All entries for May 2006
May 21, 2006
Why do we need to know who painted what? How do we know this?
With regards to art and its histories, painting has always been a crucial standing block, if not the epitome of fine art and its progressions. When considering the question; “Why do we need to know who painted what?” it is fundamental to address first the importance of painting itself. Throughout our known records, painting has been closely criticised and highly acclaimed by connoisseurs and scholars from Vasari and Berenson to contemporaries such as Baxandall. The forefront of whose studies tended to focus towards painting as an art, seeing it as crucial in understanding art history and its progressions .This intellectual importance laid on painting stands to show its relevance to us today, and its continued importance; the importance of showing the styles and developments in artists and genres in such an accessible manner which has laid crucial foundations in our understanding of the history of art today.
Authorship of a painting is perhaps the key fragment in understanding the relevance and indeed the value of the art. As I have mentioned painting can provide a clear path through the progression of art from our earliest records. With the knowledge of authorship, we may categorise a painting in relation to a period, and hence its genre and style. With this knowledge we may study its social and historical relevance, and note any pioneering techniques, or better understand typical techniques and styles of the period and artist.
The appreciation of artistic styles and genres should perhaps first be concerned with the relevance of the artistic styles and genres. Style is perhaps the most difficult artistic term to define and hence there are many varying definitions and theories surrounding “style”. A useful definition resides in the Grove dictionary of art; an entry by James Elkens reading: ‘Term used for coherence of qualities in periods or people’. This is echoed by other scholars such as Meyer Schrapiro who defines style as ‘the constant form in the art of an individual or a group’. When considering style in this manner, we can immediately see the importance of authorship in the understanding of the development of artistic styles. For example artists belonging to a specific artistic movement, such as the Futurists or the Pre–Raphaelites; the authorship of the paintings may directly relate them to the movement and genre, hence giving us greater understanding both into the reasoning behind the painting and the artistic methods of the group.
Other definitions of style may demote the importance of authorship in relation to understanding and appreciating varying genres and developments in painting. This is perhaps most notable with Hegel, who also diminishes the value of the painter by classifying style as ‘the concept for the negation of the contingent’. Hegel’s beliefs stated that works of art within a certain period share characteristics which could be read across a large range due to the essence of “Zeitgeist” roughly translated as time ghost, or the essence of an age. In this respect, the artist is inspired only by the cultural spirit, and hence the production and creativity, indeed all the innovations in art history are inspired by an ulterior force, and the authorship of a painting is not needed to understand and appreciate its relevance. With regards to this essay however it should be beneficial to consider style as rather ‘Term used for coherence of qualities in periods or people’.
The attribution of many paintings to an artist provides us with the clarity with which we need to pass judgement on entire oeuvres and hence the ability to critique the artists themselves. A false attribution to an artist can severely damage their reputations, or indeed elevate artists to a false standing. The impact of authorship on the legacy of an artist is critical. An example of which is the continued debate on the authorship of the panel painting entitled “entombment” currently attributed to Michelangelo by the National Gallery, but fiercely opposed by academics such as Beck. The ferocity of this debate, and the widespread media attention, in and out of art circles, should lay weight to show the importance of the subject.
The clearly distinguishable renaissance painting is by all accounts no more than mediocre in its draughtsmanship and embodied skill (see figure 1). The composition is not solid, as there is little balance between figures; Christ’s feet appear entangled with those of St John the Evangelist. The use of chiaroscuro is not accomplished and the human figure appears out of proportion, with elongated limbs. This is not to comment on my opinion on the authorship of the panel, but merely to demonstrate and highlight the notable ineptitude of the artist within the painting. With this in mind we must again consider the attribution of the panel to Michelangelo as a proclaimed artistic genius. The panel’s attribution to the artist makes us question his proficiency.
However, if this painting was not attributed to Michelangelo its material value would be greatly diminished. The material value of fine art owes a lot to authorship, as we can again see when looking at “the Entombment”. This painting is partially paid for by the British public through the National Lottery Fund, making the value and hence the authorship of the painting highly relevant to a great many people.
When we can see how vitally important the attribution of a painting is, it is therefore a logical step to enquire as to how exactly we may make a firm attribution. This has been a well explored and highly debated subject, and many art historians have compiled methods by which a conclusion to the attribution of a painting may be considered. Famous connoisseurs are not as readily available today, as the prestige of the profession has been in decline for the last forty to fifty years, however the golden age of connoisseurship heralded important figures such as Bernard Berenson, and later, though to a lesser extent; Robert Longhi. These men played a large part in attributing authorship to a large number of paintings, and hence offer us a lot to learn from.
Bernard Berenson was known to have a highly visual emphasis when attributing works of art. It is said that Berenson, with a magnifying glass would stare at a painting for extended periods of time, tap the painting and eventually murmur a name. Other scholars conducted more scientific approaches to the analysis of art, such as Heinrich Wöfflin. Wöfflin, not interested in the origin of paintings, and more so in the development of art, constructed the “five antithetical concepts of stylistic change”. This is a method by which one can compare a paintings technical aspects concerning; linear, planimetric and recessional, closed and open forms, multiplicity and the clarity of an image. Using this method we can classify a painting into a genre, narrowing the fields of possible artists, however this is more problematic with imitation genres, seen when Renaissance art concerned itself with the classic antiquity arts of ancient Greece.
In modern practise it is more widely acknowledged that a combination of scientific technique and the technique of a connoisseur is a more concrete method of analysis. However despite our progressions in the field, modern circumstances can lead to complications in the field of attribution, as restorations, and adaptations make the attribution of authorship more complex. The development of photography, printing and computer technology can lead to different visual interpretations of works of art, upon which scholars have been known to base their opinions. Yet despite the modern difficulties, progressions relevant to art authorship in the sciences are undeniably revolutionary and provide us with evidence greatly needed in the field.
X–rays, ultraviolet rays and infrared waves all allow visibility which is beyond the human eye, often showing crucial evidence to the viewer. For example; infrared reflectography, which is a new progression, allows the observer to view an under drawing (if present), the technique of under drawing was used by certain artists, and can often show preparatory alterations, which are unlikely to be seen in an imitation. Samples of paint may also be taken from the surface and cross–sectioned to show layers of paint pigmentation. This can highlight restoration, and the date of production through the types of paints and base chemicals used. The technique of layering paint can also act as a signature by certain artists who have specific styles. Approximate dating can be accomplished by tracing the isotopes of lead in lead based paints, and a similar technique called “carbon dating” can be used to date wood panels for panel pieces.
These scientific progressions are included in the general methodology of artistic attribution. This model is offered by James Beck and shows the many different aspects which one must consider whilst attempting the attribution of a painting. First one must look at the painting in a purely analytical fashion, considering the intended viewing angle of the painting. One should note the state of completion, the balance, use of light and composition of the design and its style. Also important to note is the condition and material of the painting. Finally one should note the subject matter of the composition. The second stage of analysis should be technical, and involve the scientific interpretation of the painting, using the techniques offered earlier. Basic measurements should be taken into consideration and attention should be given to the damage and aging of the painting; and any alterations. Next it is necessary to closely study the subject matter of the painting, identifying characters and props where relevant, for example in mythological paintings. Any topography or iconography within the painting could be highly relevant and should be noted, setting the painting in a location, with political, historical or religious meanings, creating possible links to the artist.
Not all evidence linking authorship lies within the painting itself. Historical documentation, the provenance of the painting and the existence or non–existence of copies relay key information placing the paintings origin. Historical documentation such as contracts, church records, family archives, letters and inventories often states the painter in a clear coherent fashion, enabling a swift and relatively confident attribution.
A combination of science, connoisseurship and historical reference lay for us, as art historians, a solid but not impermeable ground by which we can attempt to make an attribution for a painting. Using this we can gain a greater understanding of specific artists and also genres and periods, relating the progression and development of art, hence underlining the importance of the knowledge of authorship. Further improvements in science and a greater number of specialists in the field could produce a more consistent method for confident attributions of paintings, and these progressions will surely continue.
How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in late 19th century and early 20th century Britain?
During the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the visual arts were expanding and becoming highly influential in defining the feminine. With the popularity of the Pre–Raphaelite painterly brotherhood, who wished to instil morals into contemporary Britain, visual arts were increasingly used to dictate the roles and virtues of women. During this period the roles of women were becoming increasingly separated from those of men, as the domestic and industrial spheres were separated, it is hence important to study how the visual arts were influential in demarcating the role of women in their domestic sphere. A particular target of the period, during an era of political unrest was the prostitute, becoming a myth through the creation of the visual arts, the “fallen woman” served as both a warning and an object of scorn and pity for women in the Victorian age. Progressively however, the political climate changes as we see the rise of the suffragist movement, and the use of different media in the visual arts, both by and against the female suffragette to model and define the woman of the period. The importance of the visual arts is exemplified by the vandalising of the “Rokeby Venus” (see figure 1) in 1914, by a suffragette who opposed the defined image of women portrayed in this painting of the mythical goddess of love: Venus. With this intensity of passion aimed towards the visual arts, I wish to distinguish whether the images of the period made a distinct impact on contemporary women and how the definition of femininity crafted by art affected the social stringencies on female character, passions and actions.
The late 19th century was a period of rapid industrial growth and it was in this environment that the perceived roles for the middle class woman were changing. The noisy and corrupted urban environment was a frightening development for many of the British public, and the male provider increasingly sought refuge in the confines of his home. The visual arts of the period reflected this notion in many genre pieces, like Philip Calderon’s “Woman’s mission: Companion of manhood” (see figure 2). In this image we see the idealised woman of the period, comforting her husband to the left. The painting’s setting shows the domesticated living space, and indicates the wife’s fulfilment of her household duties.
This “lived in” impression created in the painting is crucial in recognising the enforced roles on middle class women of the late 19th century, as idleness was seen to be a road to immorality. The dependence of the woman on her male provider is also seen defined in this image, intended to act as a role model for the feminine to abide. Although supporting her grief stricken husband, her reliance and obedience is seen in her posture; leaning on his shoulder she gazes up towards him, the height difference between the two figures lending the male a clearly higher status in the image. This definition of femininity enforced in this image gave to the male a standing of success and social position. The painting defines the feminine further by the woman’s modest and simple fashion. Her gown is a muted brown, concealing her from her neck to her feet, with minimal shape at the waist to express her figure. Instead her femininity is projected in the curvature of her neck, leaning dependently on her husband’s shoulder.
The defining of the female in her domestic sphere was not isolated to the middle classes. Although the lower and upper classes were seen as more susceptible to the corruptions of the new industrial age, we can see evidence of the visual arts demarcating also the role of the lower class wife. An example of this is in figure 3– George Elgar Hick’s “Sinews of old England”. In this image we see represented a supposed typical working class family; a husband, his wife and a young child. The male looks resolutely out of the painting, assumedly to the working wo his sphere. His frontal image is contrasted by his wife’s side profile, as she looks directly at her husband and her responsibilities as a woman. Similarly to “woman’s mission” the lower class wife appears to be reliant on her husband, on whom she leans echoing the above image by Philip Calderon. However the role of the lower class woman was different from that of the middle class wife; put by Lynn Nead in “The Magdalen in modern times: the mythology of the fallen woman in Pre–Raphaelite painting” as:
“The working–class model was defined in terms of her piety, thrift and conscientiousness, but, above all, she could not display aspirations above her class in either her personal or domestic adornment.”
In this image we see the visual representation then of the defined working–class feminine. The female attire, contrasting to that in “woman’s mission”, is that designed for hard work with rolled up sleeves and a shorter skirt allowing more movement. Her domestic duties are again represented in the background of the image, yet her living space appears much more humble.
The most distinctive link however between these two images is the submissive nature of the woman to rely on her male counterpart. Even though the working–class woman is industrious; apparent by her attire; it is clear in her posture that she is required to be submissive, defenceless and reliant on her husband. This demarcation of feminine power in society played a key role in actually defining the feminine, and it was women who; under the cruel hammer of fate; experienced life without a partner, who were both feared and pitied during the period of the late 19th century. Such women were often governesses or seamstresses but the most highly depicted visual image of the grief stricken woman was that of the prostitute.
During the period, Britain was fighting to control overseas colonies, the fear and unrest created by these confrontations caused a mass fixation upon the morality of the nation, blamed for the political turbulence of the era. At the centre of this was the prostitute, who was at first feared, and then pitied for her immorality. The visual arts, in particular the Pre–Raphaelite brotherhood were heavily involved in creating and defining the ‘mythology’ of the prostitute in the late 19th century. In order to control fears of the possible economic manipulation of the prostitute, the visual arts defined the cult as that of a desolate, guilt ridden woman, desperate to reclaim childhood innocence to no avail, who would surely take her life to end her suffering, by jumping off a bridge. This common theme is seen in the image by George Frederic Watts “found drowned” (see figure 4).
The importance of the prostitute mythology in defining the feminine lies perhaps more in its warning to the virtuous middle–class women of the period. In defining the fallen woman, the visual arts set strict limitations on the actions of the feminine woman. Women were shocked into stringent rules about behaviour and modesty by the recurring theme of the fallen woman in the visual arts. More specifically seen in Augustus Leopold Egg’s triptych; “Past and present” (see figures 5–7)
These stark images depict the inevitable downfall of an unfaithful woman to destitution and also prostitution. Femininity was therefore defined by the visual arts as a permanent fixture to the male. Women seen out of the domestic sphere were viewed under suspicion of infidelity, and so the actions of the feminine woman were defined also by chastity and suspicion. However this became more relaxed towards the arrival of the early 20th century, when the virtuous woman appeared on the street performing duties of charity, showing good Christian faith and developing an image of morality outside of the domestic sphere.
Despite this emphasis on chastity the studied period was a time of erotic revival, where the visual arts produced and revived, in great popularity many sexually charged images. An example of such sexually provocative imagery is Lord Frederic Leighton’s “The bath of Psyche” (see figure 8). The image of psyche bathing has clear erotic undertones, as the nude female figure stands in a contrapposto pose, reminiscent of the antiquated classical mythological paintings of the Roman era. The body is turned so as to show the viewer the front of the figure of the clearly beautiful nude. These mythological images were popular by the male consumers who monopolised the art market of the period, as they were designed for the viewing pleasure of men, to engage in a beautiful female nude. This sensual pleasure aimed at the male audience had no such equivalent for female spectators. Again borrowing from Lynn Nead’s essay “The Magdalen in modern times: The mythology of the fallen woman in Pre–Raphaelite painting”, the differences defined in the studied period between male and female sensuality are thus expressed:
“The male sexual urge is thought of as active, aggressive and spontaneous, whilst female sexuality is defined in relation to the male, and understood as weak, passive and responsive.”
The visual arts created a sensuous field for the male viewer, but created no language for the expression of female sensuality, enforcing the belief that women’s bodies were for the pleasure of men, and that a sexual desire was not feminine.
With such clearly defined roles of femininity created by the visual arts, and the distinct limitations placed upon women’s role in society, it is hardly surprising that with the rise of the suffragist movement, the role of the visual arts was to denounce the supposed rebellious females and further enforce ideals of femininity. In the early 20th century female suffrage was a focal point in British politics and the visual arts involvement in defining femininity addressed this new change using the increased variety of media, also developing during the beginning of the century. The most frequented form of media used in the visual arts to ridicule the suffragists was that of cartoons, which could be easily distributed to a large and relevant audience. One such example is “the shrieking sister” published in punch magazine (see figure 9). Although commenting on the more sensible and refined suffragette to the left of the image the archetypal suffragette creation of the visual arts appears to the right of the image. The suffragettes were depicted in the visual arts as unfeminine creatures; with a mystifying almost witch like savageness as we can see in this sketch. The female’s figure is straight, denying any feminine curves and her aggressive posture is a harsh comparison to the defenceless feminism enforced in the late 18th century by the arts. Her appearance is plain at best, as she wears glasses and contorts her face into a scream. This image of a suffragette implies that this type of woman; a woman who is radically, or politically minded; is unattractive and unfeminine. To be more precise, by stereotyping the suffragettes in this fashion, the visual arts attempted to demarcate the female movement in politics, by defining the feminine as the opposite to the suffragist movement.
However the suffragettes also used the visual arts to enforce their own ideas of femininity and the role of women in the early 20th century. Using the WUDS newsletter, the suffragettes created images enforcing the virtuous, brave and feminine ideals of the suffragist movement. An example of this is seen in the image “The forces of evil denouncing the bearers of light” (see figure 9). The female’s pose in the image is reminiscent of the ancient postures of female models, as she leans on one leg, the other gently bent. This reference to femininity is then corresponded with her suit of armour showing strength and ability.
The visual arts of the period concerned can hence be seen as having a hugely influential effect on what it was for a woman to be feminine; by defining the character, actions, and passions of a woman. By dictating what is feminine in this way the largely male dominated visual arts played a definitive role in demarcating women by placing stringent conventions upon which women could feel attractive and effeminate. Middle class women’s actions in the late 19th century were dictated by images of domesticated bliss, enshrining upon the female population a sense of responsibility to maintain a virtuous and tranquil home environment for their working husbands to return to. Defined too by limitations set out by the visual arts was a woman’s character; again to be defenceless and reliant on her male protector. The purity of a woman’s character was also strongly enforced by the visual arts providing harrowing warnings for the fallen woman who would surely walk a path to an agonising early grave. The passions too, the very essence of a woman were quelled and hence defined by the arts, denying the sensual pleasures of a woman, leaving her only with sexual duty, not pleasure. Her political passions too were condemned as unattractive and shameful, as anti–suffragette images mocked and characterised women with a political passion for female suffrage, as unattractive and “witch” like. Although towards the later end of the study period, the arts were adopted by the suffragists and constructed a visual which aimed to emancipate the strong minded female. Hence it was by defining what it was to be “feminine” in such a way that the visual arts actively demarcated the role of women in the period of the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
How can knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of medieval art?
Medieval art is a vast subject spanning hundreds of years across continents. The art itself is voluminous with varying styles, techniques and products; from religious panel paintings, to exquisitely decorated chalices. So whilst taking on this mammoth task, of analysing both the technique and relevance of such in medieval art, I have focused on one, highly popular form of practical art throughout the medieval period; the technique of enamelling. Although this narrows my analysis somewhat, enamelling was used on a huge variety of art works in the relevant period, and so, I believe the study should be sufficient for this task. In reference to my study, enamelling is a complicated art work, requiring great technique on a wide range of surfaces, and so will provide ample study into the relevance of medieval technique in understanding medieval art.
The technique of enamelling proved highly versatile and was used on a great variety of works, religious and secular. The use of enamelling also scanned from Anglo–Saxon Britain to Byzantine Constantinople. This we can see from the collection below of medieval enamel examples, figure one and two from northern Europe and figure three and four from Byzantium. From this collection of images one can clearly see the diversity of production of enamel throughout the medieval period in question. I have also chosen these examples to highlight the diversity of enamelling, used in fashion (figure 1), religion (figure 2), politics (figure 3) and the secular realm (figure 4). We can hence discuss the relevance of knowledge of technique in relation to understanding these different aspects of medieval enamelling.
After establishing the relevance of enamelling in this study, it is then necessary to understand the technique of enamelling in order to establish its necessity in regards to understanding the art. Enamel in essence is coloured glass, bonded with metal at high temperatures. To go into more depth however, I have looked at perhaps the best resource concerning medieval enamel work; that written in the medieval period (probably early 12th century) by a German Benedictine monk; Theophilus. His treatise ‘diversis artibus’ appears to be a lifetime’s work on glass manufacture and cloisonné enamel (cell enamel). However as some of Theophilus’ theories seem to be outdated; notably that involving “basilisks and the blood of a red bearded man” reading the more contemporary analysis by David Buckton on the treatise is a necessary undertaking.
Cloisonné enamel is so called as it comprises of cells, formed by metal wires, or strips, into which the glass is inserted to construct the composition of the enamel decoration. As we can see from figure 3; medieval enamels were often highly decorated, and the versatility of the enamel requires that all decorative fixtures about the enamel should be in place prior to the creation of the enamel itself. It is at this point that Theophilus begins a step by step instruction on how to make medieval enamel. First one must measure out a thin gold frame in the area selected for the enamel, using this measurement a second, thicker strip of gold should be wrapped about the first, leaving a small gap. In this space your ‘cells’ can be created by painstakingly laying very thin strips of gold in your desired pattern. To form the base of the cloisonné a sheet of metal is then placed in each of the cloisons, and then pasted in a fire to secure the enamel base.
Theophilus then turns to the glass itself, and its preparation. First it is suggested that the reader break off a small piece of each colour of glass, and test its melting point in relation to the other glasses, as if its melting point is different, it will not be satisfactory. Once tested, all the glass should be heated separately, and then splintered in cold water, ready to be broken down with a pestle into powder and washed. When the glass is prepared it has then to be applied to the base of the enamel, using a “goose quill, cut as fine as if for writing but with a longer point and unsplit”1. The glass and base should then be fired, and the process of filling the cloisons repeated until they reach or surpass the height of the metal borders. The process of enamelling is then completed by filing and polishing the works, in order to give a professional finish.
As I have previously mentioned this above process of enamelling was used across continents from Anglo–Saxon Britain to Byzantium where “the technique of enamels attained the highest degree of refinement and of expressiveness in the period of the Comnenian dynasty (1057 – 1187)”2. Enamelling had been greatly developed in cities such as Constantinople, and these techniques native to Byzantium, became incorporated into Venetian enamelling, with political gifts, and the lootings of war. However there was always a great difference between the enamels of Venice and Constantinople. Sergio Bettini notes in “Venice, the Pala d’Oro and Constantinople” the great difference in colour between these two manufacturers. With our knowledge of enamel techniques, we can clearly see that colour is a very important aspect of enamelling; it is colour and line alone which give the enamel its charm and style. Figure 5 shows an example of a Byzantine pendant with cloisonné enamel detail. With this example we can see the delicacy and translucency of colour in Byzantine enamels, Bettini describes a “balance between colour and line”. The Venetian examples used stronger colours and thickness almost to the point where the translucent effect of enamelling is lost. With technical knowledge it is then possible to appreciate the style of both these uses of colour in enamelling; in Byzantium where the two main features are harmoniously blended and in Venetian enamels, where the singularity of line and colour is exaggerated and exploited.
Other than enabling an aesthetic appreciation of enamelling, technical knowledge can prove to be useful in other disciplines of understanding the art. With the widespread popularity of enamel, across the globe, and the extensive movement of art between these areas, it is often difficult to locate origin, provenance and even date the art work. Technical knowledge of both the varying styles, for example between Venetian and Byzantine enamels, is only one area in which technical understanding may help. As previously mentioned, the height of Byzantine enamelling was the Comnenian period, however styles and techniques of making have varied throughout the medieval period, and knowledge and understanding of the different techniques can help to categorise different enamels into artistic, or dynastic periods.
The technique of glass making itself, core to the enamelling process can also aid our understanding of period and provenance. In addition to the enamelling process Theophilus also explains the techniques of glass making, and their various chemical and other components. Fundamentally glass is a composition of a type of silica and an alkali flux. The alkali is largely soda and can come from foliage3. This is crucial, as different areas at different periods obtained their alkali from different sources. For example in Germany and Bohemia:
“…the ash of marine plants was replaced, apparently by the tenth century AD, by the ash of certain hardwoods, notably oak and beech, producing a glass known as Waldglas ‘forest glass’.” (David Buckton – Theophilus and Enamel).
With this knowledge of varying techniques (and perhaps with the aid of chemical testing) we can both locate the Waldglas enamel as originating in Germany, and approximate its period, as after the 10th century AD. In this way our knowledge of technique has been shown to aid not only aesthetic and appreciative functions of understanding but also in practical methods of comprehension.
So far I have discussed how knowledge of technique can aid our understanding of medieval art, however I would like to highlight certain areas of understanding in which further knowledge is required. One such example is the understanding of a social and political context. Perhaps I should argue here why this is necessary in our understanding of art, and so I shall briefly underline why I think this is so, particularly in regards to medieval art. From the range of enamel examples throughout this essay it is clear to see that the decorative purpose of the enamel was also to serve a function, with regards to what it was decorating. With a great divide between the wealthy and the poor, in the monarchic system of the medieval period, it was only the wealthy who could afford, or commission art works leaving art as a very powerful and specialist tool. Perhaps it is also important to note here that most (save a rare few) ‘artists’ of the period are remembered by name, as the birth of ‘art’ as a concept had not been fully divulged in this period. Instead art was seen as a skill in conjunction with a creative subject.
Perhaps this is an argument for the necessity of knowledge in regards to technique, and I would not contradict this, however it does raise another issue. When the art has a specific purpose it is then necessary to understand this specific purpose in order to gain a full understanding of piece. If we then look again at figure 3; the votive crown of King Leo VI, we must recognise the enamels in their political context. As a symbol of power the enamels were designed to ordain and bring ‘majesty’ to the wearer. Further to this the enamels depict King Leo VI flanked by saints to enhance his ostensibly saintly predisposition as leader of the religious and secular state. With this knowledge I believe that one has a better understanding of the medieval art, which could not be accessed by knowledge of technique alone.
Whilst studying the art in its socio–political context we must also consider the practical function of many of the enamels, designed to decorate items with practicality. An example of which is the exquisite temple pendant and stick (figure 6). As part of court attire, the pendant was worn in pairs by men and women near the temple or cheek. As the pendant is hollow it is believed that the stick was used to insert a scented rag into the hollow cavity to give the bearer an elegant scent. Despite this practical function, the enamels also serve the purpose of displaying wealth and power, and perhaps highlight the refined elegance of the luxury of perfume.
In considering this then, it is necessary to take into account both the practical functionality of medieval art and its socio–political context, in addition to knowledge of the technicalities of making in order to fully understand medieval art work. It is necessary in such a skill orientated discipline as enamel to have knowledge of the technical methods involved in order to aid your understanding of the art as this can prove useful in appreciative, functional, and stylistic evaluations. However as I have also discussed to gain a comprehensive understanding it is necessary to take into account its context and function. The religious icons, used for worship and the secular decorations used to represent power and wealth comprise of much of the medieval art of which we have today, and so to understand it fully we must also gain knowledge of the context and function of the art, in correspondence with our practical understanding of the fundamental techniques, as these are also crucial for a complete understanding of medieval art.
May 13, 2006
How Does Psychoanalysis Shape Our Understanding of the Production and Perception of Art Objects?
The ‘science of the unconscious’ was first devised at the end of the 19th Century by Sigmund Freud. Freud worked with patients seeking treatment with neurotic symptoms. In doing this Freud ‘discovered’ the structure of the mind. The most accepted model for this is the ‘tripartite structure’; comprising of the ‘id’ – the unconscious, the ‘ego’ – the conscious, and the ‘superego’ – the rational use of the conscious.
Freud was particularly interested in the ‘unconscious’ and through investigation of human behaviour he concluded that his patients’ problems stemmed from an unconscious which was repressed by culture. Included in this repressed unconscious were the ideas of sexual and aggressive desires and fantasies.
Freud was also interested in collected identities and in social structures which repeat themselves throughout historical groups. This is reflected in his use of mythology to explain his theories. For instance, the Oedipus complex (a young boy’s desire for the exclusive love of the mother and jealousy and an unconscious death wish for the father) takes its name from the Greek myth of Oedipus who unintentionally kills his father and marries his mother. Oedipus then goes on to symbolically castrate himself by blinding himself with his mother’s brooch.
Psychoanalysis also has many of its origins alongside Modernism, an artistic movement which was happening at the time which Freud was working. Artists took psychoanalytic theories into consideration and used them in the production of their work. They are often seen as transforming their socially unacceptable desires and instincts through their creativity.
To investigate his new science, Freud turned to primitivism to try and find the origin of our desires and to ascertain how culture evolves. During this period art also began to move away from the constraints of patronage and artists began to follow their own ideas. This gave artists such a Gauguin the chance to pursue their interests in the field of primitivism also. Gauguin was personally dissatisfied by life around him and was seeking a more pure way of life. He went to rural France and tried to identify with the land and the native people. In an example of his paintings, ‘The Rich after Sermon’, Gauguin uses a primitive style which we can see in his use of black outlines and rich natural colours. The subject also illustrates the purity of religion.
The Surrealist movement was also actively engaged with psychoanalysis although Freud himself dismissed them because their art would always be restricted by rationalisation and mediation. Salvador Dali, a Surrealist, painted detailed dream landscapes with “forms placed in illusionistic space… images may be recognisable, but the relations between them are deliberately enigmatic, as in a dream.”
Another artist which used psychoanalytic theory was Joan Miro. He is often associated with the Surrealist movement although he rejected membership to any artistic movement. He undertakes his work through automatism, spontaneously creating art pieces “without conscious aesthetic or moral self–censorship” . Whilst painting, ‘Peinture’, (1927) Miro tried to enter his unconscious mind by starving himself and to experience hallucinations. In the painting itself Miro draws a tenuous line across the painting to leave suggestions of form; we might interpret there to be a breast on the right–hand side of the picture for instance. His forms always remain unfixed and at the level of suggestion. This infers that his works are purely open to personal interpretation and we perceive his work differently depending on our own psyche and our own influences. We can therefore see how psychoanalysis can be used by the artist in the production of art work and by the viewer when we try to understand why the artist took that approach to his art and why we as interpret it as we do.
In his effort to understand the unconscious, Freud tried to interpret dreams. He used these interpretations as well as biographies to create a theory of psychobiography to try and establish how an artist’s life is related to his artistic production.
Freud specifically looked at the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci who was said to have had a ‘memory’ of a vulture striking him in the mouth with its tail . Freud used the symbol of the vulture and the action of striking to relate the memory to ideas about his sexuality and his relationship with his mother. He also gathered his evidence by looking at da Vinci’s painting of ‘Saint Anne’ which Freud took to be a representation the artist’s family.
This method of psychoanalysis is very unreliable as the use of memories and dreams can be misinterpreted, the person analysing the evidence may have a biased view and the use of biographic evidence is very subjective. It is also very difficult to analyse artwork from hundreds of years ago because different social influences, including the patron, must also be taken into account. However, psychoanalysis can raise some interesting issues for art historians to consider when try to understand how to perceive art objects.
Art historians interested in issues of identity, sexuality and gender have also made use of psychoanalysis as a method of interpreting the actions of artists. Claude Cahun uses countless images to express her self. Her interests lie in using gender and sexual difference. She would often photograph herself dressed as, and in the role of, a man and would take on a male persona. We can use psychoanalysis to understand why Cahun presents herself to the viewer in this way, to represent the patriarchal art world around her. We can see that she did not want to be a man but instead wanted to try and break down the boundaries which exist between genders. Psychoanalysis is useful to art historians in this way.
There are many theories within psychoanalysis which stem from the fore–mentioned Oedipus complex. One of these is that men have more power than women. However, this power over women lapses when we consider the idea of ‘castration anxiety’. There are two ways that the male unconscious can escape this anxiety; the first is through re–enactment of the original trauma. This has associations with sadism. The second approach is “complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of fetish object or turning the represented figure into a fetish itself so that it becomes reassuring” . This leads to fetishistic scopophilia (pleasure in looking) and hence ‘the gaze’.
Man Ray was a Surrealist photographer and he illustrated an article by Tristan Tzara for the Surrealist magazine, ‘Minotaure’ in 1933. Tzara’s article, ‘On a Certain Automatism’ addressed issues with contemporary fashion trends, specifically in terms of hat fashion, looking at the fedora in particular. In the article, Tzara himself uses psychoanalytic theories to suggest that fashion was a type of unconscious expression. Man Ray also considered psychoanalytic ideas of fetishism when he photographed two different images of hats for the magazine.
The hat is worn by women as a phallic form itself; this is to compensate for the idea of loss due to castration. It is seen by Surrealists as an extension of the head which envelops the unconscious mind, rather than as an ornamental accessory.
In his photographs, Man Ray implies the presence of an imagined spectator. His use of high camera angles means that the hats are viewed from above to show the crown – a position from which the woman herself cannot see herself. The photographs therefore benefit others rather than the female model herself.
In the first of the two untitled images the split crown fedora takes the metaphoric form of the female genitalia. The camera angle means that the hat almost entirely conceals the face – making it a mask. It also suggests decapitation or castration.
The second of the images focuses on texture which draws attention to the surface and makes us aware if its tactility. The focus on texture makes a transition from touch to sight and leads to scopophilia, central to fetishism. The photographs are examples of fetishism; the replacement of sexual difference for the object of the hat. The photographs isolate the object, “disconnect it from surrounding context, give it undue attention and use unfamiliar angles to focus compulsively upon it” .
Photography, as a medium, is suited to the representation of fetishism due to the fact that the “timeless quality of photography… is comparable to the timelessness of the unconscious and of memory” . This timelessness, the idea of death and castration, relates back to fetishism. The photographic form is also successful because it can be held, appealing to the viewer’s sense of touch whereas a cinematic image cannot be handled; only seen. There is also the point that the camera takes a ‘true’ image of what really exists.
The cinema also uses a ‘true’ image to project its ideas. However, Metz sums the fetishistic appeals of cinema and photography by stating that ‘where film is more capable of playing on fetishism, photography is more capable of itself becoming a fetish’6. This is similar to Mulvey’s idea that the sadist’s escape from ‘castration anxiety’ demands a story, which makes it more suited to narrative cinema. “However, fetishistic scopophilia can exist outside time as the erotic instinct is focused on the look alone” .
Psychoanalysis has been used as a method to draw conclusions about art objects throughout the 20th Century. It raises many interesting theories about the nature of the unconscious and is very useful to art historians trying to understand more about the Modernist movement which rose at the same time as Freudian concepts. However, Freud’s theories are based on assumptions and personal interpretations of individual artworks, they are unscientific and there is no evidence to prove or disprove his ideas. His theories raise concerns because they are sexist and condescending towards women. Psychoanalytic motions can also be discredited as they often do not take into account the social, economic and political influences in society at the time work is produced.
May 05, 2006
Writing about web page /teamcolour/entry/Mythology/
What was the appeal of classical mythology as a subject for artists and patrons?
Within the history of art the time of antiquity has set the foundations for the progression of painting, sculpture and architecture. The supremacy of Greek innovation and the strength of the Roman Empire have been felt throughout the ages as new archaeological findings have revealed more about the artistic merits of antiquity. It is these merits of design and formulation of artwork that has been further developed and continually referred to by artists of other centuries and therefore makes classical culture highly influential on contemporary times and artworks. Yet, the time that is more commonly associated with the revival of antiquity is that of the Renaissance, as the term itself, is defined as re–birth or revival which corresponds with the re–birth of classical culture, as shown by the resurgence classical mythology as a sole subject matter for art.
In classical literature, one of the most influential figures was that of Ovid. His epic poem “Metamorphosis” sets down the myths of the Roman gods, their actions and the subsequent consequences of their often detrimental behaviour. It is this work that was the basis for the depiction of classical mythology both in the time of antiquity but also succeeding centuries, most prominently that of the Renaissance as Svetlana Alpers describes it to have been the “painter’s bible”. “Metamorphosis” helped to change traditional subject matter in art from Christian depictions to that of the classical pagan mythology. This was a significant change in the art world as it strained the moral boundaries that had been upheld whilst artists had created works for religious patrons or the Church. Yet, classical mythology appeared to oppose moral behaviour as Ovid graphically described the seemingly immoral actions of the gods, an infamous example being that of the rape of Europa by the head of the Olympian gods, Jupiter, whilst posing in the disguise as a white bull. The early fourteenth century audience had previously revered the Christian works of the Middle Ages that had portrayed dominant themes of Christian beliefs, acting as a direct contrast to the more sexually and decadently charged works that came as a result of Ovid’s poem.
The Renaissance artists succeeded the tradition of depiction of biblical scenes taken from the Old and New Testament, leaving a limited scope of artistic licence as most scenes were based on the finality of mortal existence which held little interest for both artists and patrons. The introduction of classical mythology allowed a wider range of subject matter as portrayal of sexual love, civic pride unrelated to God and ambiguity over the power of God, as well as human possibilities, were exposed to the potential of the artist. Looking at Gianlorenzo Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne” the viewer is attentive to the moment in which Daphne begins her transformation. Alike to the work of Antoine Pallaiuolo, Bernini depicts the moment in which Apollo finally manages to make contact with Daphne but instead of feeling flesh he can see her skin slowly turn to bark as she is transformed into a tree to protect her from the overpowering god. This depiction of the actual transformation is unusual as Nigel Llewellyn supports the view that “few artists sees to the catch the moment of transformation” , as it was seen to be too contentious in the eyes of the Church as it went against the idea of 1 Corinthians 6:19, that the body is a temple given by God therefore meaning it should be treated in a respectful manner. Also this deformation of the human body did not adhere to the public idea of decorum in art as the human body was being distorted in full view of the spectator, therefore crossing boundaries of social convention and beliefs abut the sacred quality of the human body.
Despite the introduction of this more ostentatious subject matter the depiction of mythological scenes still fell under the category of history painting and resumed the most prominent position in the genre hierarchy. In this way the works of Titian, Rubens and Correggio were highly successful in attracting the attention, as well as the appreciation of patrons as “mythology was most obviously appealing in its rich repertoire of love stories” . Yet, attention was also gained from the church authorities who were concerned by the sexually explicit nature of these pieces, as seen by Correggio’s portrayal of Danäe as she sits nude in her bed chamber surrounded by cherubim, being produced but were unable to hinder the scale of popularity of the mythological paintings. In this way it became a show of power and wealth for patrons to commission works by prominent artists for the decoration of their palatial homes. When talking of artists, there is the understanding that unlike contemporary painters or sculptors today, artists before the sixteenth century were craftsman, rather than individuals who painted out of pleasure. The presence of patrons is highly important as it was this group of wealthy or influential characters that controlled the aesthetics and subject matter of an artwork as it was produced to become their property. This sense of ownership is a notable theme in the production of art works in the history of art as it was only a select group of people who could afford to commission works, therefore leaving a clear definition of class and monetary wealth within society.
Although boundaries of decorum were being pushed with works like Titian’s “Danäe and the Shower of Gold” , as the female protagonist lies naked on her bed in an overtly sexual position, a compositional set–up used by Correggio in his piece of the same title. Yet, despite the blatant eroticism of both pieces Titian’s works were described as poesie, meaning that they were symbolic and not a purely erotic visual. This was not a boundary that had been experienced with pieces artwork as the Middle Ages had concentrated on religious scenes which did not share the pagan and immoral connotations associated with classical mythology. Yet, this display of nudity and eroticism was not the stance all artists took in the conversion of literary myth to visual myth. The artist Edward Burne – Jones depicts the same myth of Danäe in his 1887 piece “Danäe and the Brazen Tower” , but depicts an earlier section of the myth leaving Danäe fully clothed in a more rigid and sculptural stance, therefore shifting the focus of the painting onto her emotional turmoil as her look of apprehension is evident as she looks onto the brazen tower being constructed in her father’s courtyard. In this way there was the appeal of the artist’s ability to interpret the different sections of the Metamorphosis poetry and as there was no visual guide it was left to the control of the artists, a new way of painting that led into the sixteenth century and progressed until the modern day.
The use of classical mythology was important for both artists and patrons alike as it incorporated a greater sense of elitism as those who would have commissioned a painting and those who would have executed the design would have had to have enough intelligence in order to translate and understand the Latin text set down before them by Ovid. This theme of classical mythology being used by artists in order to show intellectual superiority was used by the men training in France at the Ećole des Beaux Arts. This is described by the eighteenth century artist Jean–Baptiste–Siméon Chardin as he recounted how he would shed tears infront of the classical sculptures of the Satyr, Venus and Gladiator . This helped to educate young artists about the style of classical art as well as learn the mythology behind the scultpures they studied, thus it could be argued that it provided their work with a greater variety of influence and depth as the classical myths opened a range of poetic images that could be arranged by the artist without revoke as it was taken from literature rather than an exsting piece of art. This view is supported by Goncourt Brothers as they admit “…Ovid and Boucher. A page of the former has all the briliance, fire, the style and the appearacne if a canvas by the latter…”. This reveals how classical mytholgy was a challenge taken by artists as they wanted to capture the same spirit of literature in a compositional set–up. This desire that was furthured as Ovid’s standing in literature was as one of the most influential writers, thus if his work could be transferred to painting, the status of mythogical painting and the artist would be raised in turn.
How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role if women in late 19th and early 20th century Britain?
“Independence is happiness…” Susan B. Anthony
During the late nineteenth century, the political system was subjected to change as the women’s suffrage movement emerged wanting to revolutionise the voting system. As a group of women they held no authority over social or governmental practices as they were deemed second–class citizens with no economic or political power. In this way the visual arts was the one media in which they could publish their message for freedom without imposing on political sanctions they were disallowed. It was an extremely public media that served as a means of mass communication without militant behaviour that would tarnish women as revolutionary and subversive, undercutting the possibility of reformation. However, this communication to the public through a passive resource was also used against women by anti–suffragist groups, therefore making a mockery of their message for liberty but also giving rise to the change of boundaries between the passive woman and the aggressive feminist.
During the Victorian period and running into the Edwardian period, social beliefs about the role of women was that they should be attentive to men and retain femininity through elegance of nature and presentation. This feature was combined into the suffragist visual arts as they strove to maintain equilibrium between politics and art, as well as passion and reason and femininity and aggression. Artistic integrity was represented through the influence of the Pre–Raphaelites whose images of women suffragist artists used as models of femininity for their posters. For example this can be seen in the figure of Edward Burne–Jones’ “Danäe and the Brazen Tower” (1887) as the figure of Danäe is a slim and beautiful woman, modestly dressed and seemingly innocent. This unthreatening image of woman was used by suffragists to present their desire to vote as something that would not jeopardize their authority and would ease the burden of man, as well as the rest of the nation.
Femininity was also preserved through the literal portrayal of women as feminine in the design of suffragist banners. The suffragists used social stereotypes and enforcements in order to protest against the constrictions put on them as non–voting citizens. This is seen in the embroidered suffragist banners as they used the feminine attribute of needlework proficiency as a protest medium. Once again it mixed together femininity with art and politics. It formulates a serious statement but one that satirises the label imposed on them by society, especially as it is an imposition that enables their protest to be so easily viewed. This provides a bold statement about the changing role of women as they no longer hide from such audacious displays of discontent.
This idea of still making women appear submissive to the power of men, whilst having some political aspirations and control, was used to generate the support of men. Yet, other forms about the demarcation of femininity were used in order to attain the support of fellow women. In this poster “The Bugler Girl” the artist Caroline Watts presents a militant woman, based on strong women of the past like the goddess Athena or the martyr Joan of Arc who appears in Pre–Raphaelite works. This early twentieth century image shows a new facet of the suffrage movement and about the role of women in society as it shows a more aggressive and warrior–like woman, therefore contrasting with their image of woman maintaining their position as domestic and caring citizens.
When creating public posters rivalling the conformity of the social structure often female suffragette designers signed their work with initials or maintained anonymity in order to retain their identity, not their individuality but the fact that they were female. This view that the world would not appreciate or pay attention to the work of women artists raises Linda Nochlin’s question of “why are there no great women artists?” One of the greatest fears for men at the time was that if women were given the vote they as men would lose their place in the home as the breadwinner but also the dominant character in the family. This is shown in this 1910 work “Election Day!”, in which the husband appears almost tied to the home as the apron strings appear entwined in the back rungs of the chair on which he is left seated holding babies as his wife walks out, in a masculine dress, as if ready for business.
Although this is a suffrage poster, apparent through the title “Election Day!” and the “Votes for Women” banner, this set–up of a female attired in respectable yet masculine was used to show by anti–suffragist artists to imply women’s recklessness of ‘abandoning’ the home and husband in order to seek enfranchisement. John Stuart Mill captures the mood of the time in his statement that “Everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.” Therefore although some men may have been sympathetic to the cause of women, as shown though the production of suffrage posters by men, they still expected their dominance to prevail and her affection to be unconditional, consequently propagating society’s antiquated beliefs.
Other artists in the late nineteenth century captured the fragility of women’s position in society as the Pre–Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were sympathetic to the plight of women at the time, created works that centred around the fallen woman. In Rossetti’s work “Found” he shows the fallen woman to be crouched on the floor in shame as she is being held by a man who looks on her in a bewildered recognition. In Holman Hunt’s “Awakening Conscience” the female in this painting is made a pitiful character, like Rossetti’s protagonist, as she seems to awaken from her life as a mistress. She seems to wish for a new beginning as she looks out the window at a new day whilst she literally turns her back on her lover who appears to be trying to regain her attention. In this way both artists showed that the women society despised as immoral were in–fact victims of circumstance and not entirely responsible for their position in life. In this way femininity in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was not only defined by men but also women as they also demarcated the roles in life set for them, such as the moral woman being the stable force at home and the immoral woman that should be condemned to life out of society.
In regards to Nochlin’s question of why there were no great women artists, a recurring feature of late nineteenth century and the art that had preceded it was the issue of the spectator. As a general rule the audience for paintings were automatically assumed to be men. Therefore much of the works that were highly appreciated were the produce of male artists for male spectators; although this does not negate the presence of female involvement in producing art that was respected by male audiences. It is with the turn of the twentieth century and the suffrage movement that the presence of women artists became more perceptible due to the impact of female suffrage artists, female British artists like Rosa Bonheur and female French painters like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassat who were making names for themselves as professional artists, not just amateurs who hid their talent in order to conform to social beliefs working women. As Nochlin describes in concern to the professionalism of women in nineteenth century Britain, “…the middle–class woman has a great deal more to lose than her chains.” The role of women was changing not exclusively due to political pressure for emancipation but also through the courage of individuals who successfully pushed themselves forward into the art world, suggesting that women were not in fact without genius or talent but needed a suitable time and courage in order to break forward.
Yet, this involvement in the art world was not purely based on the female artist as, for example, Rosa Bonheur was supported by her artist father establishing a more secure position in art society. Despite this Bonheur’s presence was not wholly accepted as her femininity was challenged due to her dressing in men’s clothing, her “work clothes” and her beliefs about not giving up art for the prospect of marriage or children, thus going against the belief that marriage was the ultimate goal for a respectable woman. It also has to be considered that Bonheur’s work did not stretch social boundaries as it remained inoffensive by revolving around animal studies and not political themes. It is this political involvement that changed the role of women as they became far more militant in their desire to attain their goal, suffering the degradation of imprisonment or force feeding during their hunger strikes.
Gizelda Pollack writes how a “trickle of references to women artists in the 16th century grows by the 18th century to become a flood in the 19th century” . Yet, whilst there was a flood Pollack found that by the 20th century the number of women artists began to dwindle with emancipation and better education creating a sense of absence in the art world after a long battle for their right to be acknowledged as artists but also feminine women. Therefore the visual arts had been highly influential in the changing demarcation and role of women in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century due to the visible surge of female artist, a profession that before would have tarnished a woman’s respectability. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that whilst women managed to create new boundaries both socially and artistically they were often still dependent on the help or appreciation of men and in their fight for emancipation they had to turn to more militant and aggression action in order for recognition of the lengths they would go to in order to win their rights to vote, and also not to be pigeon–holed as persons without worth in more intellectual fields of work and life.
How does psychoanalysis shape our understanding of the production and perception of art objects?
Psychoanalysis in the perception and understanding the production of art unfurls the issue of how much the personal experiences and backgrounds of artists is reflected in their work. This is a psychological approach that was born from the work of Freud and Jung, although it is the theories set down by Freud, and of the contemporary analyst Schapiro that I will be discussing. It is not only the issue of psychoanalysis that needs to be considered but also the concept of psychobiography is also a concern that needs to be addressed as it researches further into the personality and character of the artist, analysing the emergence of motivations, therefore creating a fuller background to the production of their artwork. Yet, psychoanalysis and psychobiography are not without faults as analytical concepts and this is an issue that will be discussed in conjunction with works that have become as famous for mystery surrounding the artist as they have for the technique used to create the work.
In psychoanalysis one of the prevalent themes set down by Freud focuses on the issue of the familial relations. These issues centre on the supremacy between the parents but also between the relations between a child and their parent of the opposite sex. In this way the issue of gender is prevalent in Freud’s work, an attribute he bestows on old masters, an example being Leonardo da Vinci. From what can be gathered from da Vinci’s encrypted personal writings and his biography set down by others Freud drew out what he believed to be reoccurring motivations for da Vinci’s work. Freud saw da Vinci as a man that was somewhat dependent on a matriarchal environment as he passed from the house of his mother to the house of his step–mother and father from an early age. Freud believed that he was haunted by a dream of being threatened by a vulture as an infant in the cradle. In this way Freud linked this vulture imagery to his early sixteenth century piece “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” (1502–16) as he proposed that the profile of a vulture can be seen in the blue robe draped around the Virgin, with the tail of the bird being placed by the child’s mouth, almost seen to enter it. The identification of the bird in his dream being a vulture was significant as it provided a link between da Vinci as a child and the feminine. There was a belief that vultures were an Egyptian symbol of the other, as well as the idea that only vultures were in fact female propagating the idea of Virgin birth. The significance of the tail imagery relates to eroticism and vulnerability as the tail is associated with phallic imagery that seems to threaten the young child, who Freud believes is symbolically representative of da Vinci surrounded by his birth mother (the Virgin, a relative concept to his being illegitimate therefore not knowing his father from an early age) and his step–mother (St. Anne).
Although there are issues surrounding his family and divisions over the matriarchal figures in his life, it has to be acknowledged that in this case psychoanalysis is not the pure reasoning behind the literal structure or symbolic structure of the painting. At the time the work was being produced there was a significant culture for works that included St. Anne, accounting for her presence with the Virgin and child. Due to her presence and the placing of the figures in a triangle that dominates the composition this could account for Christ’s missing companion, the infant John the Baptist, to whom he was typically painted alongside. This absence due to the lack of space on the right results to a lamb being put in place of the absent Baptist infant. Yet, the greatest inconsistency as put forward by Schapiro is the fact that the vulture dream encountered by da Vinci, rather dubiously on reflection of the bizarre nature of the dream and the fact that it could have been a later dream imposed on his childhood memories, is the mistranslation of the word vulture, i.e. that it was not specifically a vulture that da Vinci identified, but just a large bird. Another idea that Freud touches on with his idea of da Vinci’s unconscious obsession with his two mothers is that of women being objects of fetishes and desire. This is an issue explored not only by da Vinci but also became a highly prominent theme within the work of the Surrealists and modern artists.
As a movement Surrealism was rooted in the innovative experimentation taken from the Dada movement, but was also influenced by the psychoanalytical works of Freud and Jung. Within the movement the involvement of women was seen to be fundamental as described by Briony Fer saying “Surrealism placed ‘woman’ at its centre, as the focus of its dreams” . Women represented objects of desire, and fetish but also due to the psychoanalytical idea that women were closer to madness as they were “closer to the irrational…the constant’ other’” . This was respected as the insane, like children, were able to depict the workings of the unconscious as they lacked elements of understanding that is inherent in `the works of the sane. Yet, like the majority of art history women were the subject of Surrealists works placed under inspection by either a male artist or a male spectator. Looking at Man Ray’s photograph of Meret Oppenheim “Meret Oppenheim à la presse” (1933) naked standing behind a printer’s wheel whilst covered partially in ink there is an undeniable eroticism to the concept of the painting as the woman is placed as an object of desire, an object to be longed for by the male spectator. Yet, despite this psychoanalytical concept this can not be the only explanation to the structure and set–up of the composition as it also exposes themes of modernity and the human body blending into the machine, more a call to arms against the effect of modernity than just pure fetishism on the part of the artist and spectator. In this way the desirability of the nude woman and the disjuncture of her naked body being placed alongside the printing wheel creates a shocking composition, therefore making a statement about modernity.
One of the issues surrounding modernity and culture was that of the gender difference between men and women. Freud put forward the idea that the difference between men and women was not based on biology but more of the culture in which they lived. This aspect is one that influenced the photographer Claude Cahun, as although born a woman she spent much of her adult life switching genders in front of the camera. In order to explain this the concept of psychobiography could be used as it could be reasoned that from an early age she was troubled by the removal of her mother to an asylum and later becoming anorexic, a disease usually associated with a want to change physical identity. Therefore in her photographs it can be seen that she seems to take on an androgynous state as it hard to tell whether she is in fact posing as a man or a woman. Her personal background is a useful possibility as to explaining why she worked with the issue of gender but is not the only possibility as between the 1920’s – 40’s there was an increased demand for the perfect faces of woman in film and advertising. With the removal of men as a sex symbol as described in ‘The Female Nude’ “…it can be said that the unclothed male model dominated the life class in European academies…until the late eighteenth century…there was a perceivable shift in emphasis to the study of the unclothed female model…the female nude had become the dominant form in European figurative art.” . The woman became the new object of desire but also the object that needed to be flawless. Ironically the object that men desired needed to be distorted in order to sustain appeal. This is shown in the work of Cindy Sherman as she takes her own image like Cahun and models it on the glamorous and desirable faces seen in Hollywood, despite the fact that the more she does this it shows the greater loss of her own identity. In this way psychoanalysis is useful in conjuncture with pressures on gender and sexual difference of the time as it exposes how the desires felt by men are influential in creating the masks women wear in order to retain desirability. The issue of the female mask was also scrutinized by Surrealists in association with psychoanalysis.
As a practise psychoanalysis and psychobiography are intriguing ways in which to view possible influences on the work of artists, yet it can not be supposed that they are accurate or even conclusive. As a concept both analyses can not be tested like other methods of science therefore lack certain grounding that can make their influence unquestionable. There is also the problem that psychobiography as well as psychoanalysis is purely subjective as it relies on the evidence given either by the artist themselves or taken from the opinions of others. In this way the analysis that is created is dependent on information that, itself could not be accurate, but could be translated incorrectly as seen in the case of Freud and Leonardo da Vinci’s dreamt vulture. Freud shows how he used information gained from the testimony of da Vinci but also findings he found in his own self–analysis and found links in da Vinci’s work that proved his theory, whilst ignoring information that could easily disprove his ideas. Yet, despite these drawbacks psychoanalytical works help to create underlying structures of possibilities that bring to the surface a range of ideas that would not initially be considered and yet help to explain aspects of both the production and perception of artworks.
May 03, 2006
How can a knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of medieval art?
During the middle ages, a wide range of artistic techniques were developed and employed both in Western Europe and Byzantium. By examining the skills developed, time invested and the vast number of materials used in the production of specialized types of craftsmanship, such as mosaics, enamels and manuscripts, it is evident that medieval art played an important part in the culture of the period. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of art was religious, and religion dominated the lives of people across Europe. By gaining an understanding of the techniques that developed in certain areas, it is also possible to see how and why these methods spread, as they were adopted and adapted by other cultures.
The Byzantine state regarded itself as a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire. Byzantine art was frequently defined as the art of Constantinople; a town renamed by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 and art from this area was, therefore, described as imperial and used to express the Byzantine Empire’s power. Images of the court provide an example of this, such as the strongly idealized images of emperors that were developed to illustrate what a good emperor was supposed to conform to. The portrait of Nikephoros III Botaneiates and Maria of Alania, for the frontispiece page of the Homilies of John Chrysostam, presents the rulers as rigid, severe and impassive, to ‘express the ideal demeanour praised by … Byzantine orators’ . The Byzantine court was highly regulated, as were the perceptions of the court, and it can therefore be argued; ‘Byzantine imperial art appears to resemble church art in following established patterns of iconography and expression’ .
The art of Byzantium generally remained separate from the medieval art of the west, but there are examples of a diffusion of techniques between east and west. A key example is the interior of the church of San Marco in Venice; Byzantine craftsmen were imported to decorate the walls and ceilings with mosaics. Local artists were also employed to be trained by the Byzantines, to become capable of working in their style. The mosaics in the atrium of San Marco were directly based on the Byzantine sixth–century manuscript called the Cotton Genesis, an example being God Introduces Eve to Adam (figure 1). Byzantine fixtures and fittings were also imported from Constantinople to adorn the interiors of churches, for example is now lost gold and enamel antependium made for Montecassino in Constantinople.
Knowledge of the production of the mosaics in San Marco enables us to conclude that Venice was not simply adopting the techniques of Byzantine art for decorative purposes; by hiring Byzantine mosaicists to decorate San Marco it was rivalling the Byzantine churches of Constantinople. At this time Venice was also competing commercially with the Byzantine Empire and this emphasizes the competitive nature of the Italian state. The West held art from Constantinople in high esteem, but the doges of Venice would ‘not have wanted the products of Byzantine craftsmen had they not been acknowledged as providing a setting for religious activity of the utmost splendour’ .
Byzantine society was deeply religious; desiring salvation and fearful of the afterlife. The church was entwined in practically every activity of daily life. Although cities such as Constantinople were full of buildings and objects which would today be described as ‘secular’, the majority of art was sacred or religious; produced for churches and monasteries, or for private devotion. Byzantine art expressed a deep knowledge of the bible and did not aim at illusion; it abolished ‘all clear distinction between the world of reality and the world of appearance’ . If considered from a Western point of view, Byzantine art is not original or individual in terms of content. Paintings, for example, were standardized by tradition, and this tradition stated that art should not evoke emotion, as this was considered too human. In 730, Emperor Leo III decreed that any image of Christ, the Virgin, saints or angels, which were depicted in a human form, were illegal. The facial expressions of the figures in panel paintings, therefore, convey no emotion; for example the faces of the Virgin and Child in the Vladimir Madonna (figure 2) touch tenderly, yet there is no sense of emotional closeness. This knowledge of technique, i.e. the reason behind the facial expressions of Byzantine icons, therefore, reveals the religious beliefs of the period, and the importance of religion in society.
Icons were at the centre of Byzantine art and life and so time, care and considerable resources were lavished on the production of them. This was also the case with mosaics. Whilst mosaics were ‘an invention of the Mediterranean people during the classical era’ , the technique was greatly developed in Byzantium. Decorating of a building with mosaics was a complicated task and probably involved a large team of trained artists. ‘[T]he desired pictorial programme was established with considerable care’ and this would reflect the religious function of the site for which it was commissioned. When creating a wall mosaic, a sketch would be made first before the plaster could be applied. The mosaic tesserae were then placed on the third layer of plaster, whilst it was still wet. As hundreds of thousands of tesserae were required to make a mosaic, the process was long and time consuming, yet this effort was not considered a chore as mosaics were devotional, religious scenes and the production of them was an act of piety.
Glass was the major material for wall and vault mosaics due to its reflective surface. An even more glittering, shimmering effect could be achieved with the use of gold tesserae, which were first employed in mosaics around the end of the second century A.D., for example in the Christian mausoleum beneath the basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, to represent the supernatural light that surrounds Christ. Gold was later used to cover whole backgrounds; surrounding figures and creating a glistening effect. Craftsmen developed the technique of setting tesserae at different angles to produce differences in the way that light was reflected, for example the haloes could be made to appear lighter than the surrounding gold background, as is the case in Hagios Georgios in Salonika. This knowledge of technique reveals the time and skill lavished on mosaic decoration, and thus reveals the importance of church art during the medieval period.
During the medieval period precious and semi–precious stones were used to embellish sacred objects, altars and icons. Mother–of–pearl was used for the representation of pearls, particularly in depictions of jewellery, for example in the mosaics of Justinian and Theodora in San Vitale, Ravenna (figures 3 and 4); Theodora’s head–dress is adorned with mother–of–pearl, as is Justinian’s crown and the broach securing his robe. It is also assumed a large piece of red smalto (glass) was once placed at the centre of this broach, to suggest a large ruby. These examples reveal the lavish decoration mosaicists bestowed upon their art, and that artists of the period often did more than was required of them; they ‘indulged the impulse to embellish’ . Medieval craftsman developed the tendency to elaborate, both in the design and execution of works as, ‘To the good medieval craftsman, perfectionism was no reproach’ .
Small, portable objects were also commissioned for private devotion. The two most extensive fields of medieval art production were books and textiles. Illuminated manuscripts were commissioned as acts of devotion, and then studied as an act of duty. These books were time consuming to produce, carefully planned and expected to last indefinitely. The illuminated manuscript for Basil II, known as the Menologion of Basil II, was commissioned for private use, and would probably have been displayed on a stand or lectern in the imperial palace, then transported when the emperor went away from Constantinople, on a campaign. Objects such as ivory carvings held a high status both in Byzantium and Western Europe, due to the rarity of the material and the skill of the craftsmanship involved in carving. Ivory plaques, diptychs and triptychs, become popular both in Byzantium and the West, particularly in the 10th and 11th centuries, as they were devotional and portable. The double–sided Harbaville Triptych (figure 5) involved a great deal of craftsmanship as it is carved on both front and back. These items were expensive to produce and so were generally for the use of the rich and the powerful.
In conclusion, knowledge of the techniques employed for the creation of mosaics, carvings and illuminated manuscripts helps to reveal the importance of medieval art. Time consuming methods and expensive techniques were developed in order to create beautiful, elaborate works suitable for devotion, whether privately or in a church, and producing these objects was an act on piety in itself. The arts of the medieval age reveal how religion dominated both Byzantium and Western culture. Although different methods were employed in the east and west, techniques spread and they always shared one similarity; religion was the key theme of art.
May 02, 2006
How can a knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of Medieval Art?
As there are very few records of critical art historians from around Medieval times, it is crucial to form our own knowledge of the techniques used to understand the art. We are not directly informed about why some of the art existed or more importantly, its meaning – apart from the large religious influence which i will discuss – making interpretation more difficult. But aside from religion there must have been other factors as to why the art at the time was created, and for what purposes. To begin to combat this lack of knowledge we can analyse instead how a work of art was made and what this involved to further our understanding and appreciation. Additionally, if we know how something was made then we can hopefully get a rough idea of the technology around the time, when it was dated, the events taking place and the artist/s relation to that and/or the influence on them. Was the inspiration to create an art object influenced by a particular event or place, does its existence in turn influence other works of art, and if it does, how does it show their links and connections over the centuries?
To give a brief religious summary as mentioned above; during Medieval times the church had become the greatest power in the realm, and its whole relationship to art had to be reconsidered. This would mean that not only would the church's – or basilica's as they were then called – interior have to change and be built upon, to make room for congregations and services in their ever increasing popularity – but that art too would also be highly influenced by religion. Monks took the lead in theological development, in icons and shaping the piety and religious practice of Byzantium in general, in which ritual, cult and symbolism were practised. This motivated the benefactors who commissioned the religious artworks to express their participation by decorating the churches with gold and silver, silk vestments and bronze lamps. People primarily came to church to be transformed, and thus art became this means of communication with the divine. There are many different kinds of art which can be analysed for their technique, but i will be looking at only two of these in this essay; they will be illuminated manuscripts and altarpieces in churches.
Illuminated manuscripts flourished between 850 and 1200, with their content mainly being very handsome and lavish. The Byzantines were typically known as depicting the first eight books of the old testament, the psalms joined with poetry and the major and minor prophets, with great care taken over the beauty and appearence. These were completed on thick parchment usually in two books. Size often gave a good indication of its intended use, for example pocket versions of the gospels and psalms were popular for private devotional reading. However illuminated manuscripts were made to a large degree for use or donation in churches, and usually made to teach the reader ‘a lesson’ or pass on wise words about their role in life. For example, Theodore Psalter copied the book of Psalms and the Odes for the local monastery’s abbot, Michael. This was intended to guide Michael on how he should show responsibility for the orthodox belief of his monks, and teach them obedience, charity and chastity. The saints in the pictures act as religious guides to help Michael. The more lavish the book, the more powerful in society was the receiver, so we can conclude that material appearances of importance, wealth and position were greatly favoured in those days.
During Antiquity, reading was done aloud and authors would dictate their work for secretaries to transcribe and professionals to copy meaning relationships between creativity and writing were weak. This changed during the middle ages, as authors became more independent and private study more commonplace. Due to this shift in the way writing was communicated, with the written word now being more important, grand letters were used and great care taken over books to make reading more ‘fun’. This extended to the pictures as well; enamel was used from around the ninth to the tenth centuries for expensive objects. Pictures and words were slightly squashed, and their depth reduced. Together these would emphasise a flat and shallow or blank plane. But why would artists use this technique? Effort must be taken to understand the demands placed on the artist to fit everything in on one page, indicating that for whatever reason it was necessary to do so.
The pictures drawn can show not only the telling of a biblical story, but as depicting something that somebody in the past had witnessed in real life. Take for example the Joshua roll and its link with the Byzantine army events in the tenth century. Historical influence therefore had a significant impact on the technique used in illuminated manuscripts, and careful time must have been taken to recreate the scenes as they appeared in reality. I shall also look at whether historical events had an impact on the other type of art in this essay.
It is hard to trace the development of altarpieces as they have been lost in time due to the poor survival of actual objects, the frequent loss of original settings and some missing documentation. The reason i have chosen altarpieces is to prove that it is still possible to learn at least a little of their technique and hence their meaning, despite the fact that are a noticable amount of gaps in knowledge. Another large problem has been the tendency to view nearly all painted wooden panels as alterpieces; this is not the case. Altarpieces were typically made of various materials, the use of stone for example in Virgin and Child, or wood in the altarpieces of Friuli. The way in which altarpieces were made indicated what use they were intended for. Another problem is the altarpieces origin and a way to combat the problem is to search for an existing form and give it a new use; the antependium (altar frontal) may have served as a background to a new ritual, namely the elevation of the main body of the altarpiece. The form and development of the altarpiece depended on local taste and fashion. Patterns of development vary though depending on whether the antependium theory is correct. If it is, then the alter would be made up of rectangular 'dossals' or 'retables' contructed with horizontal wooden planks. The downside is that this still does not explain whether some panels are retables or altar frontals. The organic process is the next step: to separate the figures, arcades or colonettes were used; and for greater height and width, the horizontal structure was replaced by vertical sections. Because some alterpieces did not reach completion, it is very difficult to know how much time it took to make or the date it was 'finished'. Despite this, surviving contracts and records of payments help us to gain an understanding of the production processes and hence to a technique insight. A proof of what patrons demanded is not only in the contracts but backed up by the amount of, or lack of, gold and blue in the alterpieces. Unfortuately though, we do not have such a great understanding of alterpieces as much as other forms of medieval art, although the knowledge isnt enitrely lacking.
Byzantine art is thought to be highly influential but it is not sure how much and whether this phenomenon can be explained better in parellelism.The Byzantine style was not static in the later twelth century, this is probably because Byzantine art was constantly renewing itself while upholding time honoured iconographies. In the last decades of the twelth centuries, it entered a dynamic fast paced phase, followed by a simplistic and calm style of form and expression. There is not a clear connection between early and middle Byzantine art.
To conclude, we can see that by knowing how a work of art was made and what this involved shapes our understanding of technique, showing us that there were reasons other than religion for making art, and how this improves our understanding of the whole Medieval artworld. Technique was also partly down to who was composing the artwork – the Georgians, the Bulgarians, the Armenians, the Crusaders or the Byzantines. The technique of one group seemed to have had largely, but not always, a domino like effect from one to the other. The evidence does seem to suggest that the inspiration to create an art object was indeed largely influenced by an external force; a particular theme, event or place, and that this in turn influences other works of art, showing their links and connections over the centuries. This is highlighted by some of the overlapping styles between all of those listed above (the Georgians, the Bulgarians eccetera) Technique was also down to social appearences, the Byzantiums, for instance, frequently encouraged by their art, made their work ever more lavish. By doing this, they received significant praise for the sheer beauty of it, and so great artists held a high place in society and received creditable amounts of respect from their people. Artwork attracted people to churches and the like as a place for social gatherings and gossip as well as a place to worship and be enlightened. Perphaps this is what the artist/s had in mind as they developed their technique, and it helps us realise why they put so much effort into their art. Yet again it reinforces the crucialness of possessing knowledge of technique to further understand art during Medieval times.
How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain?
The issue at debate here is showing how far the visual arts defined femininity and set boundaries to – or indeed promoted – women’s rights, and the roles women played in society. This brings up other multiple questions along the way which I will attempt to incorporate into the essay. Unfortunately, it is easy to highlight the artwork itself as being repressive or liberating, and arguing that it had a direct causal function to women’s position whilst forgetting that there is a flipside to this. Artists may have simply been trying to show what was happening in society at the time without creating their art as an intended repressive or liberating method of representation.
Throughout this period in Britain there does seem to have been a lot of emphasis among the visual arts in placing negative or stultifying restrictions, values and expectations on women, as society already viewed them as second class citizens. However this was done as a backlash to the very real and supposed ‘threat’ of increased liberation for women that seemed to be coming into focus at the time, and what it would mean for men, society and the family home. Hence as women’s inevitable freedoms increased, the attempts to restrict them increased as well. Issues such as women making a stand and voicing their grievances over a lack of freedom or respect put into light the ‘woman question’, and was a very new and scary thing happening to a society that had never experienced a rebellion of this kind before.
Obviously, with the Industrial Revolution happening at about the same time, insecurity was more prevalent than ever and the need for repression could be argued to have been greater in art. It was deemed necessary by society to ‘put women in their place’, to create more security in an increasingly insecure society, as women were beginning to gain academic freedom through the art–world because of this. Apart from being excluded from painting the nude until 1903 – considered the ‘highest’ form of Art – this extended to access to Academy schools, places of art education run by women, participation in avant–garde circles and therefore increased opportunities in art. Sadly though, education only extended to middle or upper class women, the working class still had little or no rights to this. Another question that comes into play; as art was now the central career for middle/upper–class women because they considered it more appealing that the work of a governess – did this make it the focal point for ‘creative’ repression by society? And if it did, was this largely done by male painters, and to what extent did female painters highlight women’s position? I shall consider next some examples of paintings and how they tried to portray women’s position, either at home or in the professions, to determine how far they were involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in society. These paintings will be a mixture of high and low involvement in this process.
At the time it was genuinely believed that biological differences between men and women somehow ‘proved’ man’s domination over woman. Extending this supposed fact by saying that a woman’s traditional role as opposed to a man’s is inferior, and placing this within the context of art is arguably unfair. Consequently the two sexes were separated into very different spheres, and this lies at the root of common ignorance at the time which still continues to a much lesser extent in today’s society and artwork. In reality though, it was women’s lack of educational opportunities and societal brainwashing of men and women that lead to this common and popular belief.
Paintings were not the only modes of showing women’s supposed inferiority. Caricatures and cartoons poked fun at what a woman student should look like, again a backlash to the threat that by 1871, over 1,000 women were identifying themselves as artists compared to before, due to pressure to earn a living.
The way in which some pictures were painted tried to portray women as an ideal, in an objective light, and as panderers to men. For instance there are two pictures; one shows a working class wife hanging onto her husband’s arm, gazing lovingly into his eyes, and the other a middle class woman comforting her grief stricken husband. The softened facial expressions equally highlight woman’s subservience and supposedly weaker nature.
The visual arts tended to represent the male perspective, and it was not so much that there did not exist a female perspective, more that it was not recognised, taken seriously, or paid attention to. It could be said that because of this, half of art, or half of humanity has been hidden. From some examples of pictures painted of women, such as that of Renoir “The loge, 1874” compared to Mary Cassatt “Reading Le Figaro, 1883”, it is noted that the male and female perspective of the woman tend to be different. A man tended to paint the woman as a beautiful object with little or no emotion, whereas the woman painted herself or another woman with transcendent characteristics and containing personality in her face and body. Contrary to this, and as it was very unusual to acknowledge that there were any talented women painters, critics undermined the individuality of those that did exist by claiming that all women artists had a certain ‘style’ that linked them together, by choosing to paint scenes of domestic life. This is not an accurate claim, as there are women who painted on other subject matters. Some of those that did fit the critics mold managed to defend themselves fairly. For example, a woman painter, Helen Frankenthaler said: “In any case, the mere choice of a certain realm of subject matter, or the restriction to certain subjects, is not to be equated with a style, much less with some sort of quintessentially feminine style.”
This would be true, as male painters too have been preoccupied with one or several recurring themes before – and allowed to be – without being accused of only possessing the capability of a universal ‘masculine’ style. After the 1850s male artists became interested in different topics such as travel, photography, mountains or butterflies, reasserting amateur paintings and thereby taking some of the art focus off of women. This leads us to another mistake sometimes practiced in the visual arts, that is to represent women in paintings – assuming this is how they are in real life – was not only incorrect, but showed the publics fault at large. Art is not necessarily a “direct personal expression of individual emotional experience; a translation of personal life into visual terms” and so could be inaccurate. It does indeed show the considered ideal that women should be subservient, and to some extent shows this forced reality, but it is more a desire than an inherent truth about women. There is evidence of visual material for example, which shows female respectability and highlights a more diverse experience of life for women in the period. This can be seen during the 1870s and 80s when a period of glamour and beauty threatened to tear down the old barriers of women’s repression in the art world.
So, despite overwhelming setbacks, there were some very successful women artists around the time. It is true that these were indeed rare cases, but it still shows that the visual arts were not always against women as some were created by women themselves to actively represent their situation or showing each other in a positive light. Some men too, also painted women in a way that allowed greater imagination for the liberties that would have been granted for women in an ideal equalitarian world. A good example of two successful women are Berthe Morisot and Mary
Cassatt. The Impressionist movement turned away from bourgeois classicism and history painting to genre scenes of contemporary modern life that included scenes of leisure and family life; and these women led their own exhibition society in which they could practice more ‘modern’ ways of drawing upon their direct experiences of family life as subject matter for their artistic practice. Here then, we can see that their art is an example of representational art, and therefore the contradictions that they would have faced in doing so.
Women’s sexuality and their bodies was another fascination in the visual arts, not simply the roles they played in society. Men and women artists and writers too were fascinated by the subject and the theme of puberty, awakening sensuality and young love had (“Psyche”, Berthe Morisot, 1876) had attracted Romantic artists. Cassat is more radical, choosing to paint subjects in this light and highlighting ‘femininity’ as a process beginning in infancy and ending in old age; a social process, not that of true womanliness, which she claimed, was given to women as their nature. Her bold and decisive style effectively changed traditional images of mother female child, for instance. However, instead of being seen as a radical critique of dominant ideologies, she is seen as confirming them.
There are some other examples of art that depicted the idea of femininity and role of woman. Religion, for instance, is incorporated into that of the feminine; the idea of Adam and Eve, of woman being the temptress, the wrongdoer, with the symbolic image of man ‘above’ her and educating her. Or the image of the virgin woman as an ideal is shown in the painting of the ‘fallen woman’’ or the broken prostitute, kneeling in shame at the foot of a previous lover who has chanced to see her in the street. It has been said that this is a direct reaction to the fear of societal change to new laws. Death and suicide were attempted to possibly inject fear into women, showing what could happen to them if they were to commit adultery or lose their innocence. On the other hand, the painting could invoke pity for the prostitute, but it is hard to say what the intention is always going to be in some cases such as these. The meaning is sometimes ambiguous as to whether the artwork is defining femininity or simply raising the question of a moral or individual story of a particular woman.
To conclude, we can see that much of the visual art from around the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain was focused on defining femininity and that this was usually done as a backlash to the threat of women’s increased liberations in not just that of the art–world, but generally. Art also showed itself as a visual representation of Victorian ideals, rather than any inherent truth about women. It defined femininity by a mixture of repression and liberation, which can be seen by both male and female artists, so the question stands as something complicated with many hidden meanings.