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.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The Bristol Museum & Art Gallery opened in 1906 with money donated by Sir William Henry Wills, scion of the extensive Wills family which had made its fortune in the tobacco trade and was also instrumental in founding Bristol University. Their contribution is commemorated in the inscription on the museum’s monumental neo-classical facade, and also in the vast, neo-Gothic Wills Memorial Building built next door. The university, art gallery and the nearby Royal Western Academy all owe their existence to tobacco money.

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The modern museum contains a bewildering variety of exhibitions and displays: it’s Bristol’s equivalent of the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I walked through a display on the geology and geography of the Bristol area, past another on local dinosaur fossils, past the Chinese silver, ignoring the lure of the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, and bypassing an exhibition about objects from the British Empire…

Because my focus was on climbing up to the second floor where a series of five rooms house a lovely collection of fine art. The gallery owns some 1,300 paintings and 200 sculptures. The selection on display is arranged chronologically in rooms covering the Renaissance to the Baroque, the 18th century to Romanticism, Victorian art, contemporary and modern art, with a room devoted to French 19th century art. Lots of beautiful pieces by a wide variety of artists over an immense period, touching on countless stories, ideas and issues. The art alone is a feast for the eyes and mind.

European Old Masters: From religious devotion to artistic discovery 1300 – 1700

There’s a vast difference between the still-cranky, half-medieval, exploratory art of the early Renaissance, and the full-bodied Titian and Rubens style from the 1600s, those artists usually referred to as the Old Masters. This one room shows the development from the early Renaissance to the full-blown European style.

Personally, I prefer the earlier period, and art from the Northern as opposed to the Italian Renaissance. I’ve explored this fully in my review of a book about Art of the Northern Renaissance. For me Northern Renaissance art still has its roots in the best of the medieval worldview: it is humane, its portraits are realistic and characterful, the North eschews mathematically correct perspective for compositions which foreground gorgeous patterns on tiling or fabrics, and in the background are sumptuously green and fertile north European landscapes, the kind of countryside I love going for walks in. All these elements are present in this work from the second half of the fifteenth century.

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

Compare and contrast with the works, especially anything with a landscape, of the Italian Renaissance. These tend to lack the gorgeous medieval interest in fabrics or tilework; the landscapes are harsh, barren, dry and rocky; the deployment of perspective and vanishing points may be more mathematically correct (as in the tunnel in the work below) but, in my view, create an arid perfection. It is psychologically more intense (the way Christ has his back turned toward us is very dramatic, as is the figure holding his hands over his ears to block the horrific trumpeting of the devils); but visually less pleasing.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Romanticism

The 18th century is the great age of ‘civilised’ behaviour, of polite gentility in art and culture, the age of China tea sets, coffee rooms where bewigged gentlemen debated a form of politics characterised by dominant characters rather than by the political parties we have nowadays, an age of royal scandals and almost permanent war against the French for control of the world. The heyday of historic paintings depicting thousands of naval and land battles which we have completely forgotten about.

For example, the Saints are a group of islands which lie between Dominica and Guadeloupe, where the Royal Navy won a famous victory over the French in 1782. This victory put us into a better bargaining position for the peace negotiations when the American War of Independence ended two years later – and it was considered a fitting subject for a history painter like Nicholas Pocock.

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

Sensitive portraiture flourished, the two giants of the mid-century being Thomas Gainsborough and the prolific Joshua Reynolds. Here is Gainsborough setting the unrealistically smooth complexion of his sitter against the luxurious folds of her expensive blue silk dress. The pearl choker gives definition to both face and costume. In her left hand, she is keeping the pink roses fresh by holding them in what I’ve just learned was called a ‘bosom bottle’.

Ann Leyborne Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Further along the same wall is Gainsborough’s rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy, with a frankly so-so portrait of Frances Courtenay (Lady Honeywood) and her daughter. White skin, rouged cheeks, big dress and – the great clichés of this kind of portrait – the hint of classical architecture in the background (here a classical balustrade, usually a classical column) and the sumptuous red curtain as if for a stage set. All the ingredients are here, but it’s not his best – the depiction of the little girl is poor, isn’t it?

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Places of desire: Victorian and Edwardian Art 1840 – 1920

I am a bit weary of modern curators and literary critics talking about ‘desire’: it’s a prissy, bourgeois, drawing room way of indicating ‘sex’ without being vulgar enough to come straight out and say so. It’s an easy term to attach to any depiction of the human body, as if you’re making an illuminating comment. It’s a dispiriting euphemism for an age which is obsessed with sex but hasn’t got the guts to confront it head on, which doesn’t want to face up to the ragged embarrassments of sex and libido, which wants to smooth messy human activities out into a polite term which is acceptable to the most prudish of academics. Whether or not you agree with my view, there’s no doubt that modern academics, scholars and curators often impose their bloodless notion of ‘desire’ onto the very different values and ideals of artists far removed in time and space from our sex-obsessed culture.

In fact, in this whistle stop overview of the Victorian room, I’d say there’s little or no actual desire in evidence – far more obvious is a lovely dreamy sensuality.

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

By this late stage of his career Burne-Jones had perfected the ‘look’ of his paintings which combined multiple copies of the same blank-eyed maidens with their rather triangular heads, apparelled in simple, chaste but sumptuously folded dresses, in settings usually drenched in flowers and natural imagery. Maybe there is ‘desire’ in this painting, if you’re determined to find it anywhere there’s a depiction of the human body – but, to my eye, it’s far more a depiction of the characteristically Victorian taste for simple, sensuous dreaminess.

Similarly, the most striking painting in the collection is of a knight being quite literally entranced and put into a hypnotic, dream-like state – La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

The Victorian room was quite empty so I had a go at standing with my hands in the same posture as the knight, arms outstretched, looking up. It’s a highly unnatural pose, it feels like a peculiar trance position as of a man, maybe as per the fictions of our own time, taken over by aliens or turned into a zombie.

It’s a massive painting and you can walk right up and see that his eyes seem to have become silvered over, like a man in a sci-fi story. The more you look the more you see the strange power flowing from the Lady’s eyes directly into those of the damned knight, bewitched and enslaved.

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

This was my favourite room. As I’ve grown older and soaked up more stories of the world’s empires, slaveries, holocausts, massacres and murders, of its endless wars and pogroms, of man’s escalating destruction of the planet and all the species on it – I feel less embarrassed about enjoying the good things, the beautiful things, the luxury and sensuality of life. It’s over quickly enough. Celebrate.

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

And late Victorian statuary achieved a perfection of detail which eluded even the ancient Greeks. I was in Bristol to visit my grown-up son and having a son adds layers of meaning and poignancy to this sculpture of Daedalus equipping Icarus because, of course, Daedalus is lovingly and carefully and unwittingly preparing Icarus for his death.

1895 was the year when science fiction arrived in England in the form of H.G. Wells’s masterpiece, The Time Machine. I took a Wellsian interest in the precise nature of the flying equipment Daedalus is tying to his son’s arms. Would it work? It appears to be eminently practical: the straps round Icarus’s (perfectly shaped) chest secure the majority of the wing equipment to his body, while the straps over the biceps attach the upper wings to the arms, and the hands grasp lanyards attached lower down the wing. What could possibly go wrong?

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

A shiny marble statue of a woman sleeping might be pressed into being an image of ‘desire’, but for my money is, again, much better described as an aspect of dream. Militating against the description of ‘desire’ is the simple fact that she is fully clothed. After all, much of Victorian poetry, under the influence of Tennyson, was similarly dreamy, escapist, seeking marmoreal perfection amid the filthy clatter of the Industrial Revolution.

<em>Sleeping nymph</em>(1850) by E.H Bailey

Sleeping nymph (1850) by E.H Bailey

This mood of refined and rather upper-class sensibility continued on past the death of Victoria. This late example from 1910 shows the influence of Whistler’s fin-de-siècle experiments in tone, making the palette conform to one register, depicting a soulful upper-class lady, such as drift sensitively through the pages of Henry James.

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

After all this richesse, these dreamy myths and lazing ladies, I myself was feeling rich and dreamy — but there were two rooms left to explore.

French art and impact

In the French room 23 paintings and one sculpture capture the development of French 19th century painting from salon and realist art towards the early days of impressionism, featuring less well-known works by Vuillard, Ribot, Boudin, Carriere, Daubigny and Fourain. There is a work apiece by the well-known Seurat, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Sickert and Monet. Having settled into a lazy late Victorian groove I warmed to A River Landscape by Karl Dabigny.

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

It reminds me of some of the haunting late landscapes set in Scotland by Millais. If you like Impressionism there are a handful of characteristic works, like The Entrance to the village by Alfred Sisley.

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

I think my favourite was the pre-Impressionist work by the great realist painter Gustave Courbet, a coastal view titled Eternity. A photo doesn’t do justice to the depth of colour and the ominous sense of cloud, sky and surf.

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Off to one side of these developments in what is, essentially, one genre – landscape painting – stand the experimental, highly symbolic paintings of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, vague and amateurish-seeming – the catalogue describes them as ‘fragmentary and intimate’ – but strange and hypnotic.

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Modern and contemporary art

Definitely feeling super-saturated with wonderful images, I stumbled into the final room, a survey of modern and contemporary art. This bright white room contains 15 paintings and five sculptures by big names such as Richard long, David Nash, Victor Pasmore, Howard Hodgkin, Spencer Gore. Barbara Hepworth was represented by a characteristic wired sculpture.

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Bringing us right up to date is a gee-whizz painting by Damien Hirst, aged 52 and said to be the richest artist now or who has ever lived, with an estimated worth of around £1 billion.

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

And everyone’s favourite Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, who is represented by A ton of tea shaped into a cube. Having visited Ai’s big retrospective at the Royal Academy, I know that Ai, like Hirst, works in sets or series, and so this cube of tea is just one of countless other cubes made from numerous other materials.

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

Summary

This is a really fabulous collection of West European art from the last five hundred years, including and referencing numerous periods and schools, traditions and histories. It is well worth travelling to Bristol to see, especially considering the fact that admission is totally free!

Beyond the rooms, the corridors and landings are also dotted with striking paintings and more sculptures. Probably the most popular is this work by Banksy, the street artist born and bred in Bristol. It is a Victorian stone statue of an angel with a pot of red paint thrown over its head.

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

According to the wall label:

The intention is to challenge what people expect to see in a museum like this and question the value we place on art. Banksy displayed this work amongst the museum collections during the 2009 exhibition ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’, after which he donated it to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

Much more ‘challenging’ would be to explain to visitors the completely different worldviews, the cultural, social, technological, moral and religious values of historic periods remote from ours like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th century or the Victorian period – their anxieties, their moral panics, the values they admired and looked up to – but that would take time, a lot of time, a lot of study and reading, and sensitive sympathetic imagination.


Related links

Other Bristol reviews

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

Rogier van der Weyden by Stephan Kemperdick (2013)

‘The most influential painter of the 15th century’ (p.6)

The Northern Renaissance

When I went around the Renaissance wing at the National Gallery in London I found myself drawn again and again to works by the Netherlands and Flemish masters from the so-called ‘Northern Renaissance’ – in particular, Robert Campin (A man and a woman, 1430), Jan van Eyck (The Arnolfini portrait, 1434) and Rogier van der Weyden (The Magdalen Reading, before 1438). There’s something magical about the 1430s and 1440s…

For in 1400 Netherlandish art still shared the late medieval International Style, but in the first third of that century a new school of art arose, led by van Eyck and van der Weyden, which introduced:

  • light and shade used to give people and objects three-dimensionality
  • individualised modelling of faces
  • realistically depicted interiors
  • extensive landscapes in the background extending into the distance

Campin is a shadowy figure, whose name appears in the documentary record and who, only after a lot of research, has been identified by modern scholars with the master of Flemelle. Van Eyck made the sensible career move of signing all his paintings, thus guaranteeing his identity as their creator.

So for centuries after their deaths Van Eyck was seen as the founding father, and many paintings now attributed to others were credited to him. Only in recent generations have Campin and van der Weyden emerged as credible artists in their own right. For both we are only certain of a relatively small number of core works which can definitely be attributed to them – followed by a larger number of works which may be by them or from their workshops – and then an outer nimbus of works which may be by followers, or not connected at all. All these decisions are liable to potentially endless scholarly debate.

Despite controversy at the edges, the core assertion is secure – that these three artists were responsible for introducing a revolutionary new spirit of realism into northern painting, an approach which went on to flower in the next generation of Netherlandish painters – notably Hans Memling (b.1440) and Hugo van der Goes (b.1440).

Given the longevity of Van Eyck’s authentication and fame it’s no surprise that there are scores of books about him. There don’t appear to be any in print about the shadowy figure of Campin, and only one I could find about van der Weyden.

The book

The book is 140 pages long, printed on glossy paper which brings out the best in the 130 or so glorious full-colour images. There are also ten or so black-and-white reproductions of cartoons and sketches, along with a one-page chronology of Rogier and a handy three-page glossary of terms.

The text goes chronologically through what is known of Rogier’s career, with a final chapter on his reputation and influence. But this narrative is interrupted by 2- or 3-page ‘insets’ on related topics e.g. a useful background on the kingdom of Burgundy, one on how an artist’s workshop of the time functioned, on contemporary manuscript illumination and tapestries, and so on.

It was written and published in German and was translated by Anthea Bell OBE, a prolific translator from French and German who is probably most famous for her translation of the 35 Asterix books.

Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier was born in 1399 or 1400 in French-speaking Tournai in northern France. From 1427 to 1432 there is documentary evidence that he worked as an apprentice in the workshop of master painter Robert Campin. Having ‘graduated’, Rogier moved to Brussels, where he lived and worked till the end of his life in 1464. There are enough scattered mentions of him in old records to be able to sketch out his life story: the birth of a son in 1437; the purchase of a house in 1444; an Italian writer records seeing the Deposition in Ferrara in 1449; the philosopher Nicolas of Cusa mentions seeing Rogier’s (now lost) Scenes of Justice in Brussels and calls him ‘the greatest of painters; the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Fazio mentions that Rogier travelled to Rome in the Jubilee year of 1450; there’s records of a legal dispute with the Italian painter Zanetto Bugatto in 1461; in 1462 he becomes a member of a religious order in Brussels, and lends money to a local monastery; and we know that he died on 18 June 1464 and is buried in the church of St Gudule.

More biographical information than for many medieval figures, and enough to begin to sketch out a chronology of his works. We know that he was prosperous (from his donations to religious houses), eminent (the dispute with Bugatto was settled by the Dauphin i.e. heir apparent to the throne of France, no less), and famous – a number of Italian historians refer to him, works were commissioned from him by the Medici family, and by the king of Spain.

The Deposition

The earliest work we can definitely identify is also his greatest, his most copied and most influential – the Deposition or Descent from the cross.

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The ten figures are placed in a shallow box as of a niche in a church. The background is covered with gold leaf. It is a masterpiece because of the flow or rhythm of the composition, with the two groups of three one either side of the cross, subtly reflecting each other, for the way the Virgin Mary’s swooning body echoes Christ’s body – and for the stunning detail of their hands, almost touching, hers white and pure, his hideously mutilated. For the sumptuous detail of the clothes, for example the gorgeous pattern of gold brocade on Nicodemus’s fur-lined gown and – my personal favourite, the high, tight belt around the vertically ribbed green dress of Mary Salome (if that’s who she is). It’s hard to see in this reproduction but the tears were important and influential, capturing the real grief of the mourners. The combination of the strange Gothic box setting, the foreshortening of the space and the gorgeousness of detail set it apart from Italian renaissance painting.

Scholarly tone

As you read on, you realise this is quite a scholarly work, which goes into considerable detailed discussion of every aspect of Rogier’s work, including a comprehensive review of the evidence for and against the attribution of each of the 70 or so works it discusses. Since none of these attributions are straightforward, and often involve assessing the reliability of 18th or 19th century copies of archives which were themselves written a century after the events they record and which frequently contain palpable errors of chronology, names and attributions – well, it means the text can get quite heavy-going.

Kemperdick also explains modern scientific methods which are applied to medieval paintings, namely:

  • dendrochronology – since almost all these works were painted on wood (almost always oak wood, generally imported from the Baltic) it is possible to date individual works by counting the number of annual growth rings on the planks – although it turns out to be a little more complicated than that.
  • infrared reflectography – this process pings infrared rays through the work and records the images which bounce back. These black and white images allow scholars (and us, since Kemperdick includes reflectographs of some of the key paintings) to see the underdrawings for each piece, and – if you’re lucky – also to show how the artist changes and adapts the composition during its creation.

The techniques are interesting but the results are of limited interest (e.g. at some point the forefinger of John the Baptist was changed from pointing to heaven to pointing towards the Christ child; there was originally going to be a wall at the back of the Miraflores Tryptich – but it was changed to open landscape in the final version). In fact the results of both these techniques don’t really add anything to our appreciation of the work; they are used mostly to add into the extraordinarily dense web of discussion of the relative styles, attribution, provenance, dating and possible authorship of the rather confusing array of works by Rogier, his workshop, or by other contemporary and generally anonymous artists. As the text progresses this involves increasing numbers of comparisons between details of different pictures. (The angular folds of the Virgin in figure 53 are reminiscent of the so-and-so altarpiece in figure 11, but the change in hand position suggests the influence of the later work shown in figure 85, although recent dendrochronology evidence pushes both of them back before the latest possible date of composition as suggested by the 18th century copy of the original archive record of the commission of the painting from the Monastery of such and such. And so on.)

Stunning pictures

For students and fellow scholars this is important stuff, but as an amateur fan I found myself drifting away from the text to just luxuriate in the wonderful images on display, flicking over the pages to discover another treasure to absorb yourself in. And not necessarily sticking to Rogier, though he is the subject of the book; there are plenty of works by other contemporaries, reproduced here in excellent high quality colour illustrations.

For example, I find the painting of St Veronica displaying the veil on which Christ’s face was miraculously imprinted – nowadays attributed to Robert Campin – frankly astonishing. The characterisation of the face and the gorgeous orange background bring early John Everett Millais to mind (for example, the famous Lorenzo and Isabella of 1849). It is hard to believe it is from the early 15th century, 400 years earlier.

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Van der Weyden’s largest work is the Beaune Altarpiece, which shows a vivid and striking depiction of the Last Judgement.

The Wikipedia article gives a comprehensive account of the altarpiece’s genesis and meaning – and is a good example of the way these artefacts are not just works of art but important exemplars of social history. For me the two most striking elements are the oval-faced archangel St Michael balancing the scales of Justice directly under the Judging Christ.

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

But also the amazing spectacle of the buried dead burrowing themselves up out of the ground like worms. Normally in Day of Judgement scenes we see coffins opening; but here the dead are like moles erupting directly out of the soil. For me medieval and northern art often has this weird, unexpected, half-mad quality – think of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). Similarly, the really horrified look of the naked people being dragged (by their hair in one case) down into the burning pits of hell.

Learnings

  • Archivolt -the moulding or band around the inside of an arch. In many of the altarpieces the figures are framed by a Gothic arch and inside the archivolt are depicted scenes from the life of Christ which relate to the scene depicted in the main image.
  • Dendrochronology
  • Infrared reflectology
  • Most of the Netherlands was, at this period, part of the Duchy of Burgundy, and the Duke of Burgundy who ruled during this period was Duke Philip the Good, who had a long reign from 1419 to 1467. He commissioned altarpieces, portraits and illuminated manuscripts from Rogier and his workshop.
  • Grisaille – a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or another neutral colour, such as brown. Mostly used to duplicate the effect of sculpture e.g. the statues in the bottom two central panels of van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (when closed) or this image of St Lawrence, on the reverse side of a full-colour portrait of Jean de Froimont.
  • Halos – towards the end of the book I noticed that all the holy figures in contemporary Italian paintings have big round solid halos, which emphasise the hieratic staginess of the figures e.g. The Entombment of Christ by Fra Angelico (c. 1440), whereas there are few if any haloes in the northern paintings and then they are either transparent or bursts of golden rays, for example it’s quite hard to see the golden rays emanating from the head of the Virgin at the centre of the St Columba Altarpiece (c.1455).
  • Medieval painters whose names we don’t know are often named ‘the master of x’ where x is a particular work with a distinctive style. For centuries scholars referred to ‘the master of Flémalle’ after three painted panels, now in Frankfurt, said to have come from a monastery in Flémalle. Controversy has raged for over a century as to whether the master of Flémalle is one and the same as the Robert Campin who we know ran a workshop in Tournai, modern Belgium. Nowadays most scholars think they are one and the same.
  • Tears – there is evidence that Italian nobles, who commissioned works from Rogier, particularly valued the realism of the tears he gave to Christ’s followers:
  • Tryptich (i.e. three-part) altars fold out. The two side wings are hinged so the tryptich can be ‘closed’ or ‘opened’ to reveal the gorgeous colours of the interior. They were usually closed and only opened on special Holy Days. The outside of the closeable doors were also painted – but generally in drabber colours – and often with portraits of the donors who commissioned the work. For example, the relatively drab but beautifully modelled exterior of the Beaune Altarpiece features portraits of Nicolas Rolin, the powerful Chancellor to Philip the Good, and his wife. Roline was in fact portrayed several times by both Rogier and Jan van Eyck. A tough and powerful man, and van Eyck captures that wonderfully.

In later generations Rogier was venerated for the delicacy and artfulness of his compositions, along with the ability to convey the intense emotion and anguish of the characters in the Passion (all those weeping Marys). But I love the beauty, the calmness, the delicacy, and the quiet intimacy of the best of his portraits. Nearly 600 years later his people still live and breathe.

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

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