Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Back Pain, Heat And The Male Gaze In Art

A week ago I decided to repaint the waist-high plywood paneling (scuffed and ancient) in one room.  It only comes to about waist level, so I spent several hours squatting and crawling on the floor, extending my arm out to paint corners and so on.  An enjoyable little project, because few things make a room look so much better quickly than a lick of paint (1).

Or so I thought until I got up.  Because my back decided not to get up, the bit where the spine joins the pelvic girdle, the bit which is evidence suggesting that the creator of humans was drunk on the day when human sinuses and the human back were created.

Anyway, fast forward to The Great Heat Of 2019 (which will become the standard heat of the future), and I found myself pretty much confined to bed in the only room where the air-conditioning works (2). 

And bored out of my mind, lying there, with invisible gnomes chewing on the small of my back with their tiny rotten teeth. 

That's how I began watching hours and hours of art history films, all intended for the general audience, about the great European masters of the past, about the French impressionists and so on (3).

These films had guides, art critics or art historians which explained the paintings for the viewers.   Tim Marlow wrote and directed one longer series and Waldemar Januszczak several series.  I watched all of those and several more, and on the whole found these two men quite entertaining and interesting, even when I disagreed with them.

But I had forgotten to turn the feminist part of my brain off, and it began sending me those beep beep signals — like a fire alarm does when the battery is going — and they got louder and louder. 

I tried to ignore them.  After all, I knew exactly what I was going to get in programs about the Great Masters (they were not Great Mistresses (4) after all), and I'm not so far gone that I can't admire great art created by humans in general.

That wasn't the reason for the feminist alarm beeps. It was something different, more subtle:

After some hours of watching these films, I realized that both Marlow and Januszczak, inside their minds,  saw the audience of those paintings, both at the time they were painted and now, as hundred percent male.

Thus, in these series (5) female nudes are often interpreted as paintings created for the erotic arousal of the audience (and not just for the erotic arousal of the heterosexual men who paid for them), and early Venice is described as a pleasure palace for travelers (not just for male travelers) because it had such a vast number of prostitutes.  This reporting was accompanied with sounds of female giggling and pictures of taverns with amorous couples enjoying themselves.

Even the struggles of the famous early Impressionists, the "outsiders," to be accepted by the dominant powers in the French art world were discussed in a way which made it hard to remember that no female artist, Impressionist or not, was admitted to the most influential art school of that era, L'École des Beaux-Arts, until 1897.   That these "outsider" struggles were multiplied for such painters as Suzanne Valadon, even today apparently more important as Renoir's model than as a painter (6), is not something that approach can show us.  But it can hide it.

Thus, I found it refreshing to find one French film (7) about the neglected female artists in European history.  But that shouldn't be something we must look up separately from general art history films.


(1)  Why a lick?  Do people taste the paints?

(2)  Leaving it in heat always feels like stepping into a poorly heated sauna, but this time it felt like a poorly heated sauna with carbon monoxide still inside it (Heating a sauna with wood requires great care about getting rid of the carbon monoxide).

(3)  I couldn't type lying down (the gnomes protested, with their little squeaky voices) so I couldn't write, and I wanted to watch something which would not anger me or frighten me or wouldn't even be terribly relevant today, but which would still offer some aesthetic and intellectual pleasure.

(4)  Even the term "mistress" now means something quite different than the term "master."  In any case, there were very few female painters or sculptors that history has deigned to notice, and I knew this to be the case.  I can even write (in excruciating detail, if you wish)  about the myriad reasons for that scarcity.

(5)  I didn't plan to write about those series so I didn't take notes.  Some examples I give here (the giggling sex workers) are from Januszczak, but others might be from either Marlow or Januszczak.

It's important to note that I'm not accusing either Marlow or Januszczak of doing any of the things I write about here on purpose, probably the reverse.  Had they spotted those things they would have removed them.

But we are all still taught that the male gaze in art is the neutral gaze, and it's so easy to slip into that way of looking and hearing.  I was just a little bit shocked to see that at work so very recently.

(6)  She was pointed out as Renoir's model, often a nude model, in Janszczak's series about Impressionism.  That she later became a painter herself is something I had to learn from other sources.

(7)  I will post the name of the series here when I find it.

A recent reassessment of Berthe Morisot, a member of the early Impressionist movement,  serves to remind us that the art world truly is doing so much better now when it comes to sexism.