All 2 entries tagged Angela Carter

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October 13, 2010

Art Text and Violence Panel at ‘Violence and Reconciliation’

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The first talk on this panel was on ‘Caravaggio and the Violent Event’ by Eva Aldea, and it began by highlighting Caravaggio’s painting The Beheading on John the Baptist (1608). Comparing this composition to paintings on similar subject matter by Cranach, Reuben and Tiepolo, Aldea pointed out that Caravaggio’s version was quite muted and that even though there is less gore, his imagining of the scenario is more violent. This beheading shows an audience watching while an executioner struggles to finish off the job. Aldea argued that Caravaggio’s work was far more violent than was normal in the traditions of painting at the time. She referred us to Raphael’s The Judgement of Solomon, which featured a similar grizzly scenario:

In this scene where Solomon orders his soldiers to chop the baby in half and give half to each of the mothers who claim the child as their own. Raphael’s painting, however, offesr a staged, idealized composition, quite different to the shocking realism of Caravaggio who drew from models. Caravaggio presents dark spaces and the people involved are ordinary not glamorous. Aldea also discussed the word that appears in the painting written in John the Baptist’s blood: Fra. Michelangelo. Aldea speculates that this name refers to Caravaggio’s membership of the brotherhood of Malta, and that it represents Caravaggio being cleansed of his sins, baptised in the blood of the Baptist.

Next, Catriona McAra spoke of ‘Sadeian Women’, focussing on violence in the ‘Surrealist Anti-Tales’ of Leonara Carrington, Angela Carter and Dorothea Tanning. McAra (quite rightly) considered the dialogue between Leonara Carrington (Max Ernst’s lover) and Dorothea Tanning (Max Ernst’s wife) and discussed their links to Angela Carter’s writing. All three creators use the Marquis de Sade as a way of unravelling conventional ideas about the female Surrealist artist; it is his influence that encourages them to create ‘anti-tales’. These women don’t read Sade literally, according to McAra, but use his work to enable a rebellion for women. The credo is, I fuck therefore I am. Yet this is not reproductive sex that maintains women’s value in a currency of male lineage and power. Instead what emerges is dark poetry, dark fairy tales, the black humour of Sade. Concurrent with Carter’s idea of ‘wise children’, Tanning offers a vision of child women that resemble Sade’s malicious Juliet. Take for example, Tanning’s painting Children’s Games (1942). McAra goes on to study writings by Tanning and Carrington: Tanning’s short story ‘Blind Date’ (1943) and her novel Chasm (2004); and Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (1974) and her short story ‘The Débutante’. In many of these texts, McAra finds imagery of defacing, self-portraiture and violence figured as a dog or hyena, as in the paintings: House of the Dawn Hare by Carrington:

... and Tanning’s Birthday:

Natalia Font spoke last giving a fascinating talk on ‘The Bloody Museum’, which is if course a reference to Carter’s short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the aspect of the story where the narrator, the wife of the Bluebeard, tells of the works of art that is on the walls of her new home. This paper was particularly fascinating, because often in this particular story, Carter engages with art and its representations of women, and uses intertextuality to comment on gender. For example, the narrator tells us that there is a painting by Gauguin called Out of the Night We Come, Into the Night We Go, which does not exist. It does, however, appear to be an answer to Gauguin’s real painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?:

Another painting which is described as being on the wall is a vision of St Cecelia (by Rubens), which offers a picture of innocent charm. It is worth remembering though, Font insists, that Cecelia was beheaded, a story that hints at the fate of the wife of the Bluebeard. Another painting described of the Sabine women recalls David’s Les Sabines:

David’s painting shows the women trying to reconcile the fighters, suggesting male violence and women as beseeching supplicants. Font did refer to other artists as well as to illustrators of Carter’s work, but this is all that I was able to note at the time.

July 27, 2009

Women Writing Myth

This entry reviews some reading around women and myth and begs the question, why are so many British and American contemporary women writers attracted to rewriting Western mythologies? Partly these thoughts come out of attending a recent Angela Carter conference at University of Northampton and Angela Carter might be a good place to start. Sarah Gamble writes in Angela Carter –Writing from the Front Line that during the 1960s Britain was opening up to new European influences. Gamble argues that ‘counterculture’ was particularly significant to Carter, because it ‘represents a strategy by which she could renegotiate the boundaries between fantasy and concrete political action’ (1997: 43). According to Gamble, ‘in the wreckage of old myths and moral values, the subversive writer is free to play’ (45). Carter believed that ‘appropriation and adaptation is really what the fairytale is all about’ (67), and ‘the relationship between the radical writer and myth […] has necessarily to be contentious because […] myths have to be argued with, dismantled through the act of writing’ (138). In Gamble’s commentary on Carter, gender is implicit, yet there is a stronger sense of radicalism being a key influence, rather than a simple or obvious feminist agenda.

Carolyne Larrington frames myth more explicitly in terms of gender in her introduction to the edited volume, The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Larrington points out that

Women need to know the myths which have determined both how we see ourselves and how society regards us. Feminist anthropologists and literary historians in recent years have discovered new evidence about how women have been perceived; they have illuminated mythical patterns and re-examined historical traditions from a feminist perspective (1992: x)

Myth becomes an important space for debate in Larrington’s view, because it offers a site from which women anthropologists, historians and writers can critique the representations and treatment of women in the past. This concords with Marina Warner’s comment in From the Beast to the Blonde that ‘The matter of the fairy tale reflects such lived experience, with a slant towards the tribulations of women’ (xix).

Sometimes in contrast to more negative representations of the past, women writers remake the tribulations of women into something more positive. For example, in her study Celtic Goddesses: Myth and Mythology, Juliette Wood notes that ‘Latterly popular feminist ideas have added a new dimension to modern Celtic mythology, and to the noble savage and mystic can be added a strong but loving matriarchal goddess presiding over a harmonious social and physical environment’ (1992: 134). In contrast to the matriarchal goddess, another type that is drawn upon in the wild woman, the Amazon, as Annis Pratt explains in Dancing with Goddesses: Archetypes, Poetry and Empowerment:

Independent of men, more animal than human, living with each other ‘in groups’, knowledgeable about healing, potentially deadly but sexually hungry although hostile to patriarchal notions of matrimony, the wild women of the Russian woods carry traits of Artemis as Lady of Wild Things, of Amazon legend, and of indigenous shamanism […] The wild women inhabit a free zone closely impinging upon culture, a zone of partially repressed paganism (1994: 285).

The trope of the wild woman is also closely associated with mythical witches and untameable or celibate goddesses like Diana, Artemis, Hecate and the Welsh Arianrhod. Thinking through Robert Graves, Pratt explains that figures like Arianrhod are attractive to women writers remaking myths because they have ‘power not only over sexuality and generation but also over language itself’ (1994: 308). This threatening type of womanhood resurrected from myth is associated by Marina Warner with modern representations of feminists. In Six Myths of our Time, Managing Monsters: The Reith Lectures, Warner compares the blaming of feminists for social ills in the modern media with the threatening women described in Greek mythology: ‘Associated with fate and death in various ways, they move swiftly, sometimes on wings; birds of prey are their closest kin […] and they seize, as in the word raptor’ (1994: 4). Warner concludes that this kind of representation can only be negative for women: ‘The mythology of ungovernable female appetite can’t be made to work for women; ironies, subversion, inversion, pastiche, masquerade, appropriation – these postmodern strategies all buckle in the last resort under the weight of culpability the myth has entrenched’ (11). In spite of the problems in remaking stories though, ‘myth’s own secret cunning means that it pretends to present the matter as it is and always must be’ (13). Although ‘at its heart lies the principle in the famous formula of Roland Barthes, that history is turned into nature’, Warner asserts that ‘contrary to this understanding, myths aren’t writ in stone, they’re not fixed, but often telling the story of the same figures – of Medea or of dinosaurs – change dramatically both in content and meaning’ (13-14).

Cavarero, Adriana (1995) In Spite of Plato: A Feminist Rewriting of Ancient Philosophy, trans. Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio and Aine O’Healy, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gamble, Sarah (1997) Angela Carter – Writing from the Front Line, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Larrington, Carolyne (1992) Introduction in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, ed. Carolyne Larrington, London: Pandora Press.
Larrington, Carolyne (ed.) (1992) The Feminist Companion to Mythology, London: Pandora Press.
Padel, Ruth (1992) In and Out of Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Warner, Marina (1994a) From the Beast to the Blonde, London: Vintage.
- (1994b) Six Myths of our Time, Managing Monsters: The Reith Lectures, London: Vintage.
Welldon, Estella V. (1992), Madonna, Whore: The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood, New York and London: The Guildford Press.
Wood, Juliette (1992) ‘Celtic Goddesses: Myth and Mythology’ in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, ed. Carolyne Larrington, London: Pandora Press: 118-136.


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