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Archive for the ‘women’s art’ Category


The regular rape of Offred: the hands are Serena Joy’s the wife, into whose lap Offred must lie, and as the commmander drives his penis into her (no emotion allowed to be shown)

Friends,

I’ve gone on — like many others — to watch three more weeks of A Handmaid’s Tale, and have been gripped not only by the story and characters themselves, but how often the world of Gilead parallels what I’ve experienced in life in much quieter, muted, subtler ways, prophecy what can be the outcome of such behavior and modes such as we are seeing in the Trump’s regimes attempts to repress protest, and erase women’s rights insofar as they can.

Diane Reynolds has written brilliantly about the impotence of the chief males, specifically commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in episode 4 (Nothing sexy about men or violence; subversive television): how rare it is in mainstream film to have a central male impotent. I felt in the way sex was presented, the implication was men don’t need a woman to respond and all their sexual feeling can be satisfied in genital sex for themselves, without regard for the woman. Indeed in this scenario, the man would prefer the woman just be still so as not to get in his way. The second season of Outlander uses impotence: sometimes Jamie (Sam Heughan) cannot have an erection or any form of sex with Clare (Caitriona Balfe) because he is so terrified by the trauma of his nightmares about how the British police Officer, Black Jack (Tobias Menzies), drove Jamy to submit to sex, by torture, horrific physical cruelty) smashing Jamy’s hand), branding and taunting him over the branding. The chauffeur (as I call him), Nick (Max Minghella) as Guardian, comes closest to what we imagine when we conjure up “the natural male.” I wonder how much Atwood meant us to remember the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover — a modern analogue is the chauffeur of Downton Abbey, coopted but at first defiant.

In Episode 5 I was startled to see the film suddenly “descend” (?) into the usual heterosexual sex scene, here between Nick and Offred (Elisabeth Moss). Otherwise and even here it’s very grim. there seems little joy anywhere. When June and her boyfriend or partner, Luke (O-T Bagfenle) go out with their baby daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) it is never to a park, to a green place or anywhere peaceful,not one quiet moment except at home in bed having sex in darkened spaces; they are inside garish night clubs. They go to noisy, glittering neon-lit amusement parks. I was surprised to to hear Offred (June at the time) ask Luke to leave his wife. First I did not know she was living or going out with a married man, and then though I can see why she does not want to be a secondary supplement, I probably in life would not feel that comfortable about a woman who told me she had demanded her boyfriend leave his wife for her. I would probably identify as much with the wife. I saw this as part of the way the film does not sentimentalize or idealize the life before this dystopia. She’s not much a reader. I also saw the use of iron all around Nick’s hips as equating his phallus with guns, iron, macho male hardness. I understood Offred was doing this in part to impregnate and thus save herself from deportation “to the colonies” (a form of transportation and thus death). But the scene was not much different from many of the sexual scenes in Outlander

I remember in the 1990 film the chauffeur was kind (not at all threatening as when in episode 5 when she gets aggressive he suddenly threatens to “turn her in”), and when in the film Offred escapes, she escapes with him. A new family is re-formed. He is not a macho male in the way of this one and Natasha Richardson herself in appearance and much about her is “sweeter,” more lovely, not aggressive. He invites her up to his (in effect) tree-house. There are so many more trees and greenery in the 1990s.

Diane has written on this one too, especially on the inchoate rage of the women who suffers female genital mutilation (“When dystopia is better than real life …. “). While there is no female genital mutilation in Atwood’s book (the ritual had not become as well known in the 1980sas it is today), in the real world in Africa and the middle east, women are subject to genital mutilation and this mutilation is what is driving Ofstevens when she loses it and darts into the car. We see more of the vicious commander: we see while he seems gentle talk to him and the Pence like ideas come out and his own elation in his power and control. Again like the real world.

In my present mood tonight it seems to reflect the real world — like when the woman Ofstevens tries to drive away, in frantic attempt to escape, and then mows over, runs over people, for revenge. The men with their machine guns gunning her down reminded me of a scene in DC the summer of 2013 where a group of police gunned down and murdered a black woman, Miriam Carey, who had by mistake hit a cement barrier; she was terrified of them as they pushed their guns into her car, and when she scooted around them (not running anyone over), they chased her down and killed her — they could have killed the baby in the chairseat. Didn’t care.


Their scrabble game

Episode 6 offers our first glimmers of hope. A looped set of flashbacks showing us some initial crucial scenes in the war featuring Fred and Mrs Waterford (Serena Joy, her ironic name, Yvonne Strahovski). It appears Serena Joy was a strong aggressive woman, a scholar, but she followed this crazed set of deeply anti-humane anti-women ideals and she ended up thrown out of the public world, with nothing to do, her two books (one is called A Woman’s Place) are last seen in the trash. We see them as a middle class couple so well dressed and equals. Fred emerges as a man partly made into a villain when he is given such power and adulation. When we see the original relationship of the commander and his wife and how she originally was a published author, going to conferences, central in power structures:: surely some of her hatred of Offred comes from the perverse way her arguments against feminism have turned out to make her powerless and silent.


Serena Joy cursing Offred when it becomes clear that Offred is not pregnant

He also comes across as more human because for a second in the hour he succumbs to a natural desire: he is drawn to kiss Offred! He has tired of their scrabble, how she does not make him the central object of her stay in the room, and asks her to leave. She has to return to darkness, no books, no outlet and she finds herself turning around to beg to stay, and appear to want a kiss, some caress. Elisabeth Moss is a particularly powerful actress (see The Guardian for her presence as almost a guarantee of quality); her strong-structured face, her control over emotions she nonetheless projects as so intense they are almost breaking her within is just the kind of acting style this mini-series needsHe coldly allows this and then forcibly sticks his tongue in her mouth. She now has to submit, pretends to like it, and is seen washing her mouth out thoroughly next. He also astonishingly feels some guilt coming home as his ambassador negotiations are not going well: he seems to realize Serena Joy might have helped for real. And when he comes home he and she actually make love. He seems reluctant as if this is verboten.

So too does nature emerge with Nick and Offred. She visits but hates to have to make love for baby-making. She is in a deep rage by this point but somehow he calms her down. And they too are making love — not just having sex this time.

The visit by the ambassadors to a Spanish country (Mexico) includes a “dinner party” for the handmaid’s where they are told they will enjoy themselves. It turns out that the “damaged” handmaid’s must be kept out — orders of Mrs Waterford — lest as with slavery, the visitors see how viciously the girls are treated. One of the girls (with a gouged out eye) begins to cry. What enjoyment can she be imagining? Anything will do. I know the feeling. And then astonishingly Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) shows some pity: she had promised them, they were looking ward to it, she objects to keeping them out, but of course acquiesces when Mrs Waterford says sternly, they cannot be seen as they will look bad (like slaves who were maimed if the owners cared). Aunt Lydia offers chocolate and treats as a substitute — the pathos as the girl accepts this replacement reluctantly.

Now once there everyone in strict ritual table form. Mrs Waterford presides as the wife. A conversation reveals to Offred it’s not oranges Gilead is trading with this outsider Spanish group: but the handmaids themselves. The commander had shown the children the handmaids had had. This Spanish country wants children; no one have been born in a long while. Like animals in a zoo will not produce children.

Just before the dinner and again afterward Offred is introduced to the Spanish ambassador, a woman. Mrs Waterford has warned her to give the right answers to this ambassadress. So (as Offred knows what the right answers are), she says she has chosen this state or condition and is happy with it. So stiffly briefly said. One can see something is wrong as the woman pretends she has had a big conversation. Clearly she has not.

Fast forward to the end of the hour and Offred is leaving for her morning walk; the ambassadress and her male sidekick are there. Again the ambassadress thanks her for telling so much. Offred can’t take it and blurts out the truth: they were captured, are beaten with cattle prods, raped, their eyes gouged out for punishment, if they are caught reading, they have finger cut off, twice, the whole hand. The woman now has to acknowledge but what does she say? she is so sorry. Offred says in reply, thank you but do something. The woman claims she cannot but we know she wants these woman as baby makers. And then she leaves and her male counterpart comes forward. He suddenly offers to help. Offred suspicious, he says he can get a note to her husband. Who is alive. Hesitant, shocked, and sudden gleam in her eyes, she does write on the pad. So there is another place in that beyond where her first friend fled on the train

What really gets me is how believable the scenes are. I feel I have seen versions of them in my society. Black man as prisoners for what they should not be jailed for kowtowed utterly. Slaves in the past saying they were happy, showing evidence of brutality. Pence’s desire for conversation therapy.


Serena Joy waiting for her husband to return home ….

Another blog by Diane Reynolds’s blog on episode 6 (Nothing to lose but their chains?) one emphasizes how hard it is, how very dark the hour still is. Okay it was not as hard to take as the previous. Diane’s qualifications are we’ll-taken. The glimmers of hope I spoke of are only by contrast to the relentless cruelty and indifference to their victims we saw in the first 5 episodes. We see what I consider natural feelings that are good or at least kindly interactive on the face of it immediately come out. But it is true the commander is showing his power over Offred and she is repulsed but cannot show it. All relationship with him in her situation is horrible. It teaches us what it is to be a slave or powerless prisoner. If aunt Lydia feels compunction at not giving what she promised, she cerrtainly does not fight for the handmaid’s. The commander and Mrs Waterford’s love-making is also ruined at the core by their analogous relationship to the commander and Offred. Nick is similarly powerful over Offred — cant tell and their love making is again as the other pair suddenly a return to domineering heterosexual sex — it is what is understood as good sex in our culture by many. The ambassadress does not offer to help but will exploit and yes the ending is too pat: a coincidence too strong. But until now nothing yielding happened.

Further on the story level we can see a possible “out” for Offred. We see more the life was once very otherwise, there are communities outside that are decent we can hope. Didn’t have that before.

On the connection with today: I was horrified to listen to Trump’s utter hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia where the slightest public protest can lead you to imprisonment, torture, parts of your body cut off and death. We in the US the majority who didn’t vote for this man are apparently in the helpless situation of Offred. We have no one to turn to who has the power to oust this regime which supports the Saudis who are going to use this weaponry to destroy the Yemenese people altogether. The parallels with our world are not just sexual.

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In a Disneyland sort of place

I have been reading the book again. It is not as relentless even in the opening The 2017 film makers made the whole thing so much tougher. As I read I am more appalled because I recognize my society in this book’s depiction The regimentation, the dysfunction, the coldness … And I reread the original ending. The book ends with a coda on on an academic conference decades later (2195) where someone reads a paper about this strange manuscript. Is it true? if so, what happened to these people? The participants in the session all profess great humanity, but they dissect the occurrences in the manuscript with startling indifference. It’s a bitter satire on academic papers and the way academics can behave around them: making the slightest of jokes, all flattery for one another. All the speakers are male; we are in a patriarachy still. Atwood has used time-traveling, movement forward suddenly to give us a sceptical and cold switch. It’s an astonishing sleight-of-hand. This mini-series is departing in just the way the 1990s film did, where Offred and her child escaped with the help of Nick. The positive elements of Episode 6 are those which led to the escape at the close of the 1990s film — though I agree with Diane these are counteracted by the heinousness of the commander’s use of power, by Offred’s revulsion, by the refusal of the Spanish ambassadress once she is told that Offred is a beaten terrified enslaved women to do anything — she just walks off.

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred (Handmaid’s Tale, 2016, “created” by Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano

Friends,

It may be that nothing could be fundamentally further in mood (dystopian horror) and genre (fantasy gothic or science fiction) from a Jane Austen novel, or any of the film adaptations (except perhaps P&P and Zombies: The Violent Turn) than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, only short-listed for the Booker at the time), with its two iterations, the 1990 Volker Schlondorff/Harold Pinter 109 minute cinema Handmaid’s Tale, and now this gargantuan mini-series of 10 one hour episodes Bruce Miller/Reed Morano Hulu Handmaid’s Tale. But this is such an important production of a now clearly prophetic woman’s novel, however or because problematic at moments, we cannot ignore it.

The book is not just prophetic; it’s an allegory of today, of the way the men in charge of the US gov’t want to control women and the world. Every violation a woman can know is meted out; many men are equally powerless; you are hung for being gay, transgender, speaking unacceptably … what is problematic is the over-the-top violence: is it part of an inuring process which leads to acceptance of torture in many forms ….

The book is hard, harsh, not easy to assimilate: it begins in medias res and immediately you are immersed in a closed environment where the narrator, Offred, is cut off from any information beyond her immediate environment, itself laced with lies, and surrounded by treacherous fearful and ruthlessly bullying people (in this mini-series, immediately aggressively violent). The narrator grips you from the start — rather like Michel Faber’s Under the Skin and MarlenHaushofen’s The Wall. We are seeing this world from a single point of view — Offred (Natasha Richardson, far too lovely, and now Elizabeth Moss, her face all hard angles).

The book begins with Offred in her single room and going downstairs where she is about to go shopping. Slowly it emerges from her mind how she has come to live with the commander Waterford (Robert Duvall/now Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway, now Yvonne Stahovski). The way records are completely under the control of gov’t agencies (which has been true for a few decades now), so that when the coup is accomplished, that very day our heroine cannot reach her bank account. The money she is told is not validly hers. When she gets home, she is told that her husband can reach it and it’s telling he doesn’t mind this. Suddenly then women are not allowed to own any property. The next day she is told by her boss –- as are all the other women in the office – they are no longer permitted to work. She must go home and be an obedient housewife. The boss looks very sorry to do this – he’s losing his staff – but he is under threat of terrific retaliations, he says. Return to the present: As Offred goes about the house we meet the Marthas (in long brown dresses); a male Guardian, Nick (now Max Minghella) at his car and where he lives (woman-less as a powerless man).

The novel is far softer, more subtly nuanced than either film: it begins with some sense of sympathy for Serena Joy as herself vulnerable (reminding me of the plantation owner’s white wife who hates his black concubine in Valerie Martin’s Property). But she seethes with resentment and hatred as she is forced to use Offred’s vagina (her own “barren”) to conceive a child, all she can justify her existence by. She moves from pretend concern for Offred when she thinks Offred is pregnant, to brutal kicking when Offred turns out to have her period. As the novel proceeds, Serena Joy encourages Offred to take up with Nick in order to conceive a child, and there is this appalling scene where Serena Joy has given Offed a single cigarette, and Offred has to practically beg to get a single match from one of the kitchen staff. Psychologically interesting scenes include those between the commander and Offred as they begin to be people to one another (as in their game of Scrabble). Lots of the details are vivid and appropriate — reminding me of the use of metaphor and landscape in Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye (one of her finest novels) and Lady Oracle (brilliantly about romance novels, the gothic).

The things that are done to the powerless heroines (all women are powerless but the apparent bullies, Aunt Lydia types (Ann Dowd) are horrible but not over the top so that they are not believable. They are parallel to what goes on in the US and elsewhere today. The hatred of gays, the desire to destroy women’s vaginas (one pregnancy test is an invasive procedure by doctors), the continual presence of military people, the ruthless disproportionate punishments, the way the hanged are dressed (like the tortured people in Abu Ghraib). A key motive in the book and both films: the narrator wants to survive and is willing to kowtow to anything, do or say anything to avoid bodily pain — it’s so easy to kill someone. I recently reviewed a crucial anthology, Speaking about Torture, where this drive to carry on as well as an assertion of individual self through talk and memory enables survival for a very few.


Max Minghella as Nick in the mini-series — he is hovering around the edges, looking like someone with a still alive conscience

The book’s ending is quite different from the first movie’s and since this mini-series has already gone well beyond the book in harrowing chilling inhumanity (the word seems so inadequate), I expect its ending will differ too. The book reaches its climax in the club where Offred comes upon Moira (she did not manage to escape), with Serena Joy discovering them having an apparent good time, and precipitates a crisis. One of the troubling aspects of the book and first film is how many of the women hate (or appear to hate) the other women. While reading I found detail after detail were simple exaggerations or night mare versions of our present political arrangements, what one sees in social clubs say — masquerades that expose.

The heroine in the book “goes out” — seemingly to her death, and the feel or sound is that of a great explosion. The 1990 film ends with a revolt, Nick enables Offred to escape to a trailer high in the mountains well beyond this terrible empire where we see her pregnant, relieved to be left alone, waiting for him — presumably the people who make such decisions insisted on an upbeat close. It did not feel tacked on: this is a pregnancy not dreaded. This mini-series has made Offred’s daughter central and she says she is staying alive to try to be there to protect her daughter (if she can), rescue her.


It’s worth noting that both are dominatingly white film — thus far Samira Wiley is the only black major character in both movies (Moira here, was Elizabeth McGovern)

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Episodes 1-3


Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s friend from the past (Offred now has a “real” name, June)

Episode 1: The film-makers made an atmosphere of complete appalled terror and horror. From the moment we see the family in flight, to their capturing Offred and her child. The use of violence is continually there and the film punctuated by heartless humiliation, regimentation, breaking of all taboos that are there to help people stay together naturally. I found myself shaking at moments. I was shocked by use rape to destroy people, and to make women (including Offred) attack someone viciously and ferociously.  Offred joins in, is even first to start beating the man labeled rapist mercilessly. The women are like dogs who from the punishment and the rage they feel are then drivne to wreak their vengeance on another helpless person. I worried Ofglen, the woman whom Offred goes shopping with, and seems to be making friends with, is not a traitor. Everyone is treacherous. But she is “disappeared” by the third episode. Some moments reminded me of the first movie. Moira in both is violently beaten and stipped naked, put to bed. The horror of the “maid” used as a receptacle for sperm while the husband systematically fucks her and she is made to lay in the wife’s arms. How the wife hates this. t. Offred witnesses the husband going into an elegant dinner party with the wife shut out in both iterations. The use of far shots is fascinating: these make us see the characters as so many tiny figures in a glass bowl, de-humanizes them into a maze.


The commander


His wife, Serena Joy

Episode 2: I can’t take more of this kind of thing than an hour in a row so waited another night before watching again. This is transition. The ever so gentle Mr Waterford (the commander played by an actor who reminds me of Ralph Fiennes when he plays these gentle loving brother-types so this is high irony; he chooses to impose scrabble on Offred nightly -(One Austen connection is with Emma! — Caroline Austen suggested one source for the depiction of Mr Woodhouse at backgammon with Emma was a real older male relative in the Lloyd family who tyrannized his granddaughters into nightly backgammon … for one night might be amusing but not continually.)
 
There is throwback to Offred’s memories of a having her child normally by her husband, but tellingly, the film makes that experience not altogether blissful: she is controlled by others as she fulfills routines taught, and her husband scoots out at the first opportunity. This mini-series has the nerve, the daring to bring out the analogies of “normal” life to this dystopia.  The bully woman in charge is so hypocritically proud of Moira for breast-feeding.  (I refused to breast feed the second time, I found myself after a vast hemorrhage asked if I wanted to try to breast feed — I told them you must be mad but they never blinked  — I could go on with this about how I was unknowingly dragged into some vast room where women were being taught to breast-feed, it took strength and never with that ridiculous IV to walk out).  Nothing is to be trusted: the woman Offred had started a relationshio with, Ofglen is replaced by another woman claiming to be her. Ofglen had told her not to trust the Commander’s driver, Max Minghella.

There is no gratuitous physical violence but the emotional violence through repression and perversion is continual and far sharper, a sort of continual emotional abuse which destroys pesonalities.


Aunt Lydia — the actress is made to look like people typically put into domineering intimidating roles, with expressionless faces, hard dense bodies ..

Episode 3 shows us in fragments how an originally semi-free society (ours) was turned into a dictatorship with women as slaves. First their bank accounts are frozen, then they have no money, then they are fired. Offred’s husband doesn’t mind it seems; he’ll protect her. But he can’t. Demostrations are seen, people beaten shot in the streets, especially women. All these remind me of what I see on TV when black lives matter people demonstrate, when the Occupy Wall Street Movement was brutally scattered, and people in the streets maimed for life. These are fragments of memory of Offred: she is thought to be pregnant and is phonily treated as precious. But after a hideous interrogation (she is given electric shock treatments each time she violates some speech prohibition or shows the least independence) she gets her period back and is again driven as a hated thing by the wife.

In each of the separate incidents, every profound violation a woman can know is done — I assume the last scene of the girl with a bandage over her vagina means she’s been subjected to female genital mutilation. raped, beaten, used utterly sexually, hung to death. It is moving slowly and instinct or some knowledge of long watching of these mini-series tells me it’s going at the speed of Outlander (16 episodes = 1 book much longer than Handmaid’s Tale) but it’s been so long since I read the book. A couple of allusions come from recently — about the constitution. Recent allusions I’d say are prophetic unless the writers had in mind Trump winning with Pence as his vice-president (Pence will not be alone in a room with a woman he says).

Note that I have not re-capped the mini-series; those wanting recaps must go elsewhere but here is an abbreviated review (by “anibundel” of I Should Have Been a Blogger) more or less done with an eye to the audience member who wants a recap. One should of course reread the book carefully, and then re-see all three episodes and then move on to the fourth. What is troubling about this mini-series is the hundred-fold increase in violence from book and first film: we are inured and most be given horrific behavior it seems before we are affected, and what this does is inure us further. I am worried that like Nabokov’s Lolita, this is an art work which invite us to revel in the subjection of women (especially since romance, marriage and motherhood are treated a holy subjects), while claiming through irony to attack the patriarchal bosses. See Francine Prose in the New York Times and think seriously about this.


A close-up landscape — from a later episode not yet aired on Hulu

Ellen

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Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window Shutters

Dear friends,

About two years ago now (how time flies) I chaired two panels whose topic was supposed to be single women living alone befoe the 19th century. Single did not mean unmarried necessarily: rather a woman living as a single woman without a man as husband, father, brother, uncle, or some form of “guardian” cousin. I did not specify that the women had literally to be living alone but was looking rather for someone who had the highest authority in the house, was not with someone else as her peer. I was aware that out of six papers accepted for this panel “as near enough,” only one was about real women living alone — and in these two cases, the woman, Charlotte Lennox and Charlotte Smith, were married and separated from their husbands, with children and servants and other people as burdens in the household too. The others were about fictions, nunneries, a love affair in letters (two young people being forbidden to marry), and my own on widows and widowers in Austen, where only a few in the fictions could be described as living alone for any considerable period of time, with the exception of the impoverished (Mrs Smith, Miss Bates). The fact of non-marriage as shaping their living conditions was not brought up except explicitly for Miss Bates.

I was encouraged by editors scouting about to develop a prospectus for an anthology of essays on this topic, but I was immediately confronted with the reason for the lack of papers. I had no study to fall back on, only individual books part of which might swirl around this topic (single women — meaning spinsters — in a given period, or widows in 18th century France). Studies were done of fictions because there at least the topic was defined and individuals clearly described — there is a problem of definition itself as the unacceptability of the state led many women to keep their state invisible (Felicia Hemans springs to mind). On the one hand, I felt there were so many women of this type when I began to look, and on the other how a firm conception to bring them together had not been developed. You could get articles or chapters on the pressure on women to marry, but then what was discussed was marriage. No one wanted to look; this was not interesting unless the woman was seeking power and it was this search for gaining power that was the interest. I asked friends who had more status than I to join me as an editor (to ask other people to write essays is to need status oneself), but all were busy with other projects. I am a retired adjunct lecturer aka independent scholar. A second obstacle was finding people; this requires a circle of close friend-scholars with the same interests who see somke advantage to themselves in appearing in this anthology. One last: one friend said I might find it becomes “too lesbian” (in effect) and so be sure to cover a wide range of types! (contact people privately before resorting to the CFP).


Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Modern Women

But I had not quite given up the topic. It’s too close to my heart now. Last term (at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University) I taught a class I called 19th century women of letters and my proposal to do it again with a different set of books has been accepted at OLLI at Mason for the coming fall. It hadn’t taken long for me to realize that the typical women of letters was a woman supporting herself, often living alone if I used the expanded definition. It does seem as if living truly alone, literally (though still an anomaly), is a phenomenon only found in the 20th century: essentially it requires that a woman have a good paying job or income (I thought of Virginia Woolf’s desideratum of £500 per year, the equivalent today would be $35,000 per year); and that the norms or mores of the community do not allow male thugs to molest her on the supposition she must be a prostitute (in effect). Before the 19th century there was no large general literary marketplace, few circulating libraries, few magazines. All this was the basis for the 19th century woman of letters:

19th Century Women of Letters

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” and Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and “The Library Window.”  We’ll also read brief on-line excerpts from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” and Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women”.

Now suddenly a thought has occurred to me which I had not been able to reach before: I could do a book on this topic if I chose 6 women I could write about myself. I had so worried myself over the obstacles to an anthology. But I can write a book on my own. I have the Library of Congress and Folger nearby, and access to two university libraries, one with the database. I can now see an introductory chapter; the body of the work; and a conclusion. I don’t know why I couldn’t break through to this before. Maybe need. I need absorbing work I can genuinely respect and look at as useful to others beyond giving myself some kind of meaning. I have now faced that I will be alone most of the time for the rest of my life. I can blog, teach, write and read to participate with others, but I want some overarching goal to guide me. An introductory chapter, a chapter on a specific woman and outline and I could try to send this to one of those editor-publishers whose names and presses I still have.


Another possible candidate: Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), disabled, she supported herself and her mother by her pen

So I’ve begun reading again Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love, The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle. I’m in the second half, the chapter on the relationship of Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle, and remembered a brilliant portrait of them by Virginia Woolf in her Second Common Reader.

Woolf’s essay is a delight. She manages to convey Geraldine and Jane’s lesbianism without openly showing it — so this is a kind of post-James text. I refer to how Eva Sedgwick says lesbian and gay texts around the time of Henry James were using various subterfuges but coming out much more to show gay and lesbian experience. Carter takes another step into transvestism and gender ambiguity which except for the high-jinks of Orlando I don’t see in Woolf.

I was drawn to the pathos of these women in Woolf. Clarke’s Ambitious Heights rather brings out how hard Jane Carlyle was on her women servants — she worked them like semi-slaves, and also made them be a personal comforter to her. Let me say that was wrong of Jane Carlyle; Clarke made me wonder if other women did this. I know that male masters did bugger their male servants, and the only control was fear of blackmail. Woolf doesn’t have the space to explain why Jewsbury lived far away, how she came to London to live close. There were two visits of living together, and the first a disaster, the second a reinforcement. Paradoxically for us a disappointment because the letters stop when they live around the corner from one another. Today they might start to text and tweet at one another. Then Jane’s need of Geraldine but after her sudden death (from fatigue? from stress? from repressive years and years of wearing down her organs), Geraldine spends 20 years alone. The one photo we have of Jewsbury shows her quietly reading, all dressed up. Unlike Woolf who is daring for her time, Clarke does not bring up or out the probable lesbianism of Carlyle and Jewsbury (Jane and Geraldine). It was published in 1990; Clarke doesn’t even discuss the possibility. 26 years ago maybe it was verboten to get an academic respectable if feminist book published.


Geraldine Jewsbury

I also started Kirsteen, which I am relieved to say is as excellent as Oliphant’s Hester, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car: A sequel (about the later years of one of the heroines in the first book), or long ago now (I don’t remember it as well any more) Cousin Phoebe. I just love Oliphant’s books and she would be one of my subjects. I need to narrow each one of six to the trajectory of women living alone, why, how, with what results. I have been wanting to blog on her powerful if flawed The Marriage of Elinor and thinking about this novel in terms of this perspective, brings out what Oliphant is meaning to say by this book, and its continued effectiveness today.

My reading of The Marriage of Elinor went on late at night; I turned pages feverishly because like other of Oliphant’s novels I couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and only towards the middle became aware (as is so common with Oliphant) that it’s not centrally about the character of the young heroine, after whom it is name, Elinor, or she’s secondary; the center is shared by her mother, Mrs Dennistoun whose first name was finally uttered: Mary.

The book is about a woman who gives all to a daughter who continually makes very bad choices. And why are they bad? because she chooses what the world says is admirable. Elinor marries Philip Compton, a macho male handsome man who takes her into expensive society and she finds herself emotionally corroded, among hollow people, a target for monetary fleecing. The book’s true hero, John Tatham has not been passionate and aggressive enough in his proposal to her. He is a kind of Henry James male who does not commit himself emotionally until it’s too late. Sheltering Elinor destroys her life. No one is willing to tell her (including her mother) why she should not marry Phillip Compton who turns out to be (not to put a fine point on this) far more than promiscuous and a gambler: he’s a downright criminal whom her world protects from censor because of his rank and family. The way the story is set up it seems to be about the young heroine — which is what happens in Hester and why it gets off to a very slow start, with us realizing only gradually the young heroine, Elinor, is a doppelganger to the older her mother (Hester is this to her aunt-in-law, Catherine Vernon). It’s very much both and about how destructive is the norm which will not allow a girl to know anything about the world, try to support herself and not be a helpless hanger-on, but find some fulfillment of her own.

Merryn Williams who wrote the best of the three recent books in English on Oliphant says the point of The Marriage of Elinor is to show us how little sexual passion and the reasons for marriage out of love last a very short time; what women care for is motherhood. Men cannot understand these feelings. Elisabeth Jay reminds her reader this is a late novel and she concentrates on the woman in it I’ve not mentioned: dissolute, amoral, endlessly in society (a sort of Helene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) who is represented as repellent. Jay does not respect this novel, mentions it because it is not romantic and shows the real psychology of a desperately bad marriage (in terms of either party getting any fulfillment).

As Elinor sees how bad her decision to marry Compton is, she does all she can to hide the truth. There are hints Compton hits her. Her happiest times it now seems to her were when she was left by this husband to live with her mother and her boy. Finally she separates heself him for the sake of her son, so the son shall not be brought up to become another amoral man. Her mother has given up a great deal of money to Philip as a kind of bribe. Meanwhile Elinor allows her fear of what the world might say adverse to her pride drive her decisions: say to move from the comfortable home her mother has lived in most of her life (it appears to be near Dorking, so Sussex) way up north. She will not send her precious son to a school where he is surrounded by peers because is determined to keep from him who his father was for real, and his background. In court Elinor gives a testimony literally true, but false in what it implies, and the ne’er-do-well husband is himself let go, and returns to having nothing to do with her once he gets his hands on enough money to live luxuriously. But by the end of the novel she has silently conceded the man she married is a criminal type even if he has a title, and she goes to live alone up north, leaving her son with Tatham whose advice she has finally relied upon. The crucial last turn of the book is the question of whether her son will turn against her when he realizes all his life he has been kept away from others, gone to a school where he was not with his own class or boys of his own intellectual level; he does not partly because John Tatham has stayed by his side and provides the explanation and continuity the boy needs. The two women end up living alone in peace at the book’s end

Oliphant reminds me a little of Charlotte Smith: not finding a new radically changed structure on which to plot her story. She often wants us to see her characters confronting hegemonic norms of other people and unable to break them down — in many areas of life and death too. We are supposed to heavily criticize Elinor. I am so used to the conventional stance of pro-heroine, but in these latest scenes what Elinor wants to do (flee the law) is so egregious. Each time flight: each time refuse to cope with what she has created and wrecking havoc on those she says her actions are protecting. The book critiques the passive romantic supposedly super-virtuous heroine; she must come out and she must engage with the situations she’s created. The power of the book comes from what seems a skewed POV divided between Tatham and Mrs Denistoun who anguish over Elinor

How did Kavanagh, Jewsbury, Oliphant manage it? Woolf? I end on Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

So, added to Austen and sheerly the 18th century, woman artists, and foremother poets, I hope blogging here by thinking through work I do towards a book by me to be called The Anomaly. I’m an anomaly by the way. Not because I fit the definition of nearly living alone (which I do): a widow, with my unmarried daughter, a librarian and two cats, but because I’m a very learned scholar with no rank and no income except my widow’s annuity and social security, and the money my mother and Jim left me; because I teach at a place where I don’t quite fit either as a student (yesterday I became aware of how many of the women at AU went to elite or Ivy League colleges and studied to be lawyers and other professionals — they can have no idea who I am, from a free university, getting there by bus, studying English Literature) or teacher (I overdo), and because my social life such as it is is here on Net. Is this enough to be getting on with? I’ve got many rooms of my own and for now more than the minimum income …

Ellen

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Stories of 25 Dundee women

Friends,

Since part of the “mission” of my blog is to call attention to women artists and writers, feminists, and forgotten women’s real lives, I thought I’d alert my readers here to a new book on Scottish women written and arranged by the Lothian Women´s Forum of the WEA (Workers Educational Association). I was told about it by a German friend, Andrea Schwedler, who lived in Scotland for 16 years, now mourning the severance from the EU of the United Kingdom (itself possibly breaking up now that the Tories want to take Henry 8 powers and the Scottish and perhaps a majority of the Northern Irish voted to remain). While living there, Andrea was belonged to this forum. They asked themselves how do women want to be remembered when we are dead? — as opposed to how they are remembered (wives, mothers, sisters, nieces). What should be written on women’s graves? What are the differences in remembering women and men. They researched the different graveyards in Edinburgh — it all sounds very gloomy but it was an inspiring time for women working with other women, for meeting women from all walks of life.

Here is the day they launched their project:


Click to learn their names

Here are fourteen women whose lives and work the Lothian Association discovered and wrote about. Click on each of the gravestones and you’ll discover much information and insight into the individual woman’s life, e.g., Isabella Lucy Bird (who made Caryl Churchill’s table in Top Girls). Much less well-known is Agnes White Miller by Andrea, the struggle of an unmarried woman to live a fulfilled professional and personal life in the 19th century. Andrea also covered Mary Syme Boyd, a sculptor.


A carved dog

I can’t resist showing how after a day-long session on Scottish women writers, Excuse My Dust (a Dorothy Parker epitaph), they included one of my favorite 19th century writers, Margaret Oliphant

Four of the women on this page are women whose books I’ve read and liked, some I’ve discussed here, and six 18th century: Susan Ferrier, Elizabeth Hamilton, Chistian Isobel Johnstone, Mary Brunton, Charlotte Lennox, Jane Porter (Austen we know read Hamilton, Brunton and Lennox).


Said by Merryn Williams to be a highly original novel about the pains of marriage Agnes experiences (and deteriorate her character), how she is done in by a jealous upper class sister-in-law Beatrice, a single woman:

[Life is] full of broken threads and illogical conclusions, and lacks altogether the unity of a regularly constructed fiction, which confines itself to the graceful task of conducting two virtuous persons through a labyrinth of difficulties to a happy marriage … Yet at the same time everybody knows that there are many lives which only begin after that first fair chapter of youthful existence is completed ….

Reading the Dundee and Scottish women website has re-energized me to write a third series of women artists blogs. This series will not try to cover early modern through the 21st century but be tilted towards the 19th and 20th century. I’ll begin with Anna Dorothea Therbush (1721-82),


1762, Self-portrait

of course include Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825, a Scottish woman letter-writer and diarist, known for her time in South Africa, and water-colors from India), about whom a new biography has come out,

and conclude a third year and round on Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945).

I close this blog on a pair of poems by a Scottish poet of the early 20th century, Olive Fraser (1909-77)

Lines Written after a Nervous Breakdown.1

I’ve forgotten how to be
A bird upon a dawn-lit tree,
A happy bird that has no care
Beyond the leaf, the golden air.
I have forgotten moon and sun,
And songs concluded and undone,
And hope and ruth and all things save
The broken wit, the waiting grave.

Where is that mountain I must climb
To gain again some common time,
Not this stayed clock-hand that must be
Some foretaste of eternity?
Where is that task or terror that
Will wake a slow magnificat
From this dead sense, from these dull eyes,
That see no more to Paradise?

There is no night so deep as this
Inevitable mind’s abyss,
Where I now dwell with foes alone.
Feather and wing and breathing bone
And blessed creatures come not here,
But the long dead, the aguish fear
Of never breaking from this hold,
Encapsuled, rapt, and eras old.

There is no second of escape.
As with some forest-wandering ape
Whose sad intelligence may go
So far and nevermore may grow,
I am enchained most subtly by
A thousand dendrons ’til I die,
Or find my mountain, storm and shock
This graven hour and start the clock.

September 1964

Lines Written After a Nervous Breakdown.2

Come, lamefoot brain, and dance and be
A merry carnival for me.
We are alive in spite of all
Hobgoblins who our wits did call.
With ghosts and gallowsbirds we went
Hundreds of leagues ’til, fiercely spent,
We laid ourselves to weep and cry
Beyond the house of memory.

We have been lepers, and now run
To sit again within the sun,
And smile upon some country fair
With Punch and poor dog Toby there.
We, who did only think to die,
Now laugh and mock the revelry.
Up, barefoot brain, and fill your hall
With flags as for a festival.

Yet you are poor and slow to do
The blessed things I ask of you .
Haunting with spectres still and still
Remembering your dungeon’s chill.
Where you did cower and aye did grow
A frenzied circus for your foe,
Who sought you in the blood’s dim arc,
And in the night-time, in the dark.

Peace, friend, and think how we are here
Through dangers, desolations, fear.
We two alone, now all is o’er,
Will never move from pleasure more.
We two will sit like birds i’ the sun
And preen and pipe while others run
And straddle in the world’s proud play.
We have been night, who now are day.
October 1964

Olive Fraser was born in Kincadineshire, lived in Redburn, Nairn, graduated from Aberdeen University in 1927, Honors English degree, an award for most distinguished graduate in the arts; attended Girton College, Cambridge, Chancellor’s Gold medal for poetry 1935. She served in WRNS in World War II, and after was librarian at Bodleian. In 1956 she was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic, put in an asylum from which she did not emerge until 1961 when a woman physician correctly diagnosed her problem as hypothyroidism. Helen M Shire has edited a volume of her poetry: The Wrong Music: the Poems of Olive Fraser (1909-77). Here is a much fuller biography with more poems, some in Scots.

(from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed. Catherine Kerrigan


Early 20th century Scottish Impressionism (found on-line in gallery of Scottish artists)

Ellen

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From the 1981 Sense and Sensibility: Irene Richards as Elinor is seen drawing and walks about with art materials (BBC, scripted by Alexander Baron)

Friends,

I found myself unable to reach the Jane Austen and the Arts conference held at Plattsburgh, New York last week. I have told why in my life-writing Sylvia blog.
Happily for me, the conference organizer was so generous as to offer to read the paper herself, and had it not been for a fire drill, would have. Two of the sessions, one mine was supposed to be part of, were sandwiched together so she read from the paper and described. I was told there was a good discussion or at least comments afterward. Since I worked for a couple of months on it — reread all six of the famous fictions, skimmed a lot of the rest, went over the letters — and read much criticism on ekphrastic patterns in Austen and elsewhere, the picturesque in Austen, her use of visual description, not to omit related topics like enclosure, a gender faultline in the way discussions of art are presented, I’ve decided to add it to my papers at academia.edu.

Ekphrastic patterns in Austen.

I hope those reading it here will find my argument persuasive, and my suggestion for further work on Austen using her discussions of visual art and landscape useful.


From the 1983 Mansfield Park Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price gazes at the maps her brother, William has sent her as she sits down to answer his latest letter or just write herself (scripted by Ken Taylor) – her nest of comforts in her attic includes window transfers of illustrations

Ellen

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Varo, Harmony (1956)

Friends and readers,

Hers is a story of three women artists who formed strong bonds of friendship in Mexico during World War Two and flourished afterwards: her art has women at the center of pictures, fairytale like, archetypal, sometimes charming and comic, telling psychoanalytic & occult & melancholy tales …

Of the women surreal artists of the 20th century, Remedios Varo stands out for drawing full-bodied complete women more frequently than any of the others (sometimes in groups!):


Varo, Embroidering Earth’s Mantle

She is further unusual because many of her pictures can be characterized as pretty and pleasant to look at. One can even apply the word charming to her pictures, a word not appropriate for most of 20th century surreal school:


Varo, A Paradise of Cats

She catches attention because her pictures have a strong fairy tale or archetypal element which would at first seem susceptible to today well-known and once common Jungian or Freudian symbolic analysis (and for those of her paintings where you can find an explanation, you discover that after having recourse to Joseph Campbell’s allegoresis in Hero with a Thousand Faces, this is what the critic is doing). She stands out because she seriously read mystic, magical, astronomical and alchemical treatises:


Varo, Creation with Astral Rays


Varo, Creation of Birds (1958)

Joanna Moorhead and Teresa Arq have come to the conclusion that also unlike most of the women surreal artists, together with Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), and the photographer and Hungarian artist, Kati Horna (1912-2000), her two close friends, Varo was able to escape the misogynistic grip of the male repertoire of images, because the three women formed such close bonds in Mexica after 1943, and supported, companioned, and inspirited one another to carry on (see Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna: Essays by Stefan van Raay and Nicola Johnson; Joanna Moorhead, Teresa Arq, Michelle Suderman, Antonio Rodriguez-Rivera. London: Ashgate: Pallant House Gallery, 2010). All three had unusually supportive spouses or partners (most of the surreal women artists took a very much secondary place to the surreal male artists they lived with or married); they found themselves with a group of male supportive friends. All married (defying the surreal idea that marriage must destroy a woman’s creativity), two had children (Carrington and Hora), and the three women spent hours together in their homes. They would spend time together talking (often of political issues), in the kitchen, reading, and then paint scenes reflecting their lives together, as in this semi-comic scene:


Varo, Vegetarian Vampires –they are eating watermelons, tomatoes, strawberries, with a rose on the table, pet chickens nearby

When you look to see how Remedios Varo’s pictures are understood, you find a variety of allegoresis all of which cohere or come together to form a single encompassing vision. In a fascinating article bringing together Varo’s pictures with the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Elizabeth Sanchez finds that after both made a journey down the Orinooko in Venezuela (separately, they did not know one another), both positive analogous stories of self-discovery, creativity, and spiritual rebirth. Sanchez organizes a number of Varo’s paintings to follow a heroine’s successful happy adventures into the unknown in realms of art; the quest makes the artist become one with the natural world. It must be admitted the imagery is fantastical:


Varo, Exploration of the Sources of Orinooko


Varo, Cosmic Energy (1956)

Dino Comisarenco Mirkin finds that the paintings trace a maturation process, telling stories of rupture, process, journeys, escapes, wondrous acceptance:


Varo, Outside the Tower (1960)

By contrast, Janet Kaplan explains Varo’s paintings in a feminist vein (which allies them more to the work of Kay Sage and Frida Kahlo): this one reminds me of Bemelman’s Madeline books


Varo, A Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst’s Office (1960)

This is said to be a reverse Rapunzel:


Here a woman is kept passive and is unnerved by a male head, with glaring eyes, he licks her neck


Varo, Unexpected Presence

Still, Kaplan finds on the whole a progressive journey with different moments of insight.


Varo, Spiral Transit (1962)

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A photograph of Remedios Varo in Mexico (with a pet cat)

Maria de Los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Urango was born on 16 December 1908, in a small town in Girona, Spain. Her parents were middle class, educated, worked for liberal causes; her father, Rodrigo, worked as a hydraulic engineer, her mother a devout Catholic. Both influenced her but the father more: he encouraged her to read, to independent thinking, provided her with science and adventure books (including Edgar Allen Poe). His successful career (including working directly for the Spanish king) took the family to Cadiz and then Madrid. She studied for a BA in a college of arts and crafts and a Madrid Fine Arts Academy whose students included other later respected painters (and Kati Horna’s husband, Jose). She began to paint under the influence of modernist poets (Lorca) and surreal artists. She married a schoolmate, moved with him to Paris, but a year later returned to Barcelona on her own where she became a member of the artistic avant-gard. The Spanish civil war had begun, which changed her (and everyone else’s) life. Her brother, Luis, was killed.


Varo, The Souls of Mountains (1938)

She had fallen in love with the anti-Franco activist, Benjamin Peret, and the pair moved to France where they shared studios with others; she exhibited, collaborated, experimented. She went to the Louvre, other museums and began to read mystic treatises (occult, about Tarot cards), but the Nazis were closing in and Peret and Varo were both imprisoned, experienced traumatizing abuse, and somehow escaping, with the help of a New York rescue committee, managed to flee to Mexico.

I offer only an abbreviated general account (I list articles and books in the comments). There are numerous sites on the Net which recount the phases of her career (this from Spanish artists), some with more details. The central biography is Unexpected Journeys: The life and art of Remedios Varo by Janet Kaplan.. Surreal Friends is especially rich in citations of the books and artists’ work Varo studied,and of course are included many reproductions of Carrington and Horna’s work. All who have followed Varo’s life and work seem to be agreed that her art began to flourish when she moved to Mexico and formed her friendships with Carrington and Horna (see Guardian article). The patronage of Edward James, a rich Englishman who collected their works, and built a house in Mexico where they and other artists (not all surrealists) were welcomed. His close relationship was with Carrington and there are extant revealing letters.

The three women frequented meetings of the followers of German mystics Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff (who also influenced P.L. Travers, known today for her Mary Poppins stories, but also a poet). They were interested in the evolution of consciousness. The two painters read art history, and studied Renaissance artists, especially Paolo Ucello’s strange allegorical secular paintings. They followed his use of natural color. These two paintings show Varo combining some of the older surreal imagery with her new occult preoccupations:


Varo, Hibernation (1942)


Varo, Stealing the Essence (1955)

They were as a group outsiders, Europeans, both marginalized and privileged. One might say the three women had the best of all worlds: their apartness gave them time to be together, and to make art, and their experience of war made them hold together. Varo did however divorce Peret, and by 1948 married a comparatively wealthy man, Walter Gruen, who respected her work and encouraged her to paint. The personalities of the three special women friends were quite different (as is their art); Varo was known as “sharp as a knife, quick-witted, always ready to pick up on new ideas and trends. With Gruen by her side, she became the most ambitious of the three. When she died, apparently unexpectedly, of a heart attack in 1963 (in the same year Kati Horna’s husband died), Gruen dedicated part of his life to cataloguing her works (some 400) and administering a legacy she had inherited from her parents.

*********************


Varo, The Escape

All who write of Varo emphasize the studied, careful and academic vigor of her approach. Early on she had supported herself working for Bayer Laboratories this way. Doubtless some of this came from her training by her father. She would visualize her idea, make precise sketches, trace them onto a panel, and then proceed to use oils. She preferred a limited range of color, linked to the natural world: earth tones, “raw umber,” blues, a monochromatic palette. Joanna Moorhead suggests the viewer remember Leonardo da Vini’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet it seems to me that what engages us are the sudden splashes of playful orange, red, yellows, in starry landscapes much blurred, with these child-like machines:


Varo, Roulette (1955)

My favorite of her paintings combine the marvelous with a style evocative of literary history —


Varo, Troubadour

She does show a real melancholy or depression occasionally, a deep disquiet with the way she is living her life, what she is reading:

Varo, Alchemy: A Useless Science


Varo, [Self-]Encounter

At her best she is tender, shows kindness, and her images seem could be fit into Shakespeare’s later romances


Varo, The Flutist

Ellen

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Eileen Agar (1899-1991), a photo of herself (summer 1935)


Remedios Varo (1908-63), The Flutist (1955)

Carrington: I painted for myself. I never believed that anyone would exhibit or buy my work

Dear friends and readers,

At long last I return to my project on women artists (see first series). I had reached the mid- to later 20th century for a second series. Dora Carrington (1893-1932, Constant Artist) was my choice for the transition from 19th to 20th and early to near mid-20th century.

As I read to look at and read about the art of the last great artist for this 2nd series, Remedios Varo, I discovered she developed her distinctive art in the context a large mid-century movement, about or for which (unfortunately commonly) only a few male names have survived in public consciousness and readily available documentary records: the surreal movement, the most notable artist Andre Breton. Varo is part of a later generation. It’s one which crucially influenced male (Pablo Picasso) and female (Frida Kahlo) alike. The pictures, often nightmarish, symbolic in ways deliberately hard to decipher, capturing the barbarism of the first and second world wars (as these suddenly encompassing global conflicts are called) in learned symbolic and enigmatic ways is not understood nor liked. Many of the women who were involved with men in the movement or on their own made art use torn-off bits of the Freudian sexist psychoanalysis rightly rejected by most feminists (of whatever type). These women often survived by becoming the mistresses of these men; the war broke the curve of many of their careers; too many became isolated, were the third mistress or wife of one of the males; a few killed themselves and their art was not exhibited. Later retrospective exhibits simply omit women except in photographs as attached to the men.

The reality is also that women artists beyond those connected to the surrealists were influenced by them and their use of grotesque, often ugly images, pieces of women’s bodies, heads, with hidden terror as a strong motif, come out of this mid-century movement. The idea is to reject the false Barbie doll body that is imposed on women as a norm in the art of Alice Neel (1900-84) (I don’t reprint these lest they attract the wrong kind of attention to my blog). Paula Rego (b. 1935) paints an discreet version of this kind of thing:


Paula Rego, The Maids (she has also painted Germaine Greer)

Kahlo, Neel, Rego and others want to mirror the assault women feel in their private lives from the public world. What has survived most widely of these women are the hard feminist exposes of Kahlo, photo journalism (once in a while very funny but mostly group and autobiographical photos), and faery tale fantasies:


Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Pastoral


Kati Horna (1912-2000): Couple with a dog

There are several books which as a whole or in part name these women and attempt to tell their lives and account for their art: I’ll be reviewing Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna in my blog on Varo,

and eventually Frances Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves (a history of women’s art which traces it through the most common type of picture by a woman, of herself — cheap, available, explanatory).

For now I want to tell of Chadwick’s insightful astonishingly informative book. I say astonishingly because I came away with 24 names of working women artists. She included short biographies of many of them, and in her book tells of their lives and careers as she goes over their art. The book has many black-and-white images and groups of rich color reproductions.

***********************************************


Kay Sage (1898-1963), Le Passage (1956)

How relevant Deborah Cherry’s thesis that women don’t want to work in the genres invented by men, and when they do so successfully, they change the male genre wholl

The first two chapters tell the central story: Andre Breton and a group of like-minded European men took to Freudian theory and began to make art which visualized an unqualifiedly sexist and symbolic macho male point of view. Picasso belongs to this group. No matter how polite and soft-spoken, understated is Chadwick, she shows Breton and most of the male surrealist artists to be utterly exploitative of women, using them for sexual pleasure and painting them as symbols to feed their vanity and pride. When the women exhibited after the war, they were made fun of — then surrealism was seen as the product of hysteria. The war was as devastating to them as to most other artists in Europe — most of these people seem to have lived and worked in France and when the Nazis took over they fled.

Was anything gained by the women who joined onto these men, beyond temporary meal tickets and what good times and liberty from the stifling conventions of their family backgrounds, when they came from impoverished circumstances and become someone’s mistress lifted out of that. They found themselves in an artistic group where artistic ideals (however sexist) were promulgated; they escaped the invisible prison existence of marriage, babies, and servicing a husband and family; those of them who broke away from these men in order to make art gradually found themselves. Those who accepted these men’s attitudes, had known nothing else. So many came from well to do families or doing well, who would not send girl to formal education after rudiments. Their intellect not trained except by themselves. They did have the enjoyment of these love affairs. Here and there a child is born They found a world of art to belong to — bookstores, exhibits, musical concerts, pleasure outings, parties. What those who began to fulfill themselves as artists had to do though for most of them was break away from the husband who wanted them to serve him (and of course he could have other women if he wanted). Too many ended up impoverished, alone, killed themselves. We see a woman intimidated by a lemur (associated with the night); mirrors and doors suggest a fearful immediate future:


Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012), The Birthday — she was one of several woman artists who became for a while the partner of Max Ernst (a well-known admired surreal male artist)

Tanning is said to have liked reading Ann Radcliffe, Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Anderson; another women artist, Valentine Hugo uses an animal this way in her Dream o December 1929, it’s dream of unconscious talisman for women’s visionary powers.

The surreal male ideal visualizes a woman as an thereal child, or deeply sexual responsive (natch) vamp (with variations). A few manage to project a genuine self-image (not abstractions for world or parts of his body, one of sensibility rather than hallucination. Often they are picturing inward mental life, thoughts displaced and floating in a soup, pictures of much suffering; Wylie Sypher’s old thesis visual art of a period is a counterpart of its literature suggests the women painted the reality of their frightened or lonely consciousness of their body.

The third chapter on “women and sexuality” tells of individual women trying to find a “third way,” something to replace their roles as sex objects, wives, mothers, supporters (they made salaries) or sexually available compliant dreams. One problem I will have is I don’t want to reproduce pornography or anything which can attract the wrong attention so some of me images will seem tame. The pictures by surreal women artists in these chapters are depressive. Kahlo’s famous “women as a broken column” is typical. I take Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938) and Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) to have escaped this prison by using large political events affecting women as their context.


Kollwitz, Woman with her dead Child (1963)

“The Female Earth,” Chapter four, is the longest and where the art of these surreal women artists is centrally described and reprinted. Chadwick says women artists searched for correspondence between the natural world and the unconscious: women in the form of mythic figures like Melusine stand for all powerful nature as female — but provides no explanation for the endless deformed and witheringly sick looks of the figures; a coastline is hideous (is this the only way to escape the confines of conventional life?) Mysticism where we have objects that look like wombs in which an agony has occurred or some miserable woman surrounded by fearful objects, distortions of natural world. Lots of fur. I find I like the playful images best:


Meret Oppenheim (1913-85), Fur Lined Teacup

The artists used automatic painting (letting yourself go), and sounds like the use of drugs was involved, and then one peson prodded on another into drawing or writing words down. Liberating the imagery of the unconscious so they say is done by relying on hallucination and chance techniques –- images of sea, tendrils, smoke, blobs of all sorts, distorted stars – avoid hero’s journey, animal images, fish, people like mummies, ghosts, leafy forms, abstract lines, circles, half circles and ellipses, squares, patterns. Women caressing one another — perhaps lesbian imagery I don’t recognize – protecting their genitals. Women with long beaks, when they are fairy tale like they are a little better, not so wretched. Faces drowning, brutality has terrified them into death like images. When they are in color, they are better, Those that make sense show women miserable. The photographs show women at work. Sexual encounters as explosive, jagged, time after initial shock. Woman as tree – not mentioned by Chadwick as old motif; trees become women. Center of lunar and reproductive cycles. She does see the terror, misery, pain, blood and piercing in Frida Kahlo, deep personal loss, wounded figures, cracked bodies, women hanging upside down by their feet. Kahlo’s Roots is an ironic variation on her husband’s fertile earth. Sage depicts psychic aridity. They reject conventional identification of nurture with women. Agar photographs strange rock manifestations – neolithic rocks by the sea. Discordance images of contemporary holiday-ers and prehistoric nature so goes into Egyptian deserts Psychic desolation becomes political metaphor


Marie Cerminova Toyen (1902-80), Au Chateau la coste (1946)

Chadwick says the in the women’s art is a refusal to differentiate, to assign certain images and areas of painting a greater weight and clarity; that give disturbing effect; all in glowing detail and we feel we have missed the crucial key. Yes that’s it, when we look at the images unless we begin to see the pictures as frantically feminist, they make little sense. The art of Leonor Fini shows her working on tiny things, flowers, plants, insects, debris thrown up by sea, with careful detail. Things loved in childhood take on new sinister meaning. A sphinx by Leonor Fini (1907-96) poses question about women artists in natural and metaphoric process –- this is again an art of fantasy, magic, transformation; ceremonies are depicted, suggesting an ancient world, a system of rites define the passing of time and placate the gods; we have a muse of Construction, devoid of any explanatory symbolism or narrative content. Fini makes paintings of stygian darkness and primordial chaos, states of consciousness dominated by social interaction but “underneath” ruled by instinctual drive and animal need: she would not show women as submissive or subordinate to man; this is an intuitive world too, the sphinx awaits awakening of consciousness.


Leonor Fini, Ceremony — this is a famous one (it seems to me to be a “dark side” of Arthurian myth)

Chadwick’s last chapter is called “The hermetic tradition. n these pictures and this section she again reiterates the male views: women are seen as controlled by childlike vision and magical powers; and he absorbs her into his experience. An artist named Valentine Penrose (1898-1978) saw herself as benign witch. Women’s central role is again to inspire, as a concept, a sorceress with power in creative process. Chadwick reprints Ithell Coluqhoun’s (1906-88) statement that she is creating occult gothic novels borrows, using grail literature. Eileen Agar’s paintings have as titles Mysterious Vessel, Mask of the Night, The Muse Listening. They bought into occult studies like Robert Graves’s absurd The White Goddess (about a chthonic divinity that rules the world). Imagery comes from alchemy.

When they fled the Nazis to Mexico, and re-grouped, or went elsewhere we find fantastic imagery, and the art is gradually transformed to mirror women’s social lives together (Carrington) or inner world of creativity as manifested in newly conceived traditional figures (Varo). A vision of life as a journey, of voyages, stardust, silent. In Mexico, Leonora Carrington wrote a one act play with druidic characters from ancient Britain, imagery from celtic rituals. We see dislocations of space and scale, trying to tamp down bad dreams, insomnia, and also shared visions of women as creative out of natural imagery of everyday life cooking, eating. Kay Sage *1898-1963) who had been born into wealth in the US, returned, went into retreat, and when her husband died, killed herself. Others women were lost in parts of cosmopolitan cultures of what cities they could afford (magazines)

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Dorothea Tanning, Guardian Angels (women need these for protection?) (1946)

In its conclusion the book became to me demoralizing. Chadwick persisted in appearing to respect the male way of inventing punitive and exploitative sexual imagery and many of the women were not able to make a substitute that was viable. They had to break away all together, turning to geology, animals (or their pictures don’t make sense because most are not as frank as Kahlo: the images we see are scary, ugly, hideous, if you get yourself to look at the stick figures you can see women being abused, women disconnected and images which reflect the barbarisms of WW2. Or they are of the natural and crockery (women’s things) world presented playfully now and again. All done indirectly and without words to explain. Chadwick is to be commended for her enormous patience, though her neutral presentation has the effect of endorsing misogynistic Freudianism. But this is the context for mid-20th century art: the visual equivalent of stream of consciousness.

Among the worst things at the book’s close are not just the women’s careers not getting anywhere for most pat, and the attitudes of Leonor Fini and Meret Oppenheim (1913-85). Both protested mightily against being put in a book on women artists. This is a prison, this is a ghetto, they say and the rest of it. But neither are not in the male books nor the exhibitions. Here again Kahlo and Varo transcend this: Kahlo refers herself to her real life; Varo holds herself apart: she uses women as instruments for creating life and beauty; she looks to create harmony, contemplative moods in which figures can function in positive ways we recognize.


Remedios Varo — this one reminds me of Bemelman’s famous Madeline pictures (a girl’s picture book)

Chadwick appears not to take the idea of a l’ecriture-femme seriously; she does not see that across the centuries women’s art focuses on the same kinds of imagery, uses similar cyclical structures, subjectivity, indirectness so she develops no firm alternative women’s aesthetic for the surreal movement.

So as per women’s tradition, Kahlo also painted this China Still Life — filled with her woman’s version of surreal imagery: growths of vegetables:

and her is Varo’s Flowers (her pictures of Paradise of Cats is too well known)

Ellen

 

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