Gender and Artistic Representation Four Examples From Gardner's Art Through the Ages Essay

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Gardner's Art Through The Ages

Gender in Western Art has been a vexed subject since the later twentieth century, not only in terms of artistic representation of gender, but also in terms of the gender of the artists themselves. With the rise of the feminist movement in America and elsewhere in the latter half of the twentieth century, art historians have been called to task for the relative lack of female creators in the artistic "canon" they propose. I would like to examine questions of gender through four different artworks -- Artemisia Gentileschi's "Judith Slaying Holofernes," Pablo Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, and Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" -- to ask whether any generalizations are possible about the role played by the gender of an artist in the artistic representation itself.

Artemisia Gentileschi's depiction of "Judith Slaying Holofernes" offers an example of a female artist working in the very late Renaissance.[footnoteRef:0] The painting dates from the early seventeenth century, and shows the compositional influence of Caravaggio's treatment of the same subject from the late sixteenth century, which situates Gentileschi in the early Baroque period of painting. The profoundly physical presences of the Biblical figures on Gentileschi's canvas indicate her overall participation in the methods of the Baroque: the Catholic Church's emphasis on Counter-Reformation measures frequently entailed a heavy emphasis on the physical incarnation of Christ (as the fact that Jesus was also a man is what distinguishes him from his father) as a means of combating Protestant iconoclasm. If we doubt that Gentileschi's painting has any kind of polemical pro-Catholic religious intent, then it is crucial to note what, precisely, her choice of subject is here: the Biblical book of Judith is part of the Roman Catholic Old Testament, but is rejected by Protestants as part of the "Apocrypha" (i.e., not really a canonical book of the Bible). In other words, Gentileschi's choice of subject would have been pleasing to proponents of Baroque art who opposed Reformation religious reforms, as they would have viewed the choice of subject as implicitly part of the Counter-Reformation. This history is important because it contextualizes the otherwise melodramatic interpretation of Gentileschi's depiction: as Elizabeth Cohen notes "late in her teens, [Gentileschi] was raped by a colleague and friend of her father's, the painter, Agostino Tassi; nearly a year later, her father, Orazio, initiated a prosecution against him, and extensive records of the trial survive." [footnoteRef:1] The fact that Tassi was sketched by Gentileschi as the model for the villain Holofernes, while the Biblical heroine Judith is Gentileschi's self-portrait, suggests that there is a profound personal motive for the painting as well. If the profound physicality of the depiction -- the runnels of blood, the bared flesh, the furrowed brow of Holofernes -- indicates a part of the larger methods of the Baroque, it also indicates a strange near-domestic intimacy. One can almost sense in Judith's arms-length style of beheading her foe both a fear of contamination (Holofernes was, after all, a gentile and thus "unclean" by the standards of the Biblical Judith) and also a sense of disgust. Yet the look on Judith's face is not one of grim determination or horror: instead she looks competent, efficient, and unruffled. If there is some kind of statement in this painting on the part of a rape victim, it would appear to be that rape is something that deserves revenge followed by a serene acceptance that the crime has changed nothing. Gentileschi's Judith looks strangely un-traumatized, whereas Holofernes (with his look of shock and horror, and his blood-stained sheets) looks more like a rape victim. [0: Fred Kleiner, Gardner's Art Through The Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume II. 13th Edition. New York: Cengage Learning, 2009. Fig. 9-20. ] [1: Elizabeth S. Cohen, "The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History." The Sixteenth Century Journal 31.1 (Spring, 2000). p.47.]

It is something of a leap to go from Gentileschi in the late Renaissance to the twentieth century, but there are good reasons for doing so. It is only in the twentieth century that gender becomes self-consciously a topic for art: Gentileschi may have had a substantial reputation in her own time, but she would then be mostly forgotten until a rediscovery of interest in the twentieth century. This rediscovery was almost certainly due to issues of gender. But to get some sense of how gender would begin to undergo revision in the twentieth century, we may look at Picasso's famous portrait of Gertrude Stein.[footnoteRef:2] Although the curves on the left-hand side of the figure may be seen as feminine, and although there is some hint of curvature on Stein's right breast, Stein is hardly depicted here as conventionally feminine. Indeed the most salient fact of the portrait is the mask-like face, which shows the influence on Picasso of "primitive art" and African masks. The steely almond-shaped eyes, the sharp delineation of the facial features, make Stein look more like a marble sculpture than a living breathing human. In reality, Stein was an artist herself (an avant-garde writer) and a collector and patron of the arts -- she was also, in an era where it was hardly widely accepted, a lesbian. Yet Picasso is not deliberately choosing to make Stein look mannish -- if anything he is making her look monumental, architectural. We are not witnessing a gender reversal so much as an erasure of the facts of gender, despite the fact that Stein was depicted here in a year when she herself would not have been able to vote in her home country of the United States, because she was a woman. [2: Kleiner, Fig.24-11.]

But the rise of the feminist movement in the later twentieth century raises an interesting question about Picasso's strangely genderless depiction of Gertrude Stein. Would the more progressive approach to incorporating gender into artwork not rely on erasure of the facts of women's lives, but a more concerted attempt to reclaim them from oblivion? This question is perhaps the best way to approach two extremely famous artworks from the late twentieth century, both created by women. Judy Chicago's legendary 1979 installation "The Dinner Party" is actively and polemically engaged in the act of reclamation.[footnoteRef:3] Gardner's Art Through the Ages describes Chicago as having "largely spearheaded the American feminist art movement."[footnoteRef:4] A "dinner party," after all, is customarily thought of as the proper realm for a woman to engage her creativity. The chief influence on Chicago here is presumably the earlier 20th century woman writer Virginia Woolf, whose novel To The Lighthouse depicts the constrained attempts at aesthetic perfection done by a housewife, Mrs. Ramsay, in her attempt to create a satisfactory dinner party -- Woolf herself would write in a letter to her lover Vita Sackville-West that she thought "the dinner party the best thing I ever wrote." [footnoteRef:5] Indeed one of the settings at Chicago's table is reserved for Virginia Woolf (just as another is reserved for Artemisia Gentileschi.) The first thing the viewer notices about Chicago's work, however, is that the dinner table is (unusually) triangular. Each side of the triangle is an equal length, and we might recall that the customary rectangular dinner table includes an implicit hierarchy: someone is generally seated at the head of the table, implying rank or valorization. Chicago might very well have made her table circular, were it not for the fact that the denial of rank in a "round table" is already a gesture familiar from legends of King Arthur, legends which are hardly structured to give a sense of female equality -- the "round table" is a symbol of equality among male peers. Chicago's equilateral triangle therefore seems calculated to insist upon egalitarianism -- each side is an equal length, there is no special place of honor -- while also resisting the unitary structure of a circle (which only has one side) or the binary structure of hierarchical gender relations. The three sides of the table are a statement, as is the very idea of the "dinner party" and the artistic elements -- textiles, miniature-painting on chinaware -- that are traditionally associated with "women's work." Out of this domestic raw material, Chicago creates a grand epic statement. [3: Kleiner, Fig. 25-33.] [4: Kleiner, p.416.] [5: Virginia Woolf, letter to Vita Sackville-West, [13 May 1927]. Woolf Online.]

We might contrast Chicago's "Dinner Party" with Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. As a work of public art -- or, as Gardner's Art Through the Ages describes it, "Environmental Art" -- Lin's work has a public purpose and her gender (or the idea of gender) is not necessarily relevant to it.[footnoteRef:6] But it's worth recalling that the Vietnam War -- whose American deaths are memorialized by Lin -- was a conflict in which American women were not combatants.[footnoteRef:7] Lin received the commission for the memorial through a public submission process, suggesting that her own gender (or race) had little to do with why her design was…[continue]

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