Monday, December 6, 2021

Catherine McCormack on the history of art in Women in Picture

On the shelf

Women in picture: what culture does to the female body

Catherine McCormack
Norton: 240 pages, $ 23.

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Catherine McCormack and I have been commenting on each other’s Instagram posts about feminist art for a long time when we finally decided it was time to sit down and have a Zoom meeting. She is the Leader of the Women and the Arts Curriculum at Sotheby’s in London, driven by the publication of her new book, Women in Picture: What Culture Does to the Female Body. The chaos of three time zones and daylight savings time could not prevent us from deconstructing the prism of art history, which, according to McCormack, wants to limit women to four categories: Venus, mothers, girls, or monsters. She writes that misogyny is so common that we just can’t see it anymore. The work “Women in Picture” is designed to help us regain our sight. Our conversation has been edited.

What prompted you to write an entire book on women in art? What straw broke a camel’s back?

The catalyst was personal and professional. At the time, I was a graduate student. I got pregnant and immediately noticed that I was treated differently in the eyes of the academic department. I felt like I was spoiled by this great career success. All these things in the sense of physical acquisition of personality began to enter into my thinking.

It was the same with me. When my son was born, I was working as a freelancer and I didn’t have a prescribed vacation. All the complexities in trying to make a creative career have been reinforced by motherhood. But artists – mothers or not – have always faced systemic hurdles. I don’t think many people realize this.

In Great Britain, it was only in 1768 that an academy of arts existed, and two women were among its founders. But until the 1930s, there wasn’t another fully elected woman, and this hiatus – it’s a real chasm – keeps women from participating in cultural production. We can only assume that this happened because women posed a threat to the patriarchal system, presenting women as a means of controlling their behavior. This is not a conspiracy theory; this is an objective truth.

Art historian Catherine McCormack calls for a more feminist perspective in Women in the Picture.

(Catherine McCormack)

It’s like the medical profession. There was this determination to prevent women from knowing their own body and having the means to present their vision of themselves, their view of life and their view of the male body. There was real paranoia about women being able to look at naked male bodies in a lifestyle class, which was the foundation of art education.

This recognition of real power – the power of the one who can watch – forms a powerful discourse about how we understand ourselves and create patterns for life. The National Gallery of London has a total of 21 paintings of women. This is from 1300 to 1900. There seems to be no major work being done to fix this. There was one Artemisia Gentileschi show that was awesome, but for so long … we weren’t really seeing things.

It seems to me that there is still so much work to be done. For example, Retrospective of Judy Chicago at deYoung in San Francisco discusses the problem of “essentialism” or the idea that women should not be represented by their anatomy in the information for “The Dinner Party”. But seeing a vagina, a vulva, a bloody tampon in an art museum is still explosive for me. As you write in the book, “the female body is always taboo.”

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I see that Judy Chicago, using images of the vulva, creates a symbolic order that is an alternative to the phallus. The phallus is the designated order in our language. It was so normalized. That is why we do not see mythological rapes, we only see a woman with a sword. I can understand why some women are reluctant to identify with the materiality of the body, but by not participating in this debate, they are canceling the powerful exploration of things like menstruation and childbirth.

There is a lot to talk about right now and I really want to talk about obstetrics –

… and witches.

In the same show, there is a photograph of a woman taking out a tampon. I photographed it and posted it on social media, I took a close-up of Georgia O’Keefe’s plate and most people said, “Hurray, Judy Chicago.” But some were disgusted.

Oh yeah. Let’s not forget that many male artists such as Vito Acconci and Andres Serrano have worked with bodily fluids and have been accepted into canon. A man can make art about his sperm, but when artists create art about menstruation, it becomes taboo. Not all women bleed – but all descended from a woman who bled. The versatility of this experience makes it too large to overshadow it as a valid subject.

Book cover "Women in the picture: what culture does to the female body," Catherine McCormack.

You mention in the book that Sojourner Trout is the only woman of color in Dinner Party, and you discuss the Venus figure as a deeply racist and misogynistic standard of beauty. I love that the book ends with Cara Walker’s 2014 Subtlety …, a giant sphinx mom made of sugar, installed in Domino’s old sugar factory in Brooklyn. I was lucky enough to see “Subtlety …” and it was just amazing – I mean, there is nowhere better to use the word “cool”.

But I did have doubts about my right or my privilege to write about the Sphinx as a white woman. Thank you so much for noticing that this is where the book ends. This may be the closing of a chapter, but there is no way to contain it. This worries us. I realized my inability to encapsulate work. The way he oscillates between monumental grandeur, elevating the body of an unseen, exploited woman of color, and intense sexuality with a deliberately enlarged vulva. To nail him down would be a different kind of violence.

I love the idea that the sphinx is the beginning, not the end. I felt the same about the painting “Lilith” by Sylvia Slay that you mentioned, which depicted a biblical woman. … …


Sylvia Slay drew it in 1976 – and the idea of ​​Lilith as a trance is just very exciting. I think that trans representation in art is so exciting and beautiful.

I’m so glad I was able to include this image of Sylvia Sani because it highlights that there were forgotten notions in the 1970s that challenged gender binaries. There is an antagonism to second wave feminism – it has this TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] personality now – but it is obvious that these conversations took place then. This is a call not to rewrite Second Wave works. The history of feminist art cannot be a monolith. This is a wide church. Seeing different types of bodies wildly excites us, it brings us back to the general opinion.

Ferry’s most recent book is Quiet Cities: New York.

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