WOMEN IN THE PICTURE: WOMEN, ART AND THE POWER OF LOOKING

Catherine McCormack

Icon Books, £12.99

Review by Jan Patience

Once upon a time, in the far-off days of the late 1990s when I didn't write about art for The Herald, I was appointed launch editor of a new wedding magazine. Given free rein by the publisher, my brief was to shake up the world of weddings. Our typical reader, we declared, was sassy and made her own decisions.

The first cover girl set out our stall. Pictured making her way through a field of golden corn, long curly hair escaping from a floral diadem, she pointed a red high heel at the reader with a scowl. Feedback from readers was positive, but word filtered through that advertisers were not happy with this unconventional take on being a bride. When issue two hit the shelves featuring a mixed race model "wearing" a painted wedding dress, advertisers started revolting. Money talks. By issue three, images of brides in flowing white gowns and tiaras crept onto the cover and into the pages within.

I was reminded of this period of my working life as a purveyor of words and pictures while reading art historian Catherine McCormack's new post-MeToo treatise, Women in the Picture. Described as a "polemic about patriarchy, feminism and art history", it demands that we look again at the images of women, which fit into a defined set of archetypes derived directly from the annals of art history.

Over 225 passionately argued pages, McCormack makes the case for there being four types of images of women which male artists have purveyed since time immemorial: Venus; mothers; maidens or dead damsels; and monsters. These archetypes live happily among us to this day in magazines, advertising and social media. Apparently so-called #SadGirls of Instagram can trace their lineage back to the Pre-Raphaelites’ damsels in distress.

McCormack, an art historian with Sotheby's Institute of Art's Women and Art programme, begins her polemic with a story about being in London's National Gallery contemplating The Toilet of Venus, painted in the late 1640s by Diego Velásquez. Known as the Rokeby Venus, this languid image of a naked woman lying on a bed facing a mirror held by a "pot-bellied toddler" with wings, is so called because in 1813 it was bought by JBS Morritt of Rokeby Park, Yorkshire.

In 1820, Morritt wrote to his friend, Sir Walter Scott, telling him of how its position above the fireplace made for a flattering play of light on Venus's painted buttocks. The picture seemed to make women uncomfortable, he added.

In 1914, the picture – then hanging in the National Gallery – was slashed in several places by suffragette Mary Richardson, in a bid to highlight the hypocrisy of a picture of a naked woman being more respected than the bodies of more than half the population. It became a cause célèbre, with the press portraying Richardson – and the Suffrage movement in general – as monstrous.

In the Mothers chapter, McCormack – who has two young children – shows how a line can be drawn between early depictions of Jesus's mother Mary to what she terms "the heavily marketed fantasy of the white wedding that was adopted at large in post-war America". One illustration, a cover of The Bride's magazine from 1949/1950, reveals a saintly-looking young woman deep in contemplation depicted in profile behind a curtain of white lace which conceals all but her face.

HeraldScotland: The Bride's Magazine cover, Late Fall and Winter 1949-50 Courtesy Brides MagazineThe Bride's Magazine cover, Late Fall and Winter 1949-50 Courtesy Brides Magazine

That'll be the bridal image I was trying to avoid. And what do you know? In replacing the beatific bride with an argumentative-looking sort, I was reverting to one of art history's great archetypes: a monster.

As McCormack's final chapter reveals, "the witch, the whore and the monster are all really the same archetype". Hillary Clinton fell foul of this archetype during her 2016 presidential campaign. As the Trump v Clinton battle became increasingly toxic, memes appeared with Clinton's features superimposed onto historical images of Medusa, the mythological snake-haired “Gorgon queen-cum-witch-cum-monster whose gaze turned whomever she looked at to stone".

According to Greek mythology, Medusa was silenced by Perseus (born of poor raped maiden Danaë), the only man brave enough to slay her by lopping off her snake-like head. During Trump's campaign, McCormack reminds us, merchandise was available showing Trump as Perseus and Clinton as the headless Medusa.

McCormack also demonstrates how Botticelli's Venus initiated a brand which is alive and well today. Without his medieval depiction of the Goddess of love, sex, beauty, and fertility, there would be no Ursula Andress in a white bikini emerging from the sea in Bond film, Dr No, no Bananarama hit ("I'm your Venus, I'm your fire, your desire") and no recent Gillette TV ad in which a model slinks from the waves, unzips her wetsuit to reveal a white bikini and smooth hairless limbs.

Contemporary women artists, from Berthe Morisot to Beyoncé, Judy Chicago to Kara Walker, have turned archetypes around and given us a visual language with which to tackle questions around female identity, sexuality, race and power. McCormack points to the works of Debra Cartwright, which “subtly undermine the power discourses of the Venus tradition”. The reclining woman in Cartwright's painting, Derica’s LA Loft, does this partly by closing her eyes, “denying the beholder any of the power that comes from seeing the nude aware of performing for our pleasure”.

In the Monstrous Women chapter, McCormack introduces the sexually voracious Lilith, whom Michelangelo depicted in blink-and-you'll-miss her style in his Fall and Expulsion from Paradise panel on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. For those in the dark (I was), Lilith was Adam's first wife. Lilith reputedly refused to lie underneath Adam during sex and, is writes McCormack, "a reminder of what happens when God tried creating man and woman as equals from the same soil".

Artists down the centuries – mostly all male – have incorporated Lilith into the art canon, but in recent times, feminist and queer artists have reclaimed her as a symbol of sexual and economic independence. In 1978, Sylvia Sleigh painted a nine-by-five-foot canvas version of Lilith for a collaborative feminist art project called the Sister Chapel in Long Island City, New York. This Lilith's body is both male and female, with the female body on top. In the flesh, so to speak, it must be quite a sight.

In one of many personal asides, which illuminate her text, the author says she had a reproduction poster of the Rokeby Venus above her bed as a teenager. "I had been seduced by Venus into internalising a patriarchal fantasy of womanhood," she writes. You can feel the sigh coming off the page. McCormack is an entertaining writer, but occasionally resorts to overlong academic-style sentences and stock clichés from modern sexual identity politics.

HeraldScotland:

The Rokeby Venus adorns both front and back of Women in the Picture, mimicking a centrefold; a taliswoman for all that resides within its covers. I'm glad this book was written because it felt like scales were falling from my eyes as I read it. Women will continue to be objectified in art and in popular culture, but the book sheds a generous amount of angry light on how we got here.