Detail from a painting by my friend, Alison . . . Subject to be revealed . . .
I've already spoken about the show rather generally, noting several of my favourite drawings, and I've linked those observations with some thoughts about a portrait of my late-teenaged self. Those thoughts primarily involved the gap between that young woman's conception of her visual appearance and my recognition, now, that she is actually much prettier than she knew. They also reflected the way the cultural construction of female attractiveness affected both my own and my mother's perception of our bodies.
Much of that cultural construction now, of course, comes from a barrage of media -- movies, television, magazine advertising, fashion runways, the list goes on. But before that, we have a long, long history of art which, while attempting to represent female beauty was, at the same time, both reinforcing and constructing notions of what that beauty included (and, at the same time, excluded). And through that long history, almost all the artists doing this socio-cultural work were male.
Don't worry. I'm hardly going to call Rembrandt or Monet or Botticelli, Rodin or Renoir or Seurat male pigs for sexually objectifying women. Unquestionably, these artists, part of the cultural web of their day, created beautiful work which speaks to us now, transcending gender politics to convey truths over which we linger. Equally unquestionably, at least for me -- and countless feminist art scholars, as well as psychoanalytic thinkers, have written convincingly about this -- the male gaze prevailed. We women are represented to the world as that male gaze sees us, and we construct ourselves according to that representation.
She sees herself watched by artists' eyes; she sees herself standing
nude before the pencil, the palette, the studio; nude for art, in that almost
sacred nudity that quiets the senses. Edmund & Jules de Goncourt, as quoted
on the walls of The Modern Woman show.
And against that equation of the nude with the sacred, Degas more than
hints at a certain prurience associated with the genre when he says (again as
quoted on the walls at the VAG) "I want to look through the keyhole."
Let me quickly add that the male gaze is never, itself, the gaze of any single man (you'll perhaps remember that undergrad class where you puzzled about Jacques Lacan's distinction between Phallus and penis. . . ). Without becoming too theoretical, I do need to point out that we all fold ourselves into that gaze, look through those eyes, and that it is a gaze to which men are subjected as well, scrutinized for their own "manliness." Female artists adopt the genres of the male artists who have painted before them, female friends scan each other's new wardrobe acquisitions for how well they bring out this or that feature: The Male Gaze 'R' Us!
That constant awareness of a gaze assessing our visual worth as women, I think, operates also to insert a (however minimally) distancing screen between ourselves and even our best female friends. We might push that screen aside as quickly as possible, push past it, but I believe there's still some micro-processing, some assessment, comparison, of our friends' visual attractiveness
vis-à-vis our own. And here's where we move from the general theorizing to the personal and specific. I have long been aware of the work it takes me to move past that distancing screen with/through one particular friend, the strikingly attractive and multi-talented Alison.