A feminist reading of two famous paintings

The moral philosopher with whom I worked for many years considered that the two most important cultural achievements in the last 100 years were quite simply, feminism on the one hand and cultural anthropology on the other. It is difficult to disagree. Not long ago I was given the opportunity to explore a wide range of critical perspectives in relation to ‘reading’ works of art. I was also invited to present those readings on certain specially-convened occasions when a group of artists met to reflect upon their practice. In this post I shall provide a very short extract taken from a longer account concerning feminism, its history and ways of giving a feminist reading to works of art. The short examples in which two famous paintings are considered under the aspect of feminism can be understood as an example of ‘feminism in practice’ which is increasingly concerned to uncover and challenge patriarchy. It may be preferable and more attractive for the reader to begin with the paintings in question in part 2.

Part 1: First, though, Schneir (1995) provides a brief overview of the theory and practice of contemporary feminism by outlining its history. She does this because, as she points out, the ‘momentous’ post-war changes in the lives and consciousness of women did not ‘spring from unprepared ground’. In fact the beginnings of the women’s movement (in the USA) began nearly 150 years earlier with the 1848 speech-making of Elizabeth Stanton who, in a public meeting declared that ‘the question of women’s wrongs must be laid before the public’ and that the work for change must be done by women – because only ‘woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length and the breadth of her own degradation.’ Despite the fact that the campaign waged by Stanton and her co-workers – such as Susan Anthony – was subjected to ridicule and intimidation the gains eventually made by women were significant; they began to acquire legal and property rights, better employment opportunities and some access to higher education; they also secured, both in the USA and in Western Europe, the right to vote.

However, Schneir (1995) underlines the fact that, from the 1920s onwards, the women’s movement entered a period of stasis; serious discussion about feminism as theory and practice all by disappeared. Then, in 1949 a landmark work, ‘The second sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir was published; translated into English in 1953 it eventually established its position as absolutely basic to the feminist canon of written texts. De Beauvoir’s work helped to re-ignite the feminist movement. It certainly enabled the women of the 1960s, as Schneir (1995) puts it, ‘to rediscover truths about their oppression’ – and to do it by and for themselves.

Two contrasting emphases of the feminist struggle emerged: business and professional women sought to address inequalities in, for example, the work-place, employment opportunities, law, education and politics. The under-representation of women was obvious and unjust. Other women (who were influenced by the anti-war and civil rights movements) ‘adopted the goal of liberating women from sex-role stereotypes’ – as well as confronting the ethos and mores of sexist institutions. Schneir thinks that this latter group, through its ‘vitality, daring and creativity’, gave to 1990s feminism ‘its distinctive style and character – as well as its media image.’ She goes on to compare and contrast the early with the recent feminism and pinpoints a fundamental difference in the fact that the early feminists did not examine, in depth, the psychological consequences of gender discrimination. The second-wave feminists of the 1960s onwards realised that a necessary if not sufficient condition of and for female liberation was the analysis of women’s consciousness; feminists, such as Ernst and Goodison (1981) and Grabrucker (1990) exemplify this and premised their radical self-help practices on the raising of women’s consciousness; they illustrated how women needed help from each other to overcome negative feelings about themselves and their place in the world.

Patriarchy generates patriarchal programming which, as Tyson (2015) illustrates, continues to manifest itself in the totality of the cultural world. It infiltrates every space: for example, Warner (2014), for example, shows it overtly and subtly embedded in the texts and images of children’s fairy tales; in so doing feminist thinkers assert that it undermines women – and that their subsequent lack of confidence etc. is taken as ‘proof’ that they are ‘naturally’ submissive. Feminism (or feminisms), according to Tyson (2017), shares a number of basic premises; they include the core assumption that women are oppressed by patriarchy – which is achieved through patriarchal ideology; that wherever patriarchy dominates women are ‘other’ – and find themselves objectified and marginalised; moreover all of Western Europe (and essentially, with rare exception, the rest of the world) is imbued with patriarchal ideology (and, plainly, myths and religious narratives exemplify this). Tyson also contends that: ‘Gender issues play a part in every aspect of production and experience including the production and experience of literature [and by extension Fine Art], whether we are consciously aware of the issues or not.’ (Tyson 2015: 88)

The fundamental problem can therefore be posed as ‘patriarchal ideology and its effects’. Feminists have, as Schneir’s (1995) anthology has convincingly shown, revealed how patriarchy installs values and beliefs, underlines political economy, law and institutions, socially constructs persons, writes history selectively, is reflected in narrative and organises language such that the world and its beings are seen through its oppressive and restrictive eyes. In consequence the feminist agenda for ‘moving beyond patriarchy’ has taken on a variety of forms. French feminists exemplify this; they have been in the vanguard of women’s studies and have provided a wealth of evidence for the critical analysis both of society and its cultural products. Their work can be divided into that of materialist feminists such as Delphy (1984) and Guillaumin (1996) – who demonstrate how the social and economic institutions of society are deeply patriarchal in nature – and the psychoanalytic or ‘depth-psychology’ feminists such as Cixous (1997), Irigaray (1985) and Kristeva (1980) – who uncover how patriarchy serves oppressively to shape the very consciousness of women.

The paradigm-breaking work of feminist thinkers and activists provides an almost unrivalled richness of resource – ranging from the micro-behavioural and the subtleties of language and its use – to global histories, political practices, and, social and economic structures and institutions as well as law and morality – with which to critique works of art. Works of art, too, are bearers of ideology.

Part 2: With this in mind I now outline a very brief critical feminist reading of 2 paintings. First, though, I must add a cautionary note: one of the major contributions of feminist theory has been the inclusion of ‘subjectivity’ in our ways of seeing and interpreting. From a feminist perspective, when we interpret texts (or anything else – including works of art) the way to deal with our intrinsic subjectivity is not to conceal it but to disclose it as far as might be appropriate in order to assist others in the evaluation of our points of view. The analyses which follow acknowledge this; they have been conducted by myself, an ageing man, who is somewhat aware of the way patriarchal ideology has shaped his points of view.

The first painting: ‘The image as burden’ by Marlene Dumas

This painting, viewed through the perspective of feminist theory, is readily seen as a feminist work. As Matravers (2014) points out, there are some approaches to ‘seeing’ a painting not so much in terms of what identifiable form is at first glance ‘there’ but, instead, as made up of symbols within a symbol system – and that the symbols appear in a hierarchy of representations. In somewhat in the same vein as Berger, he adds that:

… such hierarchies of representation are indicative of certain ways of conceiving the world (in short they are ideological). That is a picture can be interpreted as a hierarchy of symbols to show how the artist – or the society served by the artist – views the world.’ (Matravers 2013: 48)

His observations set the scene for examining the painting in terms of just such an hierarchy of symbols which ultimately reveal their ideological foundations.

The title of Dumas’s painting, i.e ‘The image as burden’ and her assertion that it re-states or re-visions an image associated with the film ‘Camille’ demonstrates, from the outset, that it is concerned to foreground and critique patriarchal ideology. The original film-poster image (see below) upon which the painting is based plainly represents gender stereotypes. In that poster the woman is carried by the man; she is presented as passive, submissive and powerless; she typifies, as Greer (1970) notes, that in the imagery of femininity the signs of independence and vigour in her body are suppressed; in addition, the poster image renders her as a conventionally beautiful object and, as such, she is hugely burdened by the demands of social conditioning.

Greer (1970) thinks that although men and women are not very different in most respects the social programme forces women to behave in ways that emphasise and amplify these differences. On top of this she finds that the stereotypical female is a ‘sexual object .. a doll’ and that ideally her facial expression must betray no humour or intelligence but wear a continuous smile; in addition she ‘absolutely must be young, her body hairless, her flesh buoyant and she must not have a sexual organ.’ (Greer, in Schneir 1995) The patriarchal social programme operates through the symbol systems of both language and visual image and, as Greer points out, it functions in a remarkably oppressive way as it constructs the image of the ideal woman. Dumas acknowledges this explicitly in terms of the title of her painting; but she also does this by blurring and simultaneously masking the woman. It’s a very clever, sensitive and perceptive move. It is easy to see that Dumas is essentially declaring that patriarchal society is killing woman. But she does this subtly and carefully by renouncing the sharp edges of ‘life’ and repositioning it as ill-defined and elusive.

This mode of representation also aligns itself with Cixous’ concept of ‘ecriture feminine’; thus, the washes of pale colour and the lack of definition symbolise a resistance to the traditional patriarchal geometries; in ‘The Image as Burden’ Dumas proposes an alternative in which outer and inner overlap and meld in inextricable complexities. As noted above, Cixous proposes that patriarchal form and content will be subverted and negated and that through the expression of an ‘ecriture feminine’ there will be a reconnection with the vitality and life-giving power of the female body. Similarly, the lack of definition in Dumas’ painting also suggests an approach to that which is repressed in the unconscious: the painting can function as a vague intimation of a buried semiotic totality that was (and is) according to Kristeva, denied by the hegemony of a language embedded in what is patriarchal ideology.

Overall, the painting can also be seen to reflect the existence of a long-standing error – an error succinctly stated in Aristotle’s Nichomachean ethics. This, as Heron 1988 observes:

… is the view that it is the intellect which supremely differentiates ‘man’ from the other animals’ and that to cultivate the excellence of the theoretical intellect is the highest goal of life. This belief permeates our educational system; and is the preserve of (still mostly) male aristocrats of the universities.‘ (Heron 1988: 6)

Dumas shows her viewers the pathos of life – and underlines the simple fact that an oppressive ideology which denies women the validity of their life-potentials and their authentic feelings is something urgently to get beyond.

The second painting: ‘Painter working: reflection‘ by Lucian Freud.

The second painting – a very large painting – looks rather different: Lucian Freud’s (1993) ‘Painter working: reflection’ easily lends itself to a feminist critical analysis. Under the gaze of feminist theory it reveals an unsettling expression of patriarchal ideology and its attendant sexism. This affords the painting a paradoxical value: on the one hand there are certain grounds (after Matravers, 2014) upon which positive evaluations can be based whilst on the other it reflects ideological content that is oppressive.

A first and very basic clue to its unsettling patriarchal credentials stems from the title itself: one of the most interesting aspects of feminist research (e.g. Guillaumin, 1996) finds that in patriarchal societies everyday discourse casually and unawarely casts female human beings, primarily and fundamentally, as ‘women.’ This means that, in contrast, to men they are not defined in terms of what they do. Theorists, such as Guillaumin, think that this facilitates the way women are appropriated as objects. However, in Freud’s self-portrait he explicitly shows himself ‘working’; this is something in sharp contrast to the way he portrays his numerous female sitters – many of whom lie naked and on their backs; they are rendered supine and passive. It immediately suggests an alignment with (or expression of) patriarchal ideology. It reinforces the traditional gender-stereotype of men as ‘naturally’ active and women as ‘passive’.

A further gendered difference is discernible in Freud’s self-rendition: his gaze seems relentless, forensic and almost bloodless. It approximates the gaze of detached observation; it approaches that of scientific apprehension from which feeling has been excluded. Again, this expresses a point of view or way of seeing expressive of gender stereotyping in which the male is understood to have the power of observation and through this, of truth.

Patriarchal ideology and gender stereotyping is further compounded by the pose, as well as certain micro-details and the use of paint; thus, the figure stands firmly on the ground and the whole alludes to earthiness, materiality and solidity. Freud’s posture and gesture are similarly lodged in a tradition of gender stereotypes. He is alert, he is ‘working’ and actively ‘reflecting’. He is not ‘sensing’ or ‘feeling’ but is here engaged in some form of cognition. His self-portrait embodies the kind of binary thinking (and seeing) that Cixous (1997) discerned in patriarchal language; masculine ‘thinking’ is typically opposed to feminine ‘feeling’; in this way, according to Cixous ‘woman’ is traditionally assigned lesser value. Freud’s self-portrait is emblematic of the self-assurance of men.

Significantly Freud does not render himself vulnerable in his nakedness. His posture and gesture are masculinised; what though may his gesture signify? From what patriarchal myths and iconography might it be drawn? It can be seen as a gesture of defiance or even as one symbolising his power not only to bring things into being but also to threaten people. An aspect of Freud’s hostility (which may be a kind of generalised anger) has been noted by Searle (2019) who, after engaging with Freud’s self-portraits included a quote from the artist himself with regard to other artists:

When I see photographs of painters staring into the distance I always think, ‘What complete c***s. I don’t want to be one of those,Freud once remarked’ and Searle continues: ‘I don’t think he wanted to be one of those painters who portray themselves all constipated and brow-furrowing, smug and supercilious, either. Even when he is at the centre of things, he’s unknowable.

Painter-working: Reflection’ certainly suggests something unknowable: What is it that Lucian Freud is reflecting upon? His own reflection? The meaning of his art? The contrast between his public persona and his private self? The allure of the primal? In truth we do not know. But we do know that which is rendered unknowable is another means of securing power: the unknowable is a site upon which we project our fears and hopes and our sheer curiosity. We are ‘hooked’ by it. It is another means through which Lucien Freud expresses his power over others.

Moreover a certain confident ego-centricity is evident in the way he ‘reflects’. Balestrieri’s (2020) locates the painting in some of the biographical details of Lucian Freud’s life and draws attention to themes central in feminist thinking; for example, he thinks that:

The self-portrait is always an exercise in ego. It assumes that we are keenly interested in the artist … Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits convey vulnerability. We like that. Lucien Freud’s self-portraits, increasingly as he ages and finds fame and celebrity, convey mastery. They dominate, insist on distance, look down, disdain. We do not like that. And he does not care.’ (Balestrieri, 2020)

Dominance, mastery and a lack of care are again reflections of the way the male becomes masculinised; and Balestrieri finds that the apparent outcomes of Freud’s sexual encounters with women ‘might, in another age, have made an interesting sultan or emperor, a despot who also painted.’

Overall I think Freud’s self-portrait can be read as a clear illustration of that feature of the male gaze identified by Irigaray in which she points out that the patriarchal man is primarily interested in impressing other men. Freud’s bold ‘look at me’ self-portrait cannot but impress other men through its audacity and its capacity to say: ‘I am not bound by the constraints and norms that have befallen the rest of you.’

A final but major area of analysis concerns the economic and institutional supports in which the history and actual production of the painting is situated. It is made in Freud’s own studio; it is his property. In drawing attention to this we cannot but be reminded of the unequal distribution of wealth and property in patriarchal societies. On top of this, Freud’s biographers (such as Greig, 2014) have documented how Freud enjoyed a privileged private education and the benefits of contacts with the monied and cultural elites. He was the beneficiary of a long-established male-dominated network and this network was, in large part, based on class, class exploitation and, inevitably, the exploitation of the class of the most exploited of all, i.e. women. There is good reason to conclude that the painting ‘Painter working: reflection’ may ultimately be seen as a symbol of patriarchal programming and patriarchal language manifested in art.

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