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Women Artists, Covid 19 and Contemplative Space

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

Although women have been excluded from men’s privileges for centuries, men have also been excluded from the spaces of women’s experience. Everyone pays the price.

It is a joy, and relief, to see the names of so many historical women artists emerging into the light of day. It gives the history of art a new dimension of relevance and complexity. With every new revelation, one feature seems to be consistently present: in every case, the problem of gender prejudice has been central to the women’s narrative. What this meant was that every one of them had to be tenacious. There was no space for retiring, sensitive types, quietly getting on with their own work, if they were to be ‘artists’. They had to fight. The case of Artemisia Gentileschi, celebrated last year at the National Gallery, is now well known; she had to pick herself up after being raped by a fellow studio-assistant and tortured to ensure that the evidence she gave was true. Angelica Kauffman, who was to have been the subject of a comprehensive exhibition at the Royal Academy last summer that sadly had to be cancelled, constantly had to defend herself against accusations of sleeping her way to the top (Self-portrait - above - 1775, National Portrait Gallery, London). Clara Peeters and Judith Leyster represented the alternative option; they gave up painting when they married. The list goes on. Moreover, women weren’t supposed to be ‘original’. While Michelangelo was praised for being ‘divinely inventive’, a woman artist’s challenge was to do what a man can do ‘as well as a man’; this was the only way she could prove herself. Accordingly Gentileschi said of herself: ‘you will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman’. Originality would be an aberration and might even smell of witchcraft.

Although Michelangelo, the manly sculptor, accused Leonardo, the courtly painter, of effeminacy, it took balls for a woman to succeed as a painter. To aspire to becoming a sculptress, therefore, was positively audacious. Anne Damer (1748-1828), working in a severe neo-classical style, was one of the first to achieve this. Because she dressed like a man, no doubt partly for practical reasons, she was accused of being ‘sapphist’ - which she may well have been. A colony of American women sculptresses producing classical figures in Rome in the mid-19th century appears to have been completely neglected by historians, in Europe at least. Such was the association of the rugged practice of sculpture with men that many of these women were also thought to be, or known to be, gay. One exception - a recent discovery for me - was the remarkable Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) who had other mountains to climb. Of Native American and African American descent, Lewis was brought up practising the crafts of her forbears before attending the liberal Oberlin College in Ohio. After a series of racist attacks, she fled to Boston, where she took up sculpture. A quick learner, she soon made enough money producing busts of abolitionists to fund a voyage to Rome where she arrived in 1866. Inspired by the entire city, but especially by Antonio Canova who, fifty years earlier, had used the studio she rented, she worked in a soft neo-classical style. Her subject matter, however, remained closely associated with her own history - images of freed slaves and native Americans. The balance was a precarious, and highly idiosyncratic, one. In order to attract clients at home, Lewis had to be careful not to be too personal - a tightrope she managed to walk with consummate skill. She took pains, for instance, to ensure that her monumental rendering (in marble) of the African queen Cleopatra - her centrepiece for the Philadelphia World Fair in the centennial year 1876 (now in the Smithsonian, Washington) - did not look too African, in order to deflect accusations of personal self-interest.

She also produced portraits of, and for, a number of eminent clients - Abraham Lincoln posthumously in 1870, and Ulysses Grant who visited her studio in Rome, to sit for a portrait, when his presidency came to an end in 1877. Lewis’ star waned when neo-classicism finally went out of fashion, partly due to the rise of Impressionism, and she ended her days, in obscurity, in London where she died and was buried (in St Catherine’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Rise) in 1907; her grave is marked with a stone. Given her great successes when she was at her height, it is remarkable that she fell by the wayside so completely. On reflection, it is even more remarkable that she thrived at all.

Edmonia Lewis was everything an artist should not have been: black, female, sculpting, and working on heroic historical subjects. In the 1880s, women were still expected to stay at home and be wifely, motherly, discreet and decorative. Ironically this prejudice enabled some conservative critics to tolerate the new Impressionism among women (Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Marie Bracquemond) on the grounds that it was an amateurish and inconsequential practice; they could enjoy it at home, in private. However, for men, who should have known better, Impressionism was considered to be wilfully provocative and anarchic; they should be aiming to uphold the august values of the Academy for the sake of society as a whole.

Of course, over the last 100 or so years this situation has changed dramatically, though the process has been remarkably slow. People still wrangle over the unequal monetary value of women’s art and its unequal representation in museums. No doubt progress will continue to be made on these fronts, as it obviously should. But, despite these steps towards an equality of a kind, one cannot help but feel that a huge part of the story is still being completely overlooked. The measures of artistic success or achievement implicit in this process are reputation, manifesting in celebrity and status; public exposure leading to influence; and increased market value, manifesting - at the top end of the scale at least - in wealth. There is absolutely no reason why women should not be as entitled to these fruits as men. But what do these criteria say about art, and what we value in artistic experience? Does this shift not simply adapt a model of art appreciation that is already deeply structured around masculine values to all artists, men and women alike? Is it not in its own way simply masculinising the art world even more?

It is all very well to discover new artists and to give them the limelight they deserve. This process should of course be encouraged and intensified; but, in a certain way, the motivation underlying it is also a part of the problem - precisely because it equates cultural value so unreservedly with limelight. This correlation is so deeply embedded in western consciousness that it has become invisible; but it needs to be seen because it has a chronically damaging effect on us. Arguably it became entrenched during the Renaissance when the status of painting and sculpture was elevated above that of other crafts, on the grounds that they dealt with high-minded, noble subject matter, hitherto the province of poets, whereas craftsmen were merely technicians. One sign of their elevated status was the fact that they were deemed worthy of historical representation (by Giorgio Vasari whose pioneering Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects was first published in 1550). At the same time, the gradual eclipsing of painters’ ‘guilds’ by art ‘academies’, which derived their name and status from the philosophical academies of the ancient world, got under way (like their modern equivalents in British schools today). The status of the crafts, by contrast, was slowly downplayed and, by the time British Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768, the Industrial Revolution, which aspired to replace ‘slow and erratic‘ craftsmanship with ‘efficient and cheap’ factory work, was picking up steam. As religious belief was increasingly being challenged, Romanticist dreams further cemented the role of the male artist as an unimpeachable and exclusive source of cultural value.

The outcome of this development is that we have many marvellous museums in which we can commune with the depths of the human spirit, by ‘harvesting the fruits of the seeds that we sowed’ or ‘claiming dividends from the investments we made’ in approved male artists. This prejudice in favour of artists over craftsmen was permanently institutionalised in museums and galleries that focused exclusively on painting and, to a lesser degree, sculpture. The British National Gallery (of painting), built as a Grecian temple in the heart of London in 1823, was a very late example by European standards. Characteristically, the lower status of utilitarian objects was reflected in the fact they weren’t assembled in museums until much later. Not only was what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum founded in 1852 (rather early by European standards) but it was re-located in 1854 to a site that was considered at the time to be ‘near London’ (look at maps of the period). Moreover its remit was not to impress viewers, like grand galleries of paintings, but to educate them in design - with a view to improving the quality of Britain’s industry and, of course, economy. If financial value is anything to go by, the status of craft continues to be much lower than that of art.

But the manufacture of utilitarian objects was also largely dominated by men, especially when they were commercialised, and so, with regard to the role of women in the arts, this late accommodation of them in museums still misses the point. Certainly, these magnificent institutions protected high culture and made it newly available to the public for the first time; and it is a great privilege that we can still enjoy them today. However, with the benefit of hindsight we can now see how they were also part of an ongoing process in which self-appointed male taste-makers monopolised the power to ascribe cultural value, to the point at which that value came to be subtly withheld from phenomena that did not receive their stamp of approval. This is the root of the problem. Dazzled by the highly constructed and commodified allure of ‘art’, society began to overlook the fact that ninety-nine percent of human productivity is unrecorded, and is certainly not valued in terms of status, influence or monetary value, let alone historical or aesthetic significance. Most of the fruits of women’s domestic activities, often confined to the private sphere, fell into this category. At the leisured end of the spectrum, these pastimes were engaged to ensure that young women used their time in an ‘upright’ and ‘improving’ way at home; their work was often used (by their seniors) to present their charm and eligibility, rather than for ‘artistic’ reasons. Some such practices were inherently transient, like dancing, singing or playing the piano (which enabled performers to display their pretty wrists - heaven forbid that women should make the ungainly bodily contortions required by the cello or the flute!). But others have left some trace, in the form of shell-work, paper-cutting, lacework, embroidery, stump-work, samplers, scrapbooks and many other media, often reaching extraordinary heights of beauty and virtuosity. However, failing to make their way into the self-perpetuating realm of museum culture (the Royal Academy refused to include what it called ‘knick-knacks’ in its annual exhibitions), many of these objects languished in attics; and, given their lack of status, surely the vast majority of them perished altogether. For the most part therefore, not only was such productivity undervalued, but we are no longer conscious of its existence. Of course, this is a very great loss; but maybe its disappearance also has something of value to teach us. Its legacy is the understanding that endeavours do not necessarily need to be publicised, sold, preserved or even seen to be of cultural value. The very act of skilled, focused activity has a profound value that need not only be measured in a materialist-positivist way; it is an inner value - an integrity, intimacy, wholeness and presence of mind that is not always evident in the attention-seeking outside world. In some ways it approaches private prayer or meditation, sensitising us and realigning us to a deeper perception of being, in ourselves: are such experiences only rendered of value by publicity or acclaim? In the 18th century, some pairs of sewing scissors had miniature outlines of the crucified Christ cast into their handles, encouraging their users, as they felt them, to regard their work as a perpetual act of devotion.

The relative status of men’s visible culture and women’s invisible culture needs revisiting. It is arguable that, because cultural value tends today to be valued by status, cost and influence, we deprive ourselves and each other of the freedom to be creative for its own sake. For many of us, our cultural lives consist of going to exhibitions, live performances, films, reading books etc.. These are marvellous gifts, for sure. But, although we are fortunate to have them, it is also worth noticing that, by consuming such products, we are enjoying the fruits of other people’s cultural activity. For the non-artists among us, the question then arises: what is the domain of our own cultural activity? This is the zone that has been eliminated, for men and women alike.

It is not only the cultification and commodification of high art that has caused this deprivation. Technology has also de-skilled us. It is probably fair to say that until the nineteenth century, a majority of people’s work was manual or had a considerable manual component to it. The aristocracy, lawyers, clerics, physicians, authors and artists may have been the most powerful or influential members of society - and their names are recorded for posterity accordingly - but, numerically, they were in a minority. For most individuals, whose names and traces are forgotten, work would have often involved a significant degree of skill and dexterity - whether embroidering a petticoat or mending a wheel-barrow. The significant point here is that an individual’s intelligence was largely realised through his or her action; it was conducted into the world through the body. Indeed, for peasants and factory-workers that intelligence was largely developed in close relation to the practicalities of life; before formal schooling became a legal requirement, it was applied rather than abstract. For a majority of people today, by contrast, work involves very little manual dexterity, and education is thoroughly abstracted (as formulated in the curriculum). The deeper significance of this shift away from ‘embodied work’ was initially unrecognised; indeed, given the very real challenges facing manual workers of all kinds, it must have seemed a modern and sophisticated improvement. It may seem strange, from our screen-bound world, but when typewriters became commonplace in the nineteenth century, the role of the secretary was considered ‘liberating’ for women - liberating them from domestic confinement and drudgery; women who were adept at playing the piano were especially encouraged to apply for secretarial jobs, because the skills that they had learned ‘idly’ at home could easily be adapted ‘usefully’ in their new professional role.

The downside of this development is that, to the extent that we spend our days managing systems and processing information, our attention is abstracted from our bodies, circulating primarily in our heads. Our bodies have become appendages to our minds. This also has its own downside - hyper-active, isolated minds, often leading to mental health issues, and neglected bodies, often leading to illness. We have lost a certain ability to live as integrated body-minds in which the mind and the body regulate each other. This is another reason why we don’t need to evacuate what was traditionally regarded as a feminine space - the domestic sphere; we need to re-invest it with fresh awareness and cultural value.

Painfully and paradoxically, Covid is presenting us with an opportunity to do exactly this. Stuck at home, many of us have been ‘forced’ to fall back on our own resources. If one is not used to it, but is habituated to stimulations from outside, this can be a very challenging prospect. But it gives us an opportunity to review our experience of culture and, more importantly, to develop our own culture. In this context, it may be useful to think of ‘culture’ in its microbial sense - as a living agent that activates the medium into which it is mixed. In our own situation, the parallel suggests responding to art and artefacts not only with interest, admiration and feeling which are, to some extent, detached experiences, but by interiorising their cultural agency and engaging in the process of producing art or artefacts ourselves - not for ‘likes’ on Instagram, but for the integrity, intimacy, wholeness and presence of mind that the process affords. When the painter Eugène Delacroix first saw the vast and dramatic painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Théodore Géricault, he ran home - so driven was he to pick up his own brushes and paint.

Engaging in one’s own creative work can have a deeply therapeutic effect. Some artists reject this association because the notion of therapy is seen to suggest that there is a psychological ‘problem’ to be solved; it seems to cast a shadow over their creativity. But this is a very antiquated and limiting interpretation of the scope of therapy. From another perspective one can easily appreciate why any curious and reflective person might want to understand the hidden influence that their personality or their past has on their lives, whether they consider themselves to have a ‘problem’ or not. In the same way, there is nothing demeaning about engaging in creative activities for their therapeutic effect. Certainly the deep ‘embodiment of attention’ that such activities facilitate is a universally wholesome state precisely because it heals the rift between the mind and the body that our computer-dependent lifestyles otherwise foster.

It is extraordinary to see how many people, ‘forced’ by Covid restrictions to mine their own resources, have indeed become creative in these last several months. If this desperation not only introduces people to their own capacity for creativity but also sows seeds that survive beyond the present crisis, it could also change lives over the long term. We all know that life after Covid will be different to what it has been until now. The money we earn and spend, the ease with which we travel abroad, the natural resources we are used to consuming will all be curtailed. Whatever happens, increased personal and collective resourcefulness is bound to be part of the future. It would be wise of us to nurture it. Thankfully, besides being highly gratifying and enriching in itself, immersion in an embodied, creative practice for its own sake can be inexpensive and time-consuming.

Of course, not everyone gets excited by the idea of working with materials and making things. But making things is not the only way to realise the cultural value of one’s own activities. Indeed there is no reason why one shouldn’t find it in all one’s activities - including the whole spectrum of routine chores that one performs in one’s own home.

Until the twentieth century, this invisible space was the main stage of cultural experience for most people, especially women; excursions to art galleries and music halls were the exception. But because they leave no visible trace, the profound value of these everyday experiences has been completely forgotten. In order to do justice to them, we need to use our imaginations. With the help of indirect evidence from letters, diaries, magazines and other ephemera, we can build up some impression of the kinds of activities that homebound women were involved in, and the kind of mental space they inhabited; historic images also help. When we look at Vermeer’s Milkmaid of 1658, we can marvel at the unbelievable verisimilitude of the painting and wonder whether Vermeer used a camera obscura; or we can speculate, on the grounds that the painting includes a Delft tile depicting Cupid with a bow, a ‘symbolic’ foot warmer and an open vessel that it has an erotic or moral agenda, as some art historians have done.

But both of these perspectives are fairly quickly exhausted. What holds the viewer’s attention is the phenomenal quality of poise embodied by the woman, both in the way she holds the jug from its top and base - two exquisitely complementary gestures - to ensure a perfectly smooth flow of milk, and in the way she holds herself; and indeed in the way the artist has allowed these narrative markers of poise to suffuse the interior of the parlour as a whole, to the extent that the entire picture balances on a pin. To my mind, the real take-away from this picture is not the memory of a brilliant and moving painting of a young woman in a domestic interior, or an interesting insight into the history of art, but the license it gives the viewer to find sublime, luminous presence - and cultural value - in the very pouring of milk. This is something you can try at home. If you take a large jug of milk and pour the milk very slowly and carefully into another vessel, noticing every aspect of the experience - from the satisfying consistency of the thread of milk and the faint tripping sound it makes as it merges into the body of liquid in the receptacle, to the diminishing weight of the jug and the light that falls on to its rim (and much more) - you may just pick up a sense of the rich stillness and depth that Vermeer managed to draw out of it in his painting. You can use Vermeer to help you notice these things and savour them, and even to find a kind of intense presence in them that can be every bit as beautiful as a painting of them. With a similar eye for exquisite detail, still-life painters among Vermeer’s contemporaries seem to have been inordinately preoccupied with lemons - especially how to remove the peel in one piece. I can stand in front of a Pieter Claesz Still Life (with lemon) and marvel at the variety of its tones and textures for hours. But when I leave it, the sensation fades. The real challenge is to go home and see if I can look at a lemon in such a way that I can see its astonishing beauty for myself. If we could learn this from artists, we might not depend on external resources so much.

On the subject of domestic activities, I’ve never been a big fan of ironing, though, over the years I have become reasonably good at it - especially shirts. Hems are always difficult, especially if there are pleats, and one has to be attentive if one is to avoid ironing creases into the sleeves; one needs to rotate them bit by bit which becomes problematic as the tip of the iron approaches the cuff. But with the help of Edgar Degas I have learned to find a kind of bliss in the experience of ironing. In his paintings of a woman ironing, it is as if the identity of the woman is suffused into the energy field that constitutes the environment as a whole, transmuting her into a kind of energetic presence that elevates her to a level of transpersonal ecstasy. The key point here is that cultural value does not only exist in those objects we have commodified as monuments of culture, to be appreciated; nor indeed does it necessarily depend on our own creativity (though this can help focus and embody our attention). It also exists in all kinds of thoughts, feelings, sensations and actions that leave absolutely no trace in the historical record, or indeed anywhere; they simply live and die with the moment. But we need to sensitise ourselves to them.

This brings us back to women artists. Though an appreciation of the equal value of male and female artists is long overdue (in every sense of the word ‘value’), it is also important that the invisible spaces that are traditionally associated with women’s experience are not thereby implicitly undervalued. Although they are now invisible, we know that they were not non-existent. Attending to these spaces is important not only because it redresses a historical imbalance in favour of male visibility, but also because it sets a precedent for the valorisation of the private and familial spaces in our own lives, especially as we are constrained to withdraw into them, once again.


Angelika Kaufmann, Self-portrait, c. 1775, National Portrait Gallery, London

Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, 1876, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1657-8, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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