Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"strangers in the country of man"

blackRecently, the British art critic, Brian Sewell had the audacity to proclaim “There’s never been a great woman artist.” In an article in the Independent Newspaper, he was quoted thusly:

"The art market is not sexist," Mr. Sewell said. "The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist.

"Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it's something to do with bearing children."

I’m not so sure that the biological and sociological potential for ‘reduced volume of oeuvre’ can be equated to “lack of greatness.” Within Germaine Greer’s coruscating book, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, the issues of domesticity on the woman artist are addressed. More importantly, she poses questions of note and contends, “The real questions are ‘What is the contributions of women to the visual arts?’ If there were any women artists, why were there not more?’, “If we can find one good painting by a woman, where is the rest of her work?”, “How good were the women who earned a living by painting?” The real questions are based not in the notions of great art entertained by the ‘layman’, which are essentially prejudices, but in the sociology of art, an infant study still in the preliminary stages of inventing terminology for itself.” (pp. 3, pg 6, The Obstacle Race)

These questions floated through my mind while I considered Mr. Sewell’s myopic commentary on women artists. I later reflected on my own question,

“Outside of relative historical obscurity, what does Judith Leyster, the esteemed Haarlem painter of the Baroque Era and Laura Riding Jackson, the talented American poet and essayist who died in 1991 have in common?”

Thanks to the astute observation of the art historian, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, who studied Leyster’s work, we know that Judith Leyster creatively signed her paintings with a monogram, - a five-pointed lodestar shooting from entwined initials, making a play on her last name, which in Dutch, means “Leading Star”.

Despite this cleverness and the mastery of the artist, the name “Judith Leyster” may not quickly rise to the forefront of the average individual’s art-history recollection.

Why? In January 25, 1994, Jo Ann Lewis, an art reviewer for the Washington Post, published an article entitled, “Judith Leyster, the Dutch Master Who Was a Mrs.” The review was published in association with a mini-retrospective at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Herewith is a key extract of the article:

“ Not a single work is known to have been hung in a museum or sold under Leyster's name until 1892, when a lawsuit between two London art dealers forced a closer inspection of a painting attributed to her probable teacher, Frans Hals, and revealed Leyster's monogram under the grime. The lawsuit was settled by reducing the price of the work (now in the Louvre) by 25 percent; but it also prompted the Dutch art historian who had made the discovery to track down six more paintings with Leyster's monogram and publish the first article on her work.”

There is much information about women’s artistic endeavors and how they are received by the critics is contained within those words by Jo Ann Lewis:

Firstly, we become aware that having discovered the authentic creator of the painting, the work has lost commercial value despite having previous received critical accolades by the art community for the fine brushstrokes and nuances of character portrayed in the portraits; this blatantly demonstrates the sexism that is rampant in the valuation of women’s art versus men’s creations.

And, secondly, the good news is that having become aware of the mis-attribution of Leyster’s work as that of Frans Hals’, greater attention was given to identification of similar works that had also be mis-identified.

Here is a short list of some of Judith Leyster’s art that had been previously attributed to other artists:

• Laughing Man with Wine Glass --formerly attributed to Gerard Honthorst

• The Jolly Companions, sold in 1890, (Leyster’s unique monogram had been altered to an interlocking FH)

• The Jolly Toper (acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1897) has her monogram and is dated 1629. It was sold as a Frans Hals at the Hotel Drouot in 1890.

• Yet another Jolly Toper was bought in 1874 by the Kaise-Friedrich Museum as a Frans Hals.

• Self Portrait, 1633, formerly attributed to Frans Hals, (Owned by National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) [please see image at top of this blog]

One can only wonder if the most recent Frans Hals sale of “Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen, Seated on a Chair and holding a Hunting Crop,”, which exceeded its estimated price and sold for £7m at a Sotheby's auction in London will one day be revealed to also truly be the work of Judith Leyester, rather than Frans Hals.

Review of the recent auction notes provides these reassuring comments that could indicate that the work should actually be ascribed to Judith Leyster:

“This is one of Hals' most arresting portraits, and is a familiar image. The tipping chair that bears Van Heythuysen's larger than life presence in a diagonal that fills the picture plane from lower right to upper left, and the whip that he grasps with both hands and bends into an arc are provocative and charge the picture with tension and drama. We think he is about to fall over, but it is obvious from his relaxed form with one leg crossed over the other that he knows he will not, and that the chair will safely bear the bulk of his reposing body. His pose suggests more than nonchalance; it is self-confident. This may suggest to us that Hals has here depicted an archetypal bravo, but the Van Heythuysen that Hals portrays is very far from being a caricature. The pose of his bulky relaxed body with one leg crossed over the other is not that of studied arrogance. Rather it leads us naturally to his sympathetic serious careworn face which belies any bravo stereotype, and which fixes the viewer with an intent but calm intelligent gaze.

As Bijl and Biesboer observed, this spontaneous and informal portrait is unusual within Hals' oeuvre and among Dutch portraiture of the time, and this may be because it was intended for a private chamber – such as the one in which Van Heythuysen is depicted.”

Hank Burchard, seasoned art correspondent for the Washington Post, critically noted in an article dated December 24, 1993, “The assignments to Hals are the most puzzling because, while Leyster apparently was at least briefly one of his students and her brushwork is similar, the tone and atmosphere of her work is very different. Where Hals radiates golden warmth, Leyster's characters are much more coolly and clearly observed. She seizes in particular on those moments during changes of facial expressions when the shutters of the soul are briefly opened to betray the fool within.”

If we use our eyes to look at art, without attention to gender, will we see greater commercial value in the work if we are not blinded by gender?

One may accuse me of wishful thinking -- of being delusional enough to suggest the possibility that the recent painting that sold at Sotheby’s may be not be a genuine Frans Hals work. However, only four years ago, the same painting was sold at an auction in Vienna to an anonymous buyer for a mere $700,000, as the catalog description read, “Studio of Frans Hals”. It was only later authenticated to have been painted by the renowned painter. Surely, as the art community and the business community becomes receptive to the idea that women have created masterpieces, the attributions may be ascribed to women as well as to male artists of the respective period.

It is not uncommon for the work of women’s hands and creative spirit to be credited to men. Historically, Art Guilds, ateliers, and Salons often refused women entry. Despite this, women worked alongside their fathers, brothers, husbands, or lovers to produce works of art in their private studios; the creations were generally attributed to the men in their lives.

Times have not changed greatly. I personally have witnessed women who were barred entry into art and photographic competitions because of their gender, so they submitted their work under the name of a husband or a father, just to have the opportunity to have their work exposed to others and get a “fair” juried appraisal and critical acuity of the work. Ribbons may bear the name of a man, but the truth is known by the principals involved.

It has been said that Laura Riding Jackson, the highly original essayist and poet, is “distinguished by her insistence on defining the value of poetry as truth-value.” As an ardent thinker on language, much of her writing is preoccupied with the precept of truth.

If what you write is true, it will not be so because of what you are as a writer but because of what you are as a being. There can be no literary equivalent to truth. If, in writing, truth is the quality of what is said, told, this is not a literary achievement: it is a simple human achievement.
"Extracts from Communications", from The Telling (London: Athlone Press, 1972).

Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth. Poetic art cheats truth to further and finer degrees than art of any other kind because the spoken word is its exclusive medium.
Preface to Selected Poems (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

To a poet the mere making of a poem can seem to solve the problem of truth…but only a problem of art is solved in poetry.
Preface to Selected Poems (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

Laura Riding Jackson also steadfastly refused to let her own experiences be misrepresented. I believe she would have delighted in the recent headline in the British press which read, “War Poet Robert Graves ‘stole Work from his mistress’.”

The well-written article by the Independent’s art correspondent, Arifa Akbar, includes these passages:

“Few would doubt the brilliance of Robert Graves, a man considered to be one of Britain's foremost war poets whose verses on Greek mythology and frontline conflict cemented his name in literary history.

But one academic has accused the poet of stealing ideas, literary criticism and poetry from his one-time American mistress and passing them off as his own.…..

"Between 1926 and 1939, he was learning from her what she was doing and thinking," Dr. Jacobs said. "He was taking her ideas, her research, he was simply shovelling it in to his own books.... She left her manuscript in Majorca. She later wrote to him [Graves] and told him to burn the manuscript. We now know that he didn't. It all appeared in dribble form in The White Goddess. He used it for his own ends without mentioning it to her. She only found out in the 1950s."

Thanks to historians such as Dr. Mark Jacobs, a fair reassessment of Grave’s and Laura Riding Jackson’s writings will be made in the light of the revelations. Most importantly, greater attention may be brought to the work of a brilliant woman, who was more than a muse, more than a living incarnation of “The White Goddess”, she was an artist concerned with the truth. Like Judith Leyster, thanks to the curious and affirming authoritative researchers who look beyond gender, Laura Riding Jackson’s critical voice will no longer be silent and the truth will shout loudly.

so I began to live.
It was outrageous,

I made mortal mistakes,
I did not mean to live so mortally.

But something must be written about me,
And not by them.
So I began those mistold confidences
Which now read like profanity of self
To my internal eye
And which my critic hand erases
As the story grows too different to speak of
In the way the world speaks.

---Laura Riding Jackson, Memories of Mortalities


Kim said...

hi Sharon
great post!!!
thanks for visiting my blog...
and for the link :)
do you want me to add your blog to new listings (Top 101 Artists' Blogs)??

Pam Hawk said...

Hmmm, maybe Mr. Sewell is not familiar with a lady named Georgia O'Keefe?

Or he is blind to the discrimination of women throughout history when it comes to any creative art: painting, sculpture, writing...

This is ongoing today, where women may not be barred from participating but use masculine names for credibility. (Why can't using a woman's name be credible, anyway?)

Even JK Rowling chose that nom de plume (or variation of her own name) because it sounded more masculine and she didn't think kids would want to read a book about wizards written by a lady.

This past week I visited a Sci-Fi museum in Seattle and was amazed at the number of female authors who published under mens' names, starting way back in the 1920's through today.

I wish Mr. Sewell would examine history as thoroughly as he examines his own ego and stop perpetuating the myth that women are not or cannot be extremely talented, creative people.

Great post - thanks for sharing this!