A peculiarity that separates the core of art history as a profession between the 20th Century and the 16th Century is the presentation of female artists – There is virtually no mention. Gender roles in the current mode of production claim their naissance from the Victorian era. It is the Victorian insistence of separate spheres for womxn compatible with a bourgeois patriarchal ideology that has precipitated into the dismissal and devaluation of womxn artists in the 20th Century. This reduces the history of art as a subjective description, not an objective explanation. As the French critic Leon Legrange summarizes:
“Male genius has nothing to fear from female taste. Let men of genius conceive of great architectural projects, monumental sculpture, and elevated forms of painting. In a word, let men busy themselves with all that has to do with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those types of art they have always preferred, such as pastels, portraits or miniatures...To women above all falls the practice of graphic art, those painstaking arts which correspond so well to the role of abnegation and devotion which the honest woman happily fills here on earth, which is her religion.” (‘Du rang des femmes dans l’art’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1860)
The essay does not wish to objectively outline remarkable epochs of artistic expression but examines critical nodes which instil a philosophical rupture in perspective and attempts to identify oeuvres unheard of. It wishes to unravel the biased history of contemporary art by reviewing the definition and fulfilment of femininity. Transcending a merely terse chronology of art movements, the scope of the essay also finds snapshots of crucial artistic identities that represent ‘the female’.
To situate ‘the female’ and understand the artwork of female artists, one can look towards psychoanalysis and gender theory that point to gender performativity. Gender as a performance and gender performativity differ in the premeditated action – the former signifies that a subject performs predetermined roles, whereas the latter overturns this role and explains how a subject, say, consolidates the impression of ‘being a man or a woman’. Judith Butler uses J.L. Austin’s speech acts in her theories. Gender performativity is described as an illocutionary speech act that produces perlocutionary effects. The intended perlocutionary effects also conform to societal norms. For Butler’s synthesis, the subject does not produce the performance, the opposite is true. It deals with a Structuralist notion of gender as a discursive practice.
In Butler’s work on ‘Gender Trouble’, an acclaimed book for gender and queer theory, Joan Riviere’s notion of ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ is revisited. Riviere’s suggestion is that womxn who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men. The nodal point for the masquerade stems from ‘castration’ and the development of ego from the mirror stage, which lets go of some narcissistic authority for the child. Castration here could very well relate to the genital phase of Freudian infantile sexuality with the development of sensory perception that helps the child differentiate between biological sex organs. It is this differentiation, or through a rather patriarchal lens, the lack of a penis for the womxn that is pointed out as castration. Freud goes on to argue about concepts such as ‘penis envy’ and the acclaimed Oedipal desire to ‘kill’ the maternal symbolic and yearn for the father. The mask serves as a correlate for the anxiety that stems from not fulfilling the expectations of being a female and leads to certain performativity to disguise oneself so that the man finds no stolen property within ‘the woman’:
“She has confessed to me that even with the butcher and baker, whom she rules in reality with a rod of iron, she cannot openly take up a firm straightforward stand; she feels herself as it were 'acting a part', she puts on the semblance of a rather uneducated, foolish and bewildered woman, yet in the end always making her point.” (Riviere 307-308).
The Recalcitrant Surrealist Project
The Surrealist intellectual circle often treated the female as a muse, as an object for representation. It is in these circles where one finds the first instance of gender performativity through the life and career of Meret Oppenheim. A vivid reader of Jungian archetypes and dream analysis, Oppenheim was the perfect suitor for the Surrealist circle, which claimed much of its artistic liberation to Sigmund Freud and his seminal work on the interpretation of dreams. In many of her exhibitions, critics and patrons, assuming the Surrealist circle to be exclusively male, often referred to her as ‘Mr. Oppenheim’. She often renounced the term ‘feminine art’ and substituted it with ‘androgynous creation’. As the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out:
“Psychological androgyny is a much wider concept, referring to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturing, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.”
Her most widely acclaimed Surrealist project features a teacup and saucer covered with fur of a Chinese gazelle, titled ‘Object’. With a charming wit and desire to unzip society of its psychological roots, she mixed fur, an object of feminine luxury and status with another object – a teacup. The assemblage disfigures the signified of the teacup, saucer, and spoon, which is of a civilized character. A view of Object often leads to amusement, irritation, and the uninvited sensation of wet fur. It also indulges the viewer into the frenzy of a soft and delicate touch. The ensemble is a fetishized commodity, but from the perspective of a female psyche already under the influence of a performative dynamism. The soft and hollow teacup can invoke female genitalia, further eroticized by the phallic reference of the spoon. By fetishizing the teacup, Oppenheim momentarily obscures its ideological frame of civil life and fills it with a dramatized anticipation of sexual gratification.
Split Allegiances in India’s Decolonization
Simultaneous in temporal landmarks with the changing culture of Parisian intellectual parlours, the history of art in India presents a colonial experience. Even though Mughal courts disseminated illustrated miniatures, the easel was introduced around the 18th Century with a formidable presence of the East India Company and later by the British Crown. Affluent families of the time popularized colonial art in the country via realist landscapes of the Ganges, Nabobs, and everyday life. The most famous amalgamation of the western easel with pre-colonial and ancient Indian culture can be seen with Raja Ravi Verma. Given the time, he was an anachronism for the changing unconscious of the Indian countryside. His easily available lithographs depicted scenes from Indian epics and created a feudal ‘aura’ of a dismissed Indian past during a period where colonization arguably reterritorialized an ancient superstructure with Victorian ideology.
Erotique voilée, Meret Oppenheim à la presse chez Louis Marcoussis , 1933 Man Ray, Fondazione Marconi, Milano
Meret Oppenheim, Object
1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon, Cup 4 3/8" (10.9 cm) in diameter; saucer 9 3/8" (23.7 cm) in diameter; spoon 8" (20.2 cm) long, overall height 2 7/8" (7.3 cm)
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Subjects of the colonial experience often present a split allegiance – the interpellation of alien signifiers and ideology, and domestic identity shaped by indigenous discursive structures. For female signifiers, said allegiance is the strongest. Ravi Verma presented a similar duality. The interplay of mannerist and often baroque characteristics to create a realist portrayal of ancient mythology was a scene of awe for landscape enthusiasts among the British legion of painters and the bourgeoisie. However, such ‘outdated’ premises and storylines set the stage for another school of artists in Bengal that not only reacted against Ravi Verma, but utilized religious signifiers to narrate a story for India’s subsequent decolonization. It is here that the first instance of modernism in Indian art is witnessed.
The Bengal Renaissance may as well rival the Medici’s patronage in Italy for it authored a dense sketch of Indian nationalism and regional integrity that still instils its character. The birth of Brahmoism with Raja Ram Mohan Roy is another instance of split allegiance – reformist and revivalist practices within the guise of traditional faith. Abanindranath Tagore’s first rendition of ‘Bharat Mata’ re-signifies the performativity of the female body. Recognizing traditional patriarchal notions that map the female psyche with nourishment and motherhood, Bharat Mata revives, exploits, and magnifies this identity within a national context as the first ‘emotional’ push towards decolonization.
The anti-colonial feminist critique outlines a comparison of the hybridity of the colonial and the colonizer and finds a new niche of performativity in the context of modernity. Among the predominantly male persona of Santiniketan and the Bombay Progressive Artists, emerges the split psyche of Amrita Sher-Gil. Born and raised as a Hungarian – Indian among an affluent bourgeois family, Sher-Gil was instructed at the Academy des Beaux-Arts and admired Cezanne and Paul Gaugin. Perhaps Gaugin’s fetishized Tahitian women proved to be a focal point for her paintings of Indian subjects. The perception of Sher-Gil often remains elusive and fairly foreign, having several British loyalists in her family. However, she remains conflicted between her national identity as quintessentially Indian and a deep persona of ‘being a woman’. She entered a changing Indian art scene where her nationality was a battleground and her gender was a source of symbolism for the nationalist struggle. Amrita’s quasi nationalist palette relates as well as separates her from the likes of the Bengal School and the Progressive Artists with a static albeit neorealist training of the easel that paid homage to Ajanta murals and the Mughal miniature which highlights metaphorical brevity in her work.