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Archive for December 13th, 2015

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Picture by Joanna Mary, Head of Mrs Eaton

Dear friends and readers,

My project to call attention to women artists ignored, neglected, marginalized, erased in modern museums, exhibits and survey books includes reviews of books on such women. I reviewed Deborah Cherry’s ground-breaking and creatively original, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists, in 2007. Cherry’s most important (of many) insights in that book is a demonstration that women in the 19th century did not attempt to fit into (now famous and respected) male aesthetic schools, but evolved genres of painting, technical emphases and moods quite apart from male pictures. The continued attempt to fit them into pre-conceived male schools, impressionism for example, ends up finding them producing inferior or odd versions of impression (or the school in question), with only one or two sufficiently conforming. In Painting Women Cherry identified several types and modes of painting coming out of women’s gender-constructed circumstances and values (what they were permitted to see and to paint) which go far to re-frame the 19th century woman artist.

Beyond the Frame fills in the social and economic worlds of women, especially as manifested in public writing and media about women artists, their schooling, their careers, their leisure activities, their politicking. She looks at the images of women they were surrounded by and tried to push back against (not very successfully), and the images of women and the world around them they created, many of which have been marginalized, vanished, and misunderstood. She answers the question how how did women as a group acting to be treated as paid professionals shape them as people and what they then did in their lives. If a few women became professional artists without their families in the later 18th century, they were anomalies. This is indeed a book about what happens outside a frame and how that is part of what is said about or appears inside the frame. An aspect of this book which makes it so different from Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race is there is little about the woman’s private lives, their affairs with men, how that affected them, their families. This helps bring out different women’s individual agency.

Her introduction sets her subject in the present state of feminist theories about visual art and women because it’s through images that women have been used (abused, exploited), framed, understood, made models for other women to imitate. She pays attention to how visual culture was used by ruthless colonizers and imperialists. She focuses on individuals when she can. Throughout she shows how the world of women artists intersected with the hard necessary work of increasing women’s rights to work, to make and keep their money, to have real access to liberty and use it for self-fulfillment and social good.

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Her first and second chapters, “Artists and Militants, 1850-66” and “In/between the colonial theater: visuality, visibility, and modernity” focus on specific years: a time when the first employment office and agency on behalf of women for professional work was begun in London, and when the first feminist press (a press run by women) and women’s journals were published. She names a few names since change in the high cultured arts is top down. The women who mattered were Barbara Bodichon, Eliza Fox, Emily Faithful (who Trollope published with), Harriet Martineau, the usual suspects – as well as a growing group of women artists and their biographers, the artists themselves painting pictures which showed the real lives of women or parodied and burlesqued the conventional pious pictures (like Florence Claxton, Emily Jane Osborne). She then suggests why women wanted to travel: emigration to a colony or moving about offered liberty not available in any other way.

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Florence Claxton, The Choice of Paris

The portrait of Florence Claxton, and the parodic nature of her art is splendid. I am tempted to make Caxton one of my forgotten women precisely because I’ve never heard her mentioned in any Pre-Raphaelite exhibit, and unlike the few women mentioned (muses, sex objects, occasionally painting in a woman’s version of the male aesthetic here), she sends up the male pictures. How refreshing and what attention it would catch if a few of her sketches were included – she did paintings too.

I never saw some of these pictures before: funny sendups of the male Pre-raphaelites. The woman artists conceived of themselves as militants for women’s rights. They struggled to get and mount exhibitions of their work as a whole and some to make sure only work of high quality was included; that they entered prestigious shows. They didn’t want extravagant praise, for that does not take them seriously.  To stop the production of pious images was impossible but you could introduce satire. Of course some women journalists stopped short of endorsing anything not determinedly pro-marriage, children as the center of women’s lives (Elizabeth Ellet). The first histories of women’s visual art were written. These are lives told in terms of obstacles overcome – just like Germaine Greer.

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Barbara Bodichon, Sisters Working in Our Field (1858-60)

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Near Algeria (1860s)

Her third chapter, “The Worlding of Algeria” is problematic:  she investigates the particular case of Algeria as a place Bodichon went to live in when she married a French husband. Cherry takes it as a given we will disapprove of Bodichon’s horror at the nature of Muslim women’s lives –- I don’t. This chapter reveals the great gap and fault-line between what privileged elite, white upper class women experienced and want for themselves and their lack of knowledge of non-western and working class women. The visual imagery of the colonized and subaltern woman influences how the elite woman will be treated too. The elite women wanted to to go an imperialist colony like Algeria it was unlike settler colonialism where the aim of the Europeans was to create a new version of the old society (after “removing” the native people).

She then launches into a revealing critique of such pictures that we are many of us familiar with. Citing Spivack, Bhabha, and Linda Nochlin, Cherry demonstrates the familiar alluring pictures of landscape and buildings of Africa, India and others are all false constructs: they omit much that was actually there, in the way they frame what they see they follow the Claude Lorraine scheme, the celebration of harmony is of power; the figures of “natives” either are not there, or are tiny and we never see them doing anything commercial. Linda Nochlin describes such pictures in her essay on the “imaginary orient.” She brings out the ambiguity of women’s painting in the era: how when they achieve some freedom, it is not available on “innocent” terms. And that a number of the women painters who are better known painted this kind of landscape or “oriental” people inside it.

One detail sticks in my mind: one of these elite women inspired a powerful French woman to wear silks and it was argued this was kindness to provide jobs for these oriental girls: the jobs were 12 hours a day to spin silk at age 13-21 whereupon she’d be married off. European women wanted to go to places like Algeria because there was no settler colonialism there: no one was attempting to recreate a little England or France, but only occupy gov’t and business positions; the European imperialists were fiercely militaristic, destroying native attempts to stop them taking the natural resources and thus made a safe space for women not married to travel in and “be free.” Only a few such women noticed the natives, even fewer respected and saw them as human beings. To be fair, the only women white women came across were veiled, spoke a different language.

The chapter is relevant to us today: when something is shown of native type it’s a ruin, or desolate and obviously needs to be torn down except that it is so picturesque. Painters did not know how to show the civilization they were seeing. Islam when shown is depicted as fanatic, desecrating Christian and ancient Roman and Greek sites. Cherry talks about the literal frames put around such pictures; buyers expected a frame as if they want to distance themselves. I’ve seen similar pictures of 19th to 20th century Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Egypt.

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Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia (1862)

As her first book taught generally so this one begins with a detail or person and moves out “beyond the frame.” Chapter 4 begins with Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia to bring out how in order to make money the artist who made sculptures had to make copies and when she did she had to use the services of other people. Large statues often required workman skilled in the material the statue was made of. This reality was used to accuse women of not doing their own statues, but hiring others. Again we see these Greek/Roman images were an aristocratic European ideal: people who never looked like that; the artists are imitating the figures of the early Renaissance. Cherry discusses Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, which has an ideal woman painter, pure virginal copying masterpieces, and the daughter of a Jewish banker who paints stories of blood and revenge (Jael, Judith).

The Art Journal defended these women sculptors in Rome, including Edmonia Lewis (accused of poisoning her fellow students – Lisa Moore’s Sister Arts explained that false charger). Tellingly though feminists of the era pushed for masculine qualities in the art; Francis Cobbe liked statues of strong figures; these are high art, so Angelica Kauffmann’s pictures (which I admit I often do not like) are feeble and about prettiness. Women must create what they admire, and they admire power, force, grandeur, says Cobbe. (I don’t.) but Cobbe goes on to doubt if such qualities are found in women to the same extent as men. (As if men are all strong … ) all this is written in connection with Hosmer’s Zenobia and others statues. Cherry includes the strong influence of Americans in Rome, perhaps overstated, how they interacted with English and Canadian people. Now Hosmer was judged on how she looked, her private life; happily neither were found wanting: she was leading a “real life – a life “carried out for herself.” Frances Cobbe met her long-time partner in Rome, Mary Lloyd, a Welsh sculptor who worked with Rosa Bonheur.

About this time in 19th century culture that an author’s life began to “authorize” the art work (or writing or music). So, after showing that attempts were made to say the women did not sculpt their own heroic statures, she brings in Foucault to argue that respect for an author and the perceived presence of the author in the art work gave a work respect. An author authorized the text — I’ll add that we see in the 19th century the growing worship of authors as celebrities. When it was argued that Homer never existed, the value of the Iliad went down; when it was argued that several authors could or would have been involved, the Iliad became almost not worthwhile any close study. There was nothing to study it for.

(Films have this problem today and those who want to elevate the status of film often resort to some form of auteur theory to make people regard the work as art and enabled them to analyze its vision. And if the auteur is famous  respected then you are in business as a critic to be listened to. And it’s true we (or I) look for the “signature” of the author by looking at the script writer or director’s other films and comparing and showing likeness. We see the importance of the author’s life come in here; how viewers want to judge it. The hard truth is no matter how dominant one or more personalities are in the final product of a film, it is the product of intricate collaboration on every level.)

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Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci

Some women sculptors presented these heroic figures with large gravitas (Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra) which influenced other depictions — or they were all following a similar paradigm. Joanna Mary Boyce depicted a Cumean sybil as a figure of learning and prophecy — she painted the famous often reprinted Head of Mrs Eaton (a model in 19th century London often referred to “a woman of color”). The Zenobia by Hosmer is then a watershed and achievement for women artists, but not as strong a one as has been made out.

She then covers the kind of postures for women in art that were popular, allowed or just circulated widely: heroic women who were nonetheless enslaved, seen in chains — like Zenobia; we were to admire their passive fortitude. It was objected by some at the time why do we never see Zenobia when she is successful and a warrior, only in her downfall? Other images — such as enslaved Greek by Hiram Power (a male) are voyeuristic; you are invited to imagine something sadistic about to happen. Chains around female figures were everywhere in these sculptures, also a focus on the woman’s private parts, one breast bared (the traditional sign of the prostitute). If we look at how Victoria was represented there was a problem of showing her heroic and strong and yet not aggressive and loving mother; there was severe disapproval of her continual retirement from public life and her love for Brown was known and had to be hushed up. 

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Gwen John, a self-portrait (1899)

The last and fifth chapter, “Tactics and allegories, 1866-1900” is overlong and meanders; it takes different turns. My experience of writing for publication makes me suspect it is comprised of material meant to be part of later chapters, but she was forced to cut down her book and condensed these further chapters in this last fifth one. In it she analyzes Gwen John’s self-depiction. It’s a single image condensing many themes of independence, self-confidence making her stand for the “new woman” – personal freedom, individualism, making of independent life organized around work, socializing unchaperoned in mixed company, living in rented accommodation rather than family home. The problem is most novels are about sexual non-conformity, not about politically active, or neurotic and idealistic women.

What the whole book shows and especially this chapter was the kind of social abilities a woman needed to be a professional painter or the kind of family, background and connections she needed to come from and have help through made many of the women artists political activists. While a few famous ones, were adamantly publicly opposed to women getting the vote (of course they would be made famous), most worked for women’s causes of various sorts, and strongly for this. So women artists and suffragettes converged. Her point is that women artists were politically active because in order to have a career they had to be economically and socially active within elite groups.

She prints portrait by Sophia Beale of herself as a taxpayer, a person who worked as teacher, painter, landlady has no vote and the drone male in her house has one. Bodichon pointed out women were eligible for public offices too. It’s the paying taxes that is the clincher each time. Only a few resisted paying taxes and their goods were seized. Women artists embodied social responsibility, professional and properties status. People have called the group elite: list of important women in public life as all for suffrage. Women for the vote spoke lectures, there was attention to public works. Petitioners, Bodichon presented demand for vote to John Stuart Mill. Scottish women painters active. Several women artists took active roles in organizations. Cherry offers a list of active women which includes several familiar and not-so-familiar artists.

Cherry then moves into traditions of radical thought, social reform, professional work for women. Emily Ford came from prosperous Quakers, who trained both sexes for independent lives, social responsibility and active intervention. Each placed herself in some central functioning area; worked against Contagious Diseases Act which criminalized women rather than those who exploited them. Emily Fox a committee member for Leeds Educational society. The women attended one another’s meetings and become involved with labor politicians. Emily Fox joined Leeds Social League; and with her sisters and Alice Scatcherd helped series of strikes which included women weavers and tailors. The organization provided education, practical help, money. Emily Ford became Anglican but at the same time worked for protective regulation on behalf of women and children. Now she provides a list of names who were variously active –it’s striking what they did. It was a broad moral critique: against domestic violence, child abuse, animal rights too, antivivisectionist, for women’s unions. Not all women artists had the time to act as suffragettes, a couple still demurred too. They all had to be careful not to let these activities affect a positive reputation; they would contribute in ways that kept their name quiet; artistry with less elite status could be more public. Then she cites famous women artists who did not involve themselves, e.g., Gwen John, Vanessa Bell. The very definition of femininity was now challenged.

There were of course upper class women who were anti-suffrage; the pro-suffrage women saw these people as elitist; people wanted to be part of what was stylish too, so issue was complicated as they say. Little mention was made of women’s rights in magazine aimed at them, and yet they signed petitions in huge numbers, a few allowing the use of their famous name as a spearhead. When prominent British politicians asserted there was no evidence women wanted the vote, the Women’s Social and Political Union (the major organization begun by the Pankhurts) brought out thousands in the streets and petitions galore – the latter are weak instruments at best.
A convergence had occurred on public platforms, theaters, book buying too. Cherry produce a long list of women artists who were known to be suffragettes.

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Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in the 2009 film Agora (see my review of the movie which presents Hypatia as a tragically silenced teacher)

She has the great insight to remark that the male Pre-Raphaelites who painted the beautiful women they kept as mistresses often painted them as powerful sorceresses, and that early on when women wanted power or lived alone they were equated with witches, burnt or somehow punished (guillotined in the French revolution). And she says the most famous of the sorceress paintings emerge just before and during the time of the “new woman” in fiction and suffragette campaign. Susan Casteras has argued that “women endowed with great creativity” in Pre-raphaelite imagery become witches, sorceresses;” then Beverly Taylor sees these as also fearful, projections of male anxieties (they have these dark narrow eyes). So the re-emergence of imagery of women as witches, sorceresses – in male Pre-Raphaelite paintings!  Women art critics who like the male Pre-Raphaelite painting are concerned to counter this: Jan Marsh wants to see this as “idealized beautiful” women, enchantresses (159).

These images coincide with first organized woman’s movement for vote, rights on a national scale. Women wreaking havoc and destruction in tales too. Morgan LeFaye a murderess, incestuous with son, a Medea type. Casteras: they are defying the rhetoric of masculine control. Elizabeth Barrett Browning does all she can to distance herself and heroines from this kind of book. Mary Boyce Wells has a sympathetic sibyl, but the issues were property laws, Contagious Diseases Acts, professional opportunities, paid work, medical knowledge. In 1872 the first public schools and colleges including or for women with high academic standards emerge. No more independent scholars, bluestockings, visibility in public life and suffrage petitions was what was needed and sought. At the same time the formation of a distinctly homosexual-social culture was forming. To this belongs Eliza Lynn’s attack on the “new girl of the period.” then there was increasing disquiet about race as world shrunk.

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Joanna Boyce Wells, Elgiva

The pictures of Joanna Mary Boyce Wells come closest to painting sibyls in ways that are deeply sympathetic. She is one underrated painter – very good. Her Head of Mrs Eaton (found on the Internet easily) is only one of her paintings that are very good. About to have her first exhibit, she died in childbirth. Without a husband, women were not respectable and they also had a hard time making a living. The next time my reader goes to a Pre-Raphaelite show with no women painters (or the obligatory Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morison) have a real look at how the males are painting these “gorgeous” females. Like Julia Cameron’s photographs (who follows Michelangelo’s depiction of sibyl turning pages of volume with putti holding a light), Boyce does not follow Virgil to show a possessed woman; not gloomy, not about to commit crimes (Burnes-Jones’s sibyl is); she is poised, calm, contemplative. Cameron’s work required costumes, furniture, tableaux vivants, Marie Spartalli works with her “performing” beauty, maternity, spirituality; Cameron’s picture recalls a painting of Isabella d’Este.

Hypatia became a focus for women artists – she is made fun of in Punch as Miss Hypatia Jones, Spinster of arts – we can trace the complex of ideas and emotions attached to Hypatia in several women artists: Marie Spartali Sillman (imagery from Spenser’s Faerie Queen – Britomart), identified with Sophia and also Antigone (think of George Eliot! – and recent play with Juliette Binoche, not to omit Rachel Weisz in Agora, figures of resistance to patriarchal authority). 

Meanwhile discourses about art’s moral function were under pressure. It’s in this context Cherry brings up Pre-Raphaelite women artists too; Rossetti was attacked so you needed to be moral and yet art for art’s sake the mode. Spivack sees an interplay between a portrait of the self and using the self to represent a constituency – you stage yourself to represent an idea and blend all these female archetypes (Dido is very far from this I see.

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Laura Hertford, Elizabeth Armstrong Garrett (1866 — a photograph of a portrait)

She turns to what was happening in women’s professions. Elizabeth Garrett Armstrong gets a license from society of apothecaries and sets up practice as a physician; in magazines we find comic drawings of sweetly pretty doctor, useless, hired for sex appeal; or a harridan disrupts family life. Visual language recalls women campaigning for voting rights. So how can women artists counter this? Around the time of her license, Laura Herford painted Garrett, stayed within family looks grave, high neck dark dress, hair pulled back with middle part, gaze alert serious steady. She declined openly to support suffragettes; cartoons showing women professionals neglecting husband, children, women barristers presented as the next absurdity, ridiculous jargon ridden papers. She did not dress like Langham place group.
 
Debates occurred on what is appropriate curriculum for women, appropriate areas of practice. Mary Macarthur an early 20thcentury unionist declared “Knowledge is power” and “knowledge and organisation mean the opening of the cage door.”

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1890s is a period of conflicting groups and tendencies. A time of discussions about marriage, motherhood, compatibility with women’s desire for self-fulfillment. One problem is people rarely discussed content of pictures.

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Susan Isabel Dacre, Linda Becker (1886)

Fashioning an image for professional woman and vote is not easy: Osborne mad Jane Cobden Unwin into a woman silvered in satin (!), class based; Susan Isabel Dacre painted Lydia Becker insombre sober dress– nearly 60, another very heavy woman, direct gaze through her spectacles, not prettied up like Millais’s depiction of Louise Jopling, but drab, isolated thoughtful weary; she became target of satiric depictions.

Towards the end of Chapter 5 Cherry quotes Susan Casteras to the effect that with few exceptions women did not challenge canons of taste, imagery, citing Margaret Isabel Dicksee’s Miss Angel – we see Angelicak Kauffmann introduced by Lady Wentworth, visiting Mr Reyndols 1892 – elegantly dressed lady. The image reminds me of Kauffmann’s pictures (and Angharad Rees in the 1976 Poldark as Demelza), which reinforced story of Kauffmann’s life how she missed out on marrying Reynolds, chose badly so led blighted life. (Kauffmann’s work is a problem – if only we would admit it – soft unreal nymphs. I have not done a blog because in all conscience I find so many of her ideal forms vapid or insipid. Only when she does a portrait of a real person is the picture valuable as aesthetic and philosophical art. The stories of the 18th century musical Linleys are made to fit.

Dicksee took up mantle of Henrietta Ward. Exhibiting a major historical painting with lengthy explanation; another cited Jessie Macgregor’s In the Reign of Terror which depicted a mother’s courage; Louise Jopling did an Elaine of Astolat drowned for love but also Salome (a contested figure) and like other women painting the figure was criticized for conception (head on tray), Jopling said her Queen Vashti refusing to show herself to the People was “an originator and victim of women’s rights.”

A campaign which used the words “purity” and took a stance of moral vigilance attacked these sorts of paintings, of nudity in public, “obscenity” in postcards, posters; women trained to produce degrading images of their own sex; 1890s saw passing of Criminal Law Amendment Act raised age of consent for girls to 16, powers to the police to prosecute street walkers, brothel keepers, indecent acts between adults are made illegal.

Artists and critics inveighed against women artists studying nudes, even if “hampered from competition for highest prizes in art.” Florence Fenwick Miller takes Lawrence Alma-Tadema for exerting himself against admission of women’s paintings but not the “languorous dreamy women” of his paintings. Political Lady Cricketeers seen in a drawing are rare for not being made misshapen harridans. Cherry wonders if these images had a “multivalency” for women at the time (meaning maybe women then liked these sexy pictures of women.) Fenwick Miller and Emilia Dike upheld women’s rights to study and depict the nude as necessary for career. There was fairly consistent agitation to obtain permission to attend life classes at the Royal Academy.

Such campaigns gave women opportunity to speak out about sex, morality. In 1899 Louisa Starr defended nude depiction; not improper, indecent, offensive – much was at stake here. Henrietta Rae’s Psyche before the Throne of Venus with its numerous nudes and semi-draped women was attacked; Starr’s defense is as long as done in classical tradition, showing sports, as long as nude is “robust, mellowed, healthy … “ No corset of course, the “purity of spirit” would shine through 186. There is a problem here. This is classic vigilance argument, no lasciviousness here, implicit racism (whites painted). Elizabeth Forbes’s School is Out does break with stereotypes to show teacher satisfied, in charge; using rural background assures respectability.

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At the close of her book Cherry moves to justify 1890s women artists who went in for spiritualism as a form of feminism and the art they created using these. It won’t do. It does seem as if her woman artists were mostly elitist types and could not get themselves to avail themselves of socialist allegories of the type Walter Crane and Morris used. Nor can Cherry stomach the work of the Newlyn school as led by Stanhope Forbes. (Like others, she holds against him his elitism, that he squashed parts of his wife’s career, that the women accepted in the Newlyn school had to conform to domestic ideals.) I prefer the Newlyn School with its deeply respectful realism.

Another aspect of the 1880s and 90s is men’s institutions refuse to accept women’s work, portraits of important women. I know that Anne Barbauld’s papers were destroyed many of them because the British Library would not take them and in the 1940 the house they were kept in was destroyed by bombs.

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Suffragette meeting, from The Graphic, 25 May 1872 — includes Millicent Garret Fawcett, Frances Strong Pattison [aka Emilia Dilke], Ernestine Rose, Lydia Becker, Rhoda Garrett

We can study the period as suffragette and women artists saw it to some extent by looking at saved cuttings from newspapers – compiled extracts which they often found mean and cruel: rare not to have political women “as a red nosed, misshapen republisve looking harridan.” National Portrait Gallery refused to accept Dacre’s portrait of Becker on the grounds she had not been dead 10 years as yet – this excludes women from “imagined national community” 195; they collected their own material but what was publicly shown was A Dream of Fair Women” in Lonoon 1894: women in grand manner, uncomplicated beauty. Women’s Suffrage Society presented their collection to University College, Bristol.

New womens’ colleges often had bare walls; Bodichon provided furniture money for Girton decoration. Emily Mary Osborne exhibited a picture of Bodichon calling her “instrumental” in founding Girton after Emily Davies had claimed herself the exclusive founder; Bodichon wanted the painting there to be sure that she was credited 197. Picture of Davies makes her look like heritage family portrait demure, white cap, hands folder; Bodichon painting. These women fought over this.

Then the resort to allegory: Emily Ford’s Rising Dawn has disappeared but a photograph of it survives – on the occasion of Philippa Fawcett achieving highest place in Math Tripos exam at Newnham College Cambridge 198. Resembles Soul Finding the Light (see below). Using Owens’s theory, Cherry defines allegory is one text read through another; you add a layer of meaning – we can re-see them with a different allegory: allegory is unmotivated in the sense that symbolism is particular to, grows out of a work itself. So to many today (to me) Watts’ Hope (a woman) looks hopeless. Leighton’s Arts of Industry shows well born women showing off jewels; women sew with servants all around; while men make and deliver luxury goods – indolent self-regarding women; Golden Stairs thought to have no content or story.

Cherry suspects that Emily Ford’s pictures had political meanings that she does not tell. Cherry points to – she descriptions of Ford’s works not now extant: The Weary Way had wild winds of Yorkshire (it seemed) hindering steps of old woman who struggles under a load. How do you create a new visual culture for socialism?; wee see attempts in Walter Crane, Walter Langley in Newlyn school – she seems oddly dismissive of these males because she wants to include women whose art is elitist even if they are trying to celebrate women.

So Cherry moves to the use of spiritualism imagery: the imagery of seances, spiritualism, Society for Psychical Research is what some women artists appear to have used for hopeful allegory .I see a great irony here – she cites historians who say this kind of thing has a particular appeal for women – (after all they had the many children who died I put it) so we get suffragettes joining this group: Agnes Garrett, Anna Swanick, Elizabeth Blackwell, Charlotte Despard – they would investigate table-rapping, mediums, automatic writing

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Evelyn de Morgan — note both figures are female

Evelyn de Morgan not a member but interested in this kind of psychical research and she expressed ideas of women’s spiritual evolution through the imagery as in her Soul’s Prison House, Aurora Triumphans; Cherry finds the same spiritual journey in Emily Ford’s painting – she sees Morgan’s paintings as “resplendent” – Night flees and the female figures move into the light; central to Judeo-Christian imagery from Pilgrim’s progress to Swedenbourg to Quakers. Paul de Man comes in useful here. She wants us to begin to see this sort of thing as feminist. Marina Warner has said this kind of allegory is declamatory.

She turns to look at banner and visual images used in campaigns. In 1884 there was one to extend suffrage to include almost all men – to include women too– a huge demonstration-meeting in Sheffield and elsewhere, in London, in Edinburgh – banners used (“Women Claim Equal Justice with Men”), eye-catching spectacle of flags (Westminster and London Tailoresses said to have participated), use of singing, of processions. She means to give a sense of the full visual culture of women’s suffrage in the 1880s – this pageantry connected to temperance, mother’s union, church groups, labor protests, socialist groups, miners’ galas … Later on it became narrower and larger middle class in imagery. These were images of women at meetings, of well-dressed women in groups, looking semi-professional.

Most of the suffrage visual art has been lost, not collected, not valued, no one had the resources to save these. But collections of family paintings have been dispersed and women’s paintings ended up there; marble statues (!) by women have been lost (Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra lately found); endowments, insecure donations, lack of continuity and gifts are lost.

She suggests we are uneasy with women’s pasts. Allegory is uncertain and slippery and becomes barely discernible. That’s why the use of these spiritualist allegories is lost to us today says Cherry. It’s more than that. Seance and spiritualist movements were and are a dead end. Women did die in great numbers in childbirth; their children died in great numbers. All tragic but the technological solution of better childbirth procedures and what we have of scientific medicine was what was needed.

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The coda

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Emily Ford, The Soul Finding the Light (1888-89)

Cherry lifts her book again to the important and profound about women’s movements and art. After saying that allegory (and I’ll add irony thinking of Austen and Trollope) is treacherous, that it can be erased or misread, she quotes Owen again who remarked most of such works are not preserved or preserved in odd ways. A large number of the works Cherry has discusses are misread or lost or known only through photographs. Hosmer’s statue is disappeared; so too paintings by Howitt of Boadicea, Tekushch of The wife and Rebecca Levinson of Hypatia. In order to get the Girton authorities to put Becker’s picture up, Osborne had to cut it down; the original once in the Manchester Art Gallery is now preserved only in a photograph. We have cursory reviews. Ford’s Towards the Dawn gone missing.

Cixous says that the gift is a dangerous because it is not given with the aim of getting something in return. The gift which is part of potlatch is “proper” (like Christmas). She says gifts arouse suspicion and are associated with women. The gift is donated and thus out of the system and constitutes a threat to the system which has refused to pay for it or reciprocate. So it is insecure and is not preserved, is not put anywhere that recognition works to make permanent (e.g., blogs on the Net, postings on listservs, participation in networks online, volunteer work … women’s work at home when unpaid).

When such works are gone, they are misrecollected or dismissed when mentioned. Cherry ends on Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations where he says “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own … is threatened by irretrievable disappearance.” Here we see the important of awards as well as money.

So unless you coopt and obey the system to some extent, you are lost. Often women did not in order to speak of themselves truthfully, and much of their work has been systematically as well as with indifference lost. It is courageous of Cherry to end on this note.

Ellen

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