zuzana Flaskova) ♀
  36. Lucinda Rogers – Olivia Ahmed ♀
  37. David Milne: Modern Painting – Ian Dejardin, Sarah Milroy ♀
  38. Living with gods – Jill Cook ♀
  39. Illuminating India – Shasti Lowton ♀
  40. Rhythm and Reaction – Catherine Tackley ♀
  41. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov – Juliet Bingham, Katy Wan ♀
  42. Women with Vision: Elisabeth Frink, Sandra Blow, Sonia Lawson – Nathalie Levi ♀
  43. Women of the Royal West of England Academy – Nathalie Levi ♀
  44. Cornelia Parker: One day this glass will break – Antonia Shaw ♀
  45. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – Kate Bailey ♀
  46. Scythians – St John Simpson
  47. War Paint – Emma Mawdsley ♀
  48. Modigliani – Nancy Ireson, Simonetta Fraquelli, Emma Lewis, Marian Couijn ♀
  49. Soutine – Barnaby Wright, Karen Serres ♀
  50. Cézanne Portraits – John Elderfield, Mary Morton, Xavier Rey
  51. Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites – Susan Foister, Alison Smith ♀
  52. Burrell Degas – Julien Domercq
  53. Lake Keitele: Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Anne Robbins ♀
  54. Monochrome – Lelia Packer, Jennifer Sliwka ♀
  55. Rachel Whiteread – Ann Gallagher, Linsey Young, Helen Delaney & Hattie Spires ♀
  56. Dali/Duchamp – Dawn Ades, William Jeffett, with Sarah Lea and Desiree de Chair ♀
  57. Jasper Johns – Roberta Bernstein & Edith Devaney ♀
  58. Impressionists in London – Caroline Corbeau-Parsons & Elizabeth Jacklin ♀
  59. Matisse in the studio – Ann Dumas & Ellen McBreen ♀
  60. Jean Arp – Frances Guy & Eric Robertson ♀
  61. Tracey Emin / Turner – Tracey Emin ♀
  62. Tove Jansson – Sointu Fritze ♀
  63. Basquiat – Dieter Buchhart & Eleanor Nairne ♀

Artists by gender and race

63 shows
39 about specific artists (i.e. not about general themes)
47 named artists, of whom –
20 women artists (43% of 47)
Black or Asian artists 3 (6%)

Curators by gender and race

63 shows
101 curators and assistant curators
76 women curators (76% of 101)
25 men curators (25%)
4 Black or Asian curators (4%)

London gallery directors by gender

  1. Army Museum Director – Janice Murray ♀
  2. Autograph ABP – Dr Mark Sealy MBE 
  3. Barbican Director of Arts –  Louise Jeffreys ♀
  4. British Museum – Hartwig Fischer 
  5. Calvert22 – Nonna Materkova ♀
  6. Courtauld Gallery Director – Deborah Swallow ♀
  7. Dulwich Picture Gallery Sackler Director –  Jennifer Scott ♀
  8. Guildhall Art Gallery & London’s Roman Amphitheatre – Sonia Solicari ♀
  9. Hayward Gallery Chief curator – Ralph Rugoff 
  10. Heath Robinson Museum Manager – Lucy Smith ♀
  11. House of Illustration – Colin McKenzie 
  12. Imperial War Museum – Diane Lees ♀
  13. National Army Museum – Janice Murray 
  14. National Gallery – Gabriele Finaldi 
  15. National Portrait Gallery –  Nicholas Cullinan 
  16. The Photographers’ Gallery – Brett Rogers 
  17. Royal Academy of Arts President – Christopher Le Brun 
  18. Saatchi Gallery – Rebecca Wilson ♀
  19. Serpentine Gallery Co-Directors – Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Yana Peel ♀
  20. Tate Britain Director –  Alex Farquharson 
  21. Tate Modern Director – Frances Morris ♀
  22. Victoria and Albert Museum Director –  Tristram Hunt 
  23. Whitechapel Gallery – Iwona Blazwick ♀

Bristol & Margate gallery directors by gender

Recently I was in Bristol and visited the main art gallery and the Royal West of England Academy:

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery Director – Laura Pye ♀
Royal West of England Academy Director – Alison Bevan ♀

And popped down to Turner Contemporary in Margate:

Turner Contemporary, Margate Director – Victoria Pomery ♀

Grand total of gallery directors
27 galleries/museums
27 directors
17 women directors (63% of 27)
10 men directors (37%)
1 Black or Asian director (Mark Sealy) (4%)

Conclusions

I accept that the selection of exhibitions I happen to have gone to is subjective (although it does tend to reflect the major exhibitions at the major London galleries). The gender of curators similarly reflects my subjective choices of venue – but it has in fact remained pretty steady at around 75% women, even as I’ve doubled the number of exhibitions visited over the past couple of months.

The genders of the heads of the main public London galleries are objective facts.

Anyway, from all this very shaky data, I provisionally conclude that:

  1. Of exhibitions devoted to named artists (not about themes or groups) about 40% are about female artists.
  2. About two-thirds of the London & Bristol art galleries I’ve visited are headed by women.
  3. Significantly more art exhibitions are curated by women than by men (about 75%).
  4. It is common to hear talk about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ in the art world, but not a single major London gallery is run by someone of black or Asian ethnicity, and none of the major art exhibitions I’ve visited were curated by blacks or Asians.

Visitors Also, hardly any visitors to exhibitions are black or Asian. At the Monochrome exhibition, there were no non-white visitors, but no fewer than five of the ‘security assistants’ were black. There were no black or Asian people in the one-room Lake Keitele show. There were no black or Asian visitors at the Degas, though all the women serving in the shop were Asian. Of the 170 people I counted in the Cézanne exhibition, there was one black man, and two Chinese or Japanese. In the Modigliani show, no black people – and so on…

From all of which I conclude that if there is an ‘absence’ or repression going on here, it is not – pace Whitney Chadwick and other feminist art critics – of women, who are in fact over-represented as heads of galleries and as exhibition curators: it is of people of colour, who are almost completely absent from this (admittedly very subjective) slice of the art world, whether as artists, administrators, curators or visitors.

Only the Basquiat show was about a black artist (and it attracted a noticeably large number of black visitors) but even this was curated (astonishingly) by two white people.

All of which confirms my ongoing sense that art is a predominantly white, bourgeois pastime.

Age And old. Every exhibition I go to is packed with grey-haired old men and women. It would be interesting to have some kind of objective figures for sex and age of gallery-goers (I wonder if Tate, the National and so on publish annual visitor figures, broken down into categories).

When I began to try and count age at the Cézanne show I very quickly gave up because it is, in practice, impossible to guess the age of every single person you look at, and the easiest visual clue – just counting grey-haired people – seemed ludicrous.

So I know that these stats are flawed in all kinds of ways — but, on the other hand, some kind of attempt at establishing facts is better than nothing, better than relying on purely personal, subjective opinions.

Now I’ve started, I’ll update the figures with each new exhibition I visit. I might as well try to record it as accurately as I can and see what patterns or trends emerge…

Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012)

The historical texts need constant rereading as we attempt to understand better the problematic of femininity and the role of images in the social production of meaning. (p.31)

This is a massive, hugely impressive and very useful book, a comprehensive history of women artists from the Middle Ages to the present day, which reincorporates hundreds of women into the canon of Western art, while raising all kinds of issues, not all of them necessarily the ones the author intends to.

Women, Art and Society demands a huge amount of respect and being paid the compliment of being seriously read, analysed, questioned and critiqued.

Expanding the list of women artists

Women, Art and Society is a staggering 552 pages long, including 20 pages of bibliography, notes and references in very small print. It is hugely knowledgeable, scholarly and authoritative.

On the down side it is part of Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series which means that it is on the small side for an art book (20cm by 15cm) and has much more text than illustrations. The illustrations often share pages with text and so are often pretty small – 3 inches by 2 inches is typical – and the majority of them are in black and white. Also, the text refers to hundreds of art works which aren’t included. Nowadays we can look them up online but prior to the internet you had to read sometimes detailed analyses of pictures which you couldn’t see.

Oh well, you can’t have everything. All these disadvantages are outweighed by the book’s enormous achievement which is to hugely expand the number, range, depth, variety and achievement of thousands of women in art, to write them back into the history of Western art and, along the way, to point out again and again how women were deterred, derided, mocked and systematically prevented from making art by a whole web of laws and regulations, institutional barriers and cultural and social norms and expectations.

It is a lot to take in; I’ve reread it twice and should probably do so at least once more, as well as keeping it handy on the shelf as a reference book.

If (like me) you have only a shaky grasp of the (traditional, male) history of Western art and, if pushed, could name barely half a dozen (mostly male) artists for each major style, then this book will vastly expand your knowledge, bringing to light hosts of women who contributed to the art of every era of Western art and, in an astonishing number of cases, were actually leading lights of the time.

In this respect, this book is a massive achievement and an enormous revelation.

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola

A women’s eye view of the history of Western art

Taken as a basic history, the book gives a thrilling overview of Western art, starting in the Middle Ages with a consideration of women’s roles as producers of then-current types of artistic object (textiles, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts) and then proceeding very thoroughly and systematically, in chronological order, through all the major movements and art styles of Western art, right up to a 2010 work by Pae White (the final artist named in the text).

It has the thrill and the sense of empowerment which really sweeping historical narratives have, as well as the excitement of discovering entirely new aspects of a fairly ‘familiar’ story – not only the wealth of specifically women artists, but also accounts of the movements, exhibitions, networks and organisations which women organised for themselves to promote women’s art.

As one tiny example, take the enormous Women’s Building designed and built specially to hold works of art and craft solely created by women at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Chadwick spends some time explaining how the all-female organisers got into fairly heated debate about whether or not to include any men (No), whether to limit the displays to the ‘fine arts’ or include all creative endeavours women were active in, handicrafts like needlework, tapestries, carpet-making (Yes). If you didn’t know about these debates, you’ll find out about them here – if you did know a little, you’ll be surprised how long some of them have been going on.

I for one was surprised at just how many women’s institutes, women’s art schools and fabric and design and needlework schools, were being set up in the mid-Victorian era, and how well-established feminist artists and authors were by the later 19th century.

Simply by focusing relentlessly on women’s experiences and achievements, Chadwick brings to light all kinds of historical material, debates and discussions which shed light not only on the women’s (and men’s) art of their time, but also makes you reflect on our own values, now, showing you the deep historical origins of many anti-women commonplaces and prejudices which endure to this day.

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Feminist issues

Liberally sprinkled throughout the factual history, amid her reclaiming of names and dates and works of neglected women artists, is Chadwick’s eloquent interpretation and exposition of the key issues of feminist art criticism. These can be broadly divided into reporting debates among feminists at the time, and reporting debates contemporary feminist art historians and critics have now about interpreting past art.

Historical debates

The 1893 the argument between women about what to include in the Women’s Building is one example of her summaries of historical debate, one among many, many other occasions when women debated among themselves the role of women, or the rights of women, or whether women have a special feminine ‘character’ or whether women’s art is detectably different from men’s art, and so on.

a) The nature of these debates is often fascinating, especially when the arguments on both sides still resonate to this day. (Is there such a thing as ‘the feminine’ in art?)

b) As with another book I have just read, 50 Women Artists You Should Know, it’s quite a revelation to realise just how long many of these debates, complaints, pleas and arguments have been going on for. When you learn that art critics were debating the ‘nature of femininity’ and ‘the role of women’s art’ in the 1750s, or that Mary Wollstonecroft published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 – 225 years ago – you begin to wonder whether any of these debates will ever be resolved. Maybe they are just discussions which will go on forever, reinvented and reinterpreted in each age, but remaining essentially unanswerable (not least because they are so big and simplistic). Maybe questions like ‘Is there such a thing as women’s art?’, ‘Does women’s art differ in any way from men’s art?’ are now just permanent features of the culture, alongside other old chestnuts like, ‘What is Art?’ ‘What is a work of art?’ ‘What is Beauty?’ and so on. Maybe they’re not meant to be answered – maybe their sociological purpose is to prompt debate, new insights and, very often, new art for each successive generation.

Feminist art history

2. Then there’s Chadwick’s summary of contemporary feminist theories, issues and ideas, which she uses retroactively to analyse the vast terrain she covers. In this respect, the preface to the original 1990 edition of the book (it’s been through five editions) reiterates some basic questions which the feminist art pioneers of the late 1960s and 1970s asked themselves and which form a sort of base camp for what follows:

  • Why did traditional male art historians ignore the work of almost all female artists for so long? (Although anti-women bias existed throughout Western history, the blanking of women artists in art history became really endemic in the Victorian period, reflecting the hardening of gender roles as a result of industrialisation, which crystallised previously quite flexible gender roles into really clear rules about men being the breadwinner and women being the angel in the house, stereotypes which endured well into the 1960s and beyond).
  • Were the successful woman artists who did feature in male histories isolated ‘freaks’, or the tip of a big iceberg of female achievement which had been systematically ignored? (As this book eloquently proves, there has been a vast iceberg of female artistic achievement through the ages.)
  • Did and should female artists lay claim to ‘essential’ gender differences which result in the production of certain kinds of imagery i.e. Is women’s art different from men’s art? (Some women artists and theoreticians have claimed their works were specially ‘feminine’, but in practice it’s impossible to tell from a painting alone whether it was done by a man or a woman – as the jungle of misattributions of paintings from the Renaissance to the 18th century amply demonstrates.)
  • Can works of art be viewed as androgynous or genderless? (Yes)
  • What is the relationship between ‘fine art’ – the ‘serious’ work of painting and sculpture – and the handicrafts which women either chose or were often forced to work in (quilts, needlework, tapestries etc)? Should it all be championed as women’s art or should the distinctiveness of ‘fine art’ be preserved? Or is that a male prejudice, a hangover from five centuries of masculine rhetoric about Great Artists and Old Masters, which we should deconstruct and overthrow? (Tricky: some feminists think craftwork should be included in a much more open definition of ‘art’, widened out to include all kinds of visual, textile creativity, not least because that would also ‘let in’ huge numbers of non-European women artists; others stick to the old definitions of ‘fine art’ as opposed to ‘watercolour’, ‘crafts’, if only for practical purposes of helping contemporary woman artists define what they do, where they should exhibit and so on.)
Still life (1653) by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Still life (1653) by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Fundamental feminist art ideas

So those are some of the big questions which Chadwick’s book raises, and numerous women artists and critics are quoted as discussing.

In a different category are the main feminist ideas, findings or axioms about women’s art and art history, which Chadwick reports and explains. Women theorists, practitioners and historians often disagree about the interpretations of these ideas, because they are now and have always been alive, debated, changing and evolving. But certain basic premises of the feminist position recur again and again and seem to be central. For what it’s worth, here is my attempt to summarise the main ‘findings’ of feminist art theory:

Throughout history art institutions were mostly run by men. Men privileged their own gender and male ways of seeing the world. They privileged genres to do with power and heroism (history paintings), genres which depicted heroic men and which were considered suitable only for male artists. They also created the whole idea of the artist as a ‘hero’, someone gifted with special powers and the unique ability to express the noblest thoughts of the human species – Religious ideas in the Renaissance, the power of Reason during the Enlightenment, Family morality during the 19th century, revolutionary and rebel ideas with the onset of Modernism. Later generations called these earlier pioneers the Old Masters, embedding ideas of masculinity, power, strength and so on into the very definition of art. In a host of ways, big and small, male artists were privileged by writings and ideas and expectations which promoted ‘male’ attributes and achievements.

Women artists were generally defined in contrast to all this, by a male notion of ‘the feminine’ i.e. as the opposite of the ‘male’ characteristics of power and virility. Therefore, if they insisted on working as artists, they were discouraged from working in the top genres like history painting, and instead encouraged to work to their ‘feminine’ strengths by doing portraits, animals, scenes of domestic life and so on.

If women artists were praised, it was generally for their ‘feminine’ attributes, i.e. their work was ‘delicate’, ‘sensitive’, full of ‘feeling’ etc, subtly relegating them to a second division, keeping their work within a supposedly ‘feminine sphere’.

By 1893 radical American women perceived the ideology of separate spheres as a male invention and a male response to feared competition in the workplace. (p.250)

Money plays a role. Men’s art fetched higher prices, therefore everyone involved in selling art had a vested interest in attributing art to famous men. Chadwick gives examples of works by 16th and 17th century women artists which were systematically misattributed to the male heads of their workshops so that they would sell for more, both at the time and later. The net effect of this money motive across the entire history of Western art was to reduce the number of works attributed to women, one more factor making them appear ‘marginal’. (And giving rise to a specialised area of feminist art scholarship which is the reattribution of older art away from men and re-establishing the oeuvres of long-neglected women artists.)

Another way traditional art criticism and history privileges men is in terms of size and scale. Big is best. Works on a ‘monumental’ scale are valued more than smaller works, and there is a long history of regarding women as simply incapable of working on this much vaunted ‘monumental’ scale. Women’s art had to be small and ‘domestic’.

Similarly, artists who are prolific tend to dominate the record e.g. the unstoppable Picasso. This bias doesn’t take account of the way many women artists were deprived of the money or resources to make large works, were ignored when big commissions came round, who chose to work on a smaller scale, or who were often burdened with the responsibilities of child-bearing and child-rearing and so produced significantly less than the child-free men.

Gender A lot of this debate is premised on the axiom that notions of ‘gender’ are entirely socially produced. A long list of feminist writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler has insisted that gender is created. As de Beauvoir wrote: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Obviously, there are undeniable biological differences between boys and girls, men and women. But the cultural and psychological meanings of what it is to be a ‘man’ and what it is to be a ‘woman’ are entirely man-made (literally), are created, are social constructs, are something we are taught, and so can be changed.

The more we study history with this in mind, the more we see how ‘gender roles’ have in fact varied from place to place and time to time. Studying gender role-creation in the past suggests the extent to which gender roles are still socially manufactured and could, conceivably, still be rewritten for the better.

Just how far this process can go, whether 100% identity between men and women (and other genders or transgenders) is possible, remains to be seen / is the subject of ongoing debate and investigation, but this book opens up fascinating vistas, putting on record women and artists who were discussing and addressing these questions centuries ago.

The male gaze I Lots of male art depicts naked women. This is the most blatant example of the ‘male gaze’ i.e. the way men see in ways intimately involved with power, control and predatory sexuality. Tens of thousands of nudes display women in semi-pornographic poses, made ‘available’ to the male viewer, in passive, inactive, submissive stances. For hundreds of years women have tried to produce images of themselves, of the female body, which won’t lend themselves to exploitation by the ‘male gaze’. Is this possible?

For all these reasons and more, quite a few feminist art historians, critics and artists refuse to play the entire game of art history, refuse to take part in male institutions or exhibitions and refuse to contribute to a discourse of criticism and history which they see as hopelessly compromised, inescapably based on overwhelmingly ‘male’ notions of power and dominance. To take one example from hundreds, the notion that there is a ‘canon’ of ‘important’ works: Who says there is a canon? Who defines it? On what criteria?

And lastly, feminism is itself an unstable construct. From the start feminist criticism and history has been attacked from within by black and other ethnic or class-based points of view which point out that the women artists being ‘reclaimed’ and inserted into this male narrative were overwhelmingly white and often themselves very wealthy and privileged. From this perspective, the whole project of rediscovering and reinserting neglected women artists into ‘the canon’, the ‘official histories’, and subjecting them to ‘traditional art criticism’ just ends up reinforcing established (male) notions of race and class and economic privileges.

But, would reply Chadwick, if you don’t make the effort to rehabilitate all these women artists, you leave the male history unchallenged, women artists are lost to history, women’s voices go unheard. Catch-22.

The solution must, then, be to try and reconcile the two imperatives, to engage in a) the rehabilitation project while b) also looking for ways to deconstruct the very notion of a ‘canon’, at the very least to extend it outwards to include non-traditional art and art from other ethnic groups, and to be aware of more marginal, minority, genuinely unprivileged groups.

These, then, are some of the key ‘charges’ made against traditional male art history and criticism, some of the basic ideas which underpin the entire book, and these last couple of paragraphs summarise Chadwick’s position (as I understand it).

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788) by Angelica Kauffman

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788) by Angelica Kauffman

Some historical learnings

The main learning of the book is quite how many women have been involved in artistic production at all levels for the last 1,000 years (the book starts with nuns and craftswomen creating illuminated manuscripts and textiles from around 900 CE. It includes, for example, a section on the Bayeaux Tapestry c.1080, and on Hildegard of Bingen who flourished in the 1100s.) Hundreds of names which were new to me are given an introduction and analysis.

The second learning is the depth of feminist scholarship about all these artists. Of the hundreds of women artists mentioned here, all have been subject to one or numerous art critical and historical essays written about them by feminist theorists and scholars.

In other words, Women, Art and Society impresses not only by the sheer numbers and achievements of the women artists, but by the parallel numbers and achievements of women art scholars and historians in the modern world. Very sophisticated debates about individual artists, or entire eras, are now possible quoting numerous scholars not a single one of which is a man. Feminist theory, feminist history, feminist art criticism are now enormous fields in their own right.

The ‘male’ Renaissance

Chadwick deepened my understanding of the Renaissance by describing it in feminist terms. The Renaissance foregrounded learning, especially the mathematics which underpinned its astonishing achievements in creating realistic perspective in painting and neo-classical architecture. All the intellectual qualities required for this – maths, geometry, trigonometry, architecture and so on – were characterised as male qualities and women were discouraged or banned from learning them. Women were encouraged to study dress, deportment, morality and the sensitive arts.

This underlying idea of power, the power of the intellect, the forcefulness of monumental buildings in the new style, all rotated round and reinforced gender ideas about masculinity. Power, force and energy are the qualities admired, which climax in the High Renaissance and then drive on into the even more monumental and heavy Baroque.

Chadwick points out that the most influential book of art history ever is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It does include some women painters but by privileging ‘male’ concepts of power and mastery it set the tone for a huge amount of the art criticism and history which followed.

Thus Chadwick’s account left me with a deeper understanding of how an anti-women bias was ‘inscribed’ into the founding texts of art history.

Northern versus southern art

It also helped me understand my own taste more. Though it’s heresy to admit it, I don’t much like Renaissance art or architecture – I find it inhumanly imposing, monumental and power-hungry – I much prefer the art and architecture of the Middle Ages (Gothic) and the painting of the so-called Northern Renaissance, a view or prejudice I’ve aired in several reviews:

Chadwick greatly deepened my understanding of the difference between Italian Renaissance and Northern European art. To put it in cartoon form: Italy was ‘male’ and the North (the Low Countries) ‘female’. What I like about Northern painting is that:

a) It is more human, it shows people more realistically, it shows peasants dancing (Breughel), there are hundreds of scenes of winter fairs and people skating on frozen lakes etc, its portraits are realistically plain and often ugly (whereas Renaissance portraits are about Power and Dukes and Popes).
b) It often depicts modest, quiet domestic scenes, flowers, still lives, women quietly working (Vermeer).

Chadwick explores the difference in a number of illuminating ways. I learned from her account that Michelangelo, no less, was quoted at the time giving a detailed account of why he despised and disliked Northern European art, precisely for the aspects I like, for its everyday scenes and understatement. Michelangelo thought it was all very pretty but lacked grandeur and dynamic design and humans (generally men) cast in bold dramatic postures. (p.118)

Italian Renaissance art was born of bragging. Each city state was proud of its artists and its huge buildings (much as northern British cities competed to build the most imposing town hall in the 19th century). The earliest records of individual artists were written to shed honour on their town of birth (or where they worked) and on their splendid sponsor, whoever that might have been, before praising the artist themselves.

Italian Renaissance art is grand, public and aristocratic – its patrons are dukes, cardinals and the Pope. Northern European art was smaller, more intimate and designed to be hung in the homes of the middle classes. Northern European art is more democratic.

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster (1633)

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster (1633)

Rococo art

King Louis XIV of France created a vast ideology of royal power based at his enormous palace at Versailles. When he died in 1715 he was succeeded by the boy King Louis XV and the court and all the aristocrats moved back to Paris with a big sigh of relief. Rococo art with its lightness of touch and fanciful subject matter, is:

a) a reaction to the straitjacket of Louis XIV’s power ideology
b) the result of the French aristocracy mingling with the well-to-do Paris bourgeoisie, more relaxed and pleasure-loving
c) the fact that the aristocracy, newly arrived back in Paris after a generation of exile in Versailles, hired or built grand new town houses which needed decorating. Hence an explosion of paintings, sculptures, carvings, mouldings, gildings all designed to enhance and bring out enjoyment of a more domestic, ‘feminine’ space and lifestyle

In fact, the 18th century has been conventionally characterised as a highpoint of ‘feminine’ influence in art and culture, dominated by the salons of powerful Parisian women, visually represented by frivolous and frolicsome subject matter.

As usual, Chadwick challenges this idea, which clashes with modern feminist doctrine denying the existence of a ‘feminine nature’ or ‘feminine attributes or ‘feminine art’ – but she first has to describe the period in traditional art historical terms before deconstructing it, and finds it difficult to avoid the fact that the art of Louis XV, dominated by women’s salons and women aristocrats is indisputably ‘softer’, hazier, more full of pastoral imagery, than the imposing icons of power politics of Louis XIV.

However you resolve that and other debates, the 18th century was indisputably the era of some really important and impressive women artists, Rosalba Carriera, Angelica Kauffmann and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun to pick just a handful among scores.

Self portrait in straw hat (1782) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self portrait in a straw hat (1782) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Victorian feminists

I had no idea that a large number of American women sculptors moved to Rome and worked there in the 1850s and 1860s, daughters of supportive liberal families. The moved in an extended feminist network, many of them chose not to marry in order to concentrate on their careers, some were lesbians or notably non-conformist (they wore trousers, smoked, rode horses not side-saddle!).

Henry James wrote a satirical essay on them. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a fable/romance set among them, The Marble Faun (1859), and Louisa May Alcott wrote a novella about female friendships among the group, Diana and Persis (1879). It’s a whole community to read about and admire. Probably the most important was Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908).

Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Hosmer

Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Hosmer

I was also surprised to learn that so many women’s groups, institutions, art schools, feminist magazines, newspapers, activists and so on, began to flourish so early in the 19th century, in America, Britain and Europe.

From the 1850s onwards the diversity of women’s artists is matched by a steadily increasing diversity of women’s institutes, professional bodies, critics, theorists, writers, patrons and so on.

  • 1825 American National Academy of Design
  • 1844 United States National Woman’s Rights Convention
  • 1854 Cosmopolitan Art Association
  • 1855 Society of Female Artists
  • 1866 modern feminist movement launched in France
  • 1868 The Revolution (women’s rights newspaper)
  • 1876 Philadelphia Exposition featured a Women’s Centennial Executive Committee
  • 1877 Society of Decorative Art of New York
  • 1878 International congress on women’s rights
  • 1881 Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs in France
  • 1894 ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ by Sarah Grand published in the North American Review crystallises the idea of the New Woman
  • 1897 Millicent Fawcett founds the National Union of Women’s Suffrage

As the book moves onto the turn of the century, there is more of everything: fast-growing populations, new technologies, scientific and medical discoveries, terrible mechanised wars, and a dizzying array of artistic movements – from late Victorian arts and crafts, Aestheticism, Symbolism, through the early 20th century revolutions of Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, on into the Great War with Dada and all the movements which come out of the Russian revolution.

The exponential growth of population and activity (in every field of human endeavour) over the past 150 years is reflected by the way the period from about 1850 to the present day takes up 350 pages (two thirds) of this 520-page book.

And Chadwick is there, reporting on the lead women artists in each of these movements, describing how they tried to navigate fast-moving social and political situations, position themselves in the male art world, and establish their own voices and styles.

It’s a massive story and far too complex to summarise here. Buy the book.

So much for the history. Meanwhile, as I read on and immersed myself more and more in the text, I couldn’t help noticing the intrusive presence of:

  1. the post-modern, feminist critical theory ideas which Chadwick invokes on every page
  2. the post-modern jargon or style which she uses with increasing frequency to describe artists and their works

1. The impact (or not) of post-modern French thinkers

The usual suspects In the preface to the 1990 edition Chadwick invokes the names of all the usual suspects of what was already called Critical Theory when I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s -Saussure (d.1913), Benveniste (d.1976), Marx (d.1883) and Althusser (d.1990), Freud (d.1939) and Lacan (d.1981), Barthes (d.1980), Foucault (d.1984), Derrida (d. 2004).

A lot of dead white men, then. Right at the end of this list she adds the famous French women writers of this ilk, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. The same names are then all repeated again on page 502. This list of once-fashionable French thinkers effectively book-ends the main text.

This discourse is ageing But the list sounds pretty dated now. The network or matrix of ideas generated by these very influential French theorists was certainly the great new wave of ideas in the 1970s and 1980s, but now feels very passé. Just incanting their names takes me back to my student days in the 1980s, to the era of Reagan and Thatcher and Greenham Common, to the West’s enthusiastic support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan – back to an age now lost in the mists of time.

So I wasn’t surprised when, half way through the book, I googled Whitney Chadwick to discover that she is a 74-year-old white American feminist academic. She was born in the same year (1943) as Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.

Nothing wrong with being old, we’re all getting old. But her age is an indication of where she is coming from, and explains why so much of her rhetoric dates from the strident and optimistic feminism of the late 1960s and 1970s, the kind of militant rhetoric which spread out of the academy into the wider political world in the 1980s when I was a student – but then evaporated like morning dew in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the deregulation of financial services, and the universal triumph of consumer capitalism.

Post-modern ideas mostly absent Anyway, Chadwick may well namecheck these French philosophes but – surprisingly – her book rarely uses or incorporates their ideas, above all their profoundly subversive ideas about writing and language, into the actual shape, pattern, flow and style of the text.

In the preface Chadwick briefly (in two sentences, p.12) invokes the idea from Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) that power in modern societies is expressed less by institutions than by the ‘scientific’ or learned discourses which they produce (about medicine, or mental health or sexuality etc).

In six sentences (p.13) she recaps Lacan’s theory that entry to the ‘symbolic order’ of writing and power is through possession of a penis in a phallocentric society, and that, lacking a penis, each woman is ‘constructed’ as a symbolic ‘other’ in the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order of ‘patriarchal’ society, deprived of power and ‘agency’.

I could do with a bit of clarification on these and related ideas, but this is notable by its absence. That list of Great Thinkers which I mentioned as coming on page 502 is, in its entirety, the statement that postmodernism:

brought to a wider academic and artistic audience new European influences that included Roland Barthes’s use of linguistic models in the interpretation of text and images, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s analysis of social systems, and Jacques Lacan’s study of the structure of the unconscious. All of these investigations owed much to Marxist models of culture and ideology… (p.502)

And that’s your lot.

Not enough, is it? If these French theories underpin postmodern feminist theory, and that theory underpins and informs every page of this 500-page-long history, then I think the book ought to have started with a good, clear explanation of who the post-modern thinkers were, what their key findings were and how their theories are applied by feminists generally, and by feminist art historians in particular.

But the two places I’ve mentioned are the only places where Chadwick ever actually explains these post-modern ideas – ‘explain’ maybe giving too much credit to what is essentially a glorified list – and there is no one place where she goes into any of them in any kind of detail. My thumbnail sketch would be that the founders of postmodern Critical Theory:

  • question whether it is possible to name and categorise and write history or science or any ‘factual’ discourse without creating new impositions of power and control (Foucault)
  • claim that we can never be confident that an author’s meaning is fixed, stable or read as intended (Barthes)
  • undermine the ability to write anything definitive i.e. whose meaning isn’t sabotaged at every turn by a vast network of linguistic ‘traces’ from the infinity of other writings (Derrida)
  • undermine the whole idea of coherent prose because that very notion, that long tradition, has almost exclusively been a vehicle for masculine power (Cixous)

What all these thinkers have in common is to completely undermine the notion of human beings as stable fixed psychological entities; to undermine the ability of language to ever really convey anything for certain, because of the instability of the relationship between author, text and reader (Barthes) or because language itself isn’t a ‘site’ of authority, but the reverse, a potentially endless play of peripheral traces (according to Derrida).

From the feminist point of view, these sustained underminings of traditional notions of reason and authority can be powerfully deployed to criticise and undermine traditional male discourses of power and control – in society at large, but most of all in literature and the arts, which rely most completely on signs and symbols – precisely the areas of concern to the most subversive and disruptive findings of Barthes, Derrida, Cixous and their peers.

It is the complexity of the thinking about how traditional ‘discourse’ is undermined which explains why the writings of these French thinkers is, itself, so often tortuous and barely comprehensible, because they take their own findings about the unreliability of language and meaning at face value and try to write new kinds of prose to accommodate and express these findings.

None of these subversive ideas or disruptive prose strategies have any impact on Chadwick’s actual prose which is – certainly for the first half of the book – mostly indistinguishable from the most traditional style of male art scholarship. Take this passage:

The Birth of the Virgin is closer to a genre scene of family life in Bologna than to its Biblical source, despite its outdoor setting and nocturnal illumination. It balances a sense of monumentality and decorum with a naturalism close to that of the Cremonese school, and was influenced by Anguissola, whose work Fontana knew and admired and who no doubt provided an important model for her. Fontana’s Consecration to the Virgin, originally intended for the Gnetti Chapel in S. Maria dei Servi in Bologna, combines figures elongated according to Mannerist conventions with greater naturalism in the treatment of the children’s figures. Prospero Fontana’s influence continued to be felt in Fontana’s later religious paintings, as did that of Peleotti, for links between the Bishop and the painter’s family remained strong. (p.94)

This could have been written by Kenneth Clark or Ernst Gombrich in the 1950s, and a lot of the book is written in this surprisingly conservative style.

The steady pressure of feminist ideas So, in practice, hardly any of the deeply subversive ideas of the French post-structuralist thinkers are really applied in this plain prose. The reverse: Chadwick’s prose is almost always clear and authoritative (just like her male art historian predecessors) – which is a good thing and makes this a very good introduction to her themes and history.

But all that said, her feminist stance is continuously present throughout the book, in at least two major ways:

1. Not a page goes by without factual reference to the half dozen fundamental feminist ideas which I’ve listed above – that so-and-so was excluded from an academy, encouraged only to paint ‘feminine’ subjects, was marginalised because their work didn’t conform to ‘masculine’ values i.e. big and heroic etc. These were the recurrent experiences of women artists and so they recur in the text. On every page there will be detail of the social, political, legal and professional obstacles put in the way of women, across all the widely varying and changing societies of Western Europe, across the past millennium (it is an enormous topic).

Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) by Rosa Bonheur

Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) by Rosa Bonheur

And then, as the story reaches the later nineteenth century, there’s an increase of ideas and strategies and debate among women artists. This is further encouraged by the explosion of modernism in the decade around the Great War – and Chadwick’s prose increasingly reflects the language of women’s rights campaigners and writers, with the slow infiltration into the text of phrases expressing women’s rights, reproductive rights, feminine essence and so on.

But it’s when the book arrives at the 1960s that there is an absolute explosion of ideas, texts, debates, political activitism, philosophy and radical new feminist theories. This happens about page 330 and then dominates the remaining 200 pages of the text. From this point onwards the prose style changes significantly to include more and more of the jargon and clichés of postmodern feminist criticism. This had been sporadically present earlier. Now it becomes the dominant voice. Eventually every single woman artist is defined and summarised (and controlled and categorised) using the same, relatively small vocabulary of this rebarbative academic style.

Let’s look a bit more closely at this professors’ argot.


A Lexicon of Feminist Critical Theory

The following aims to be a deconstruction of Chadwick’s text which reads it not as a consecutive history but as an assemblage of terminologies, a discursive tessellation (‘a pattern of geometric shapes that fit together’).

In other words, I am perfectly well aware that it Women, Art and Society is a chronological history of women artists but, at the same time, the surveys of contemporary women’s art (fascinating and immensely informative as they are) can also be thought of as:

  1. a pretext for the generation of text, a machine for churning out textual phrases and semantic units (because, after all, every ostensible ‘subject’ is merely a pretext for the exercise of writing and reading, which are deeply pleasurable in themselves, regardless of the theme)
  2. elements in a system of meaning and inclusion. What I mean is that the lexicon Chadwick uses not only has an overtly analytical aim, but also amounts to the specialised vocabulary of a sect or group or tribe – the tribe of university-educated feminists – which signals membership of the tribe and offers the psychological reassurance of taking part in shared values and a shared worldview.

Looking at her book like this, as a kind of machine for generating meaning, could itself be divided into two main areas: one bringing out the ‘political’ aspect of the rhetoric (detailing its obsessive repetition and recombination of what amount to a small number of ‘political’ ideas (generally subverting the patriarchy) or the psychological aspect.

Of the two, I choose to investigate the psychological aspect because I think it is wider and deeper.

On this point of view, Women, Art and Society is a discursive machine for the generation of an awesomely long text which is made up of thousands of reiterations and recombinations of a handful of basic words and phrases, the net result of which is to reassure the members of the sect or cult of feminist Critical Theory of their essential virtue, their correctness, their inclusion in an elite group of intellectuals, and the sense that they are engaged in a vast, international political movement which is changing the world for the better.

Members of this élite (having done a university course in feminist theory, critical theory, queer theory etc may make you feel like you’ve entered an entirely new world but does, in fact, put you in a tiny proportion of the general population) signal to each other through this highly mannered prose style because it, like the catchphrases of any religion, is designed more for mutual reassurance, to encourage ‘group think’ and discourage dissent, to bolster the reader’s identity as member of the elect – than for its allegedly logical or intellectual content.

(This possibly explains why she doesn’t feel the need to explain the ideas of Barthes, Foucault, Cixous et al in any detail, because the ideas aren’t important; the recitation of their names alone serves a sociological purpose, as in any other religion which recites the names of its saints and founders to bind together its members.)

With this in mind – focusing not so much on their overt meaning as on their impressive ability to generate apparently limitless permutations in order to spool out webs of reassuring verbiage – here’s an introduction to the key terms and phrases of feminist critical theory.

Key terms of feminist art critical theory

Works are not hung on walls or published; they are ‘positioned’ or ‘located’ or ‘situated’. The actual subjects depicted are not ‘placed’ or ‘set in’ so-and-so location. They are ‘situated’ or ‘sited’.

Mary Bracquemond sited many of her works in the family garden. (p.238)

Spaces The varied and interesting places which you and I go to – home, work, supermarket, cinema, pub, park – are all subsumed into a special terminology which talks about ‘spaces’, particularly the binary opposition of the ‘private space’ and the ‘public space’.

Because it is axiomatic in feminism that women have always been relegated to the domestic ‘space’ (or ‘sphere’), it is always headline news when they make a work, sculpture, painting or publish something which enters ‘the public space’.

Morisot’s and Cassatt’s paintings demarcate the spaces of masculinity and femininity through their spatial compressions and their juxtapositions of differing spatial system. (p.238)

In ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’, [feminist art scholar Griselda] Pollock maps the new spaces of masculinity and femininity and articulates the differences ‘socially, economically, subjectively’ between being a woman and being a man in Paris at the end of the [nineteenth] century. (p.232)

Subvert Works of art or literature are never made for enjoyment. They always have a political purpose. In the right-on worldview of Critical Theory, this purpose turns out always to be rebellious. What this means is that works ‘perform’ one of the following actions: they ‘subvert’, ‘interrogate’, ‘engage with’, ‘circumvent’, ‘undermine’, ‘question’, ‘contest’, ‘challenge’, ‘confront’, ‘critique’ or ‘disrupt’ social norms, conventions, accepted opinions, stereotypes, patriarchal values, white male narratives, and so on.

Note that these are generally Latinate words – a sure way to impress your reader – often with melodramatic overtones thrown in. A painting ‘interrogates’ assumptions about x, y or z. Makes it sound like a scene from a war movie instead of a flat old painting hanging on a wall.

Barbara Kruger’s (b.1945) blown-up, severely cropped photographs of women, and their short accompanying texts subvert the meanings of both image and text in order to destabilise the positioning of woman as object. (p.382)

Cindy Sherman’s (b.1954) photographs reveal the instability of gender, and challenge the idea that there might be an innate, unmediated female sexuality. (p.383)

Levine’s work not only contests notions of originality and authorship, but it situates those ideas within the premises of patriarchy. (p.384)

Mary Kelly (b.1941), an American who lived in London during the 1980s, also refused the direct representation of women in her work in order to subvert the use of the female image as object and spectacle … Post Partum Document… addressed the positioning of women in patriarchal culture… [It also] deconstructed psychoanalytical discourses on femininity… in order to articulate… the child’s insertion into the patriarchal order as a gendered (male) subject. (pp.403-404)

Later works by Kelly, as well as by the American artists Martha Rosler and Carrie Mae Weems also interrogate the ways that women’s roles are formed within the family and in society. (p.404)

Messager’s Story of dresses examines and critiques Western cultural representations of female identity, intimate relations, sexuality and power. (p.410)

Other women use humour and irony to challenge social constructions of gender. Irish artist Dorothy Cross’s (b.1956) installation The Power House (1991) addressed issues of class and the gendered division of labour and space. (p.411)

Walker’s work confounds the visual codes though which race, gender, sexuality, and the history of slaves in the American South have been presented. (p.492)

Transgress With tedious predictability, feminist works of art ‘transgress’ this, that or the other social norms, conventions, boundaries and so on.

Catherine Opie (b.1961) has also benefited from the spaces opened up by the transgressive photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. (p.396)

Articulate Works of art don’t express feelings or ideas. They ‘articulate’ issues or ‘mediate’ narratives.

Millie Wilson’s work articulates the historical inaccuracy, often absurdity, of social constructions of lesbianism within dominant heterosexual discourse. (p.396)

Through performing the piece [Wake and resurrection of the bicentennial Negro], Ringgold articulated a specific story of family tragedy, loss and redemption. (p.362)

Sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity mediated women’s attempts to define what it meant to be a woman, to experience life from within a woman’s body and to understand one’s subjectivity as feminine. (p.367)

Address Works of art are no longer designed to please the eye, be beautiful or entertaining (how crude, how passé!). Their sole purpose is to address issues and themes. In exactly the way that your local council says it is addressing the issue of parking spaces or bin collection.

During the 1980s Hiller produced several multimedia installations that address issues of language and silence. (p.400)

Kelly’s photo/text installation Corpus (1985)… explores femininity and representation by addressing the issue of aging… (p.405)

Many art exhibitions these days aren’t organised in order to display works of art; they are organised in order to address issues. This is particularly true of Tate Britain which has had a long run of issue-based shows (Queer art (overlooked), British Empire art (restoring native peoples to imperial narratives), Folk art (too often ignored) and so on). Issues can also be tackled. Though Chadwick prefers them to be addressed.

Ines Garrido (b.1966) in El secreto de Duchamp tackled issues of gender. In a nearby gallery, Magaly Reyes (b.1968) exhibited a group of colourful and quirky self-portraits in the manner of Frida Kahlo that addressed social issues through questions of her own identity. (p.429)

Issues Whatever the precise verb used, contemporary art is all about issues. In this respect a lot of modern art is barely ‘art’ at all, but more plausibly a colourful extension of sociology or anthropology.

  • The 1997 Johannesburg Biennale ‘dealt explicitly with issues of colonisation, race relations and identity in South Africa…’
  • Lucy Orta (b.1966) addresses ‘issues of class’
  • Tracey Moffatt ‘addresses issues of cultural identity’
  • contemporary women artists from developing countries address ‘issues of displacement, imperialism, economic colonisation, sexuality and identity’
  • Salcedo’s contribution to the 1993 Venice biennale addressed ‘issues of representation’
  • The Australian Aboriginal Campfire Group speak to issues of cultural hybridity and displacement (p.452)
  • Kimsooja’s work addresses ‘issues of nomadism, migration, displacement, the body, and history.’ (p.485)
  • Contemporary women artists engage ‘issues of personal and historical memory’ (p.492)
  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

Discourse What works of art are usually interrogating is ‘traditional’ assumptions, customs, traditions etc. That sounds a bit obvious, so it’s better to use the buzzword ‘discourse’. This is a blanket term covering books, essays, lectures, articles, speeches, a society’s entire collection of ways of communicating.

Women’s positions in relation to imperialist discourse were seldom fixed … (p.199)

Each era has an official ‘discourse’ which is – it goes without saying – deeply sexist. Therefore, feminist theory prefers (or foregrounds or privileges) the kind of works which ‘subvert’, ‘interrogate’, ‘engage with’, ‘circumvent’, ‘undermine’, ‘question’ or ‘challenge’ the ruling ‘discourse’.

Inscribe New ideas aren’t taken up or incorporated; they are ‘inscribed’ or ‘reinscribed’ into the ruling discourse.

Narrative The ruling discourse is always male or masculine. All writing about anything before about 1970 was written by men for men. This masculinist ‘discourse’ ‘prescribes’ (like a doctor) or ‘constructs’ (like a builder) a ‘masculinist’ view of the world. The ruling discourse is made up of ‘narratives’. Again ‘narrative’ doesn’t refer to a specific work but to the general story an age tells itself, in effect its values. You often read about ‘Western imperial narratives’.

Hegemony is a term adapted by the Italian communist philosopher Gramsci in the 1930s to describe the across-the-board control of all aspects of society by nasty capitalists. Although Marxism is dead, Critical Theory has extended the term to refer to the ‘hegemony’ white people or men or heterosexuals (depending on which group you are ‘subverting’, ‘interrogating’ or ‘questioning’).

Thus subversive works try to ‘undermine’ or ‘engage with’ or ‘interrogate’ male ‘discourse’ or ‘narratives’ or ‘hegemony’. (Hopefully, you can see that, by mastering just a few basic phrases you can begin to build up impressive-sounding sentences of your own. It’s a bit like Lego.)

As [the 1980s] progressed an international group of younger artists… emerged to rework the feminist implications of materials into complex challenges to hegemonic movements in Western European and North American modernism. (p.503)

Code has two meanings. First, the usual one of codes of conduct:

In demanding access to art training and life classes women were not only challenging codes of feminine propriety and sexual conduct; they were also claiming the right to see and represent actively the world around them, and to command genius as their own. (p.178)

Encode/decode But works of literature or art are often said to contain secret ‘codes’. These difficult ‘codes’ (i.e. secret messages like ‘Men are Best’, and ‘Women are crap’) are ‘encoded’ in ‘texts’, ‘discourses’ or ‘representation’, and have to be ‘decoded’ by experts. For example, Harriet Powers (1837-1911) a black woman born into slavery in Georgia, went on to make story quilts. They were displayed at an 1886 exhibition.

Powers herself produced the detailed descriptions of each scene that enabled subsequent generations to decode its complex iconography. (p.21)

I’m not questioning this moving story. Just the way that previous generations would have written ‘read’ or ‘interpret’, but we write ‘decode’. The characteristic feminist theory tactic of combining the scientific-sounding (as in computer code) with a dash of melodrama ( James Bond secret codes).

Signifier is a technical term originating in linguistics and incorporated into semiotics, or the study of signs. Ferdinande de Saussure revolutionised linguistics by theorising that language is made up of signs which always consist of two parts – the signifier and the signified i.e. a sign’s physical form (such as a sound, printed word, or image) and its meaning, the thing signified or referred to. In Critical Theory this has been removed from its specific context in linguistics, and watered down to mean ‘representing’ or ‘standing for’ or ‘symbolising’. But, importantly, it retains the cachet of sounding scientific and serious.

By 1913, the Italian Futurists were exploring the idea of clothing as a signifier for revolutionary modernism. (p.262)

Competing ideologies began to use images of the body as signifiers for other kinds of social meanings. (p.274)

It is the images produced by modernists like Delaunay and the Russian artists which became the basis of a modern ideology in which the commodified image of woman signifies her expanded role as a consumer. (p.277)

‘Mark of’, ‘sign of’, ‘indication of’, ‘symptom of’, ‘representative of’, lots of more ordinary words would mean the same. But ‘signifier’ has the cachet of the difficult specialism of linguistics and the cool, newish (in the 1970s) discipline of semiotics.

Practices Artists don’t have techniques or styles or methods but instead the much more scientific or sociological term, ‘practices’ (like doctors and solicitors). This word ‘practice’ can be widely used. Critics don’t write criticism they ‘engage in a critical practice’. An art work doesn’t subvert the hegemony, it subverts the ‘hegemonic practices’ (of a particular era or society). After the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism emerged as

the dominant practice in American modern art (p.319)

Not style, kind, form, vein, strain, type, trend or technique. Practice.

Projects Alongside ‘practices’ goes the word ‘projects’. In general, it is nations that have ‘projects’ and it is most often used to describe European imperialism or, more correctly, ‘the European imperial project’. Having read quite a few histories of imperialism, it’s hard not to conclude that reducing the incredibly complicated history of imperial acquisition and conquest and the bewildering variety of nations, peoples and territories involved and the vast range of economic, strategic and military impulses at work, down to one little phrase, is hugely reductive.

In fact, it’s striking that Critical Theory, although it talks a good game about diversity and multiple points of view, in practice holds just one point of view and arguably a very narrow, repetitive one – hence, perhaps, its popularity.

The representational and discursive strategies that created the imperial nation as masculine, and the conquered, colonised and imperialised as feminine, implicate both race and gender in colonialist projects. (p.199)

Read that sentence carefully. Issues of race and gender were ‘implicated’ in imperialism.

The primary sense of ‘implicate’ is ‘to show or suggest that someone was involved in a crime’. It’s quite a dramatic word, most commonly used in connection with police investigations and lawyers in court.

But does ‘implicate’ here mean much more than ‘involved’? The sentence could be translated into something like: ‘Pictures and texts which depicted imperialism as essentially male and the conquered native peoples as feminine…. involved race and gender.’

This comes close to pure tautology, or repetition: ‘Pictures and texts which depicted imperialism as masculine and conquered native people as feminine involved ideas of race and gender.’

Isn’t that obvious? Isn’t the second half essentially repeating what the first half said? Interpreted harshly, the sentence doesn’t add anything to your factual understanding, it just summarises an attitude.

What it is really saying is: ‘You know I’m always telling you that all history represents a battlefield between men and women; you know I’m always telling you that race and gender are key ‘issues’ that recur throughout history and that’s why they’re so prevalent in contemporary art; well, by depicting themselves as male conquerors and native peoples as helpless and female, needing to be guided and tutored, imperial discourse does exactly what I’m always telling you it does. See? I was right. We are right. These issues are everywhere.’

The only real ‘information’ conveyed by the second half of the sentence comes from the melodramatic overtones of the word ‘implicate’. It is emotional or psychological information, rather than logical or historical information. ‘Implicate’ gives the mind a frisson and a thrill – God, yes, implicate – someone somewhere must be guilty, sooooo guilty.

To summarise: sentences like this (and there are thousands of them in the second half of the book):

  • Are essentially tautologous – the second part tells you what the first part has already told you, but uses bombastic rhetoric to make it seem like some really important new information has been conveyed. The sentence can be boiled right down to saying: ‘the imperialist strategies which cast race in terms of gender (male European good, female native bad) used race and gender’. A = A.
  • Are serving the far more important function of confirming the reader’s (and author’s) prejudices, and reinforcing the feminist theory worldview: Imperialist propaganda used issues of race and gender; See! I told you so! Issues of race and gender are everywhere, just like we teach you.

When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote about her travels in Turkey, she couldn’t escape the fact that she was a rich Westerner, or, to put it in femtheoryspeak:

even as she portrayed their clothing as more ‘natural’ than that of European women, and life in the harem as offering positive benefits to women, she remained complicit in the European imperial project of constructing the Orient, and conflating it with Oriental women. (p.199)

Aha, ‘complicit’, another threat word.

The primary meaning of complicit is ‘to be involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.’ Thus femtheoryspeak claims that any writings undertaken during the imperial period implicates its author – that anybody who did anything during the imperial period was complicit in this enormous crime.

This is reminiscent of the language of Stalin’s show trials in the Soviet Union. The language of crime is used to smear and defame people who can’t talk back. Without bringing forth much actual evidence (as historians, for example, are compelled to), this rhetoric, through sheer repetition, builds up the sense of an enormous criminal conspiracy involving the whole of Western civilisation.

And, like all conspiracy theories, the psychological effect is to make the reader feel threatened on all sides, to circle the wagons, to believe all the more fervently in the great teachers and leaders of feminist theory. Only they can save us from the patriarchy. It’s not saying this on a rational overt level, nobody involved is children. But the emotional, psychological pressure to believe in the conspiracy is present in almost every word and phrase of a lexicon which (implicitly, through its choice of lexicon) claims scientific authority to highlight the heinous crimes being committed all around us by the patriarchy. Beware, sisters!

Anyway, back the lexicon, ‘project’ is interchangeable with ‘imperative’.

In 1863 Baudelaire situated fashion at the heart of the modernist imperative… (p.252)

Like ‘project’, the word ‘imperative’ makes a bunch of run-of-the-mill ideas, and a very shaky grasp of history, sound authoritative, urgent and thrusting – by virtue of both its Latinate origin and its overt meaning (‘an essential or urgent thing’) giving the impression that people just had to do it, to be modernists, chuck figuratism, use bright colours and abstract patterns. It was imperative.

Male gaze II Apart from obvious restrictions on what women could wear or do or go, male art always privileges the ‘male gaze’. This is the way women have been visualised and depicted for millennia as objects, to be savoured, visually enjoyed and (in the imagination, in the male mind’s eye) undressed and sexually possessed.

Feminist theory has often held to the premise that the viewing field is organised for the male subject who exercises power through looking, and in this way asserting visual control over the objects of his desire. (p.214)

I’ve always found it difficult not to have a male gaze, being a man who likes looking. I go to an art gallery with a female partner. If her gaze is meant to be so radically, drastically different from mine…. isn’t that somehow enshrining the very sexual difference we have been warned against? To claim that men and women see things in fundamentally different ways…. is that not an extremely gendered way of thinking about humans? Could a claim really be more gendered?

But it is a persistent thread:

The subject of the nude in art brings together discourses of representation, morality and female sexuality, but the persistent presentation of the nude female body as a site of male viewing pleasure, a commodified image of exchange, and a fetishised defence against the fear of castration has left little place for the explorations of female subjectivity, knowledge and experience. (p.282)

I’ve never understood why, if the naked female body is such an intense ‘site’ for male gaze, control, lust, othering, commodification and so on – that so very many contemporary women artists obsessively strip, photograph, paint, display and video their own naked bodies for all the world to see – half of the world being those very men whose wicked, wicked gaze we all know about it.

That’s why I like women artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Riley, Rachel Whiteread, Sonia Delaunay, to name a few, women who discovered new languages and new ways of seeing, instead of returning obsessively to the scene of the old, old crime of judging, assessing, defining and thinking about women in terms of their bodies.

Hon (1966) by Niki de Saint Phalle

Hon (1966) by Niki de Saint Phalle

Produce Anyway, all works of art, paintings and sculptures, are ‘produced’, making artists sound awfully grown-up, like proletarians working 8 hour days in a factory, not layabouts in a studio. And so artists are referred to as ‘producers’, their works are ‘products’, and workshops are ‘sites’ or ‘locations’ of ‘cultural production’ or display.

By 1997, international biennials provided key sites at which to consider the tremendous diversity of practices that had emerged among women artists worldwide. (p.442)

Sites can be not just physical places but metaphorical places within ‘discourse’ where meaning is ‘produced’ or (as you might expect) ‘resisted’ and ‘subverted’. Thus the lesbian feminist artist Harmony Hammond is quoted as saying:

‘I see art-making, especially that which comes from the margins of the mainstream, as a site of resistance.’ (p.13)

In the early 18th century:

The Salons of Julie de Lespinasse, Germaine Necker de Stael, Madame du Deffand, Madame de la Fayette, Madame de Sevigny, Madame du Chatelet and others became famous as sites of artistic, philosophical and intellectual discourse. (p.144)

More up to date:

In 1990, social historian Janet Woolf published an essay entitled ‘Reinstating Corporeality: Feminism and Body Politics’, in which she argued for the female body as a legitimate site of cultural politics. (p.407)

The body as a site for ideologically based inscriptions continues to play a significant role in the work of women artists. (p.508)

[Wanchegi] Mutu is not alone in focusing on the female body as site of political and social action. (p.513)

Map All these sites and locations need maps. More precisely, ‘map’, and especially ‘map onto’, have come to be jargon terms which indicate how one set of issues or ideas is combined with others, especially (with its original meaning in mind) ideas of place.

Zittel’s relationship to the California desert maps the personal present onto the historical past and structures her subjective experience of place through her interactions with loss and destruction as well as presence. (p.487)

Construct Linked to works of art being ‘products’ ‘produced’ at ‘sites’ of ‘artistic production’, is use of the word ‘construct’. Ideas are no longer developed, they are ‘constructed’, like bridges. Berthe Morisot’s paintings pay:

attention to the attitudes and rituals that mark the social construction of femininity. (p.300)

Surrealism constructed women as magic objects and sites on which to project male erotic desire. (p. 313)

The fact that, in this jargon, ideas, narratives, values or discourses are constructed means that they can also, of course, be ‘deconstructed’.

A number of women in Britain and the United States have adopted deconstructive strategies as a means of exposing the assumptions underlying cultural constructions of gender, race and sexuality. (p.393)

Negotiate You or I have to manage relationships or handle them or juggle commitments or navigate the obstacles of life. All these activities and more are subsumed under the Critical Theory verb ‘negotiate’ which, as usual, manages to sound both very serious (negotiate a peace deal) and filmic (The Negotiator).

Morisot and Cassatt’s ability to sustain professional lives and negotiate relationships of some parity with their male colleagues was class specific. (p.235)

Male gaze III In art criticism this relates to whether you get the sense that women in paintings are conceived of being able to do anything, or whether they are just passive objects for ‘the male gaze’. If a woman is painted naked by a man it is exploitation and objectification; if a woman is painted naked by a woman, chances are she is given ‘agency’ and is not just the passive victim of the male gaze. If a modern artist takes photographs of herself naked, stripping, in suggestive poses, sucking a lollypop or displaying her genitals this all, apparently, disarms the male gaze, because the woman in question is choosing to do it.

(Agency means the quality of being able to do something. Women do or (more often) do not have ‘agency’; yes if they’re asserting their identity and contesting patriarchal norms; no, if they’re victims of the male gaze.)

Thus feminist art criticism is as alert as a traffic warden to signs of whether women depicted in paintings are a) victims of the male gaze, or are subtly subverting it; b) as a result, do or do not have agency.

This is a responsible job. Gauguin’s women have a downturned gaze; they are victims; they lack agency.

Also, the male fantasy female nude tends to be voluptuous, plump and fertile. This was brought into relief by comparison with the paintings of the 20th century lesbian artist Romaine Brooks. Here, Chadwick claims, we can tell that the naked women are not victims of the male gaze because a) we know Brooks was a lesbian who – by definition – can’t have the male gaze b) they are slender and not plump c) they are not facing the viewer pouting or turning down their eyes on coquettish invitation; their gaze is independent, free spirited, off elsewhere.

White Azaleas (1910) by Romaine Brooks

White Azaleas (1910) by Romaine Brooks

Brooks’s paintings admittedly eroticise the female body (oh dear) but ‘in the context of a lesbian spectatorship’ (phew). This is the longest discussion of the male gaze and leads up to the notion that in her famous self-portrait, ‘the gaze is watchful’ (p.301).

Sexual difference refers to in any way noticing or highlighting the alleged differences between the sexes. This is a very bad thing.

Art history has never separated the question of artistic style from the inscription of sexual difference in representation. (p.25)

(Representation here means any form of representative art. As in all these examples, the technique – How to Talk Critical Theory – is to take a common or garden idea and describe it with a generalised abstract noun which immediately makes it sound more scientific and precise. It makes as if you have grasped an entire subject down to its finest details across an entire society or historical period.)

If you make any reference whatsoever to any differences between men and women you are not only a sexist (obviously) but you are making ‘gendered’ statements, analogies, comparisons and soon.

Such gendered analogies make it difficult to visualise distinctions of paint handling without thinking in terms of sexual difference. (p.26)

Basically any thought or idea which in any way compares and contrasts men and women as somehow definable entities with definable characteristics, is frowned on.

Krasner and other women Abstract Expressionists were well aware of the operations of sexual difference within artistic practice. (p.323)

Other women shared her [Lee Krasner’s] awareness of the deep divisions in the play of sexual difference within social ideology and artistic practice. (p.328)

The Other Look out for opportunities to use the ominous and meaningful-sounding phrase ‘the Other’. Generally ‘the Other’ is what the group which you are describing defines itself against, the negative which helps it create its own positive view of itself, whose (often made-up and falsely perceived) ‘inferiority’ is used to bolster our own right to rule and govern.

Since Critical Theory is generally attacking white men and their sexist gendered discourse, it will, for example, describe the way white imperialist discourse defined itself against ‘the other’ of the native peoples they were oppressing; the way white people defined themselves against ‘the other’ of black people; or the way men defined women as ‘the other’, loading them with an array of negative qualities against which to define their own rationality, responsibility and right to rule.

Thus, of Victorian women travellers, Chadwick writes:

They shared with their male contemporaries the need to claim and construct the Orient as a European ‘Other’ in their writings… (p.201)

Or:

The works of male Surrealists are dominated by the presence of a mythical Other onto whom their romantic, sexual and erotic desire is projected. (p.310)

Or:

The siting of woman as ‘other’ has taken place in societies that have rationalised both sexual and cultural oppression. (p.386)

Gauguin’s nudes are reprehensible because they are doubly patronising, not only deploying the ‘male gaze’ to control women’s bodies, but doing it in a contrived ‘exotic’ location which also essentialises, objectifies and degrades ‘native’ women. Double whammy:

Gauguin’s nudes recline in states of dreamy reverie or emerge from the imagery of an exoticised otherness (i.e. the Tahitian landscape constructed as ‘feminine’ through an over-emphasis on its exoticism, bounteousness, and ‘primitivism’ in relation to Western cultural norms) … (p.289)

Naughty, naughty Gauguin.

By reducing the vast complexity of all human history and culture, and the infinitely complex and multifarious human interactions between races, peoples, nations, groups, classes, and hundreds of millions of individuals, to a handful of basic binary opposites, the notion of ‘the Other’ could hardly be a more primitive, simplistic and reductionist idea.

As feminist theory morphed into the wider category of identity politics (i.e. taking in complaint by gays, lesbians and blacks) ‘the Other’ has found new applications for its simple-minded binary way of thinking. Since a 1984 New York art show about primitivism and modernism

postmodernist theory has examined constructions of ‘otherness’ in several overlapping forms, including the feminine Other of sexual difference, and the Other of discourses of the Third World and/or cultural diaspora. (p.386)

Something which is ‘other’ obviously possesses the quality of ‘otherness’, thus:

The place assigned woman by Lacan is one of absence, of ‘otherness’. (p.13)

And consigning something (generally the victims of cruel imperial men, such as colonised natives or women) to the category of ‘the other’, is known as ‘othering’.

Attentive We must all be ‘more attentive’ to the ever changing, ever more complex issues of gender identity and difference. You must. I must. We all must.

Lists Where possible use lists of high-sounding issues to appear earnest, committed and clever, in sentences like, ‘O’Keeffe’s practice addresses issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class’. No one will ask if you have any understanding of these ‘issues’ of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or class. Just reciting them is like a magic spell which conveys special powers and prestige on the reciter.

All the above contribute to ‘the social construction of femininity’, the idea that there is nothing particularly ‘feminine’ about women because ‘femininity’ is an entirely social construction, the creation of all-pervading ‘patriarchy’ which defines ‘the feminine’ in order to limit, control and repress women.

The patriarchy “Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.” (Wikipedia). All feminists spend their lives fighting or trying to deconstruct the patriarchy with all its insidious tentacles of power.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, a growing number of artists, male and female, worked to decentre language within the patriarchal order, exposing the ways that images are culturally coded, and renegotiating the position of women and minorities as ‘other’ in patriarchal culture. (p.382)

Refusing the image of woman as ‘sign’ within the patriarchal order, these artists have chosen to work with an existing repertoire of cultural images because, they insist, feminine sexuality is always constituted in representation and as a representation of difference. (p.400)

Perez Bravo, like so many modern women artists, took photos of her body to subvert the patriarchy.

Her photographs bypass ritual and essentialised representations of female power in order to explore feminine identity and the conditions of being female in ways that counter patriarchally constructed stereotypes of womanhood. (p.428)

Patriarchy is taken to be everywhere, responsible for all institutions, languages, codes and conventions, for the law, for all medical and scientific discourse, for all art and visual language.

Conclusion of feminist theory

Thus women are confronted every waking moment with ‘the problematic of femininity’ because their minds and personalities, their attitudes to their own bodies, and even the language they use to think with, are all hopelessly compromised by words, ideas, laws, institutions, religions, and cultural artefacts all created by ‘the patriarchy’ and designed to define ‘femininity’ in order to limit, control and repress women.

Medea (1889) by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Medea (1889) by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Reflections on post-structuralist rhetoric

These fifty or so key words and phrases can be endlessly recombined and recycled to produce a deceptively large number of sentences which all say more or less the same thing. Take one sentence from thousands:

Foucault’s analysis of how power is exercised has raised many questions about the function of visual culture as a defining and regulating practice. (p.12)

Has it now? And does the text go on to list and explain those questions? Nope. But it makes the reader feel as if they partake of some of Foucault’s searching (and usually quite difficult) analyses of key social institutions (the madhouse, the prison, the hospital) and somehow understand his insights about how power is ‘inscribed’ in ‘institutional discourses’ (even thought this has barely been explained).

It doesn’t matter. The key function of this rhetoric is that you, the reader, can ‘decode’ this jargon and so confirm yourself as are part of the Elect which really truly understands what is going on in Western society and is working to make the world a better, fairer place.

Why post-modern rhetoric is so widespread

I suggest that the jargon-heavy style of Anglo-Saxon, postmodern critical and feminist theory has become so widespread in modern writing in the humanities – art, literature, film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, post-colonial studies and so on – for a number of reasons:

a) because it sounds so intellectually impressive without, in fact, requiring too much thought
b) because it sounds so professional, not just anybody can talk and write like this, it needs years of practice
c) because it sounds so radical, so right-on, so politically committed without, actually, requiring you to take part in any particular political activity

A lot of the terms are borrowed from sociology which, back in the utopian 1960s, hoped to become a new scientific analysis of every aspect of society which, as its investigations progressed, would help to analyse out and solve pressing social problems.

Presenting these problems reconstituted as ‘issues’ and ‘problematics’ described in a deliberately objectifying would-be scientific jargon would – it was hoped – force readers and citizens to question previously held prejudices and assumptions, to overthrow them, to change society for the better.

It’s silly to be too dismissive because lots of social and cultural improvements have indisputably taken place in the language we use in subjects around sex, women and ethnic groups. Attitudes and expectations to all sorts of groups, not just to women and ethnic minorities and other sexualities, but to the disabled or mentally ill, are vastly more egalitarian and respectful than they were when Chadwick was first writing this book in the 1980s. It would be stupid to underplay the vast progress that has been made towards more equality and better life expectations for millions of people because of these cultural changes.

Nonetheless, my interest is in language and its rhetorics i.e. how language is used to argue, persuade and influence people (including, quite often, the writers themselves). And I find the ubiquitous post-modern rhetoric of Critical Theory to be:

  1. Closed It is a specialist jargon which in practice excludes almost the entire population of the country, and is only really accessible to a tiny minority of university lecturers and students. Ironic given its supposedly ‘democratic’ and ‘subversive’ intentions.
  2. Pretentious In the literal sense, it is designed to give the impression of profound thought while very often amounting to nothing but an iteration of what are, by now, well-worn clichés. This happens to every new style: it is developed by radical pioneers, it is bold and innovative, it helps people think and see in new ways, it finds proponents in the academy, it is formatted into term-long courses and topics, it becomes regularised and routinised so it can be taught and examined and marked, not only to students but to A-level schoolchildren, it becomes the accepted jargon of the times, it becomes the new orthodoxy. When a subject is being taught to a nation’s schoolchildren it is no longer subversive: it has become the opposite of subversive.
  3. Repetitive In at least three senses:
    1. The lexicon of post-modern or post-structuralist thought, the actual working vocabulary of Critical theory, is surprisingly small. There are maybe fifty words and phrases which are endlessly recycled and repeated. I list many of them below. Once you’ve grasped their general intention it becomes possible to combine and recombine them in sentences which essentially say the same thing, but sound impressive and clever. After a few hundred pages of reading the same words combined in slightly varying combinations, the reader develops a strong dense of déjà vu and repetition.
    2. Once something is being taught it is, by definition, being repeated: authors write it, lecturers speak it, students make notes, write exams and theses – this rhetoric is repeated. Repetition of any language tends to empty it of meaning: repeat the same word again and again and you experience the dizzy feeling of forgetting what it means, tending to prove Wittgenstein or Derrida’s ideas that language only works while it is in play, quick and dirty, moved around between text and reader, reconfigured on each reading. Repeated in the same way, in the same flat tone, hundreds of times, it becomes empty. So in a very basic sense, reading the same phrases and the same recombinations of phrases over and over and over again eventually makes your mind glaze over. They become invisible – at least to the fully adult mind.
    3. However, as Freud suggested over 120 years ago (yawn) our minds contain any number of ‘minds’. We aren’t single, unified, rational entities, quite the opposite, all kinds of people and age groups are competing in the battlefield of our consciousnesses. Among these is the child mind, still very present in all of us. And children like repetition. In her first book, The Sculptor’s Daughter, the Finnish author Tove Jannson describes the adult world from the point of view of a very small child, maybe 4 or 5 years-old. Something which comes over very strongly in these stories is the child’s need for a safe space, for reassurance, for repeated rituals and habits which create a sense of familiarity and security. Tea-time, bath-time, bed-time. And a bed-time story. And, with her usual acuity, Jannson points out that the bed-time stories must always start the same way (‘Once upon a time’) and, if they’re familiar, they must be told the same way, the same events in the same order, ideally in the same words.

I find in the endless repetition of the same fifty or so phrases of the Critical Theory lexicon the same sense of childhood reassurance. After a page of purely factual history, Chadwick will add a sentence or two of critical commentary – and the ardent young feminist will be back in her comfort zone, among talk of ‘discourses’ and ‘sites of production’ and ‘gender separation’ and ‘sexual difference’ and, of course, the most reassuring presence of all, the big, bad Daddy of ‘the Patriarchy’ – paradoxically reassuring in the way the Big Bad Wolf is in the fairy story, because the reader knows that the Patriarchy, just like the wolf, will be defeated in the end.

The language of post-structuralist or post-modern Critical Theory – in the way it is now universal in the teaching of the humanities, in gender studies and cultural studies and queer studies and film studies and literary studies – has become the opposite of disruptive and subversive; it has itself become a kind of safe space.

The Roll Call (1874) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

The Roll Call (1874) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

A pragmatic question

Leaving aside whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ prose style, or whether my interpretation of it as a form of semantic reassurance is correct or not — the only really important consideration is does it teach you anything, does it convey new information?

And my answer is a straightforward ‘No’.

This jargon rarely adds much to what the factual elements of the text haven’t already told you. To be told that Artemisia Gentileschi was forbidden membership of so-and-so academy but forged an immensely successful career through cultivating royal patrons – this tells you a lot, makes you admire and respect her achievement. To then be told that, in so doing, she ‘circumvented patriarchal narratives of feminine norms’ or ‘used her art to interrogate masculine ideas of a feminine “essence”‘, tells you a lot less. In fact it really only tells you about the worldview of the author, and encourages you to sign up to her worldview.

Partly because:

  • this kind of post-structuralist discourse is so generic, because it repeats the same handful of terms with monotonous predictability (negotiate, subvert, interrogate – discourses, narratives – in the public space, the private sphere – interrogating the feminist problematic, and so on)
  • and because Chadwick applies the same terminology to wildly different artists, working in wildly different times, places and cultures (both Artemisia Gentileschi and Georgia O’Keeffe ‘question masculine assumptions about ‘”feminine” art’)

the tendency is for your mind to switch off every time you come to another stretch of PoMo FemCrit and skip forward to the next bit of factual information.

It’s rather like driving at night and hitting a patch of black ice, skidding for a second or two, and then feeling the tyres getting a grip back on the proper road surface.

Feeding the swans (1889) by Edith Hayllar

Feeding the swans (1889) by Edith Hayllar

(Most of the explicitly feminist commentary on the hundreds of paintings included in the book make little or no contribution to one’s understanding. But I did like the observation that the innocuous painting above, portrays the Five Stages of Woman’s life – toddler, teenager, young lady, wife and granny – against the backdrop of what the critic calls the very ‘male’ ordering of the classical columns, symbolising the rigid rules and control of a patriarchal society.)


Chadwick’s last word on feminist theory

This book was published in 1990, so is quite obviously a summary of the feminist theory and rhetoric up to that time, the theory of the 60s, 70s and 80s. From before the Yugoslav civil wars, the Rwanda genocide, 9/11, the American invasion of Iraq, and so on. From before the internet, mobile phones, Facebook, snapchat and the entire realm of digital technology.

To give it credit, the book does address its own profound out-of-dateness in two places. There’s a final chapter which describes the ongoing production of women artists through the 90s and noughties (the kind of brief catch-up chapter you often see in books like this which have been in print for some time. I was a little awed by the way she makes no analysis of the impact o 9/11 or the Iraq War on feminist artists; maybe they didn’t notice.)

But more interesting is the second preface, right at the start. The book opens with the preface to the original 1990 edition which, as indicated, goes heavy on the feminist discoveries of the 1960s and 1970s, giving you a strong flavour of where Chadwick is coming from, and her continuing emotional allegiance to the revolutionary feminist fervour of that era.

But then, on page 16, there’s a brief preface to the current, fifth, edition of the book, published in 2012.

It’s less than a page long but in a way it’s the most interesting part of the book, because it consists of a potent recantation of a lot of the ideas which underpin the 500-page-long text. In this brief preface Chadwick concedes that, since the book’s original publication in 1990, ‘the art world has changed dramatically’ and that it is:

less dominated by discussions of postmodern theory and more attuned to the realities of global instability, less comfortable with the rhetoric of ‘women’s liberation’ and more concerned with changing economic and social conditions…

… artists and art historians must rethink issues of marginalisation not just in terms of gender, but also in relation to culture, race, geography and class…

… the idea of a universal ‘women’s movement has given way to new configurations that include ‘eco-feminist-artist collectives’ and ‘techno-savvy feminist groups’, the naming of sexual identities has expanded from ‘heterosexual/homosexual’ to ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bi’, and ‘transsexual’.

All true enough. Her concluding sentence, the summary of all her thinking in this area, the summarising thought for a book which must have taken some years to write and which she has lived with, pondered and updated several times in its 27-year existence, is:

The feminist rhetoric of the 1970s may no longer be relevant to the global realities of the twenty-first century, but feminism as a political ideology and a call to action continues to leave its mark on art and its history. (p.16)

‘The feminist rhetoric of the 1970s may no longer be relevant to the global realities of the twenty-first century…’

Quite a massive thing to write, don’t you think

None of this invalidates the scale and scope of her history of women artists, the way it pulls together and summarises the efforts of hundreds and hundreds of feminist scholars and art historians, its depth and range and formidable learning, nor the ideas and issues it raises on every page. But it’s still quite a bombshell to admit that this entire text, kick-started as it is on early feminist rhetoric and outdated theory, itself needs to be somehow thoroughly overhauled and dragged into the 21st century.

I wonder if somebody’s done it, written a 21st century post-feminist history of women’s art?

Boating (1910) by Gabriele Münter

Boating (1910) by Gabriele Münter


Modern challenges to the idea of Great Art

Just to complete this line of thought, what I’d like to read is a book which steps right back and explains why anyone in 2017 should give a damn about the ‘Great Canon of Western Art’, or ‘Western Art’ at all.

1. The death of High Culture

When Chadwick started writing, ‘Art’ was seen as a key achievement of the ‘High Culture’ of the Western World and it stood to reason, and made sense to her and her generation, that women artists should be reinstated in this canon and should be written about and understood on their own terms, not in the words, concepts and ideas of patronising men. Fine.

But in the last thirty years the whole notion of a Canon of Western Art has been pulled apart, undermined, or discredited. This was happening as she wrote, with the whole postmodern impulse of the later 1980s and 90s to equate all art, all images, all visual input, to value and assess them all on the same level, to cease privileging ‘high’ art, to follow through on Roland Barthes’ idea that a bus ticket tells you as much about a culture as its most famous painting. Mickey Mouse and Michelangelo were discussed in the same way on The Late Show.

So it feels like, while Chadwick spent a career disputing the way older male historians wrote about Western Art, the entire concept of what is and is not ‘Art’ and the importance and meaning of ‘Western Art’, have seismically shifted around her.

And with the advent of digital art and phones with high-powered cameras in the last 10 years or so, the entire world of what images mean, how they are produced and consumed and valued, has been thrown high in the air. Who knows where it will all land.

Sonia Delaunay, Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939)

Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939) by Sonia Delaunay

2. Art as investment/commodity in a hyper-capitalist world

The second thing which has worked to undermine any sense of the special spiritual or religious or moral or imaginative value of ‘Art’ is the way that, over the past thirty years since the end of communism, the world has become dominated by a uniform brand of neo-liberal or finance capitalism. This has generated huge surpluses of capital for billionaires in Russia or China or America, who regard ‘Art’ as an investment vehicle on a par with stocks and shares, property or gold.

Although she mentions Marx and the French Marxist Althusser on page 11 there is rarely any sense in her text of an even mildly socialist, yet alone full-blown Marxist critique of the historic association between artists and money and power, of the complex layers of exploitation on which art was built, or of the drastic effect of the contemporary monetisation of art and the art world.

Just as the past 40 years of feminist activism and scholarship enable us to look back at the past with new eyes, from a new, women’s, perspective, so the absolute triumph of finance capitalism should made us think anew about the role of MONEY in art, for Art always was (and is now more than ever) about money.

This vital strand in Art’s meaning is occasionally nodded to in the text (with occasional mention of wealthy patrons or, at the other end of the scale, in the Victorian era, the poor working conditions of women factory workers) but nowhere is it directly addressed as a fundamental condition for the commissioning, production, consumption and commodification of Art. 

At the time of writing the largest amount paid for a painting by a woman artist is the $44.4 million commanded by Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Then again, Chadwick is American and America has never had much of a radical tradition – I mean there has never been a real threat of a communist revolution there, as there was in all of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Which is maybe why American academics have taken so completely to indulging in pseudo-Marxist, semi-subversive PoMo rhetorics. because they know, deep down, how utterly irrelevant they are to the political realities of their great nation.

As PoMo pseudo-Marxism, Critical theory, feminist theory and all the rest spread throughout university humanities departments – the country was ruled by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, George Dubya Bush and Donald Trump. Some subversion.

3. Women artists supporting the patriarchy

For Art, whether High Renaissance art or 21st century rebel art, has always been commissioned and bought by the richest people in a society. Because she’s batting for the women’s team, Chadwick task is to promote knowledge about the careers of Artemisia Gentileschi and hundreds of other 16th, 17th and 18th century women artists, but she glosses over quite a major point – that all these successful women artists worked for dukes and kings and emperors.

She likes to portray her women artists as rebels against masculine discourse and ‘interrogating’ ‘heteronormative’ assumptions and ‘circumventing’ the ‘male gaze’ and so on – while all the time missing an obvious point – that these women artists could hardly have been more the willing tools of the people at the very top of the patriarchal systems which Chadwick devotes her book to criticising.

It’s the equivalent of praising artists who worked for Hitler or Goebbels as being ‘subversive’. These successful 17th and 18th century women artists worked directly for kings and emperors. They were right at the heart of the patriarchal system. They were working directly for the patriarchs themselves, helping to create icons and images of male power, along with coins, medals, media of royal male control.

They weren’t subverting power. They were serving it.

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, king of Poland (1797) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, King of Poland (1797) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

4. Imperialism and colonialism, the absence of

When Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) goes to work for the King of Spain, Chadwick sees this as a fabulous thing, proof that women could succeed in a man’s world. But where did the King of Spain get the money he paid Anguissola with? From the silver mines of the Spanish Empire where native Americans were worked to death in appalling conditions. And the slave plantations in the Caribbean. And from the output of feudal labourers on the king’s vast estates.

The slave labour on which the wealth of Europe was based, which generated the money which allowed the kings and emperors to commission lavish paintings and sculptures from these plucky women artists, is invisible, unmentioned – written out of this account in exactly the same way that Chadwick is so upset that women artists were written out of art history in previous generations.

In the first, pre-modern, half of the book, there is nothing about the wretches who died to produce the wealth which was celebrated by women artists. Just more descriptions of the lavish furs, sumptuous silks and rich jewellery of Anguissola’s portraits.

The longest consideration of colonialism is in the section on lady Victorian painters and travellers and then the short section about Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women.

In the final chapters about today’s multicultural art scene, Chadwick ropes ‘colonial oppression’ in as a new bogeyman alongside the patriarchy, without showing much interest in the actual dynamics of the European empires, or in the violent independence movements which ended them.

All of that is transmuted into just another bloodless ‘issue’ for modern artists to tackle, address, mediate and negotiate. The entire history of European imperialism becomes just another item on the feminist critic’s shopping list.

This stunning painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist is not mentioned in the book.

Portrait of a Negress (1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

Portrait of a Negress (1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

5. A complete, fully political history of Western Art

A full history of this subject would contain the same basic narrative (the list of women painters remaining essentially unchanged) but would ‘situate’ their works in a much more sophisticated political narrative which took more account of the basically problematic basis of all Art, and quite a bit more account of the guilt, the inescapably compromised nature of all Western culture, tainted by its centuries-long history of oppressing, enslaving, murdering and working to death countless tens of millions of native peoples.

Compared to the scale of those horrors, the fact that a rival (male) painter spread rumours about Properzia de’ Rossi to spoil her career as a sculptor, or that no woman became a full member of the Royal Academy of the Arts until 1933, although obviously unfair, although obviously shocking, in the great scale of things just doesn’t get me so worked up.

It’s a question of perspective and morality.

Chadwick’s history is one in which we are invited to pour our hearts out for a relatively small number of well-off and often very wealthy or fabulously-rewarded artists working at the centres of European power and currying favour with kings and popes. And, in the present, we are meant to get worked up about debates currently going on among a predominantly white, middle-aged, academic elite of Western universities.

Royal women painters from the 17th century. Rich white American women’s righter from the 1870s. Prize-winning and grant-funded feminist artists at the Venice Biennale. Their names and achievements are recorded, memorialised, championed and promoted in countless articles, books like these, galleries and exhibitions.

I prefer to keep my sympathy for the vast numbers of nameless poor of both sexes who lived short, illiterate, poverty-stricken lives, not in white America but in Europe and Asia, or were worked to death in distant colonies, to produce the obscene wealth which 17th and 18th century artists were squabbling to secure – and for the modern-day slaves, for the forced labourers, and labouring poor all around the world who’ve never heard of Mary Cassatt or Judy Chicago.

It would have been preferable if women artists hadn’t faced so many handicaps and obstacles for centuries but, like the Great War or the Holocaust, the past is gone. All we can do is try to remove all such obstacles to women artists and academics today.

Chadwick’s book is a massive and major contribution to that process, to the rewriting of art history and to the rehabilitation of hundreds of women artists to their rightful place in that history. In terms of its contribution to academic curricula, to the writing and understanding of art history, and to increasing the understanding and enjoyment of the minority of the population who go to art galleries and are interested in art, it is a major scholarly and revisionist achievement, and a massive enrichment of our knowledge and pleasure.

But in terms of memorials and remembrance – it’s the anonymous labouring poor of all the ages who have my sympathy.

6. Making America great again

But by the end of the book I was sick of America and heartily sick of New York. It’s not so much that Chadwick is a white American, or that her history of the 19th century, and early feminism, and 1960s feminism, is almost entirely set in America, quotes American feminists and privileges mostly white American feminist art – but that time after time, hundreds of times, she will take American feminists, and American politics and American art movements as central, defining and paradigmatic of how all other women around the world should think.

Chadwick writes at length about what a hard time the women members of Abstract Expressionism had competing with the men, but it goes without comment that American Abstract Expressionism was the most important art movement of the period. Just as American Pop Art, minimalism and so on turn out to be the defining movements of theirs.

All the while she is championing the subversion and questioning of patriarchal narratives, the more basic narrative of American cultural supremacy goes unchallenged and unexamined.

For the most irritating thing about American cultural imperialism is that Americans don’t realise they’re doing it. They just take it for granted that American art is the best – like American cars and American technology and American democracy and American movies are the best in their fields.

And that New York is just, well, shucks, the most exciting city in the world. Which is why the final chapters of the book refer to contemporary women artists and again and again and again and again and again, they turn out to be based in New York New York, that wonderful town.

  • Shahzia Sikander was born in Pakistan but now lives and works in New York (p.445)
  • Mariko Mori was born in Japan but now lives and works in New York (p.457)
  • Non Hendratmo was one of a number of Indonesian artists who relocated to New York after the Jakarta riots of 1998. (p.461)
  • Kimsooja was born in South Korea but now lives and works in New York (p.463)
  • Ghada Amer was born in Egypt but now lives and works in New York (p.469)
  • Shirin Neshat was born in Iran but now lives and works in New York City (p.481)

When, of all the works by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, Chadwick selects Ramallah/New York your heart just sinks into your boots. Really? New York? Again?

When she finally gets round to using this new-fangled internet thingy, Chadwick googles the year ‘1990’ and discovers that the key moments of that year were the publication of her book in New York, the publication of American philosopher Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, the swearing-in of the first female American Surgeon General and Jenny Holzer being the first women to have a solo exhibition in the America pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

America America America America.

I dislike the American supremacism which oozes from these pages (not overtly – on the surface it is all multiculturalism and new artists in developing countries). It’s just that they all come to New York to live and work and sell their art, an art which again and again is described as ‘subverting’ white Western stereotypes and ‘interrogating’ Western culture and ‘questioning’ Western capitalism etc, but which – it turns out  – is utterly dependent on Western art markets, Western art galleries and Western art magazines for its very existence.

And also on the vast sums of money managed by the Western financial system which is based in Wall Street, New York, a tiny fraction of which is siphoned off to fund the museums and galleries and biennials and expositions and exhibitions where feminist artists fondly display works of art which they think are subverting the system. No.

They are in fact part of this global system of capitalist commodification and consumer culture. As a visit to the bookshop of any art gallery, no matter how ‘radical’, instantly proves.

Why are they all in New York? They would say because it is a vibrant melting pot of culture and ideas. But in fact, it’s because that’s where the money is.

When Chadwick comes to do a thumbnail review of the last fifty years she thinks immediately of American artist Rachel Harrison, New York Times critic Holland Cotter, American scholar Linda Nochlin, the founding of Ms magazine in New York and goes on to generalise that:

American artists in particular explored formal, conceptual, and political issues related to materials, languages of form, and their hierarchical classifications. They incorporated personal and cultural histories in narrative and autobiographical art; they explored sexuality, gender, class, race and ethnicity in works that redefined modern art’s assumed hierarchies and relationships between form and content; they performed their bodies and their sexual identity in new ways…. (p.500)

Go USA!!

In a way, Chadwick’s book is a good example of Donald Trump’s policy of putting ‘America first’. Maybe he should give her a medal. God, I’d pay money to watch that award ceremony!

Untitled (1960) by Lee Bontecou

Untitled (1960) by Lee Bontecou

P.S. Has this rhetoric worked?

Chadwick’s history of women artists sees almost all women’s art works in terms of ‘projects’ and ‘strategies’ which have been designed to interrogate, subvert and challenge stereotypical ideas of ‘the feminine’, to contest and critique all notions of ‘sexual difference’ and – Project Number One – to undermine and overthrow the patriarchy.

If modern feminist theory began in the late 1960s we’ve had just about 50 years of it by now. In that period tens of thousands of feminist artists, sculptors, painters, installationists, gallerists, curators, critics, writers, philosophers and theorists have given all their time, energy, lives and efforts into eradicating sexist stereotypes and overthrowing the patriarchy.

It is not unreasonable to ask – Has it worked?

Well, in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, 53% of the voters – a clear majority – were women. That’s a good thing, right? If reality lived up to feminist theory about ‘all women’ wanting radical change, then you’d expect to see a drastic vote in favour of women’s causes and for the woman candidate, right?

And yet who did this 53% help elect? President Donald Trump.

It’s true that, overall, more men than women voted for Trump, and yet – in a key statistic for feminists – 53% of American white women the majority of white American women – voted for Donald Trump.

The majority of white American women voted for Donald Trump, the racist sexist pussy-grabber.

After 50 years of the best-organised, best-run and most advanced feminist movement on the planet, producing countless tens of thousands of art works, installations, happenings, posters, books, articles, learned papers, conferences and art exhibition excoriating sexism, challenging all notions of sexual difference and subverting the patriarchy – the majority of white women in America voted for Donald Trump.

Take a moment to let the implications of this startling fact really sink right in.

How do you account for the massive discrepancy between what these women artists and feminist critics think they’re doing (challenging, subverting mobilising, raising awareness etc etc) and what actually happens in the real world?

As a left-wing person who dissents from political correctness, I think it’s in part because modern feminism, with its impenetrable academic jargon and its incredibly narrow range of issues, almost systematically, almost deliberately goes out of its way to ignore the issues which most women (and men) face in today’s society: Will I ever have a stable job? Will I ever have a career? Will I ever pay off my student loan? Will I ever be able to afford a home of my own? How can I get affordable child care? Where is the next meal coming from? Are my kids going to be worse off than me? Who can help with my teenagers’ opioid addiction? How can I afford health insurance? What happened to my pension? Will I be able to afford a decent care home in my old age?

Contemporary feminist artists and curators and critics have collaborated to create a mystique, a jargon, and a terminology about their ‘practice’ which effectively seals modern art off from the modern world.

In the safe spaces of the international biennales and contemporary art galleries, in the world centres of art, in university courses on culture studies, on queer studies, film studies and the rest of it, members of this cult talk to each other in their arcane language, like medieval alchemists convinced that at any moment one of them will discover the philosopher’s stone which will transmute the base metal of the actual existing world into the gold of postmodern theory – a genderless world where the male gaze and sexual difference have been abolished and everyone celebrates difference and diversity.

But, unfortunately, from time to time society lines up to be counted, to give its opinion, to elect representatives on the basis of what it thinks is important – and on this simple, easy-to-grasp metric, the achievement of five decades of feminist analysis and postmodern critical theory unremittingly aimed at a radical and thorough-going transformation of society must be judged, as my teenage daughter would put it – an epic fail.

I like Rachel Whiteread’s work, I loved her concrete sculpture House. But I also know that the East End locals where it was located, hated it, sprayed graffiti on it and lobbied the local council to get it demolished. This stands for a symbol of contemporary art.

A peasant would have understood the Palace of Versailles and a portrait of King Louis XIV, both of which shouted: ‘I’m the boss’. But in my experience plenty of well-educated modern people hate contemporary art, don’t understand a word, think it’s all crap.

In fact contemporary ‘art’ is probably more disconnected from the lives and concerns of ‘ordinary people’ than ever before in human history. If the notion of ‘art’ contains some element of the idea of being accessible to a reasonable number of the people of its times, it’s questionable whether modern art even is ‘art’.

`House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

But meanwhile, back in international artworld, unbowed by recent batterings from reality, the comedy continues, the same writers and critics use the same words, the same ideas, the same lexicon, to describe the same artists, addressing the same issues, deploying the same strategies, going round and round in circles:

Women artists’ contribution to major international exhibitions – from biennials to recent museum-sponsored exhibitions like ‘Without Boundary (2006) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – are shaping today’s visual culture worldwide. Redressing social inequalities, negotiating change, redrawing spatial, social, and subjective boundaries, women artists are challenging the so-called ‘alternative canon’ of earlier feminist art without abandoning the issues, practices, and processes through which sexuality, gender, and difference are articulated visually. (p.495)

Fine words, as my mother used to say, butter no parsnips.

To make it as simple as possible:

Feminist theorists kid themselves that they are ‘political’

But in a democracy political means communicating to a mass audience to persuade them to vote for your policies

Whereas, by virtue of its hermetic jargon and of deliberately outrageous behaviour, which is incomprehensible to all but initiates, the art world does the exact opposite of reaching out to a mass audience. Contemporary art concerns itself with a tiny globalised elite of artists, dealers, galleries and clients – virtually guaranteeing the failure of its ideas.

That these artists and their artworld critics and scholars imagine that they influence or change anything out in the real world just shows you how deluded and out of touch they have become.

To anyone who has actually been involved in politics, or engaged with a mass audience via television or the internet, and who knows the challenges of communicating to and influencing the largest possible audience, the isolation and ineffectualness of contemporary artists (male or female) and their artworld supporters, could hardly be more complete.

In fact, by diverting attention away from the real bread-and-butter issues which the great majority of the populations of modern, post-industrial countries face, if they have any impact at all with their endless wailing about gender and the body, it might that contemporary artists have helped to create precisely the popular image of a self-obsessed, out-of-touch, metropolitan elite which helped to alienate the majority of voters from what they perceived to be this elite’s cosmopolitan values, its support of sexual anarchy and unrestricted multiculturalism, and mobilised them into mass protest votes against the liberal status quo.

Hence Trump. Hence Brexit. Hence the ADF. Hence the exact opposite of everything which Chadwick and her artworld colleagues and critics stand for.

Elke Ekrystufek undermining the male gaze and subverting the patriarchy

Elke Ekrystufek undermining the male gaze and subverting the patriarchy

Disclaimer

Just to be crystal clear, I am myself left-wing. I support all the legal and social aims of feminism. But I think that the ‘practice’ of many feminist artists, and the accompanying prose of many feminist critics and theorists, has painted them into a corner and cut off all connection with the practical pursuit of power in democratic countries.

Chadwick’s book is immense and important (the grotesque length of this blog post is tribute to the wealth of ideas it contains and debate it stimulates). But the time has come for a new generation of women artists to figure out genuinely effective ways of lobbying for political change.

Taking photos of yourself naked in your bedroom is not going to overthrow the patriarchy. The patriarchy has heard all about feminist art. In fact, it sponsors and buys feminist art. Feminist art is, in a simple financial sense, one of the many faces of patriarchal capitalism.

Time for a change.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists

Reviews of general exhibitions which included women artists

From time to time Chadwick says some of her feminist women artists use humour in their practice. I didn’t see any sign of that anywhere. Not a laugh in the whole book (except the unintentional humour of some particularly fatuous piece of practice, or of particularly dumb-ass phraseology).

So if you’ve made it this far, you probably deserve a reward. Here’s a clip of some 1970s performance artists interrogating narratives of authority and contesting the construction of woman as ‘other’ under the patriarchy. A least I think that’s what Terry Jones is doing in this clip.

50 Women Artists You Should Know (2008)

This is a much better book than the Taschen volume which I’ve just read – Women artists in the 20th and 21st century edited by Uta Grosenick (2003) – for several reasons:

1. Although, like the Taschen book, this was also originally a German publication, it has been translated into much better English. It reads far more fluently and easily.

2. It is much bigger at 24cm by 19cm, so the illustrations are much bigger, clearer and more impactful. There is more art and less text and that, somehow, irrationally, but visually, makes women’s art seem a lot more significant and big and important.

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

3. It is a chronological overview of the last 500 years of women’s art. As I explained in my review of the Taschen book, because so many female artists have come to prominence since the 1960s and 70s when traditional art more or less collapsed into a welter of performance art, body art, conceptual art, video, photography, digital art and so on, that book gave an overall impression that 20th century women’s art was chaotic, messy and sex-obsessed, with only occasional oases of old-style painting to cling on to.

By contrast, this book gives a straightforward chronological list of important women artists starting with Catharina Van Hemessen born in 1528 and moving systematically forwards through all the major movements of Western art – Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Victorian Realist, Impressionist, Fauvist and so on. It kind of establishes and beds you in to the long line of successful women artists who worked in all the Western styles, long before it arrives at the chaotic 60s and beyond.

4. The Taschen book – again because of its modern focus – invoked a lot of critical theory to analyse and explicate its artists. Here, in stark contrast, the entries are overwhelming factual and biographical, focusing on family background, cultural and historical context, the careers and achievements of these women artists. Although this is, in principle, a more traditional and conservative way of writing about art, the net result is the opposite. Whereas you can dismiss great swathes of the Taschen book for being written in barely-comprehensible artspeak, this book states clearly and objectively the facts about a long succession of tremendously successful and influential women artists. It’s all the more effective for telling it straight.

To sum up, 50 Women Artists You Should Know makes a really powerful argument for asserting that there have been major women artists at every stage of Western art, holding important positions, forging successful careers, creating really great works, influencing others, contributing and shaping the whole tradition.

It is the History of Western Art, but done through women, and women only.

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Quite simply it destroys forever the idea that there haven’t been any significant women artists until the modern era. There were loads.

Ironically, this goes a long way to undermining the common feminist argument that women have been banned, held back, suppressed and prevented from engaging in art for most of history. This book proves the opposite is the case: again and again we read of women artists in the 17th and 18th centuries being encouraged by their fathers and families, supported through art school, securing important official positions (many becoming court painters), being given full membership of art academies, awarded prestigious prizes, and making lots of money. It’s quite a revelation. I never knew so many women artists were so very successful, rich and famous in their times.

Take some examples:

Surprisingly successful woman artists

1. Old Mistresses

Catharina Van Hemessen (1528-1587) Trained in the Netherlands by her father Jan van Hemessen, Catharina specialised in portraits which fetched a good price. She was invited to the court of Spain by the art-loving Mary of Hungary.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) her art studies paid for by her father who networked with rulers and artists to promote her career, Sofonisba was invited to Spain by King Philip II to become art teacher to 14-year-old Queen Isabella of Valois. By the time Isabella died, young Sofonisba had painted portraits of the entire Spanish court. She went to Italy where she taught pupils and was sought out by Rubens and Van Dyck.

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) Trained by her artist father, Fontana became a sought-after portraitist, even being commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to paint his portrait. She married a fellow artist who recognised her superior talent and became her manager, helping her paint a number of altar paintings. – Venus and Cupid (1592)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1598-1652) Taught by her father who was a successful baroque painter, Artemisia moved to Florence and was the only woman admitted to the Accademia del Disegno. She painted dynamic and strikingly realistic Bible scenes. In her 40s she was invited to paint at the court of King Charles I of England. – Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Judith Leyster (1609-1660) Unusually, Judith wasn’t the daughter of an artist but made her way independently, studying with the master of the Haarlem school, Frans Hals, before at the age of 24 applying to join the Guild of St Luke. – Boy playing the flute (1635)

Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) forged a lucrative career as a portraitist in pastels in her native Venice with a clientele which included the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, the Danish King Frederick IV. In 1739 the Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony bought her entire output of paintings which is why Dresden Art Gallery has 150 of her pastels. In 1720 she was invited to Paris by an eminent banker who gave her a large suite of rooms and introduced her to the court. – The Air (1746)

Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-1782) Seventh child of the Prussian court painter Georg Lisiewski, Anna received a thorough training and went on to a successful career painting portraits around the courts of Europe, being admitted to the Stuttgart Academy of Arts, the Academy in Bologna, the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, working at the end of  her life for Tsarina Catherine II of Russia. – Self-portrait (1776)

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Kauffman was encouraged from an early age by her father, himself a portrait and fresco painter, who helped his child prodigy daughter go on to become one of the leading painters of her day, known across Europe as a painter of feminine subjects, of sensibility and feeling, praised by Goethe and all who met her. – Self-portrait torn between music and Painting (1792)

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was taught by her father the painter Louis Vigée, soon attracted the attention of aristocratic French society and was invited to Versailles by Marie-Antoinette to paint her portrait, eventually doing no fewer than 20. Forced into exile by the French revolution, she eventually returned to France, continuing to paint, in total some 800 works in the new classical, unadorned style and published three volumes of memoirs. – Portrait of Countess Golovine (1800)

Rosa Bonheur‘s father was a drawing master who encouraged her artistic tendencies. She sketched and then painted the animals of her native Bordeaux and struck it rich with a work called The Horse Market which made a sensation at the Salon of 1853. An enterprising dealer had it displayed all round the country, then sent to England where Queen Victoria gave it her endorsement, and then on to America. It toured for three years made her a name and rich. She bought a farmhouse with the proceeds and carried on working in it with her partner Nathalie Micas.

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

2. Modern women painters

Somewhere in the later 19th century in France, Modern Art starts and carries on for 50 or so years, till the end of the Great War.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was the female Impressionist, her family being close to that of Manet, so that she got to meet his circle which included Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley, Monet and Renoir. She had nine paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and exhibited in each of the subsequent Impressionist shows until 1886. – Reading with green umbrella (1873).

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia before moving to Paris where she was taken up by Degas and exhibited in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition. Later in life she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts Gold Medal. – Woman in a loge (1879)

By the time Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was 30 she was one of the leading portrait painters in America. I love Reverie or the Dreamer (1894).

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912) was Canadian, moved to New York, Venice, Munich, to Pont Aven where she experimented with the new plein air technique, but it was only when she moved on from London to Newlyn in Cornwall and married the artist Stanhope Alexander Forbes, that Elizabeth found a permanent home. The couple went ton to establish the Newlyn School of open air painting in Cornwall. – A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885)

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) progressed through the Munich Art Academy and is famous for the affair she had with Russian avant-garde painter Wassily Kandinsky. They bought a house in 1909 which became a focal point for the painters of the Blue Rider movement, Franz Marc, August Macke and so on. Her clear bold draughtsmanship and forceful colours are well suited to reproduction. – Self-portrait (1909), Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909).

3. Twentieth century great women artists

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was the first woman to be the subject of a major retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1946). Her paintings are super-real, occasionally sur-real, images of desert landscapes and flowers.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) famous for the photomontages she produced as part of the Dada movement. – Cut with Kitchen Knife DADA through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Era (1920)

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) fabulously stylish images of 1920s women caught in a kind of shiny metallic blend of Art Deco and Futurism. What is not to worship? – The telephone (1930) Auto-portrait (1929)

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) politically active Mexican artist who painted herself obsessively, often in surreal settings although she denied being a Surrealist. – The Broken Column (1944).

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) American abstract expressionist, worked as a mural painting assistant for socially conscious works commissioned by the Federal Art Project before developing an interest in abstract art and exhibiting in the 1941 show by the Association of American Abstract Artists. In that year she met the king of the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock, and married him four years later leading to an intense period where they influenced each other. After his death in 1956 she developed a new style taking the natural world as subject. – Abstract number 2 (1948)

Louise Bourgeois (1911-1993)

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) was only 23 when she created the work she’s known for, Object – a cup, saucer and spoon covered in the furry skin of a gazelle. – Object (1936)

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) died tragically young but not before making a range of stimulating abstract sculptures. – Accession II (1967)

4. Contemporary women artists

With Hesse’s work (maybe with Louise Bourgeois’s) the book swings decisively away from traditional art, from oil painting and recognisable sculptures, into the world of installations, happenings, performances, body art, conceptual art, the style of art we still live among. This means, in practice, fewer reproductions of 2-D works and a lot of photographs.

Rebecca Horn (b.1944) German. Rooms filled with objects, photographs, films, video, mechanical works made from everyday objects. – River of the moon (1992)

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

Barbara Kruger (b.1945) American leading conceptual artist noted for large-format collages of images and texts. – Your body is a battleground (1989), We don’t need another hero (1987).

Marina Abramovic (b. 1946) Yugoslav performance artist often directly using her body, sometimes going to extremes and inflicting pain. In The Lovers: walk on the great wall of China her boyfriend started walking in the Gobi desert while she started from the Yellow Sea and they walked towards each other, meeting on the Great Wall whereupon they split up. In Balkan Baroque she spent four days surrounded by video installations and copper basins cleaning with a handbrush 5,500 pounds of cattle bones. – Balkan Baroque (1997)

Isa Genzken (b.1948) German artist producing abstract sculptures and large-scale installations. – Schauspieler II (2014)

Jenny Holzer (b.1950) American ‘neo-conceptualist’ famous for her projection of texts, often pretty trite, in large public spaces. – Jenny Holzer webpage. In her hands art really does become as trite and meaningless as T-shirt slogans.

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017)

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017) by Jenny Holzer

Mona Hatoum (b.1952) Palestinian video and installation artist, producing dramatic performances, videos and unnerving installations. – Undercurrent (2008). In 1982 she did a performance, standing naked in a plastic box half full of mud struggling to stand up and ‘escape’ for fours hours. – Under siege (1982) I love the look of the crowd, the sense of complete disengagement as a pack of blokes watch a naked woman covered in mud.

Kiki Smith (b.1954) German-born American who, like so many modern women artists, is obsessed with the female body, in this version stripped and flayed as per Gray’s Anatomy. – Untitled (1990)

Cindy Sherman (b.1954) American photographer and art film director. Lots of photos of herself dressed as historical characters or as stereotypical ‘types’ from Hollywood movies, ‘questioning stereotypical depictions of “the feminine”‘. As she’s gotten older her the subjects have changed to spoofing Old Master paintings, and she increasingly uses dummies and models in her mock-ups. – Untitled film still #206 (1989)

Shirin Neshat (b.1957) Iranian visual artist producing black and white photos of women in Iran e.g. her series Women of Allah. Her videos emphasise the distinction between West and East, men and women.

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Pipilotti Rist (b.1962) Video artist who works with video, film and moving images, generally of herself. – Selfless in the bath of lava (1994)

Tracey Emin CBE (b.1963) English artist making provocations, interventions, installations which are often powerfully autobiographical, like the tent, the unmade bed. Also hundreds of scratchy prints. – Everyone I have ever slept with (1995), My bed (1999).

Tacita Dean OBE (b.1965) English visual artist working in film and photography. – Bubble House (1999), The Green Ray (2001).

End thought

I’m not sure – it may be because I’m simply exhausted at the end of this thorough survey – but it does feel to me as if the contemporary art of women born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, with its interventions, installations, film and video and photos and happenings and performances – is somehow much the most unhappy, most neurotic, self-punishing and self-flagellating body of work, than that of any previous era.

Maybe their work simply reflects Western society as a whole, which has got richer and richer and somehow, as in a children’s fable, more and more miserable.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

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