Archives for posts with tag: feminism

CN/TW: Mention of rape

Picasso by now has been the subject of endless solo shows, you can’t really give him a retrospective – you have to find a theme in his work. This exhibition was a close reading of the Spanish artist’s work on bulls, bullfighting, and the myth of the Minotaur. The show purportedly examines the following Picasso quote: “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.”

Commercial galleries like Gagosian don’t tend to have interpretations on the walls explaining or discussing the works like the national institutions do, so in this case it is up to the press release and the viewer (hello) to connect Picasso’s life to the myth of the Minotaur through this selection of works. This quote isn’t sufficient to fully describe the themes of Picasso’s Minotaur work – the exhibition doesn’t reflect the sense of journeying that his words convey. I think the exhibition also needs to be read alongside Picasso’s famously complex (shit) attitude towards women: “For me,” he told his mistress in 1943, “there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

The bull and the Minotaur clearly represent male sexuality and virility, nicely demonstrated in Faune Priape, 1957, a little sculpture of a man/bull with a massive boner approximately the size of the figure’s torso (I wish I could pop a photo here because  it was high lols but they were very strict on the no photography rule). Unusually for any art exhibition there was a lot more male than female nudity, and by ‘male nudity’ I mean copious amounts of aggressively huge dicks and bull testicles.

fig. 1 Pablo Picasso

La femme torero, 1934

The heterosexual masculinity of Picasso’s work plays out in opposition to femininity. There are two female ‘types’ in this show that correspond with two ‘types’ of masculinity. Mostly, the man is the Minotaur, all macho violent strength, and the woman is at best object, at worst victim. There are reams of rapes, women with their heads thrown back and their eyes rolling. Even in the works that depict consensual sex, the woman is lying back, being done – the Minotaur is active and the woman is passive. Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme, 1937, could show a Minotaur saving a woman from drowning – he’s carrying a limp female form from the sea into the safety of a boat  – but this surely refers to the myth of Europa, ‘seduced’ (read: raped) by Zeus disguised as a bull. As much as the bull head in this work appears impassive and non-violent, Picasso has made sure to depict the figure’s balls at almost the centre of the work, so there is no avoiding the reference to sexuality.  My copy of Ovid (Raeburn’s translation if  anyone wants to check) describes Europa as a ‘frightened prize’ – this is a rape as much as Picasso’s more overtly violent Minotaur series. FYI Zeus’s bull became the constellation Taurus – the most enduring vision of a bull that we have in Europe is a by-product of a rape. La femme torero, 1934, is another example – the woman Matador is thrown backwards by the bull, penetrated by the bull’s horn (probably a penis metaphor as usual), and she is carried off on the bull’s back, just like Europa. Picasso’s violent bull exists in partnership with his view of a woman as ‘doormat’, as object.

Image result for deux faunes et une nymphe picasso 1938

Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938

There’s a rare glimpse of woman as Goddess in Deux faunes et une nymphe, 1938. There’s no macho masculinity in the dancing faun, dancing or curtsying in front of a nymph who sits on a throne, wearing a hat that is like a crown. She holds an anchor and looks unimpressed. The second faun is non-threatening, sat quietly in the background with clasped hands. There is a noticeable lack of dick in this work, and therefore a lack of male sexuality. But then, a faun is not a Minotaur – he’s half goat, not half bull. Maybe faced with a Minotaur, with Picasso’s vision of masculinity, this imperial nymph would not remain so composed.

There are a couple of instances of masculine vulnerability in this show. A winged bull in le chaval aile, 1948, stands with his guts spilling out of a hole in his belly, surrounded by three enormous black vultures. The dying bull stands strong and upright, genitals enormous and prominent as usual. In barque de naiades et faune blesse, 1937, a faun slumps on a shore, arrow piercing his torso, with a boatful of women sailing past without assisting. There’s pain, and maybe fear in his face. Again, though, he isn’t a Minotaur. Femininity can only have power in these works when masculinity is lacking – nymphs can sail past a dying faun, but women must be subjected to the will of the Minotaur.

In minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette, 1934-5, a blind Minotaur is guided through the night by a little girl holding a dove. The Minotaur howls in pain at the starry sky, and three sailors watch from the sides of the work. There’s a Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes quality to this piece, with its strong shading and assorted cast of characters. It’s quite a theatrical work, the stars and sea look almost like a painted backdrop to the figures. This is the only work in the show that depicts a vulnerable Minotaur, and the girl is the only non Goddess/Doormat female.

For all that I’m not a fan of these views on masculinity and femininity, I loved this show. I love anything mythical and Picasso is generally a delight. The works are absolutely beautiful, my favourite being minotaure aveugle guide par un fillette for its nighttime theatricality. There were a couple of works that seemed a bit out of place (paintings with no Minotaurs or Matadors involved), but the show as a whole was beautiful. There are some examples of Picasso’s ceramics, and I think there’s a lightheartedness in these – wouldn’t it be jokes to eat your breakfast from a plate decorated with bull genitals? – which makes the exhibition a little less serious. It’s a nice warm up for Tate’s blockbuster Picasso show coming up in 2018. I’ll probably be going back.

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The opening room places beauty and death at the heart of the American Dream. On the left is Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair, 1971, multiple screen prints of an empty electric chair, rendered in Warhol’s famous colourful style. Opposite is Warhol’s Marilyn, 1967, multiple prints of Marilyn Monroe, in similar scale and colours to Electric Chair. Warhol used press images as the basis for both of these series; the photograph of an electric chair standing in an empty room was taken after the last execution in New York, Marilyn’s photo was a press shot for one of her films.

Facing one another we have the face of American beauty and an iconic representative of death in America. And of course Marilyn killed herself, so death feels like the predominant theme here.

Across the back of the room is Rosenquist’s F-111, a print depicting an F-111 fighter jet, with images of mushroom clouds and of girls having their hair blow dried in a beauty salon. Making yourself beautiful seems futile in the face of the slaughter of the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear destruction.

This is a pretty bold statement for the first room. Is this the American Dream – execution, war, suicide, with a thin veneer of beauty? These works are nice examples of Pop Art ridiculing and critiquing that which it impersonates.

I wasn’t that hot on Rauschenberg in his retrospective at the Tate Modern, but I liked the pieces from his Stoned Moon series on show in The American Dream. A bifurcated print shows in the lower left Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the sky reaching out above him, and in the top right an American farmer sits in his field, the ground stretching down below him. The split image emphasises the distance and difference between the space program and life in America, but the farmer seems as heroic as the astronaut, he is even placed higher in the image. This is deliverance of sorts from the bleakness of the first room.

I fell a little bit in love with Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station 1966 and Hollywood 1968. The Hollywood sign disappears in an exaggerated perspective, brownish sky and hills create an empty and vast landscape behind. Similarly, a red, white and blue gas station vanishes swiftly in strong perspective, with an orange sunset sky. The gas station, treated in the same way as the Hollywood sign, becomes as quintessentially American. These two works were for me the perfect illustration of Warhol’s quote at the beginning of the exhibition: ‘Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there…’ Hollywood and Standard Station depict images of my own myth of America (as formulated mostly by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) – all empty golden sky and endless distance as shown through Ruscha’s use of perspective.


I have a bit of a problem with these enormous blockbuster exhibitions. I begin with over two hours until the museum closes and think this is plenty of time, scrutinising each work as I go along, then by the time I get to room 7 of 12 I only have half an hour left and have to whizz round.

So I had to whizz round the three final rooms. They addressed gender, race, and the AIDS crisis. I can see that placing these issues at the end of the show could drag you back from the sober artiness of all the minimalism/photorealism/art chat of the middle rooms (which were nice enough but they didn’t exactly call to me). There are risks though: a) you’ll be too tired/rushed from the previous 9 rooms and b) it can look smooshed onto the end as a kind of whoops we’d better include some women/POC. Both of these happened. I wasn’t impressed by the compression of women, POC and the LGBTQ community into the smallest rooms of the show after rooms and rooms of white men. But this is the BM and white men predominate blockbuster exhibitions anyway so it isn’t a monumental shock.

Anyway. I mostly came to this show for the promise of Kara Walker, having never seen any of her fantastic political historical silhouettes in real life.

Her No World from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010, depicts a black woman’s silhouette beneath the ocean, a slave ship held aloft above the waves by a pair of human hands, with a slave owner and slave girl dancing on land. Walker’s work unapologetically addresses America’s history of slavery and racism. The wealth of a slave ship is saved from destruction by the death of a black woman. Her hands could drag the ship beneath the waves, but only the future slaves will drown with her, and the slave owner would still be dancing safely in his plantation.

This is the first point that slavery is addressed in this show ABOUT AMERICA, and it’s in room 11 of 12. Room 1 was pretty blunt in its discussion of death and suicide and the falsity of the notion of the American Dream, but slavery is still somehow too taboo to address properly because it makes the (mostly white and middle class) audience of these blockbuster exhibitions feel uncomfortable. It’s particularly noteworthy that the British Museum, arguably the epitome of the theft of the British Empire, puts slavery as a footnote to the history of America.

I suppose it’s a step in the right direction that gender, sexuality and race are being discussed in such an old school establishment as the BM but it would be better it if these issues were dealt with as an ongoing and central aspect of life, not separate issues of relevance only to minority groups. It was a bit like ‘here is an exhibition of proper art, and also some black art, some queer art and some women’s art’, because these three ‘types’ of art are a) subplots within art as if e.g. women aren’t half the world’s population and b) these artists aren’t proper artists because they deal with their lived experiences life instead of things like the problem of form.

There was some sick pieces on show – I have now seen Warhol’s iconic Marilyn in the flesh – but the layout of the show emphasises the long way still to go for women, POC and queer folk to be appropriately valued in art.

17 works by women photographers lent by the National Museum of Women in the Arts reflect the diverse, complex, and often shared experience of women worldwide.

Lying on a bed in a green dress, staring at the viewer with twirled hair styled and placed in a halo around her head, Daniela Rossell’s ‘Medusa’ is a better, more substantial precursor to Kendall Jenner’s most liked instagram pic. There is power here, and vulnerability and intimacy which, shockingly, is not present on Kendall’s gram.
Hellen van Meene’s photographs are like illustrations for a book of fairy tales. The text described them as looking natural but actually planned meticulously. To me they do look painstakingly curated and posed. To me there is nothing natural about the props and scenarios. Each subject seems to have an unclear but definite story – one girl is a bubblegum princess in a tower, another girl dead from a curse, a third girl blows magic dust to cast her spell. In this exhibition on the female body and the female gaze the fairytale element is unsurprising – fairytale women have very definite roles set out for them. Here there is some discussion of how real girls and women feel – bubblegum princess is bored, and the girl clutching the feather heart looks more angry and sad than happily in love.

Nan Goldin’s ‘Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC’ has a melancholy intimacy about it. Partially clad on a bed in a rosy dawn or dusk light, this could be a romantic, post-coital scene, but the back to back figures seem to hold something from one another. Their tension and frustration is in contrast to Brian’s upfront sexuality that can be glimpsed in the photograph of him, cigarette dangling from lips, pinned in the top right corner of the work. This is an honest snapshot of a moment in relationship, and an almost universal experience.

It’s always a pleasant relief to see images of women through the eyes of women. Interestingly, there were no nudes in this exhibition – these were women’s and girls’ bodies without the sexualised male gaze. That’s not to say the women depicted were devoid of sexuality, rather that these women are more than simply sexual. There was an intimacy present in many of these photographs; the viewer is often invited into a bedroom, again not so much a sexual as a private place. But there were also grand scenes, such as Marina Abramovic as a peace warrior on a white stallion. Women can be everything, and there was a little bit of everything in these photographs.

This event was mad educational. I’m not particularly hot on my art history, but this 2010 film highlights how pretty much nobody is hot on women’s art history, and how women’s art is consistently undervalued and under-documented.

The At one point in the film, pundits outside an art gallery were asked to name 3 women artists. One of them managed to name Frida Kahlo, and everyone else drew a blank. A succinct summary of the state of affairs. 

Artist Sarah Turner’s introductory talk raised an interesting argument about the difference between women’s and men’s art during the feminist movement. Turner argues that female artists were outward looking, their art consistently relevant to and fighting against the real life conditions of the day, whereas male artists were concerned with their own legacy. She described this as women’s art being about content as much as form. This necessary outward engagement is the reason that for years there was a black hole in art history where there should have been women. White male artists’ privilege allowed them to focus on themselves and on art itself to ensure their own place in art history – they didn’t have to spend their time fighting for their bodies and their rights. Women had to address the real world in their art because the real world was treating them like shit.

I learnt so much about women artists and the feminist movement from this evening. The film discussed the art of Ana Mendieta, exiled Cuban American artist, whose work dealt with the body, feminism, and displacement. I had never heard of her. She fell to her death from a 34th story window, with her artist husband, Carl Andre, accused (and acquitted) of her murder. Her art was used by Andre’s defence as evidence that her death had been suicide. 

Liv Wynter, poet and representative of WHEREISANAMENDIETA, gave an enlightening and inspiring introductory talk. I got all fired up about her work making art available to everyone – she works with youth groups, reenacting performance works performed by Ana Mendieta, who herself had been reenacting another artist’s performance. There’s some beautiful rebirth in this.

!WAR does not shy away from the conflict within the feminist movement. There are tales of Judy Chicago making other women cry. B Ruby Rich is visibly and verbally angry at the Guerilla Girls’ lack of response to Ana Mendieta’s murder. The film shows that the feminist art movement was the most important art movement in the 20th century, but failed to solve the problems it raised. So it is down to female artists now to continue the fight. 

As I say, I learnt loads watching this. I would have liked to see more discussion of the role that race and sexuality played in the feminist art movement. Introductions by Club de Femmes mentioned queerness but it wasn’t raised at all in the film, and I think only two artists discussed their race, and that was briefly. From an intersectional perspective this film was missing those key elements. 

I feel like I have a whole side of art history to learn.