Feminism And Art History Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:28:53
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Category: History

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The history of mankind has often been captured in snapshots between the rise and fall of great leaders and civilizations, by artists all with a common dream of portraying what they saw during their times. Ideologies reflective of their societies were depicted through sculptures, frescoes, pottery, paintings, and many other methods. Many of these principals were created, celebrated, and popularized by constituents of societies where andocentric values were applied not only to social and political mores, but also to the various art forms as the male body was cherished and praised and the female body was hidden away from public view.
The book Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrad, strives to examine the role of women in art history as well as articulating the pleasures and problems of artistic pieces in a contemporary feminist vantage point. According to Broude and Garrad in the introduction, modern feministic views have changed the scope of art history in that “? ‘… feminism has raised fundamental questions for art history as a humanistic discipline, questions that are now affecting its functioning at all levels and that may ultimately lead to its definition. In this book they have dissected widely accepted paradigms of the beauty aesthetic, which directly challenges the idolization of the male physique.
In the chapter entitled “Matrilineal Reinterpretation of Some Egyptian Sacred Cows” by Nancy Luomala the concept of power is discussed as Luomala scrutinizes the ancient power structures of Egyptian society, and how in fact it’s actually through matrilineal descent that men were able to receive the status of Pharaoh. Luomala theorizes that it was the Egyptian “Great Wife that made whomever she married into a living king.
I found her analysis of the definitions of the ancient symbolism in regards to power and kinship, and how she uses the different images and monuments to elucidate her argument intriguing. Through images such as the cow deity, a sycamore, the cobra, horns, sun disk, and vultures the symbols of female royalty graced the art forms of Egypt, and represented regeneration, birth, life, power, and sustenance. The author also made it clear through constant repetition that the hand of power in Egypt wasn’t the Pharaoh but it was the Queen.
The Queen was the one who passed the power on through her daughters, through marriage, or through her bloodline with male relatives and uses many examples of historically famous Pharaohs. Tutankhamen became king because he married one of Queen Nefertiti’s daughters, Ankhesenamon, and upon the death of Tutankhamen Ankhesenamon succeeded the throne because of his blood relationship with Queen Nefertiti. (Luomala pg. 21). Another example used was about the reign of Queen Hatshepsut and how although married, she retained power because she didn’t allow any of her husbands to rule as pharaoh.
Therefore Hatshepsut legitimizes the fact that women were the actual heirs to the throne and also the ones that passed it down when they chose to. Thus, Luomala deems, Egyptian art needs to be reexamined so that the definitions of succession and dynasty reflect the matrilineal aspects. The next chapter I read was Social Status and Gender in Roman Art: The Case of the Saleswoman by Natalie Boymel Kampen which talks about the different roles gender and social class played in professions in ancient Rome.
One of the contributions of art is that art can tell people from later generations, social truths about a society. Kampen strives to show how gender and social status “? ‘… interacted as determinants of visual images along with other variables as period, artists’ or patron’s taste, or function of an object. ” (Kampen pg. 63). Kampen explains how Roman society was patriarchal and that behaviors were results of status and gender power relationships.
Roman women had a difficult position in their society in that although they were granted more freedoms than upper class Athenian women (pg. 4), they still were not allowed to retain positions in Rome’s political sphere and they were still “? ‘… legal dependents with little institutionalized power, even in their own homes” (Kampen 64), although they were able to sue for divorce, and even their own property. Through images of the Roman working woman, Kampen illustrates that gender and social status affected the way women were portrayed in art.
Kampen argues that placement, pose, gesture, costume and hairstyle all function as ways of identifying female vendors and separating them from customers as well as from upper class women (p. 5). The author also shows how gender plays a huge role in the portrayals of working men and women, by explaining how male merchants show up frequently in art forms but there are no signs of female merchants. Females are seen in menial positions such as holding dogs on their laps or holding spindles, or sitting while their maids attend their hair, and Kampen interprets this as women portrayed as “? ‘… evidence of the wealth of their husbands in that they need do nothing but attend to their appearance and leisure” (pg. 69).
Any profession that benefited humanity, either through education or medicine, was seen in as its own category and respect was not dependent on social class. Even slaves that were doctors or midwives were respected in the Roman society and that status could have been gender blind, according to the written works of Roman times including those done by Cicero, although the images depict women as “? ‘… matrons in portraits, or as idealized participants in myth (pg. 71),” but men were shown as themselves and their status reinforced by the association with a philosopher or Aesculapius, the healing god.
Kampen concludes by discussing how the image of women portrayed the idealistic views of women as caretakers who stayed at home , and works of art supported this by depicting women as “? ‘… mythological or entertaining, or as an adjunct to the patron’s own status; otherwise she might not appear. ” (pg. 74) The author believes that the artists were in denial of the experiences of working women and that’s why the views of working women were limited. The visual portrayals of gender and status in Roman society stand as a bridge linking the work of art and the work of society together as one.
The final chapter that I read was one I found extremely conflictant and interesting because not only did we touch on some of these topics in class, but when I visited the Metropolitan Museum I actually had some of the same issues with the works I saw there. Eve and Mary: Conflicting Images of Medieval Woman by Henry Kraus, was by far one of the more fascinating chapters and discussed the distorted views of women as vessels that the Devil could use to entrap a man and cause him to fall from God’s grace, during medieval times and reinforced by the Catholic Church.
Monasteries were places that men could go and abstain from worldly pleasures, proving their dedication to God and refraining from anything that could cause them to sin either physically, emotionally, and especially spiritually. During the fourteenth century, the monastic views of women regarded woman as primarily responsible for man’s fall because of their status as Daughters of Eve (pg. 80). This view of women is reflected in church art and women would be characterized as hateful, ugly temptresses in pieces such as the capital relief at Autun representing the mortal Vice of Unchastity (pg. 0).
The scene is a young man spellbound by the naked body of a woman tempting him, and her flaming hair is a direct association to the Devil who stands above the young man, his fingers coiled in the ill-fated man’s hair. Church facades during the twelfth century were covered with sculptural presentations of women participating in deplorable acts such as laying in sexual positions and her naked body entwined by serpents feeding on her sexual organs and breasts, and at times even accompanied by the Devil who “? ‘… assumes an intimate relationship to her. ” (pg. 81).
At its most perverse moments, the treatment of women in art was grossly abusive and monks were even admonished about any form of interaction with members of the opposite sex. In the Expulsion from Paradise reliefs of Notre-Dame-du Port, at Clermont-Ferrand, there are realistic scenes of Adam throwing Eve to the ground, kicking her, and dragging her by the hair that was based on a French drama that was acted in and out of churches during the Middle Ages. The view of women as morally inferior is what one Church apologist says is the reason for the exclusion of women from the priesthood (pg. 83).
The controversy surrounding the Virgin Mary’s position in the Church is completely opposed to the views of Eve. The image of the Virgin Mary was celebrated and honored in Churches and abbeys, and the abbey at Citeaux adopted the image of the Virgin Mary under whose mantle abbots of the order were shown kneeling, while above the image verses in her honor were engraved (pg. 83). Kraus shows how the adoration of the Virgin and the revulsion of the ordinary woman showed stressed contrasts rather than similarities, and the glorification of the Virgin was about honoring the “Woman-Without-Sin” and the “Anti-Eve” that was revered (pg. 4).
Sculptural version depicting the Virgin Mary could be accompanied with versions of the Original Sin next to it, and inscriptions bearing the inversion of letters under the pieces. “Eva” under the Original Sin portrayal versus “Ave” under the Virgin Mary, served as another way of showing how the Virgin Mary reverses the cursed sin that Eve brought upon mankind. The proliferation of this parallelism in art forms helped metamorphosize the adulation of the Virgin Mary into an obsessive cult-like phenomenon reinforced by “? ‘… prayers, hymns, liturgical drama, legends, and especially art” (pg. 85), by the thirteenth century.
The Mariolatry expressed even caused artists to start depicting Biblical scenes with Mary in the spotlight, and some even excluded the presence of Jesus. The interest in Mary climaxed as the gaps in Mary’s life distressed the public to the point that a whole series of apocrypha rose up, eventually passing into church liturgy (pg. 85). These stories included life as an adolescent, marriage, motherhood, moments shared with Jesus, and finally life after the death of Christ. These efforts were all to humanize Mary and in doing so a “feminization of the Divinity” occurred, and the marginalization and subjugation of women started to soften (pg. 6).
According to the authors in this book, art history needs to undergo a major reconfiguration project because it unfairly projects art through an andocentric perspective, instead of showing the feminine presence and efforts in artistic forums. Conventional methodologies glorify patriarchy and exclude the matrilineal powers that, the authors argue, is present but often ignored. The collective works of the aforementioned authors serves to vividly delineate the artistic representations of women, and negate the social conditions that often leave the roles of women as neglected and often in demeaning positions.
The sexism and marginalization of women has been a confrontational topic since the feminist movement started reaching male dominated disciplines and institutions, and I’m glad that pillars of tradition are starting to be knocked down as the thorough examination of history reveal that representations of women were misleading. The devaluation of women in art has capitulated the principals that have dominated world views of women for hundreds of years, and these views continue to serve as buffers for gender equality and only handicaps women as they continue to alter the image of women starting with historical perceptions that have been accepted.

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