CUJAH Volume I Team
TINA DO KYUNG LEE
DANIEL LEWIS EPSTEIN
LEIGH ANN PAWLIUK
LUISA NIEVES SANTOS
MINH QUAN DAM
Dr. JANICE ANDERSON
Dr. ERNESTINE DAUBNER
Dr. LOREN LERNER
Prof. DENIS LONGCHAMPS
Dr. ANDREA MCKEAN
Prof. SANDRA PAIKOWSKY
Dr. ELAINE CHEASLEY PATERSON
Dr. JOHANNE SLOAN
Letter from the Editor - Tina D. Lee
Letter from the Editor
This journal owes itself to the vision, initiative, and perseverance of its student editors, the assistance of faculty members from Concordia’s department of Art History, and the generous support of Concordia’s Alumni Association. Featuring a selection of undergraduate research papers that address a range of topics within the field of art history, the CUJAH will be a yearly publication that highlights the potential of Concordia’s undergraduates for continued studies in art history. As CUJAH’s first instalment, this issue will not only set the standard for successive issues but affirm itself as an essential contribution to student life within the Faculty of Fine Arts.
While the thoughts and arguments presented in this journal are not authoritative, they reflect a diversity of approaches and concerns that are active among the department of art history’s undergraduate students. As with any gathering of minds, the authors presented here boast individual strengths which together form a community of divergent and overlapping concerns.
Despite their humble beginnings, the papers presented in this inaugural issue reflect an exceptional level of confidence, keen interest and conviction on the part of their authors. On behalf of the journal’s staff, I offer them my deepest congratulations. I also extend my regards to all the other candidates who submitted their papers to the journal. Your participation is greatly valued. Last but not least, I offer my heartfelt gratitude to Daniel Epstein and Leigh Ann Pawliuk whose collegial and unwavering commitment made this project an unforgettably fulfilling experience. Bravo and thank you!
Tina D. Lee
1. Anthony van Dyck’s Equestrian Portraits of Charles I Alena Buis
Anthony van Dyck’s Equestrian Portraits of Charles I
Alena Buis was born and raised in North Delta, British Columbia. She is currently in her fourth year of studies in Art History at Concordia University. Ms. Buis has been horseback riding since the age of five and has learned a great deal from both her two legged instructors and four legged friends. Ms. Buis hopes to continue her education in art history and equestrianism.
“…where the horse serves only as a grand base for the elevation of the ruler” .
“No animal is more noble than the horse, since it is by horses that princes, magnates and knights are separated from lesser people, and because a lord cannot fittingly be seen among private citizens except through the mediation of a horse” . Since early mythology, horses have been associated with great rulers. Welsh and Celtic legends revered white horses as sacred and only to be ridden by royalty. Horsemanship was associated with virtue and courage, which were essential qualities in a ruler. The depiction of mounted emperors in Ancient Rome were to be understood as visual assertions of temporal power. The potency of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, was enhanced when the Catholic Church appropriated it during its sixteenth-century renovations of the area . In seventeenth-century England, King Charles I was depicted within the same imperial tradition as Marcus Aurelius . Anthony van Dyck’s equestrian portraits of Charles I, Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine (1633), Charles I at the Hunt (1635), and Charles I on Horseback (1637), are amazingly complex works that draw from established iconographical traditions, and contributed to the future depictions of the horse in art.
Horses have always played a large role in England, both militarily and economically. Breeds such as the Highland Pony, Welsh Pony, and Shetland Pony, as well as the heavier draught breeds like the Shire and Suffolk Punch horses originated in the British Isles. The survival of such horses was important to successive English monarchs. During a period of roughly four hundred years, the English government strove to increase the number of horses available for agriculture and warfare, as well as to significantly enhance the size and strength of such horses. In an attempt to create a large breed horse, Henry VII (1485-1509), passed an edict ordering all horses under fifteen hands to be destroyed . This was entirely unsuccessful because ponies continued to thrive in rural areas. In an effort to continue his father’s quest for a larger English breed, Henry VIII (1509-1547) passed several laws banning the export of horses over fifteen hands to any country, including Scotland . Knights wearing armour could often exceed four hundred pounds, which required a very robust mount. While on military campaigns on the continent, Henry VIII regularly made use of his allies’ horses . He also received many horses as diplomatic gifts from continental rulers. Amongst these, the most significant gift was that of twenty-five Spanish horses from the Emperor Charles V (Henry’s nephew by his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon), whose own equestrian portrait by Titian inspired subsequent equine iconography . Larger and more refined horses were imported to England to create more suitable riding horses for Henry and his knights. Sally Mitchell dates the English import of hot-blooded horses, such as the Arab and the Barb, to roughly 1604 .
By the time of Charles I’s reign, shaggy ponies and heavy draught horses were acceptable as working horses, but a sophisticated ruler demanded refined mounts that resembled the more polished horses of the continental riding schools. Work horses and pack horses were being replaced by the “magnus equus,” or the “great and noble horse” . Thus, dramatic changes in the depiction of horses in English art coincided not only with technical developments in painting, but also with the evolution of the English horse.
Trends in continental Europe had a strong influence on how horses were depicted in English art. A new crop of artists culled from the continent depicted new breeds of horses. For the first time since the Reformation, a cultural exchange was encouraged between England and the Roman Catholic states of Europe. English agents roamed the continent in search of Classical, Renaissance, and contemporary art, as well as artists willing to relocate to London . Flemish artists, Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), particularly impressed English patrons. Despite English reverence for, and reliance upon their equine partners, horses rarely appeared in English art until Rubens and van Dyck introduced them early in the seventeenth-century.
Called the “very best of [Rubens’] pupils,”  van Dyck was very much influenced by his mentor. Rubens’ monopoly of equestrian portraiture at the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburg courts may have forced van Dyck to explore professional opportunities in England where he would prove to be a highly-sought after equestrian portraitist in his own right . Rubens, probably the most highly regarded Baroque painter, had early on in his career devoted himself to the study of equine subject matter. Rubens painted several famous equestrian portraits, which helped to advance his career, such as The Duke of Lerma (1603), and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1627). Most important to the evolution of equestrian portraiture may be Rubens’ Riding School, which depicts a horse and rider in three different positions, a format from which nearly all of the equestrian portraits of the Baroque period are derived. Along with highly advanced technical skills, continental artists brought a sophisticated equestrian iconography to England.
Major continental cities such as Paris, Naples, Madrid, Copenhagen, and Antwerp all had extensive “Haute Ecole” riding schools . These strictly disciplined schools evolved primarily to develop advanced equestrian military techniques. Despite the English people’s long-standing dependence upon horses, such schools never developed in England. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna was particularly renowned throughout Europe. First documented in 1572, the Spanish Riding School began as the Institute of the Classical Art of Riding, practicing the Renaissance tradition of classical schooling. Spanish horses were famed for their beauty and athleticism in battle. Austrian Emperor Maximillian II imported Spanish horses to central Europe in 1562. Not long after, The Emperor’s brother, The Archduke Karl, founded a stud farm in Lipizza, thus creating a breed of horses called the Lipizzaners .
Spanish horses have been renowned since Ancient Roman times for their beauty and athleticism. “Caesar’s brilliant white horse, which Spain sent him”  was used alongside other Spanish horses by the Roman armies. Their classical confirmations, graceful movements, intelligence, vivaciousness, resilience and placid temperaments often distinguished Spanish horses . When the Arabs reached Spain in 711, their refined, elegant horses were bred with local breeds, thus creating some of the finest riding horses in Europe. From then on mules and oxen bore the brunt of most agricultural labour. Breeds such as the Andalusian were not suited for pulling heavy loads, but were preferred for bearing saddles . Contemporary descriptions of horses with Spanish bloodlines match perfectly the characteristics of the horses depicted by van Dyck.
Lipizzaner stallions had originally been bred and trained for military combat. Many of the manoeuvres of Classical schooling, such as Airs on the Ground and Airs above the Ground, had developed out of close range combat tactics. The Piaffe and the Passage manoeuvres, whereby a horse trotted or walked on the spot, allowed the rider to engage in hand to hand fighting with another mounted rider or foot soldiers. During Spanish Riding School performances, the Passage was demonstrated between two posts to emphasize the horse’s engagement of movement while not covering any ground . The Pirouette, when the horse turns in a 360-degree circle on the spot, was also developed for the same reason as the Piaffe and Passage. In the Levade, an Air above the Ground, the horse raised itself upon its haunches elevating the rider to safety. The most spectacular moves, the Courbette and the Capriole, were offensive moves designed to intimidate the enemy. The Courbette consists of the horse raising itself upon its haunches and lunging forward in aggressive hops. The Caprioleconsists of the horse rearing up, leaping forward and then extending its hind legs midair in a potentially devastating kick.21 These manoeuvres were particularly frightening and destructive to ground troops. The classical moves of the Spanish Riding School are very similar to many of the iconographical poses developed for horse in equestrian portraiture. In Riding School, Rubens demonstrates direct knowledge of the new breeds of horses, as well as elements of the combat-derived discipline of “Classical Riding” .
Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine is thought to be van Dyck’s first of several equestrian portraits of Charles I. Van Dyck depicts The King riding a magnificent white horse through a triumphal arch. The work was originally hung at the end of the gallery at St. James’ Palace and was most likely commissioned for that spot. To the right of Charles is his attendant, the Seigneur de St. Antoine, carrying The King’s helmet, dressed in red, and wearing the black ribbon of Saint-Lazare and Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel . To the left of Charles, at the foot of the arch, is a large shield bearing the royal coat of arms, atop of which is an enclosed crown hinting at The King’s imperial aspirations. An armour clad Charles I carries a baton and rides a white horse which resembles very much a Lipizzaner stallion. The popular Passage movement of the Spanish Riding School likely influenced the horse’s stance.
Van Dyck’s attention to detail is apparent throughout the entire painting. The King’s horse is particularly well rendered, with its refined head, delicate limbs, powerful hindquarters, deep chest and mighty neck. Van Dyck uses subtle tonal gradations to depict realistically the awe-inspiring musculature of this great horse. Unlike the extremely flat, awkward depictions of horses by artists of the English school, van Dyck demonstrates his knowledge of equine physiognomy as well as his observations of horses’ gaits. Likely, the horse depicted is of Spanish descent (thus of Arab origins), which explains its thin coat and skin, adapted from the warm, arid weather of North Africa. Earlier equine depictions by the English School reveal thick skin and coarse fur, adapted from the damp, cold climate of England. Thus, earlier English artists were limited by both a lack of technical knowledge as well as the physiognomies of their subjects.
The arch through which Charles I is riding functions compositionally to frame the dramatic pose of the horse and its rider, and is highly significant in terms of iconography. Neo-Classical architecture, again imported from the continent, was relatively new in England at the time. Not only does it frame the figure of The King, it also makes allusions to Ancient Rome and great rulers of the past. The purpose of triumphal arches in Ancient Rome was to welcome triumphant armies back to the heart of the empire. Charles I is shown without the escort of a band of soldiers, further enhancing his prestige and claim to absolute power. A lone servant, M. de St. Antoine, accompanies him. This solitary representation should be understood as symbolic of Charles I’s years of personal rule, when he governed England without parliament .
The Seigneur de St. Antoine was a master horseman in his own right. In 1603, he was sent to England by King Henry IV of France to deliver gifts of horses to Charles I, at that time still The Prince of Wales. St. Antoine remained in England as a riding master and equerry for the Royal Mews . By including St. Antoine in the picture, van Dyck reveals the extent to which The King was susceptible to continental influences. It also reveals the significance of horses as diplomatic gifts. Furthermore, St. Antoine recalls the burgeoning absolute monarchy in France, lending credibility to Charles’ own claim to divine rule.
By depicting the horse frontally, as though approaching the viewer, van Dyck conforms to an established perspective which Rubens also utilized in Riding School. Even if van Dyck had not seen it, Charles I would have been familiar with Rubens’ Portrait of the Duke of Lerma, from his visit to Spain in 1623. Van Dyck also executed a portrait of The Marquis of Moncada with a horse in an identical position as that of Charles I. The pose of the horse is often significant in equestrian portraiture. In Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine, The King’s apparent ability at controlling such a powerful mount is meant to advertise his style of rule as powerful. In Rubens’ George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1625), the Duke’s rearing horse connotes a dynamic rider prone to action and adventure. A steadfast horse would have rather indicated the authority and power of its rider. As it was, Villiers was a significant player in the seventeenth-century English equestrian scene. Appointed Master of the Horse in 1616 by James I, 1603-1625, Villiers was extremely successful in improving the quality of the royal bloodstock. Perhaps it was precisely his influence on improving English horses that most inspired Rubens. Equally important within the composition of Charles I on Horseback with M. de St. Antoine is the position of the viewer. Positioned such that s/he is below the horse and king, the viewer is thus subjugated by Charles I. The painting depicts a powerful image of Charles’ desire to rule absolutely, and provides an excellent example of van Dyck’s mastery of equestrian iconography.
Charles I at the Hunt is an innovative painting wherein van Dyck experiments with the traditional iconography of equestrian portraiture. By avoiding references to the continental influences of Titian or Rubens, van Dyck was possibly exploring equestrian traditions within the sphere of the English School . Julius Held cites a much earlier work by an unknown artist from the British School, Portrait of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (1603) which depicts Charles’ older brother dismounted by a slain stag, as a possible inspiration for van Dyck’s work. Van Dyck does not include any overt visual references to the hunt in his painting.
Charles I at the Hunt is theatrical in mood. The King is depicted in a three-quarter turn, looking over his left shoulder at the viewer. He appears as if he is “an actor coming on stage” amidst much pomp and circumstance . Van Dyck includes a novel component in this painting, one only just introduced to English painting: The landscape. The figures of Charles and his horse offer a bold contrast with the expanse of sky in the background. The tree branches further frame The King by forming a canopy (of state?) over his head. Despite Charles being dismounted, van Dyck conveys all the authority and gallantry typically associated with equestrian portraits. Another possible domestic influence for this unique portrait of Charles I is Daniel Mytens’ Charles I and Henrietta Maria depart for the Chase (1630-1632). Mytens preceded van Dyck as “picture-drawer” to Charles I. The two works differ greatly in technical mastery. The musculature of Mytens’ horse is ill defined with a highly stylized head. There are, however, compositional similarities between Mytens’ work and van Dyck’s Charles I at the Hunt. Van Dyck may have borrowed the subject and position of the horse, but eliminated Henrietta Maria in order to make a tighter composition.
In contrast to other equestrian portraits of Charles I by van Dyck, Charles I at the Hunt depicts The King as a cavalier and not in armour. Slightly less formal than others, this painting reveals The King at leisure, still upholding his dignity and position as monarch. Charles is depicted wearing clothes suitable for a courtier, “the noble, almost tender figure…almost like a dandy,”  certainly not appropriate for hunting. The boots, breeches, and coat of the cavalier fashion are referred to as the van Dyck style, because of their popularity during the artist’s time in England . Charles holds his gloves in his hands, which symbolizes authority and civility. The dark hat frames his face, emphasizing his features and prevents The King’s exquisite expression from being lost against the sky.
Within Charles I at the Hunt, van Dyck expertly solves a crucial pictorial dilemma. The composition supports van Dyck’s representation of Charles I as a powerful ruler. Rather than remain above his master’s head, the horse bows subserviently to Charles, revealing The King’s dominant position. Thus, the horse is depicted adopting the social mores of the court. Thereby, van Dyck not only contributes to the King’s majesty but he also solves the compositional inconsistencies associated with having a dismounted rider. It was out of the question for van Dyck to depict the horse as being taller than the King. Although the horse itself is well proportioned, it is depicted small in relation to its surroundings. A depiction of a larger horse would have detracted from the presence of Charles I .
Van Dyck depicts an equerry and a page within Charles I at the Hunt. The equerry holds The King’s horse, as no king could ever have been depicted holding his own horse. Both servants refrain from interacting with The King. Thus, despite his company, Charles I is portrayed as unique among men. Van Dyck is here combining the continental connotations of equestrian portraiture with the appropriate pastimes for an English noble. Charles appears at once as both the “cortegiano” and the “principe,” while also symbolizing the concept of the absolute monarch . Van Dyck’s successful management of a potentially problematic composition allowed him to make his own significant contribution to the genre of equestrian portraiture .
Within Charles I on Horseback, van Dyck relies mainly upon established equestrian iconography, both English and continental. Isaac Oliver’s Henry, Prince of Wales (ca. 1610) is thought to be one of the first English equestrian portraits. Roy Strong recognizes the Venetian manner of this painting but suggests that Clouet’s portraits of the Valois kings and Rubens’ above-mentioned portrait of The Duke of Buckingham influence it . Clouet’s works may have well been an inspiration but it would be impossible for Oliver to have had Rubens’ work in mind, since it was completed fifteen years later. Perhaps Oliver is more indebted to works such as Albrecht Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513); prints of which were then in circulation throughout Europe. While in Venice, Oliver would have seen Andrea del Verrocchio’s famous Equestrian Monument of Collioni, 1483-1488, in the Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo . Verrocchio’s Collioni and its predecessor, Donatello’s Gattemalata, were both inspired by the above-mentioned fourth century monument to Marcus Aurelius. A “symbol of secular authority…the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius became the most influential source of state propaganda until the tank replaced the horse” .
Contemporaneous to van Dyck’s equestrian portraits of Charles I were the first equestrian statues in England. One of the many artists in the suite of Henrietta Maria upon her arrival from France was Hubert Le Sueur. Le Sueur’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, presently situated where Whitehall meets Trafalgar Square, rather unsuccessfully draws upon southern European traditions of equestrian statues. Originally commissioned by Lord Weston in 1630 for his garden at Roehampton , the piece was judged to look “more like a sausage than a Lipizzaner” . Interestingly, the suit of armour worn by the King in this statue still exists and reveals that Charles was approximately five-foot-four-inches tall. By depicting Charles on horseback, van Dyck, and other artists, could literally portray him as larger than life. Van Dyck seems to have adapted the classical position of the equestrian monument for Charles I on Horseback. To avoid an abrupt view of the horse and rider in profile, van Dyck presents Charles’ mount on a slight angle, infusing the composition with dynamism and introducing a very baroque element to the work.
Although a secular work, Charles I on Horseback is sacred in that it shows The King “communing not with his subjects but with his maker” . Charles wears a gold medallion of St. George, indicating his role as sovereign Knight of the Garter (the most important decorative order within English heraldry) . On the tree to the right of the composition hangs a small tablet inscribed, “CAROLUS I REX MAGNAE BRITANIAE.” This title refers to Charles dual reign over England and Scotland . Directly below this plaque, and significant because of this proximity, is a page holding an elaborate knight’s helmet bearing the plume of The Infanta . Charles had sought the Spanish princess’ hand in marriage in 1623, to no avail. However, the depiction of this helmet indicates the Spanish influence in English politics at that time.
Art Historians have always recognized the similarities between van Dyck’s Charles I on Horseback and Titian’s equestrian portrait of Charles V. However, recently scholars have noted other influences. J. Douglas Stewart makes an interesting comparison between Charles I on Horseback and Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil . Within this context, Charles I is conceived as the “good Christian knight.” The poses of the horses are nearly identical between the two paintings, revealing how iconic that particular pose had become.
It is to be assumed that Charles I’s mount is a stallion. Geldings were considered to be less courageous than stallions and therefore inappropriate for battle. Mares were “suitable only for women and priests”  The stallion has long been a symbol of virility and strength. Van Dyck renders the majority of the horse very realistically, but he may have taken some artistic liberty to express the horse’s power and virility. The horse’s powerful body is in stark contrast to its delicate ears. The ears’ swiveled position suggests that the horse is ultimately “listening” to the rider. By depicting the horse’s head slightly smaller and emphasizing its musculature in the neck, van Dyck makes clear the allusion to power which extends to Charles I; the character of the mount indicates that of the rider.
Anthony van Dyck’s Charles I on Horseback with M. St. Antoine, Charles I at the Hunt, and Charles I on Horseback represent a great shift in the depiction of horses in England. Artistic practices were evolving, but so too were the bloodlines of the horses being depicted. Van Dyck’s technical sophistication seems to have been ideally suited to depict the changing character of English horses. His sophistication extended to his knowledge of continental equestrian iconography as well. There is much to learn from van Dyck’s portraits of Charles I. However, it is equally important to consider the ramifications of his depictions of horses, independently as well as in relation to the King.
1. Julius Held, “Le Roi à la Ciasse,” Art Bulletin (Fall 1958): 149.
2. Calabrian Jordanus Ruffus quoted in Stuart Piggott, Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage: Symbols and status in the History of Transport (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992) 69.
3. Fred S. Kleiner, Christin J. Mamiya, & Richard G. Tansey, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 11th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2003) 216.
4. Oliver Millar, Van Dyck in England (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1983) 51.
5. One hand is roughly the equivalent of 4.2 inches.
6. P.R. Edwards, “The Horse Trade in Tudor and Stuart England,” Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter, F.M.L. Thompson, ed. (Leeds: Leeds UP, 1983) 119.
7. Breeds of Livestock, online, 1 April 2004 <http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/horses/
8. Edwards, 119.
9. R.H.C. Davis, “The Medical Warhorse,” Horses in European Economic History: A Preliminary Canter, F.M.L Thompson, ed. (Leeds: Leeds UP, 1983) 12.
10. Sally Mitchell, The Encyclopedia of English Equestrian Artists (Suffolk: Antique Collector’s Club Press, 1984) 21. Hot-blooded refers to a type of horse originating in North Africa and the Middle East, which is far more agile and spirited than the bulky, even-tempered cold-blooded horses of Northern Europe and England.
11. Piggott, 90.
12. Millar, 9.
13. Millar, 10.
14. Gustav Gluck, “Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portraits of Charles I,” Burlington Magazine (May 1937): 212.
15. Michael Seth-Smith, The Horse in Art and History (London: New English Library, 1978) 39.
16. “The Spanish Riding School in Vienna,” Lipizzaner Online, March 29, 2004 <http://www.spanische-reitschule.com/english/History.htm#Die%20hohe%20Schule>
17. Lipizzaner Online, n.p.
18. Lipizzaner Online, n.p.
19. A. Gomez Mendoza, “The Role of Horses in a Backward Economy: Spain in the Nineteenth Century,” Horses in the European Economic Community, F.M.L. Thompson, ed. (Leeds: Leeds UP, 1983) 145.
20. Lipizzaner Online, n.p.
21. Lipizzaner Online, n.p.
22. Gluck, 211.
23. Millar, 50.
24. Roy Strong, Van Dyck: Charles I on Horseback (London: Penguin Press, 1972) 14.
25. Millar, 51.
26. Held, 147.
27. David Howarth, “The Royal Portrait: The Stuarts,” Images of Rule, Art and Politics in the English Renaissance, 1485-1649 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991) 136.
28. Strong, 42.
29. Francis M. Kelly & Randolph Schwabe, A Short History of Costume and Armour, vol. 1&2 (New York: Arco Publishing, 1972) 31.
30. Howarth, 135.
31. Held, 149.
32. Howarth, 135.
33. Strong, 54.
34. Strong, 50.
35. Howarth, 136.
36. Strong, 51.
37. Seth-Smith, 39.
38. Howarth, 139.
39. Strong, 59.
40. Strong, 45. Charles’ father, James I of England and VI of Scotland, was the son of Mary Stuart, Queen of France and Scotland, and inherited the English throne from his cousin, Elizabeth I, upon her death in 1603. Until William III passed the Act of Settlement, 1701, uniting the crowns of Scotland and England, the kings and queens of England were simultaneously the sovereign rulers of Scotland.
41. Strong, 20.
42. Douglas J. Stewart, “Hidden Persuaders’ Religious Symbolism in van Dyck’s Portraiture with a Note on Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil,” Essays on Van Dyck (Toronto: National Gallery of Canada, 1983) 4.
43. Davies, 4.
2. The Love that Dare not Speak its Name: The Visual Representation of Female Homoerotics in Nineteenth-Century France - Sophie Dynbort
The Love that Dare not Speak its Name: The Visual Representation of Female Homoerotics in Nineteenth-Century France
Sophie Dynbort is a Montreal native entering her third year at Concordia where she majors in art history and minors in marketing. She will study at the Sorbonne University in Paris next year as a part of Concordia’s international exchange program and continue her research on lesbian representations in French art. She is particularly interested in the Arts and Crafts Movement and new transnational art. She has gained much practical experience in the industry by working at a Montreal auction house. As for her future plans, Sophie intends to pursue a joint MBA/MFA, where she hopes to combine knowledge of the arts and business in order to pursue a future career that encompasses both.
The purpose of this study is to further our understanding of the past, or as James M. Saslow has so aptly stated, “create a usable past” . Concerning the history of homosexual representations in art, there has been much confusion mainly due to the fact that, since its appearance in Ancient Canaan, society has had difficulty accepting it. Although the presence of homosexuality in visual art can be found in virtually all epochs since Ancient Greece, no other period has explored the idea of homosexuality amongst women so conscientiously or intelligently as nineteenth-century France. Ironically, the nineteenth-century attitude towards homosexuality was quite schizophrenic, and as a result the majority of art depicting homosexuality from this period has been both suppressed and misunderstood. This paper shall examine three nineteenth-century French artists, each of whom offered an original depiction of lesbianism within the same broad cultural context: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). The first part of this essay will examine lesbianism within the social and historical context of nineteenth-century France. The second portion will examine the works of the above-mentioned artists in relation to the first section of this essay.
The history of homosexuality is not straightforward and demands careful attention when examining works of art which deal with the subject. In light of the nature of these works, this paper will only consider the theme of homosexuality amongst women. Male homosexual culture differs significantly from lesbian customs, which requires that they be examined separately on many issues. It should be noted that nineteenth-century attitudes towards homosexual men were quite radical in comparison to those regarding lesbians. Bernard Talmey, M.D., articulated this in his 1908 publication, Woman: A Treatise on the Normal and Pathological Emotions of Feminine Love. According to Talmey, there was a discrepancy in treatment between cases of male homosexuality and female homosexuality; while instances of homosexuality among men were made a crime, it was not considered an offense among women .
In considering the discrepancy in treatment between homosexual men and women, it is worthwhile to discuss the 1811 trial of Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie in comparison to Oscar Wilde’s trial of 1895. Although both trials occurred at different times in the nineteenth-century, a comparison provides an interesting view of the gendered norms in the nineteenth-century. The Woods and Pirie trial was a libel case brought about by two teachers accused of having sexual relations by Lady Cumming Gordon and her student granddaughter Jane Cumming . The two schoolteachers were accused of engaging in “improper and criminal conduct” with each other, and, as a result, were subject to severe criticism. Miss Woods and Miss Pirie sued Lady Cumming Gordon for damaging their reputations, however, in response Lady Cumming Gordon accused the two teachers of engaging in “improper and criminal conduct”. They were initially found guilty, yet appealed one year later and were found innocent. As for Lady Cumming Gordon, she appealed, lost, and deferred payment of their claim. What resulted of the trial and whether the two schoolteachers received compensation is unknown.
In comparison, such was not the case with Oscar Wilde, who was charged with committing acts of indecency with other male persons in 1895 . Wilde became intimate with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of Archibald William Douglas, 8th Marquess of Queensbury. Enraged by their relationship, The Marquess of Queensbury accused Wilde of sodomy and, as a result, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor. Upon his release, he fled to France, where he remained until his death in 1900.
An examination of the Woods/Pirie trial and the Wilde trial reveal the contrasting views towards female and male homosexuality in the nineteenth-century. While the allegations of improper conduct against Miss Woods and Miss Pirie were effortlessly dismissed, they became implicit for the imprisonment of Mr. Wilde several decades later. According to Talmey, this discrepancy is based upon a woman’s non-aggressive nature. Therefore, homosexuality is not as easily detectable in women as it is in men. He further states, “women’s attachments are considered mere friendships by outsiders … we are, therefore, less apt to suspect the existence of abnormal passions among women” .
The above statement reveals several issues that encapsulate nineteenth-century attitudes towards lesbianism and women in particular. The most critical and obvious point was that women were seen as being non-aggressive. Secondly, women’s relationships were not acknowledged as heterosexual or homosexual. Instead they were rather relegated to the category of friendship. Lastly, passionate relationships amongst women were recognized as abnormal affairs.
It is important to take note that there were two different qualities that a homosexual woman could embody. The first incorporates the idea of the natural feminine. According to Lillian Faderman, these relationships among women were often termed “the love of kindred spirits,” or “Boston marriages, and sentimental friend.” These romantic attachments, whereby women sought comfort in other females for emotional security, can be seen evolved from not only the eighteenth-century but in the seventeenth-century as well. In fact, according to Faderman, these relationships were encouraged and considered dignified and virtuous in every sense. She states that these were love relationships at all levels, except the genital. In other words, women might have kissed, fondled, slept together, and in many instances expressed their love for one another. A woman’s sensuality was often suppressed and can perhaps explain why one would seek other females for emotional security. Furthermore, Victorian mores encouraged women to be asexual, to fear premarital sex, and only indulge in coitus for the purpose of procreation. It is not surprising that women in previous centuries internalized the idea of women having little sexual passion .
At a superficial glance, what may be considered surprising about these romantic friendships is that society appeared to condone them and did not see them as disturbing the social order. As Talmey indicates, “such friendships are often fostered by parents and guardians, such attachments are praised and commended. They are not in the least degree suspected of being of homosexual origin” . However, not all female same-sex relationships were condoned. Such is the case with transvestite women. Women who dressed as men and who engaged in relations with the same gender were often persecuted and sometimes even executed . This raises the second point of view, that a homosexual woman could occupy the role of a social deviant. For the majority of women who dressed like men, it was assumed that they behaved as men sexually. This was very upsetting to male status and was definitely seen as being disruptive to the social order. The instance of two sexually aggressive females contradicted a man’s cultural rights to women’s bodies. Consider the following statement by nineteenth-century sexologist Richard Krafft-Ebing: “Woman is the common property of man, the spoil of the strongest and the mightiest, who chooses the most winsome for his own … Woman is a chattel, an article of commerce, exchange or gift, a vessel for sexual gratification, an implement of toil” .
The justification that resulted from the occasion of women who sought to assume a masculine role was a medical and psychological diagnosis. Krafft-Ebing refers to homosexuality amongst women as “congenital sexual inversion” . Krafft-Ebing explains that the extent of homosexual love between two women varies. However, when lesbianism is given full expression, one woman will assume a masculine role and possess characteristics of male sexuality.
Faderman notes that there were instances of women engaging in lesbian sex with immunity so long as they appeared feminine. This was justified by the fact that their sexual behaviour was seen as being an alternative when men were unavailable, or as a prelude to heterosexual sex. Basically, it can be gathered that it was the presumptive usurpation of male status by women that was disturbing to society, rather than the sexual aspect of lesbianism.
James M. Saslow points out that the word history has the same root as story. This, according to Saslow, reveals “the basic human need, dating back to the earliest myths, to frame our experiences within collective epics that loom larger than our individual lives.” He continues by stating that many of these stories tell about love among men or among women. He refers to some of the earliest writing about love, dating back to the Ming dynasty, and in the western world, to the eighteenth-century homosexual art historian, Johann Winckelmann. In the nineteenth-century, however, within the context of Realism or Naturalism, the presence of lesbian themes in the works of contemporary artists is quite apparent. In fact, lesbian imagery became somewhat typical in nineteenth-century French literature; partly due to the rise of feminism and the hostility of the aesthetes to bourgeois morality .
Of the most influential French nineteenth-century writers, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and Théophile Gautier each explored the theme of lesbianism in his own way. For example, Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), one of the most significant literary works with this theme, depicts lesbians as avant-garde heroines in an attack upon bourgeois conventions and morality. In Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), he depicts a similar image of the lesbian as in Gautier’s book, yet approached the theme from a different direction. While Gautier found the French too righteous and Christian, Balzac saw them as being too “universally tolerant.” Both of these works were strongly influenced by the writings of Baudelaire, who referred to lesbians as “femmes damnées,” and wrote a volume of poems called Les Lesbiennes in which he depicts the love between lesbians as being tormented .
The fictional writings on lesbianism have had a profound effect on the artists themselves. It is important to remember that whilst examining these works, the images of lesbians reflect the artist’s personal attitude toward sexuality, as well as that of his patron. Thus, one must examine these works in terms of what they reveal about male heterosexual approach to female sexuality, and about the role of art and voyeurism.
In Turkish Bath, 1859-1862 (Fig. 1), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicts a male fantasy: a variant of a Turkish harem, overflowing with his familiar nude odalisques in classicized poses. The implications of the voyeur are quite intense. Ingres constructs a glorified image of the female nude within a closed world to which the women are formally confined in a scene that is normally forbidden to the male gaze. While the male viewer is formally excluded, he is accepted and acknowledged as a voyeur. Moreover, he is invited to indulge in this virtual bath of woman; everywhere he looks is confronted with naked female bodies. In fact, instead of being viewed as a group of women, this piece can also be read as one woman displaying herself in every imaginable pose. This is further reinforced by the fact that, according to one of the models for this work, Ingres used hexagonal mirrors in his studio, which “permitted him with a single model to draw the same woman from every angle” .
The instance of homosexual affection within this work is quite intriguing, but it is somewhat obscured and requires close attention. In this manner, it can be said that Ingres both confirmed and denied the presence of lesbianism in his harem. Marilyn R. Brown interprets this phenomenon within the picture, in relation to the two women to the right of the composition, as follows:
On the immediate left of the composite “Mme. Ingres” figure is located an apparently embracing pair of women. Whereas the “Mme. Ingres” figure wears, as noted previously, Le Brun’s textbook expressions of passion “Ecstasy,” the figure in the ornate pillbox hat to her left sports Le Brun’s expression of “Desire,” and the figure with the angel’s face whom she seems to caress wears the expression of “Pure Love.” A trinity of passions, as it were, with two femmes damnées. But are they really? A drawing for the “angel-faced” nude given by Ingres to Théophile Gautier in 1861 would seem to indicate that she cups her hand around her own breast. But in the final painting Ingres cleverly overlapped the adjacent bodies so that this figure could be read as being fondled by her neighbour .
Although the composition consists of only women, a constant reminder of the male presence is evident. This is seen through the figure, also depicted in Ingres’ Bather of Valpinçon, 1808 (Fig. 2), whose rear is facing the viewer to the left of the above-mentioned triad. Not only does this provide a barrier in the composition, the figure bares a gaze that suggests she is an outsider looking in. Furthermore, this emphasizes the voyeuristic attitude of the painting. In this sense the female’s gaze can be considered equal to that of the male. We can further examine this trope in reference to its relationship with Lady Mary Wortley Montague, a Westerner who traveled to Constantinople. It is known that Turkish Bath was largely influenced by her texts and their importance on the work is quite evident in this parallel. By this comparison, the figure of the bather is allegorical of Lady Montague; as a Westerner she assumes the male role of voyeur in relation to her Eastern counterparts.
The history of Turkish Bath prior to its acquisition by the Louvre in 1911 is rather long and complex. The literature regarding the history of the piece is somewhat contradictory regarding the first patron; some sources state that the initial owner was Prince Anatole Demidoff, while others assert it was The Prince Napoléon. Irrespective of this, it has been established that Ingres began work on the piece in 1848. In 1859, when Ingres considered it finished, Prince Napoléon claimed the work. However, shortly afterwards the painting was returned since Princess Clotilde, shocked by the nudity, found it inappropriate for a family residence . At the beginning of 1860, Ingres retook possession of the painting and a second photograph of the work was taken. The photograph allows us to trace the development of this work, thus we are able to see Turkish Bath within its original square format. Between the years 1860–1863, Ingres altered the painting by making the following obvious adjustments: he added the bather in the pool, along with several figures behind her, increasing the number of figures to twenty-three. He also covered the eyes of the figure in the lower right corner, added the oriental jar and architectural details to the walls, and most significantly transformed the painting into its circular format. The circular frame emphasizes the roundness and femaleness of the figures, as well as reinforcing the intimate, yet inaccessible voyeuristic view. These adjustments certainly heighten the senses of male fantasy, control, and forbiddance. Perhaps this is what happened to its last owner, Khalil Bey, a former Turkish ambassador to France, who bought it in 1865.
With the onset of Realism a new approach emerged, reinforcing the erotic, romantic literature of contemporary French authors such as Baudelaire and Balzac. This change is apparent through the old and new styles present in two paintings intended for the same patron. One year after Bey bought Ingres’ Turkish Bath, he commissioned Courbet to paint Sleep, 1866 (Fig. 3) . The lesbian theme that Ingres gently touches upon reaches its peak in Courbet’s Sleep. Bey commissioned this work after having seen Courbet’s Venus, Pursuing Psyche with her Jealousy, 1864-1866 (Fig. 4), while visiting the artist’s studio. After learning that it had been sold, Bey asked for a copy of the work. However, Courbet preferred to offer the ambassador a new painting on the same theme.
Venus, Pursuing Psyche with her Jealousy  is one of Courbet’s greatest works and it has been linked Baudelaire’s Femmes Damnées and Delphine et Hippolyte. In a letter to the art dealer Luquet, Courbet wrote “two life-sized naked women, painted in such a way as you’ve never seen me do before” . Within this oeuvre, Courbet’s treatment of the lesbian theme is linked to the manipulation of traditional myths in an allegorical setting. “Courbet submerges the mythological story, disposing of any discernible references to Venus’ jealous rage because of Psyche’s beauty. Indeed, the mythological reference in the titles may be taken as a piece of respectibilizing camouflage”  Courbet creates an intimate composition thereby intensifying the emotional conflict between the two women and suggesting a love conflict between lesbians. However, what is interesting about this work is the seemingly masculine appearance of the Venus figure, which further hints at lesbianism.
Courbet created Venus, Pursuing Psyche with her Jealousy for the 1864 Salon; however, the jury rejected it on the grounds of indecency. He in turn rejected the criticism by stating that “it’s prejudice on the part of the administration, for if this painting is immoral, one must close all museums in Italy, France, and Spain” . With respect to the reception among fellow artists, Jean-François Millet states:
I hear that a picture of nude women by Courbet has been rejected on the ground of impropriety. I have not seen the picture and cannot form any judgment on the jury’s decision, but I find it very hard to imagine that any picture of Courbet’s could be more improper than the indecent works of Cabanel and Baudry at the last Salon, for I have never seen anything that seemed to be a more frank and direct appeal to the passions of bankers and stockbrokers.
However, the art critic for Figaro thought otherwise: “What an idea to reproduce Baudelaire’s Femmes Damnées and to paint, with embellishments, what is already so obscene in print” .
Courbet’s Sleep also draws parallels with the works of Baudelaire, and is seen as an interpretation of the myth of Diana. In his description of two naked women sleeping in a loving embrace, the broken strand of pearls and discarded hair clip suggest that the scene is the aftermath of a passionate session of lovemaking. The expressions on the women’s faces suggest sadness and torment, while the broken strand of pearls signifies remorse and a loss of innocence. The intertwining of their limbs heightens the sense of passion, lust and forbiddance.
Courbet’s Sleep and Venus, Pursuing Psyche with Jealousy are two prime examples of the lesbian theme explored through the Realist aesthetic. Courbet does not attempt to mask any aspects of his subject; rather, he heightens its impact through a natural representation of the female anatomy. With regards to the subject of lesbianism, Courbet plays with the theme of feminine homosexuality, but does not appear to pronounce its validity. He does, however, invite notions of sexual fantasy and male delight, as approved by his patron, Khalil Bey.
Another artist who explores the theme of lesbianism in nineteenth-century France is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is said that when he met a man who had read Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, he instantly requested a detailed description of the study . Examinations of his work suggest the importance of urban themes, such as the café, cabaret, and the brothel, and thereby allow a discussion of his work within the context of Realism. Moreover, Lautrec’s depictions of lesbianism seem to be the most reflective and honest representations of Parisian society. It is known that during Lautrec’s years as an art student, he frequented two specific lesbian bars that were located close to his studio, called Le Rat Mort and La Souris. William Rothenstein describes the place where he first met Lautrec in 1887:
The Rat Mort by night had a somewhat doubtful reputation, but during the day was frequented by painters and poets. As a matter of fact it was a notorious centre of lesbianism, a matter of which, being very young, and a novice in Paris, I know nothing. But this gave the Rat Mort an additional attraction to Conder and Lautrec…
Sylvain Bonmariage, a friend of Lautrec, explains how Lautrec would observe the lesbians “with a sort of troubled fascination.” He continues by stating that Lautrec had an obsession with them, and spent all of his time with a “bizarre harem” of lesbians who ignited a sexual curiosity in him. With regards to his relationships with women, Lautrec was unsuccessful; partly owing to his dwarf-like appearance and the fact that no other woman besides his mother could realize his true worth. As a result, it is not surprising that he viewed women as essentially unattainable. He once said Paul Leclerq, “the body of a woman, the body of a beautiful woman is not made for love, it is too exquisite” .
In examining Lautrec’s depictions of lesbians, it is uncertain whether the women served as sources of fantasy or warmth and affection, seeing as how these are his only works that reveal any tenderness between human beings. Beginning in 1892, Lautrec had created a series of paintings depicting the intimacy between lesbians in the bedroom (Figs. 5 & 6). Dans Le Lit. Le Baiser, 1892 (Fig. 7), was featured in the gallery window of Le Barc de Boutteville’s permanent ‘Impressionist and Symbolist’ exhibition. However, to their dismay, an angry neighbour protested to the police and the painting was removed. Nevertheless, the painting sold shortly after the incident to Charles Maurin, a friend of Lautrec, for 400 Francs. It should be noted that although Lautrec’s brothel paintings were largely not sold until his death, his friends and acquaintances bought the works depicting lesbians for their own private collections. In addition to Maurin, Gustave Pellet owned two paintings of lesbians, and critic Roger Marx owned another .
In these works, Lautrec does not emphasize the idea of sexual fantasy between two women, as do Ingres and Courbet. Rather, he highlights the affection and tenderness that can exist between them. He presents the theme of lesbian love in such a manner that his images appear as though they are representations of heterosexual love, perhaps evoking the question, ‘what is the difference?’ His depictions of lesbianism can also be interpreted as acknowledgements that love between women was not a rejection of him, but a rejection of all men. However, this is not to say that he did not feel rejected by lesbians. In his lithograph for Eros Vanné, 1894 (Fig. 8), a sheet-music cover for a song about the debauchery of lesbianism, Lautrec depicts a lesbian couple at the bar, and a naked boy on crutches in the foreground. It has been suggested that the boy, bandaged and infirm, represents the artist himself. This can be seen as a phallic reference: his rigid leg a metaphor for his enormous penis (which was his according to reputation). More significantly, the boy represents the fact that Lautre was not the man in the couple, nor would ever be .
An examination of the preceeding body of works clearly reveals the attitudes towards lesbians in nineteenth-century France, and how they progressively changed over the course of the century. It can be said that in the early part of the century, artists explored lesbianism via myths, and concentrated on a less overt expression of the realities of female homosexuality. During the latter part of the century, as women’s voices began to be heard, artists began exploring lesbianism as an identity and a reality. Within the context of the twenty-first-century, the above-mentioned works provide invaluable reference for contemporary artists to nineteenth-century attitudes towards lesbianism.
List of Illustrations
1. James M. Saslow, Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts (New York: Viking, 1999) 4.
2. Saslow, 142.
3. Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) 62.
4. David Rodgers, “Oscar Wilde.” Grove Art Online. Oxford UP, May 9 2005, http://0 www.groveart.com.mercury.concordia.ca:80/.
5. Saslow, 143.
6. Lillian Faderman, Surpassing The Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981) 16.
7. Bernard Talmey, Woman: A Treatise on the Normal and Pathological Emotions of Feminine Love (New York: Practitioners Publishing Company, 1908) 143.
8. Faderman, 17.
9. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, 12 th ed., (New York: Bell Publishing, 1965) 2.
10. Krafft-Ebing, 262.
11. Faderman, 265.
12. Faderman, 266.
13. P.Vigué, “Joseph Pagnon, élève d’Ingres,” Bulletin du Musée Ingres (30 December 1971) 22.
14. Dorothy M. Kosinski, “Gustave Courbet’s The Sleepers: the Lesbian Image in Nineteenth-Century French Art and Literature,” Artibus et Historiae (Venezia et al., Italy) 9.18 (1988) 62.
15. Kosinski, 61.
16. Saslow, 174.
17. This work disappeared and was then destroyed during the Second World War. Courbet created a modified repetition of it called The Awakening or Venus and Psyche in 1866.
18. Georges Riat, Gustave Courbet, Peintre (Paris: 1906) 216.
19. Kosinski, 190.
20. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, ed., trans., Letters of Gustave Courbet (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992) 240.
21. Royal Academy of Arts, Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877: at the Royal Academy of Arts, 19 January – 19 March 1978 (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978) 374.
22. Julia Frey, Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life (New York: Viking, 1994) 374.
23. Frey, 375.
24. Frey, 378.
25. Frey, 376.
26. Frey, 376.
3. The Layers of Art at Viger Square: A study on situating public art in Montreal, focusing upon works by Charles Daudelin and Doug Scholes - Daniel Lewis Epstein
The Layers of Art at Viger Square: A study on situating public art in Montreal, focusing upon works by Charles Daudelin and Doug Scholes
Daniel Lewis Epstein is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, double major in History and Art History. Previously, Mr. Epstein was an assistant antiquarian in London to Mr. Stephen Adelman, of New York’s prestigious Kentshire Galleries. As a young man, Mr. Epstein received operatic voice training with internationally renowned baritone, Edouardo Del Campo, and his wife, acclaimed pianist, Carmen Or, both currently based in Zurich, Switzerland. For the future, Mr. Epstein intends to pursue graduate work in England.
The contextualization of a work of art’s site-specificity cannot simply be regarded as a relationship between the object or performance and its geographic location. A work of art engenders many relationships within any given site; between the art and the inhabitants of the area, the passers-by, the historiographical story of the place, the contemporary condition of the site, and the intentions of the art ‘promoters’. Within a multi-oeuvre site, the relationships between the artworks or assemblages are of further consideration. However, these relationships are not always easily discernible, especially when the artworks exist atop one another; this is to say when one artwork becomes the platform or stage for another piece of art. In such a situation, how is site-specificity clearly discernible, if at all? Moreover, what are the ramifications of such a relationship?
Recently, the multi-disciplinary art group Dare-dare established a presence within Square Viger, Montréal, with the intention of presenting art outside the confines of a gallery. By presenting their Dis/location project within the square, Dare-dare appropriated a Charles Daudelin environment, Agora (1983), and transformed it from an urban plaza into an outdoor exhibition platform (Fig. 1). The first presentation, between 9 September – 16 October 2004, by artist Doug Scholes, entitled (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) (2004), dealt with themes pertinent to the site: maintenance and decay. By presenting his work atop an earlier one by Charles Daudelin, Scholes was not negating or obfuscating the latter for the sake of his own. Rather, the space designed by Daudelin became an essential, even profound, backdrop for the work of Scholes, both aesthetically and philosophically. By examining the site-specific intentions, or lack thereof, of both Daudelin and Dis/location, this paper shall reveal the concomitant nature of site-determinism in the works of Charles Daudelin and Doug Scholes at Square Viger.
Doug Scholes came upon the idea of impermanence in art quite by accident while trying to construct an “endless Brancusi column” at art school. Similar to the fate of Humpty-Dumpty, the column collapsed and neither Scholes nor his teachers could put it back together again. The initial concern of witnesses to the collapse was for Scholes, who was regarded as the lamentable artist who had lost his art. Ultimately the experience was both an epiphany and a catalyst for Scholes; if art was not meant to fall apart, what could the artist glean from its disintegration? Scholes became very interested in how he could incorporate this impermanence into future works . (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) explored the disintegration of beeswax bricks built up in square shafts on a concrete island in Square Viger, as well as the effort required to maintain the bricks in order for them to decay. The idea of maintenance may seem incongruous with the notion of decay; however, it is perfectly appropriate within the socio-politico framework of Square Viger (Fig. 2).
Square Viger, the first park in Montréal established specifically for leisure, was initiated by French-Canadian women with the intention of preserving and strengthening a French-Canadian presence during the British regime. Land was first donated in 1818 by the Viger family for the purpose of establishing a park, but it was not until 1867 that the park was officially named Square Viger . Whereas the park was meant to promote the growth of a French-Canadian neighbourhood, it likewise should be understood as furthering the French-Canadian culture in Montréal. Thus, a distinct precedent was established at Square Viger for the dissemination of culture in the early nineteenth century. The question of whose culture, despite the original land-donors’ intentions, is one that remains at the core of concern over the state of Square Viger at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
In 1867, the Holy Trinity Memorial Anglican Church was built at the corner of Viger and St. Denis . In 1872, the Canadian Illustrated News reported that Square Viger had became the spot for “English-Canadians and French-Canadians […] to take a stroll” . Thus, by the mid to late nineteenth-century a conflict of interests had been established at Viger, between the founders’ original intentions and the reality of whom the park came to service. Rosalyn Deutsche suggests that conflict, rather than existing as a symptom of malaise, actually offers a true representation of democracy, especially as it challenges any notion of a fixed or stagnant ideology .
Although the conflicts of the nineteenth century at Square Viger may have been subtle and even genteel, those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have had a coarse effrontery attached to them. According to Michel Demers, head of libraries and culture for the Ville-Marie borough, three groups of “undesirables” have predominated in Square Viger for at least twenty years: homosexuals, alcoholics, and “squeegees” (or street kids) . The deterioration of the square from bourgeois idyll, however, had been a concern for the city as early as the nineteen-twenties after industry had chased out the last middle-class households . The primary concern for the city in 2003 was not to eradicate conflict, but rather to “clear hostility” . Indeed, by offering the space to artists, the city has chosen to encourage dialogues between social groups, rather than rely upon police to forcibly eject “undesirables” from the square. However, the city’s apparent benevolence is not without a certain nefariousness attached. One rumoured plan calls for a complete renovation of the square, thus destroying the Agora and Mastodo (1984) (a bronze fountain, Fig. 3), both by Charles Daudelin .
In two obituaries Charles Daudelin was hailed as both “Charles le Magnifique”  and “One of Quebec’s Greatest,”  after his death in April 2001. Although Daudelin’s previous public sculptures had at least been catalogued in art books , Agora and Mastodo were given scant attention by art historians. Simon Blais mentions Mastodovery briefly within an article summing up Daudelin’s career chronologically. Blais claims that Mastodo, along with some other Daudelin works from the eighties, demonstrated the creative spirit and drive towards reinvention still apparent in the artist . His Agora at Square Viger may be closest to his ideal of integrating art with architecture, and ultimately his most successful piece of work. In 1995 Daudelin gave his view of his desired production of art to a journalist:
L’idée de faire du petit format et de fonctionner avec des galleries n’a pas été mon intérêt premier. L’architecture m’intéresse beaucoup depuis très longtemps. Pour moi, la maison, le désir d’avoir une coquille pour s’abriter, et la place publique, sont les choses les plus importantes .
Square Viger, having become a ‘home’ for many marginalized young people, has come to exemplify a denied notion of public spaces as dwellings; in other words, these young people’s adoption of Square Viger is considered by officials and taxpayers as an unwanted intrusion. Louise Daudelin, Charles’ widow, according to Jean-Pierre Caissie, artistic director for Dare-dare, has always felt the city has not used the square to its potential . Why should it have been left to the city to assign its potential? By providing a locus for these young people, who might not otherwise have a locality to anchor themselves, has not Daudelin’s Agora indeed superceded its potential? By being both home and public place, it would seem the perfect marriage of Daudelin’s ideas about private shells and public spaces. Of course, this method of interpretation might not be easily accepted by municipal bureaucrats. Daudelin’sAgora, despite philosophical asides, has come to be the modern emblem of Square Viger’s failure as a public space. For whom, then, has Square Viger failed? It certainly has not failed the “undesirables” who inhabit the place. What public is thus represented by the failure of Square Viger?
Rosalyn Deutsche offers a compelling argument on the use of public space as a source of power-dissemination within a democratic society. Beyond the art world’s fixation on gallery versus public space venues, Deutsche postulates that public-spaces afford the emergence of debate on the “meaning of democracy” . Dare-dare’s initial interest in Square Viger was completely independent of any social concerns, and merely concentrated upon the desire to exhibit art in a public space . However, the exigencies of the location demanded that intervention at a localized level be undertaken, if only to safeguard the art. Doug Scholes, as shall be expanded upon below, felt compelled to intervene with the “squeegees” after initial acts of vandalism threatened to undermine (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) . Caissie, likewise, intervened during the winter by suggesting places where the young people could find food and shelter from the cold . While Scholes’ intervention served to ingratiate himself to the ‘proprietors’ of the public space, Caissie’s was more of a social act aimed at combating the harsh realities of life within the outdoor space. Jürgen Habermas claimed that bourgeois society, without access to monarchical symbols, created the “public sphere” which alienates all segments of society not engaged in some measure of commercial advancement. Thus a division of public and private realms was inaugurated, whereby the public realm remains under the control of the private . From this the public has engineered its own ideological comfort zone, exterior to which is the state of marginalization. This system of delineation has actually created two publics, which shall be referred to in this paper as the accepted public, and the true public.
The accepted public, or in the jargon of democratic philosophy, the bourgeois public, is that for whom public spaces are apparently intended. The true public is comprised of those for whom no private realm exists. The true public, while not the intended inhabitants of public spaces, are ultimately those people who occupy public areas a majority of the time. This dichotomy between intent and usage is precisely what instigates conflict. In the case of Square Viger, by inviting artists on-site, the city hoped to create new discursive venues for the sake of social harmony. Undoubtedly, this debate surrounding the “undesirables” of Square Viger would exclude those same people it was purporting to address. Debates surrounding the usages of public space are ultimately arbitrated by the accepted public. The true public has traditionally found no voice within a discursive framework .
The site-specific ramifications of (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) were not immediately evident, other than the obvious theme of urban decrepitude and decay. However, Scholes’ hollow beeswax brick construction, and their subsequent deconstruction, came to exemplify the “squeegees’” on a multitude of levels. Scholes’ hollow beeswax bricks were originally intended to be built in the form of a cylindrical silo form. The sharp square outlines within the structure of Daudelin’s Agora ultimately determined that the bricks would be constructed into three square shafts in front of a blue-wall waterfall. Although decay was inevitable for structures made from such a fragile substance, Scholes monitored and controlled the decomposition (Fig. 4) . In a very real sense, as witnessed by Caissie, city workers maintained a semblance of decrepitude within Square Viger by not emptying trash bins routinely, and allowing for refuse to gather on the ground . Thus the city may have deliberately perpetuated a myth about Square Viger’s actual condition. Caissie suggests it is a municipal ploy to garner public sympathy in order to raise funds through taxes for an eventual renovation of the park. Whereas this ploy uses the young inhabitants of the square as mere pawns, Schole’s work was able to represent them on a more personal, if not merely sociological level.
The lifestyle these young people adhere to is not singular to Montréal. Nomadic young people adhering to an aesthetic akin to the punks of the late seventies are not uncommon in many large urban metropolises within the western context. The punk ‘movement’ was forged by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, out of the shop on London’s King’s Road which they shared with a used-denim enterprise (the first in London), when they began making clothes for the rock group The Teddy Boys. From its outset, the punk aesthetic represented anti-establishment sentiment. Thus, adherents to the punk aesthetic are daily expressing a conceptual artistic statement as a part of an unwritten policy of non-conformity . The irony in the punk movement is that, ultimately, for Westwood, the ‘look’ was the means she utilized to build a fashion and accessory enterprise to an extent as had not existed prior in England. However, it was the issue of non-conformity, and its inherent deconstruction of social mores, based upon maintaining a semblance of decrepitude, that resonated within(This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?).
Doug Scholes prefers people who encounter his art to react viscerally to its inherent and situational aesthetic . Robert Barry and Richard Serra were two artists who considered their work aesthetically exclusive to their sites . Scholes’ willingness to adapt his work to a site, as mentioned above, furthers its identification with and representation of its location. However, this adaptability in Scholes allows his work to metamorphose according to the particularities of any given site. Scholes’ art can thus be regarded as nomadic. This aesthetic transience is substantive in relation to the site-specificity of (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?). This relational link between art and site does not, however, preclude the work from impacting upon any other location in the world. Scholes’ work is not limited by an aesthetic or institutional framework.
Scholes’ use of beeswax for his project at Square Viger was intended to prompt reflections upon construction and its results. Generally, the end result of construction is a structure, which invariably is used and thus valued according to its usage. Certain structures are maintained beyond their usefulness in order to stand as testaments to the permanence of humans; for example the Parthenon, or Forbidden City. Beeswax, the traditional building tool of bees’ honeycombs, is justifiably a fundamental life giving material. Within each beeswax honeycomb of a hive, the queen bee deposits one egg, thus instigating the reproductive sequence. When this same building material is transposed upon a human scale, its apparent strength is stretched to the point of extreme fragility. The accepted or bourgeois public certainly resembles a beehive, in the sense that both are well-organized productive communities. Both may seem permanent within the context of their productive habits. However, the symbolism of the fragile beeswax is not lost within a human dimension. In Square Viger, the “squeegees” are like the beeswax because they also represent a more fragile state of society. In truth, what they threaten to destabilize is the value of permanence so treasured by the accepted public. Doug Scholes attacked this value intrinsically with (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?).
If, as Mary Jane Jacob asserts, public art’s impetus after 1968 was to “adorn architecture [. . . and] rectify the shortcomings of a more alienating, inhospitable urban plan,”  then Agora and Mastodo together demonstrate the success of this theory in Montréal. Daudelin’s rectification of an apparent urban blight, the demolition of the old square for the sake of major urban transport channels underneath it, synthesized art as an integral component of the urban plan . Jacob describes art on urban plazas, especially works by ‘great masters’ of modern art, as functioning “outdoor museum(s)”  In this regard, Daudelin created out of Square Viger a personal museum where the Agora operates as a platform for Mastodo. Agorais a multi-level series of pergolas and plazas, with a water-wall near the centre. Daudelin’s interpretation of Square Viger also incorporates the shift, as Jacob understands it, “from physical to conceptual space” in the 1980s . Mastodo was originally meant to tilt back and forth, collecting and then depositing rainwater into a basin. That it never functioned properly does not diminish its conceptual value. The flow of rainwater through Mastodo into the basin of Square Viger indicates a cleansing process; the theme of urban renewal is evident throughout. Even if Daudelin’s pergola-shelters were interpreted as an idealized vision of public habitation, they do not encompass every concern of those who might inhabit it. Scholes’ work may extend the discourse surrounding the urbanization and socialization of the square. However, the debate still lacks a central voice: that of the true public presently occupying Square Viger.
The ramifications of art situated upon other art, therefore, are akin to the constructive and deconstructive nature of Scholes’ (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?). Whereas Scholes’ contribution to Square Viger promoted the integrity of Daudelin’s space as a venue for artistic communication, it also highlighted the inherent flaws of quick-fix urban planning. However, Scholes also posits through his work that the apparent decline of the square may simply be a question of perception. Within conceptual boundaries, the initial framework of the art belonged to Scholes. Upon construction of the work he was not only relinquishing intellectual interpretation to his viewers, but the physical presence of his art encroached upon the ‘property’ of the young inhabitants of the square. Vandals undid the pieces the first night after their construction, by throwing beer bottles, kicking the beeswax structures and the lights within their bases. Scholes, unsure of who the culprits might be, approached the “squeegees” if only as a preventative measure against further damage to ‘his’ art. The “squeegees” denied involvement, and said they suspected either drug addicts or a rival “Anglo” group. They claimed ownership of the site by offering their assistance in safeguarding the art in exchange for beer . Square Viger conflicts have always revolved around the issue of ownership: linguistic and cultural, residential versus commercial, and today, accepted versus true public.
The site-specificity of Scholes’ (This is) What happens when a thing is maintained (?) may have initially been limited to issues concerning broader public access. The issues raised in this paper examine only a sample of those applicable to the symbiotic relationship Scholes’ work developed with Square Viger. In order to understand this relationship, one must understand that the site upon which Scholes built was not simply Square Viger, it was Agora by Charles Daudelin. The two art pieces (in conjunction with Mastodo) should be understood as having a discursive relationship, linked integrally to their shared socio-geographic site. In order to understand the issues raised by one piece, the viewer cannot ignore the other. Dare-dare intends to sponsor other artists’ works in Square Viger over the course of the next year; it will be interesting to see how applicable site-specificity will be to their works.
List of Illustrations
Reproduced here with kind permission of Doug Scholes. All photographs by Jean-Pierre Caissie.
1. Doug Scholes, personal interview, 12 November 2004.
2. Marc H. Choko, The Major Squares of Montréal, trans. Kathe Roth (Montréal: Meridian Press, 1990), 112-116.
3. Choko, 116.
4. Choko. Originally sited in Canadian Illustrated News, vol. 3, 1872, 279.
5. Rosalyn Deutsche, “Agoraphobia,” Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 270.
6. Michel Demers, personal interview, 4 November 2004.
7. Choko, 129.
8. Demers interview.
9. Jean-Pierre Caissie, personal interview, 2 November 2004. N.B. the city provided no documentation to support such a plan, and the architectural firm of Cardinal-Hardy, apparently engaged to study a renovation scheme, did not return requests for an interview.
10. Jérôme Delgado, “Charles Daudelin: Charles le Magnifique,” La Presse [Montréal] 4 April 2001; from archives at Heritage Montréal: Art Public, 1.b3*, tome 10.
11. Victor Swoboda, “One of Quebec’s Greatest,” The Montréal Gazette, 4 April 2001; from archives at Heritage Montréal, Carré (sic.) Viger, 2.c1*.
12. Charles Daudelin, ed., Charles Daudelin (Montréal: Musée d’Art Contemporain, 1974), 12-17.
13. Simon Blais, “Brève Chronologie,” Charles Daudelin: L’Avenir Retrouvé ou la Résurrection des Rêves, Charles Daudelin, ed. (Laval: Les 400 coups, 1998), 109.
14. Sophie Gironnay, “Charles Daudelin,” Le Devoir [Montréal] 11 February 1995, D10.
15. Jean-Pierre Caissie interview.
16. Deutsche, 271.
17. Jean-Pierre Caissie interview.
18. Doug Scholes interview.
19. Jean-Pierre Caissie interview.
20. Deutsche, 287.
21. N.B. two attempts to find some of these young people to talk to in Square Viger were for naught, as the square was empty both times.
22. Doug Scholes interview.
23. Jean-Pierre Caissie interview.
24. Annette Green, “A Conversation with Vivienne Westwood,” Fragrance Forum, 17.4 (Fall 200): 10.
25. Doug Scholes interview.
26. Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, E. Suderburg, ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 39.
27. Mary Jane Jacob, “On Locating the Public in Public Art,” Sur l’Expérience de la Ville: Interventions en Milieu Urbain, Marie Fraser et al. (Montréal: Galerie Optica, 1999), 101.
28. Choko, 136.
29. Jacob, 101.
30. Jacob, 102.
31. Doug Scholes interview.
4. From This Native Land: Towards a ‘New Understanding’ of Brian Jungen’s Nike Masks and the Cultural Implications of Bricolage - Christina Froschauer
From This Native Land: Towards a ‘New Understanding’ of Brian Jungen’s Nike Masks and the Cultural Implications of Bricolage
Christina Froschauer obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Archaeology from Simon Fraser University in 2001, and she is currently enrolled in the Art History and Studio Arts program at Concordia University in Montreal, QC. She extends a special thank you to Dr. Karl Froschauer, whose appreciation for First Nations Art has had a great influence on Ms. Froschauer.
As the central work to Brian Jungen’s series, Prototypes for a New Understanding (1998-2003), Nike Masks (1999) present the artist’s hybridization of brand name sneakers with Northwest Coast Native ceremonial masks. In turn, Jungen’s Nike Masks have become objects of cultural significance and critical metaphors of contemporary consumerism. By crafting a work of art enmeshed with the concrete object, Jungen has forged two separate commodities into a single, synthesized object with a unique symbolism of its own.
The practice of altering the significance of an object from its expected context is termed bricolage. In The Savage Mind (1962), the French theorist, Claude Levi-Strauss, describes the bricoleur as one who, in using the remains of events or signs apparently fixed in their power of reference, reconfigures and resignifies. The resulting configuration does not hold the same meaning as it did previously. Consisting of a new arrangement of elements, the original significance is irrevocably altered . This paper applies Levi-Strauss’ concept to Brian Jungen as bricoleur for his series, Prototypes for a New Understanding. In the course of discussing the series, I deconstruct Jungen’s Nike Masks by exploring the meanings associated with each object separately. I follow this comparison with an interpretation of Northwest Coast Native culture and globalized consumer culture.
Brian Jungen (b. 1970) was born in Fort St. John, British Columbia, to a Swiss father and a Native mother. Shortly after graduating from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, he gained critical acclaim in the 1990’s for his artworks dealing with colonialism, globalization and commodification. As a result of his direct link to Native culture, the issues of identity, race, gender, culture and stereotyping are a source for many of his works . In the 1990’s, he focused mainly on imagery linked to First Nations stereotypes. His show, Half Nelson (1997) in Calgary, featured paintings of drawings done by random individuals he approached on the street. As a personal ethnographic study, Jungen asked non-Natives to draw the likeness of a Native person (Fig. 1). This was followed by Shapeshifter (2000) (Fig. 2), a sculpture made of plastic chairs to form the shape of a whale’s skeleton. The piece served as a commentary on Native traditional whaling practices and global commodities. Jungen would repeat the same materials combined with fabric in Bush Capsule (2000), a small dome-like structure resembling an igloo/tent. Described by the artist as a “seasonal shelter,” Bush Capsule referenced the concerns of Native land claims. Globalization and the identity of First Nations individuals were fused as the focal point for his work in his subsequent series, Prototypes for a New Understanding. The artist’s concerns reveal themselves through the manner in which he crafted his masks over a five year period.
As noted earlier, Nike Masks replicate the traditional ceremonial masks of the Northwest Coast First Nations cultures. The colour scheme of Nike Masks repeats the same colour scheme of red, white and black that is characteristic of Nike Air Jordan sneakers and traditional Northwest Coast Native culture (Fig. 4) . The fabrication of the masks involved the literal disassembling of the shoes and their subsequent reassemblage, stitch by hand sewn stitch. To some of the Prototypes, Jungen applied hair. The final products bore an uncanny resemblance to carved and painted Northwest Coast Native masks. In the process of this transformation, Jungen maintained the signifiers of the Nike brand by integrating the company’s trademark swoosh into the facial features on the masks or as elements of their overall design. He exploited the curved lines of the sneakers’ various parts to replicate the curvaceous stylistic aspects of Pacific Coast Art. He also included the sneakers’ “Made in …” tags by placing them on the reverse side of the masks. The final creations were placed in glass vitrines that Jungen made especially for his newly formed objects.
Levi-Strauss’ writings on the concept of bricolage have alluded to the idea that “signs resembl[ing] images [are] concrete entities but they resemble concepts in their power of reference” . The signs and images that hold a “power of reference” are what both Marita Sturken and Dick Hebdige have referred to in their writings onbricolage as “commodities” or “cultural objects” . With the rapid development of globalized markets, contemporary Western (and non-Western) culture has emerged as a commodity culture, where images and trademarks form an inextricable part of the social praxis. In turn, people’s identities are constructed through capitalistic goods and corporations . In the case of Prototypes, Jungen’s signs or images are Nike shoes. In their original sense, they are a commodity. As for the concept of Northwest Coast Native masks, their original purpose is based on ritual. Yet through the evolution of both objects, that is, in terms of their commodification and globalization, they have crossed over the boundaries of definition and now share similarities as a joint commodity and cultural object. I will now discuss each category separately, looking first at their places of origin and, subsequently, how they have each evolved to their current state.
The Nike shoe business started in the 1960’s by Philip Knight, a student attending Stanford University. The germ for the company was kick started by Knight’s desire to start a business importing shoes from Japan . His business grew over the years to produce a variety of running shoes, from tennis to basketball, as well as a line of athletic wear catering to men and women. The Nike Company is currently one of the “largest, most popular, and most profitable shoe and clothing companies in the world” . Nike shoes and clothing are now a globalized commodity, much like Coka-Cola Classic.
As a result of the globalization and popularity of the Nike brand, the company’s logo can be spotted in virtually every athletic retail store. Its ubiquitous advertising campaigns appear on television, in magazines, through sponsored events, and on the World Wide Web. Of course, there is also the global population at large who, in wearing Nike goods, serve the company as paying advertisers. The ever growing commodity value of Nike and its signature “swoosh” has led to its status as an icon of contemporary culture. As the company’s products have grown in popularity, Nike has not only become embedded with a multitude of associations but has been appropriated as a means of expressing identity by both celebrities and subcultures alike.
Nike campaigns typically feature sports and entertainment celebrities (i.e., Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi and Spike Lee, to name a few) who are paid to wear the company’s products. Not only are these celebrities used to sell Nike, but they also sell a lifestyle and the glory associated with being a star. For subcultures, the consumption of Nike products becomes a means to personally associate themselves with a desired lifestyle and, identity modeled in the accoutrements of a hip, urban youth culture .
Bob Herbert’s article, “What a Denial Nike Is – of Sweatshop Economics,” (1996) discusses how Nike functions on a “pyramid of exploitation.” Where the Nike celebrities and Philip Knight are perched at the top of the pyramid scheme, consumers of Nike and the workers in Nike’s factories, sit at the bottom . In the 1990’s, Nike’s decision to sub-contract the production of its shoes to companies in Asia resulted in the regular mistreatment of workers. The subsequent publicizing of Nike’s lamentable labour practices enraged workers’ rights activists across the world. Since the Nike company works on a sub-contract level, Nike cannot be linked directly to the mistreatment of its sweatshop workers.
To give a sense of the disparity in company profits versus factory wages, workers in Vietnam earn thirty dollars a month while Knight’s salary is approximately $800,000 a year. Celebrity icons are paid up to twenty million dollars a year to advertise Nike’s products . This is why Herbert refers to Nike as operating a “pyramid of exploitation.” Like its workers, the company’s consumers are equally exploited. While the consumers of the company’s products spend well over a hundred dollars for every pair of Nike shoes, the company’s factory workers receive one to two dollars for a full day of labour.
When referring to the Northwest Coast First Nations, one thinks of the Native populations of the Pacific Coast who span from the Northwestern United Sates through the Coast of British Columbia to the Alaskan Coast. Before colonization in the 1800’s, this area was the homeland of over thirty-two language groups who lived off the land. Using their natural resources, they created a number of cultural, stylistically designed, functional-objects. Most commonly, these objects were made of wood. The artistic depictions on them were reflective of symbols of family histories and mythological representations . Some examples of these highly functional objects in the social life of Native peoples were decorated house posts, feasting dishes, memorial and storage boxes, ceremonial costumes, masks, drums, and rattles.
The ceremonial mask plays an important role in North West Coast feasting ceremonies and dances such as the potlatch (a potlatch feast was linked to family status; it acted as a reinforcement of roles in terms of status and hierarchy within a society) and memorial ceremonies. The masks vary in size from small head plates to large, elaborate masks that open up to reveal another face. Each culture has its own family stories and mythological beings. The faces of the masks also vary, from supernatural beings and animal spirits to human faces. The depiction of these beings was used as one part of the costume to recreate the stories of clan legends or to depict particular events . Most often, the masks were carved from wood and then painted with colours most commonly associated with North West Coast art.
At the time of colonization, a significant change occurred for Northwest Coast cultures as the domineering power of the colonies and missionaries stifled much of the indigenous cultural practices. This influenced a great deal of change in many aspects of First Nations peoples’ lives. At this time, some of their functional art objects were traded or seized for their colonizer’s personal collections or as objects to be placed in museums of anthropology or ethnography in European and North American cities . It was not until the 1930’s when the meaning of these culturally significant pieces changed from historical artifacts to contemporaneous works of art .
Throughout the years, some Native individuals completely assimilated themselves into Western society, while others, though influenced by Western ways of life, still maintained ties to their culture. In the past couple of decades there has been a lot of political activity among the First Nations of B.C. in the form of reclaiming land and reestablishing their cultural identity. The arts produced by the First Nations individuals shifted over the years from functional cultural objects to prints and sculptures catering to the growing number of interested collectors . The arts of the First Nations, throughout the latter half of the twentieth century have become commodities. In Vancouver alone, there are numerous galleries specializing in the sale of Northwest Coast Native art to eager tourists and seasoned collectors. The fame associated with artists like Bill Reid and Susan Point has contributed to the increasing demand for First Nations prints and masks as commodity items. Moreover, consumers of First Nations art come from all over the world, not just Canada.
On a provincial level, Northwest Coast Native art has come to be a contemporary emblem of British Columbia . Evidence of this can be seen in the Vancouver Airport. Throughout its hallways and corridors, numerous prints, carvings, totem poles and sculptures produced by First Nation’s artists are on display. The largest sculptures in the airport’s collection are by Reid, the most acclaimed Northwest Coast Native artist. The growth in demand for Coastal artworks proves that the significance of these objects has shifted in meaning. No longer objects of cultural significance to a specific community, they are now widely produced objects of commodified disassociation.
Prototypes for a New Understanding offers a critique of Nike brand sneakers as appropriated commodities placed “in a symbolic ensemble that serves to […] subvert their original straight meanings” . Inciting numerous references to contemporary culture, commodities, mass production, globalization, identity and social hierarchy,Prototypes encompasses a new meaning as an integrated object. Meshing the idea of a traditional object with that of a contemporary commodity, Jungen evokes thoughts, tensions, contradictions and political awareness by embracing change and a hybridized society as a cultural fact.
The image of the traditional ceremonial mask is bound to the symbol of Nike sneakers, placing it within the image of the global commodity. Jungen’s work is suggestive of mass production on a global scale, whereby products are produced on the base level by hand and distributed worldwide. It suggests a new way of looking at the commodification and marketing of specific cultural objects and practices . Jungen’s Prototypes series entreats us to think about Nike’s sweatshop workers whose labour continues to be exploited in the interests of corporate wealth. In the case of the Northwest Coast peoples, however, it is their culture and rights as Natives that are not being addressed on a base level. In the meantime, their culture continues to be exploited in the name of provincial identity as well as on the level of commercialization by art galleries . Moreover, the exploitation of the First Nations peoples’ identities as individuals continues to be obscured by the tourist industry and the sale of miniaturized totem poles, kitsch dolls that simulate what a “Native” person looks like, and other mass produced, pseudo-“Indian” paraphernalia.
Jungen’s Prototypes evoke the idea that what once was traditional culture has been influenced throughout by Western society and the culture of commodification defining the Western world. By using the material of mass-produced, popular goods to make “new” Native masks, Jungen’s Nike Masks explore the idea that commodification has had a direct impact on the changes and evolution of Native identity and culture . Jungen suggests that many contemporary urban Native peoples spend a vast amount of time situating themselves within an “Indian spectrum,” which is “defined by an inherited economy of imagery and iconography” . The Nike Masksallude to the consumer commodities impressed upon Native urban youth, a target market for Nike. It is a common trend among the youth population today to emulate cultural heroes and adapt capitalist iconography as a means of self-definition.
Both the image of the cultural mask and Nike shoes can be linked to the idea of ritual or ceremony . As previously mentioned, the First Nation’s ceremonial masks were used for dances or storytelling, which often took place when the community gathered together for feasts. In the case of Prototypes, there is also a link to the ritual of the basketball game, where numerous people gather as spectators to a sporting event. Both of these rituals, though different in kind, can be equated by their significance as cultural events.
Jungen contends that his Prototypes are not a call for the revival of tradition but a call to recognize their origins . It is the origin of where the shoes are made that he chooses to display to the viewers. Leaving the “made in—” tags on the reverse side of the masks, Jungen explicitly refers the viewer to the masks’ hybrid origins. The tags point to where the shoes were made (a sweatshop factory in Asia), and thus creates a link to Nike’s behind-the-scenes labour practices and its employment of sweatshop workers.
Serving as a contrast to the associations this work has with contemporary Native culture and contemporary commodity culture, Nike Masks is infused with a connection to its origins by way of colour, style and general appearance. Jungen replicated a traditional ceremonial mask to conjure thoughts of traditional Native culture as well as changes within contemporary Native communities. With these works, Jungen makes a compelling statement about Native society today and the effects of acculturation affecting both Native and non-Native communities.
Jungen’s Prototypes for a New Understanding series were placed into glass vitrines, recalling the same display method appearing in an anthropological or art museum. Jungen has always had an interest in how museums exhibit First Nations objects as ethnographic goods . He has suggested that he “wanted the Prototypes to have the same institutional ‘authenticity’” as a museum . Having the glass vitrines gave Jungen the power to exhibit the masks in the manner he chose to present them. This is especially important in terms of Jungen’s placement of the masks’ fabrication tags. This is to say, their hybrid origins defy traditional anthropological and art historical labels.
Simulating anthropology museums by placing Prototypes for a New Understanding in glass casings, Brian Jungen presents us with a new work for ethnographic study. His work fuses cultures, calling into question the dominant, Western capitalized world and the influences it has both imposed upon, and been appropriated by, Native tradition and identity. This project also references the hierarchy of a capitalist world in terms of vertical positions of power and the individuals who are exploited for the purpose of monetary growth in a capitalist economy. Prototypes is a study of origins through the simulation of style and form to past traditions of Northwest Coast Native arts, as well as a study that provides the viewer with references to the manufacturing origins of Nike shoes. Through its references to culture, identity and the effects of globalized commodities, Jungen’s“bricolaged” masks provide the viewer with the artist’s shared perception of the contemporary world in relation to Northwest Coast traditions.
1. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 20-22.
2. Nancy Tousley, “Jungen: Brian Jungen Is a Fast-Rising Star in a New Generation of Canadian Artists,” The Calgary Herald (Dec. 1, 2001): ES 09.
3. Brian Jungen, “The Materials and Objects are Familiar,” Cybermuse, hosted by the National Gallery of Canada < http://cybermuse.gallery.ca/cybermuse/search/artist_e.jsp?iartistid=25208>.
4. Levi-Strauss, 18.
5. Dick, Hebdige, The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), 102-106.
6. Marita Sturken et al., “Consumer Culture and the Manufacture of Desire,” Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2001), 227-229.
7. Jennifer Lin, “Running Down Nike,” Knight Rider Newspapers (April 12,1988): F1, FRO.
8. The Global Exchange, 2003. < www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/sweatshops/nike>.
9. Sturken: 229.
10. Bob Herbert, “What a Denial Nike is – of Sweatshop Economics,” The Vancouver Sun (June 11,1996): A15.
11. Herbert: A15.
12. Northwest Connection Gallery of Native Art, 2002 < www.northwest-connection.com/Pages/nations.htm>.
13. Northwest Connection Gallery of Native Art, 2002.
14. Mary Jane Lenz, “Art from the Northwest Coast,” The Magazine Antiques 156 (Oct. 1994): 476.
15. Lenz: 476.
16. Lenz: 476.
17. Nancy Tousley, “Jungen: Brian Jungen Is a Fast-Rising Star in a New Generation of Canadian Artists,” The Calgary Herald (Dec. 1,2001): 6.
18. Hebdige, 104.
19. Brian Jungen, “Prototypes for a New Understanding,” Flash Art 36.231 (July-Sept. 2003): 86.
21. David Garneau, “Visual Art: Beyond the One-Liner: the Masks of Brian Jungen,” Border Crossings19.4 (Nov. 2000): 92.
22. Garneau: 92.
24. Garneau: 92.
25. Nancy Tousley, “Jungen: Brian Jungen Is a Fast-Rising Star in a New Generation of Canadian Artists,” The Calgary Herald (Dec. 1,2001): 7.
26. Jungen, “Prototypes for a New Understanding”: 86.
5. Site Unseen: A Critical Review of the Used/Goods Exhibition at the Salvation Army Recycling Centre in Montreal, from November 5 to 25, 2004. - Marcus Greatheart
123Site Unseen: A Critical Review of the Used/Goods Exhibition at the Salvation Army Recycling Centre in Montreal, from November 5 to 25, 2004.
Marcus Greatheart is in his fourth year of an Honours B.A. (Art History) at the University of Victoria. As a Visiting Student at Concordia University in 2004, he worked with Professor Tom Waugh, researching the production of gay male pornography. Now located in Vancouver, Mr. Greatheart works as a Communications Consultant to local arts and community health groups while completing his degree part time. He looks forward to his next visit to Montreal to visit the friends he made there, and extends special thanks to Natasha Pashak and Dr. Johanne Sloan.
Artists can play a role in effecting change in our communities. To do so, they must do their research to define and learn about a targeted community, and invest themselves with endurance, for there are no quick fixes. My perspective here is guided by personal experience as for over ten years I have been an activist for impoverished and marginalized communities with grassroots and not-for-profit organisations.
Used/Goods, organized by Cut Rate Collective (CRC)  at the Salvation Army Recycling Store in Montreal, is defined as a site-specific exhibition intended to create social change. The collection of works and performances certainly appears impressive on the surface, but much of the promised substance is missing. From my own experience as a community development worker and art historian, I argue that site-specific art specifically intending to effect change among members of a target community must be both overt in its purpose and enduring in its commitment. To illustrate this, I evaluate the Used/Goods exhibition based on the criteria set forth by the CRC in the accompanying program. I illuminate and assess the successes (and there are many) of this project through a discussion of individual works. I then delve into the greater aspirations of the exhibition through its attempts to bridge alternate and diverse communities, particularly through its Talk Show performances and workshops, and by situating the exhibition within the discourse of site-specificity. Ultimately I demonstrate the achievements of Used/Goods as a first step towards a broader, community-involved, social art.
Cut Rate Collective is a small group of artists dedicated to the development of alternate forms of exhibitions and events that stress opportunities for artists outside of traditional venues, the demystification of the art object, and the participation of the public in the creative art of art making. – EXHIBITION PROGRAM
The CRC establishes three objectives for their work, as indicated in the excerpt above. It is prudent to evaluate the Used/Goods exhibition based on its stated criteria. Certainly the CRC has found a unique and interesting location outside the ‘white cube’ gallery while managing to maintain some traditional gallery elements. The Salvation Army space comes loaded with multiple and layered histories. The ‘thrift store’, as a concept, highlights ideas of environmentalism, economic disparity and capitalism. The Salvation Army is a Christian social services regiment serving impoverished communities, i.e., the homeless, alcohol and drug users. As an alternative to a commercial gallery, there exists a friction between the idea of a second-hand store and the traditional idea of a gallery as a high-end retail space.
To guide visitors through the exhibition, the organizers have used traditional gallery methods such as an exhibition program, seemingly with the intention of offering some familiarity in an unfamiliar landscape. One side of the program includes a map identifying the locations of the art works, descriptions of each work and the name of the artist. On the reverse is a schedule and descriptions of the Talk Showperformances. Throughout the store, various labels are used to delineate which items are ‘art’ and which are ‘merchandise’.
As such, the labels serve two functions. In a gallery, they identify the title of the work and artist but, here, they also stake a claim on the objects that are a part of the exhibition’s set-up. According to Kim Sawchuk, one of the participating artists, this second function has a more pragmatic purpose: Salvation Army management insisted on labels to avoid confusing the store’s staff after some items selected to complement the exhibition were inadvertently returned to general merchandise . This is a perfect illustration of the label’s power to confer meaning and infer importance. As a sign of authority, it can assess the ‘art-ness’ of an object or collection.
Wandering the aisles of the store, I thought about exploiting this power further and considered creating a label with an obscure title and attaching it to a random object – a stove, a rack of underpants, or the cash register. I then came across the work of Daniel Olsen. Olsen’s None Genuine Without My Signature (2004) (Fig. 1) investigates the power of the artist’s pen as he ‘signs’ various items such as books, records and clothes with a signature stamp. Who would touch one of these items, bestowed with the weight of art, for fear of reprisals, or of damaging or otherwise impacting ‘art’ one does not understand?
Addressing this fear of art is, hopefully, the intention of the CRC’s second objective – “the demystification of the art object” . During the exhibition’s opening speeches, a Salvation Army staff member welcomed the artists and guests to the exhibition. She also confessed to not really understanding what the art was about. The CRC seems hopeful that the artists’ production can play an important didactic role in circumventing the trepidation that many have about art, one based perhaps in fear or lack of knowledge. I think the artists at Used/Goods are prudent to focus on the art object in general, and especially at this specific site, where they are able to convey the ‘greying’ of the differentiation between merchandise and art.
Gisele Amantea’s The Discounted Sublime (2004) (Figs. 2 & 3) provides an excellent illustration of this point. Displayed on the wall beside a stairwell are thirty-one landscape paintings by Western Canadian artist Levine Flexhaugh (1918-1974). “Flexie” was a regular at tourist resorts and national parks and is teased for having “supported his family by creating essentially the same landscape painting”4 over and over again; this tease is in the text of the exhibition program and also in the display of the works. By assembling the paintings salon-style, behind a velvet rope, and juxtaposing them with a lounge chair, Amantea makes an important comment on the definition of the art market. When art historians consider the art market, it is with an understanding of the “high arts” and the important works with appropriate provenance that form the canon. Amantea reminds us that the market extends as far as thrift stores where works by Flexhaugh are found. With the addition of the lounge chair to the mise en scène, Amantea invites the viewer to recline and contemplate the works. However, with the security rope in place, any attempt is thwarted and we are forced to consider the chair as itself “on display.” Much like adding a label or signature, the placement of an object behind a stanchioned rope succeeds in elevating the merchandise into a canon of its own.
In a conversation at the opening night’s festivities, Amantea explained that there is a definitive market for these unique landscapes, but one must first recognise the works as Flexhaugh’s, a task now much more easily accomplished with the opportunity to study so many pieces of his creative output. The possible results are manifold. With the salon-style hanging, Amantea first points to a ‘canon’ of (Western) Canadian (landscape) art in which “Flexie” is not included and then ‘elevates’ his work into it. She encourages a discourse about his work (to which my own words contribute). She highlights the market for Flexhaugh’s paintings. She may even increase the perceived monetary value of the works, thereby shifting their marketability out of thrift stores and into the more exclusive space of the commercial gallery. Ultimately, Amantea’s work highlights the complexity of the art market and brings the thrift store to a rightful place as an alternative art gallery, with its collections of velvet art, paint-by-numbers masterworks, and other treasures.
Such far-reaching ramifications are not limited to just one artist. As I encountered others, I wondered how items that have been integrated into artworks might convert back into merchandise after the exhibition ends. Consider Christophe Flower’s Labyrinth (2004) (Figs. 4 & 5), “a multi-channel, interactive video installation” , wherein the artist created miniature game sites inside travel trunks. In one part, the viewer watches the movement of a ball across three side-by-side televisions; a joystick manipulates the scene, shifting the ball from left to right and back again, thereby engaging the viewer in a non-scored, seemingly un-winnable game. The impetus for the audience’s participation is playing for the sake of playing and creating one’s own rules.
Yet what happens when, and if, these items are returned to the store’s inventory? Does Labyrinth maintain its site-specificity when shifted to another location? Transplanted to an art gallery, it becomes a symbol or exemplar of theUsed/Good exhibition. Even resituated into another thrift store, it becomes a novelty because it lacks the context of this exhibition. Here, we see how intrinsic the overt intentions of the artists become in defining and inferring the essence of site-specificity on the objects that are selected and assembled there. What Used/Goodssucceeds in doing, even on a superficial level, is engaging the audience in what is a challenging art historical discourse on the art object. As Lilian Tone, Assistant Curator at MOMA New York, explains of Toronto artists’ collective, General Idea:
In a tongue-in-cheek dialogue with the traditions of institutional critique and site specificity, [the artists] promote what could be called a situational displacement, heightening awareness of the shifting frame that defines the spaces where art is shown: spaces marked by unstated formal and ethical codes, in which accepted rules of engagement forbid ordinary reflexes of attraction: touching, taking away, tasting, sleeping […].
Tone’s sentiment transcends the strategies of the collective in question. Miwon Kwon, Associate Professor of Art History at UCLA further explains the ramifications of the shift of art objects from their initial site to galleries and museums:
The consequences of this conversion, effected by object-orienteddecontextualizations in the guise of historical recontextualizations, are a series of normalizing reversals in which the specificity of the site is rendered irrelevant, making it all the easier for autonomy to be smuggled back into the artwork, with the artist allowed to regain his or her authority as the primary source of the work’s meaning .
This is also the challenge of the artist, who upon becoming famous, receives offers from curators for retrospective exhibitions. In some cases, due to expense, availability, or ephemerality of certain art, curators have recreated works so as to offer audiences “site-specific copies” .
Cut Rate Collective invites the public to attend performance events, workshops and presentations that will take place throughoutUsed/Goods. Talk Show is modeled after daytime TV where activities such as home decorating, cooking, and household repairs are demonstrated. A small television studio environment will be set up on the second floor of the Salvation Army Store for these events.Please come and share your experiences with us.– Exhibition Program
As thrift store shoppers, we all dream about finding hidden treasures. The appeal of television programs like The Antiques Roadshow is built on our desire to find something special, under-priced, and suitable to our sense of style or dress size. We can then purchase and, perhaps, eventually resell the same item for profit. This is at least an option for the shopper if the utility of thrift stores is more practical fun than necessity. However, there is another group that has gone as yet unnamed in the exhibition program or in the work presented—the poor. The CRC states its intent to “address timely and pertinent social issues from a local perspective”  but it does not specify what these issues are. By looking at the program for the Talk Showperformances and workshops, we can speculate on what theses might be.
With Talk Show, the CRC offers an interesting array of events in which the general public can participate; indeed, participation is encouraged. In this way, the programming meets the CRC’s third objective—the participation of the public in the creative art of art making. The familiarity of the daytime talk show format gives attendees a good idea of what they can expect within a new environment under the auspices of a group of artists. The events range in content from the purely creative and artistic Still Life Drawing Class and a choir performance to the creative yet more utilitarian Sewing Bees, Soft Material Reformatting, Mending Circle, and Garment Renovation . There are also ultra-utilitarian events such as instructional seminars on cooking and home repairs as well as “How-to” courses like Stretch Your Buck. All these reflect, in some way, an artistic interpretation relating to the site. In particular, the last event gives a clue as to the CRC’s possible social objectives of reaching the “lower-classes,” i.e., the under-employed and those living below the poverty line.
How Can the Salvation Army Help You? What Can I Do to Help? provides a history of the religiously-based organisation, but also an opportunity for participants to learn more about available resources and opportunities to volunteer and participate. The program invites two seemingly distinct groups together – potential service users and providers. A unique and interesting strategy, I am curious how successful it will be. From my own experience as an activist and community development worker, I have come to learn that one-time intercessions rarely succeed. The intention to help link those in need with available services is nevertheless admirable.
After reviewing the artworks and the program, we are left wondering what social issues the CRC is seeking to address and why they chose not to make these intentions more overt. During a presentation at Concordia University, Lorraine Oades spoke about wanting Talk Show to make an impact. When asked to clarify how the collective hoped to achieve this, Oades’ response was more vague. She explained that people surviving on a limited income see themselves as having limited opportunities. The CRC hoped to affect this line of thinking and demonstrate that art can be an “everyday act” . Furthermore, the CRC wanted to create opportunities for constituents (exhibition attendees and store patrons) to “do things [such as crafts, sewing, drawing, etcetera] that they might usually do but in a public sphere” . Without saying so, Oades seems to suggest that the CRC also wishes to create community. What becomes obvious is that the collective is unclear about what issues it seeks to address and who its target audience is.
Used/Goods, a major, innovative exhibition featuring works by 13 Montreal artists created specifically for the Salvation Army Recycling Store on rue Notre-Dame West. – EXHIBITION PROGRAM
So what of the ‘site-specific’ nature of this exhibition? In Installation Art, Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley and Michael Perry describe the genre:
Site-specificity implies neither simply that a work is to be found in a particular place, nor, quite, that it is that place. It means, rather, that what the work looks like and what it means is dependent in large part on the configuration of the space in which it is realized. In other words, if the same object were arranged in the same way in another location, they would constitute a different work .
The space of the work provides context to the work, just as the artists inUsed/Goods have done by creating artworks that prompt one to reflect on the environment of the exhibition and its multiple modes and meanings. Consider Jo-Anne Balcaen’s Pot of Gold (2004) (Fig. 6), an arch of helium-filled balloons descending into a display of vinyl records acting as a point-of-sale marker or a ‘blue-light special’ promising nuggets of treasure. In a more complex effort, Kim Sawchuk’sSalvation Works: Sorting It Out (2004) (Fig. 7) installation includes a diagram that outlines the Salvation Army’s recycling process, from phone call to store shelves, displayed in an organizational development corporate schematic. This is one level of engagement with the site, and yet there exists the possibility to take it a step further to include and reflect on the people who use the space and the events of the past.
Just as each artist varies in her or his interpretation of site-specific works, artists and theorists differ in their definition and expectations of site-specificity. Curator Kevin Melchionne, explores the more general problematics of the term, suggesting that even easel paintings can be considered site-specific when they are created for intentional placement on, say, a church altar, or in a certain room of a patron’s home . Ultimately he suggests it is the duty of the critic to determine the success of the work as ‘site-specific’ and for this purpose he offers a set of criteria to consider in this determination. In The Lure of the Local, the art critic Lucy Lippard suggests that a degree of activism is implicit to “site art, land art, and place art” . Place art, which seems closest to the definition of “site-specific” we are working with here, “can add a social dimension that refers to human history and memory, land use, and political agendas relevant to the specific place” . In reference to Lippard, the artists in Used/Goods had some success in activating both the current usage of the store as well as the lingering past that marks the building’s walls with dents, scratches, and empty nail holes.
However this is still not enough for Hafthor Yngvason, Director of Public Art in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who states:
While “site-specificity” – privileged in public-art circles as the public form of art – has provided a means to introduce art into neighborhoods without the glaring irrelevance of what has been called “plop art,” it has rarely gone beyond the idea of responding to established ideas or “facts” about communities to participating in a public sphere where such facts can be examined and contested .
My expectation of the exhibition (not from the individual works themselves, but of the entire event) was to acknowledge that a concerted effort was made to know the constituencies that use the Salvation Army, to attempt to understand their situation, and to offer some form of intervention. In the end, it would have been necessary to evaluate the project to learn what worked, what made an impact, and what programs are worth continuing . I recognise now that what I had hoped for when I read that the CRC suggested addressing social issues was what artist, Suzanne Lacy, calls:
[…] new genre public art – visual art that uses both traditional and non-traditional media to communicate and interact with a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives – is based on engagement .
To be fair, Used/Goods never promised this, and thus, the exhibition cannot be measured against the criteria of new genre public art. In the end, I am left wondering whether the CRC’s criteria are enough and, and had they ensured a more meaningful participation by the public, whether that public would be more willing to engage with an art that is relevant to their lives.
Ultimately my goal is to critique the methodology that forms the basis of their exhibition. While the intentions of the participating artists are well-meaning, the CRC’s failure to adequately verbalise their social objectives or target audiences gives a false appearance. That is to say, a group of artists have entered the environment of the poor, appropriated their everyday objects, transformed them into “art,” and then resituated them back in the environment with the expectation that the work should now be somehow privileged. I believe this may explain why the artists are finding store shoppers reluctant to participate. They may be offended that perfectly good merchandise has been irreparably transformed into unaesthetic, incomprehensible, elitist junk. The difference may be a perception of “want vs. need,” where the store patrons see their ‘need’ as greater than the ‘want’ of the artists who are as privileged as the art objects they hoped to create. With regards to the patrons of Used/Goods, most of the show’s spectators were as cultured and educated as the artists whose artworks were being presented. Perhaps the CRC was just hoping to tread softly.
Subtlety may be effective in some artistic endeavours, but not when creating a site-specific work intended to connect with disparate communities. Furthermore, if the goal is to engender change or improve the lives of those communities, I believe that effective initiatives will resist applying short-term band-aids to social problems and, instead, commit to long-term remedies. Parachute interventions rarely have lasting impact. In the future, I hope to see all or some of the CRC artists involved in some further development, continuing the work for which Used/Goods was a hopeful, if tentative, first step.
List of Illustrations
1. The Cut Rate Collective is somewhat of a misnomer as it implies a large group of people. While theUsed/Goods exhibition includes thirteen artists, the collective itself consists of Lorraine Oades and Gisele Amantea.
2. Conversation at Used/Goods opening night reception.
3.Used/Goods exhibition program.
4.Used/Goods exhibition program.
5.Used/Goods exhibition program.
6. Lilian Tone, “Affording the Ultimate Creative Shopping Experience: The Boutique of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion,” The Edge of Everything: Reflections on Global Curatorial Practice, edited by Catherine Thomas (Banff, AB: Banff Centre Press, 2002), 66.
7. Miwon Kwon, “One Place After Another: Note on Site Specificity,” Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, edited by E. Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 49.
9.Used/Goods exhibition program.
10. By italicizing the names of these ‘events’, I bring attention to their artistic interpretation as manifest by their inclusion in an art exhibition program, as compared to a community centre or continuing education catalogue.
11. Lorraine Oades, artist/curator presentation at Concordia University, November 16, 2004.
12. Lorraine Oades, artist/curator presentation at Concordia University, November 16, 2004.
13. Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley and Michael Perry, Installation Art (London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 35.
14. Kevin Melchionne, “Rethinking Site-Specificity: Some Critical and Philosophical Problems,” Art Criticism 12.2 (1997): 37.
15. Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Sense of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: New York Press, 1997), 274.
16. Lippard, 274.
17. Hafthor Yngvason, “The New Public Art” as quoted by Miwon Kwon in One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 115.
18. Far from instituting any kind of outcome-based measurement tools during the run of the exhibition, Oades reported that the CRC would consider the impact only after it was over. Likely, videotapes and photos would be used to create a document of Used/Goods.
19. Suzanne Lacy, “Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys” as quoted by Miwon Kwon in One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambrige: MIT Press, 2002), 105.
6. Plucked from Two Trees: An investigation into the Far Eastern influence on Persian luster and mina’i wares from both a cross-cultural and gendered perspective - Tina Do Kyung Lee
Plucked from Two Trees: An investigation into the Far Eastern influence on Persian luster and mina’i wares from both a cross-cultural and gendered perspective
Tina Do Kyung Lee will be graduating from Concordia University this spring with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art History. As the recipient of a full scholarship from the Commonwealth Commission in the United Kingdom, she will commence a Master’s degree in Art and Archaeology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies this fall. In preparation for her Master’s thesis, Ms. Lee completed an independent study under the supervision of Dr. Elaine Paterson. Her topic addressed the cultural and ritualistic significance of the gourd in both the high arts and folk arts of Korea.
The topic for this case study originated from a desire to trace the Chinese influence on Persian lustre ware while also addressing the representation of gender in Islamic ceramic art. Focusing specifically on pottery from the Seljuk period (1037-1300 C.E.), my investigation encountered the subtle complexities underlying a study of this kind. This is to say, any attempt to pinpoint Chinese characteristics within Seljuk pottery risks simplifying the intricate history of Persian ceramics. More accurately, the features of Seljuk pottery as a whole resulted from a slowly evolving process beginning much earlier than the eleventh century arrival of the Seljuk Turks to Islam.
While the Asiatic physiognomies of the painted figures on Seljuk lustre ware appear to coincide with the arrival of the Seljuks, it is reductive to refer to the imported decorative motifs in Seljuk pottery as “Chinese.” By the time such motifs appeared in Seljuk pottery, they already formed part of a varied and localized vocabulary. This essay maintains its original course in the sense that it addresses the stages of cultural cross-pollination between Islam and the Far East both during and before the Seljuk period. The deviation occurs in the underlying purpose of my discussion on specific ceramic objects from the Seljuk period. While acknowledging and attempting to clarify the Chinese influence on Islamic pottery, the following discussion purposefully demonstrates the rich, dialectical identities presented in Seljuk pottery.
A map from Ceramics of the Islamic World illustrates the geographic proximity between the Islamic world and the Far East (Fig. 1). The Seljuks, who would eventually take over Iran, Iraq and Turkey, were a Turkish tribe originating from Central Asia . With regards to Islamic Pottery and the Far East, we can divide the subject into three main periods, all of which were instigated by recurring waves of Chinese influence . Keeping in mind the dates of the Seljuk Empire (1037 to 1300 C.E.), this
touches upon the first two periods. The first or early period occurs from the ninth to the eleventh-century and was inspired by the importation of white porcelains and stonewares from China’s T’ang dynasty . The second, or medieval, period takes place between the twelfth to the fourteenth-century and is said to have been influenced by the white wares of the Sung dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) .
While the dates for the T’ang dynasty (618-906 C.E.) predate those of the Seljuk period, this dynasty is worth noting since it mar ks a greater influx of Chinese ceramics being exported into the Islamic Near East . While the invention of porcelain during T’ang times is considered to represent the influential achievement of T’ang pottery, the appearance of foreign figures in T’ang ceramics is of greater relevance to the present discussion on later Seljuk pottery. Like the noticeably Asiatic faces which appear in the lustre wares of Kashan (Fig. 2), people of non-Chinese descent appear regularly in the work of T’ang potters. Excavations of important tombs have unearthed groups of painted earthenware figurines modeled after Central Asian musicians and dancers  (Fig. 3). Servants and retainers bearing foreign, and often caricatured, features were also represented by T’ang ceramists  (Fig. 4). The presence of such racial variety testifies to the level of interaction between the Far East and its surrounding geography.
With regards to the Sung dynasty and its influence on Seljuk pottery, the most direct correspondence is apparent in the Seljuk potters’ imitation of Sung white porcelain or Ting ware (Fig. 5). Persian potters supposedly began imitating Ting ware during the twelfth century. Although the Persian craftsmen never managed to duplicate Ting porcelain, the Seljuks did manage to produce a successful imitation called “white ware” (Fig. 6). The result was a material possessing not only the overall effect of porcelain but a quality unique unto itself with its delicate perforations, sheer glazes, and elegant shape . The point of Seljuk “white ware” is important for it highlights the manner in which Seljuk pottery absorbed a foreign influence and came to articulate it as its own. The same process would occur in the decorative aspects of Persian lustre and mina’i wares.
What is striking about Seljuk lustre ware is not only the general format in which human figures appear—painted and two-dimensional on the bases of bowls and dishes—but the standardized features of such figures. Whereas in earlier Chinese pottery (Figs. 3 & 4), there is a greater variety of physiognomies represented, those depicted in Seljuk lustre wares tend to appear consistently Asiatic (Figs. 2 & 7). What accounts for this uniformity might be assumed to lie with the physical appearance of the Seljuks themselves. One’s sense of a Seljuk Turk’s physical appearance might be observed in the figurative representations of that time, such as that observed in a fragment from a stucco wall relief from Iran (Fig. 8) dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century and depicts the head of a Seljuk prince. The physiognomy of the face is striking as it betrays our contemporary notions of an Islamic prince’s physical appearance. Yet without knowing for certain whether this relief is in fact a portrait of the actual prince, it is impossible to conclude that this image is faithfully reproduces the true likeness of Seljuk royalty from that time . What remains conspicuous, however, is that the facial features observed in this fragment – the round face, small mouth, and the almond shaped eyes—were hardly new to Islam.
Such features actually appear much earlier in pre-Islamic Persia and the ceramics produced under the Seljuks. Also, if we compare the noses between the stucco fragment and the painted figures from figs. 2 and 7, the long, straight noses of the latter examples are not commensurate with the rounded contours of the former. Perhaps the figures represented on Persian lustre wares were, in fact, not representative of how the Seljuks actually looked. There is reason to believe that Seljuk potters had adopted, rather than introduced, the Asiatic style of Persian figure painting to ceramics. The beginnings of this “traditional” style may trace as far back as the eighth-century, or even much earlier, when the Chinese occupied nearby Transoxania  (fig. 9). Upon the overthrow and seizure of the Chinese by the Persian Abbasids in 751 C.E., Far Eastern influences on Near and Middle Eastern cultures became all the more pervasive .
On the topic of Seljuk fine wares, there are a total of seven classified types . Of the seven, this paper focuses on lustre and mina’i wares. Seljuk lustre ware is purported to have been produced in a range of centres. Among those are the Iranian cities of Kashan, Rayy, Sava and Jurjan . Currently, Kashan is the only city that has been archaeologically verified as a vital producer of lustre ware . With the advent of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, current historians are relegated to existing archaeological findings. Bearing this in mind, an absence of available evidence may not automatically infer an absence of ceramic production in areas like Jurjan. Despite the lack of substantiated corroboration for the other cities, each centre is said to have possessed its own characteristics .
For instance, when comparing the features of Rayy lustre ware (Fig. 7) with Kashan lustre ware (Fig. 2), obvious differences can be discerned. Compared with fig. 2, the lustre-painted bowl from Rayy differs in the larger, more monumental composition of its painted figures. This aspect is typical of the “Rayy monumental style” . Unlike the figures represented in the bowl from Kashan, the two figures from fig. 3 are boldly outlined in lustre and fill up the entire field of the bowl’s base. Despite the large scale of the figures, there is still enough room in reserve between and around them compared to the crowded all-over patterning of the Kashan example. Overall, the Rayy design possesses a bold, rhythmic and spontaneous spirit. Although Oliver Watson contends that the boldness of the lustre outlines around each figure is detrimental to the design – “striking though [such] pieces are, the technique is clumsy, as the unsubtle bands detract from the fine drawing and make the figures sit like paper cut-outs on an unrelated ground”  – it may prove more useful to appreciate the Rayy example on its own terms. While later Kashan designs reflect a greater degree of control in their execution, it is precisely this control that robs them of the same dynamism observed in the so-called “transitional” Rayy monumental style. It is also worth mentioning that the style is said to be derived from Egyptian sources . This point is worth mentioning since the objects we refer to as Persian lustre ware only acquired their final form from a combination of both nearby and distant influences.
The Kashan example is consistent with the main characteristics of the style as pointed out by Watson. In other words, the design is far more refined and delicate in its execution. In the example of fig. 2, there are a total of thirteen figures represented, compared to the two from the previous example. The crowded assembly of the figures is echoed in the density of their fine details. All available space, both outside and inside the figures, is filled with minute ornamentation. The dark contours outlining the figures in the Rayy bowl are replaced here with an absence of linear division between the figures. The elaborate interior detailing of the assembled figures causes them to blend almost seamlessly into each other. Also, a discernible hierarchy is evident in the presentation of the figures in the Kashan bowl. The figure in the centre is not only the largest in size but his mature beard refers to his masculine gender. The figures which surround him, appear softer and effeminate in their clothing and facial expressions. These figures are also lacking in facial hair. Also noticeable is the absence of interaction between this central figure and the ones that surround him. This is quite a contrast compared to the previous example where the two figures of apparently opposite genders directly face one another. In terms of composition, a possible template for the arrangement of figures in the Kashan example may be referenced to the findings of an altar excavated from a cave in Dunhuang, China (Fig. 10). Although the general arrangement of three-dimensional figures in the altar appears sparse in comparison to the arrangement of the painted figures in the Kashan bowl, a closer look shows that the altar is indeed quite crowded and surrounded from all angles of the space. More important, however, is the Buddhist connection to which I now draw our attention.
Despite their differences in design, an element that is common between the Rayy and Kashan wares is their overriding spiritual quality. In both pieces, the figures appear to float in a timeless vacuum. The most obvious similarity between the two designs is the physiognomy of the painted figures. A number of hypotheses are possible as to who exactly the figures represent and why they look the way they do. It could be conjectured that the figures were drawn in the likeness of particular people such as the presiding rulers or members of the aristocracy. However, it is more reasonable to assume that the figures are not meant to be portraits since the tradition of portraiture had yet to assert itself in the Orient. Moreover, the faces are all too lacking in individuality to represent actual people. The pervasiveness of such figures and their distinct features in Seljuk pottery attests to the need for a farther reaching explanation.
When taking into account the proximity of Central Asia to China and the historic ebb and flow of cultural influence between the two regions, it is not unreasonable to link the historic presence of the Asiatic facial type in Islamic art to Iran’s Buddhist past. As suggested by Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, the Iranian artist has, throughout history, concentrated on providing visual presence to abstract, mental ideas rather than attempting to copy nature in a realistic fashion . Therefore, the facial type in question should be approached as a kind of idealized archetype. This would account for the lack of individuality in the figures from fig 2 . According to Melikian-Chirvani, “So it was that a facial type born within a definite religious context and later well-suited to the abstract mental form celebrated by poets, came to be cultivated for centuries by people who never came near it”  It is fascinating that the pottery produced at the time of Islam would owe an historic portion of its cultural symbolism to an entirely different religion. Also fascinating is the movement of Buddhist iconography as it began in a northward, then eastward, direction through Central Asia to East Asia, only to move westwards from China, back to Central Asia and Eastern Iran . Shermon Lee has referred to this phenomenon as “backfire” 
Hence, the faces we observe in Seljuk pottery are better understood if we approach them as part of an array of sustained and symbolic models rather than immediate and concrete representations. This would greatly explain why Iranian art, despite having absorbed the Buddhist heritage, would not have attempted to give its newfound tradition “any specific Islamic flavour” . Foreign aesthetic motifs were adopted as such and harmonized with Islam. As a result, the essential features appearing in the figures of Seljuk pottery remained unchanged well into the middle of the thirteenth century . Melikian-Chirvani argues that “this long life need not surprise us within the highly conservative art of Iran where iconography evolved slowly and gradually” . Also, for the practical purposes of sustaining their empire and enabling their facilitated assimilation into Islam, the Seljuks likely adopted the tropes of Persian Buddhist culture with little resistance.
Along with the recurring Asiatic features, the popularity of a particular seated position figured in much of Seljuk lustre ware may also owe its origins to Persia’s Buddhist past. Many examples of this pose are illustrated in both the Kashan lustre and mina’i wares (recall figs. 2 & 7; see figs. 10 & 11). In all four examples, the figures are shown in a cross-legged position with their feet nestled on their thighs. This particular pose is consistent with that observed in early Buddhist statuary (Figs. 12 & 13). Anyone even basically familiar with Buddhism can immediately recognize this pose as the lotus-position.
Of course, there are differences between the Buddhist examples and those of the Seljuks. Of these, the most discernible lies in the variety of hand gestures in the Seljuk examples. This difference may again point to the manner in which the standardized archetype of the Asiatic physiognomy was slowly modified through less conspicuous details like hand gestures. The hands of the Buddhist models are free of any objects. Both hands are either placed on the lap or the right hand is raised in a blessing gesture. In fig. 7, the central figure raises a cup in his right hand while his left hand holds a sword. In fig. 2, the central figure has his left hand raised and angled towards his right. Similar to fig. 12, the seated man in fig. 7 also holds a cup, but in this example he holds it with his left hand. The hands of the seated figure on a mina’i ewer are free of any objects but his hands appear to rest on his hips. The gesture is more assertive than meditative. Common to all the examples is the frontality of the seated poses and the apparent superiority of the central figure in relation to the standing attendants. While the attendants seated below the central, frontally positioned figure in fig. 12 are also seated in the lotus-position, they are angled sideways.
The exact positioning of every figure may be symbolic to his/her status. As corroborated by Grace D. Guest and Richard Ettinghausen, images of enthroned rulers, that is, either kings or princes, on Kashan luster wares are depicted both frontally and “in majesty” . By the phrase “in majesty,” Guest and Ettinghausen refer to the large halo that outlines the central figure’s head. In the case of our examples, the halo is of Buddhist, rather than Christian, origin. Moreover, among Seljuk luster wares, the halo appears to have shed its religious meaning and, instead, has become an aesthetic convention. The same halo is observed in the surrounding attendants as well as all other examples of figural representations we have seen thus far. For instance, if we observe the seated figure from fig. 11, s/he does not appear enthroned (see also fig. 15). Yet the figure’s head is nevertheless surrounded by a halo. The figure is also depicted frontally. Furthermore, the gender of this figure is a matter of debate.
According to Fehérvári, the figure is female . There are indeed signs to suggest Fehérvári’s assessment is correct. The figure’s head is noticeably beardless and slightly angled to the right. Neither does the figure hold any of the props affiliated with royalty (fig. 12). Still, I would argue that there are no clear signs to plainly identify the figure as either male or female. Furthermore, if we consider the sleeping figure from a famous Kashan plate (Fig. 16) to the figure on the ewer, little difference between the two can be discerned besides their settings. Yet the theory put forth by Kühnel, that the sleeping figure on the Kashan plate represents Prince Khosrow, the hero in a famous poem by the twelfth century Azerbaijani poet, Nizami, has long been accepted . Kühnel’s reading of the sleeping figure, while grounded in an extensive knowledge of Persian literature, remains a hypothesis. The exact identity and gender of the sleeping figure are inevitably fated to evade any firm conclusions. Ultimately, what is important is the range of possible meanings we can extrapolate from the ambiguity underlying these painted figures.
The sustained Buddhist aesthetic in Persian art may also help to explain the recurring androgyny among the painted figures in thirteenth-century Islamic pottery. As already discussed, the figures depicted in the lustre wares from the Seljuk period not only demonstrate types rather than individuals but any clear signs denoting gender. For instance, in the large lustre tray from the early thirteenth-century (fig. 12), an enthroned monarch or prince is depicted surrounded by an assembly of courtiers and attendants . Of the twenty-six courtiers, it is assumed that the figures seated in the front row are female . This is likely due to their seated positions below the bearded monarch. With respect to the standing figures, our reading into their genders is guided by even fewer clues. Their physiognomies, after all, are identical to those of the seated figures in the front row. Established ideals regarding beauty, set forth much earlier on in Persian poetry, can help clarify this androgyny. According to Melikian-Chirvani, “only one facial type is known to the Persian poet, be it man or woman. Rounded like the full-moon, pink as a rose with a tiny cornelian mouth and almond-like eyes, the perfectly arched eyebrows high above the eyes, it is called the moon-face or mahruy” . The reference to early Persian poetry is substantive since it demonstrates the impact of Buddhist art on Iranian culture .
With respect to ascribing gender to the figures we find in Seljuk pottery, any assumptions we may have as to the gender of the figures are precisely that, assumptions. In terms of the variety of roles and situations thirteenth century Persian women (and men) may have found themselves in, the mahruy challenges our contemporary approach to discerning gender. This challenge is further corroborated by two lustre painted bowls from the early thirteenth century. The first bowl (Fig. 17) is described by Fehérvári as depicting “a galloping horseman” . Another bowl (Fig. 18) bears a similar decoration, this time with “two horsemen meeting at a tree” . If we accept Melikian-Chirvani’s argument that such figures are meant to embody archetypal ideals that transend gendered differences, we can perhaps embrace the possibility that the galloping horsemen could just as easily be galloping horsewomen. Whatever the case may be, the illustrations are compelling precisely because they represent ideals which defy concrete gendered categorizations.
The direct fusion between poetry and ceramic art and the resulting impact on gender are also observed in various examples of Persian mina’i ware. The term “mina’i” literally means “enamel” and is used to refer to a category of overglaze painted wares . Visually speaking, the main difference between mina’i and lustre wares is their colour range. Whereas with lustre ware, backgrounds are worked with a dark brown or yellow glaze, “thus leaving the space open for the decoration in reserve” , the mina’i technique employs a variety of colours, i.e., blue, green, brown, black, dull red, white and gold, to paint over an opaque white or, sometimes turquoise, underglaze . The effect is much more colourful and very similar to that of miniature painting. The best examples of mina’i painting are said to have been done by artists also renowned for illuminating manuscripts . This would support the predominantly figurative style and subject matter of mina’i wares . The close relationship between mina’i ware and manuscript painting is particularly evident in a mina’i bowl from the thirteenth century (Fig. 19).
The scope of the painted subject matter and its execution in fig. 19 is beyond anything observed in our previous examples. The illustration depicts “an elaborate battle scene showing the siege of a city by a large army led by a cavalcade of horsemen” . Whereas the figures in the various lustre wares observed earlier were contained well within their decorative borders, the figures here are dispersed throughout the entire space of the mina’i bowl. The entire surface of the bowl is used to its maximum capacity as the figures are depicted climbing up the bowl’s interior walls while others appear on the brink of spilling off the rim. While the two sides of the battle appear divided between the cap wearing horse-riders on the right and the horseless and hatless defenders on the left, the essential physiognomies of the two camps are indistinguishable. The same can be said for the genders among many of the figures depicted without a beard. We should not rule out that women may have taken part in this battle, be it based on fact or myth. The beardless and seated archers in the tower, as well as the horse-riders, can be read as women. Again, while a conclusive reading is impossible, such artifacts speak to the possibility of a range of women’s roles as active subjects in Islamic art .
While mina’i wares also depict court scenes with enthroned monarchs and surrounding attendants, one particular mina’i bowl from Kashan is especially interesting in terms of its visual similarities with the Freer Gallery Kashan plate (Fig. 20). Common to both wares is the pond motif in the lower area as well as the central position of the horse, the simplified vegetation, and the curious arrangement of the haloed, Asiatic figures. Considering that the mina’i bowl occurs a century earlier than the Kashan lustre plate, we can compare the two to assess the gradual changes in design within the same city.
The reappearance of the pool of water at the lower level of the lustre plate highlights the symbolic significance underlying such a motif. As pointed out by Guest and Ettinghausen, when one considers the arid topography of Iran, it comes as little surprise that water would figure so repeatedly in Persian pottery painting . At the same time, it is possible that the inclusion of a pond in the painted scenes of thirteenth-century pottery had become a conventional motif used for the sole purpose of filling in the lower section of a roundel . While the placement of the pool of water may have become a convention, the placement of the nude figure in the pond shows how later pottery painters employed this convention for a new purpose. The pond is not only teeming with more fish but it is now used as an effective and active narrative space. Furthermore, whereas the stunted blades of grass in the mina’i bowl merely suggested a fertile landscape, the plant motif in the lustre plate is not only more prominent but noticeably decorative in its application.
When compared with each other, the figures on the mina’i bowl mirror their Sino-Buddhist models far less than the figures in the lustre plate. Unlike the Kashan examples where the figures don Turkish braids, the mina’i figures don shoulder length hair that freely frames their faces. These figures appear closer to representing people in real life than the idealized, archetypal figures on the lustre plate. Whereas the poses and clothing worn by the figures on the mina’i bowl recall the ceramic figures from China’s Han or early Six Dynasties period (Fig. 21) , the clothing worn by the figures on the lustre plate are much more decorative and consistent with other lustre paintings. In this way, the lustre examples express a refined and established canon in figurative pottery painting whereas the mina’i paintings express a comparatively straightforward and unrestrained sensibility.
The vocabulary of Islamic pottery painting is rich in its variety and history. Even within one area of Near Eastern ceramics, lustre and mina’i ware, a number of discoveries, contradictions, challenges and enduring questions have surfaced. With the arrival of the Seljuks to Islam came the introduction of new identities as well as a continuation of those formed earlier on. In the midst of the West’s enduring confusions and tinted views on the topic of Islam, the overlapping of histories, geographies and cultures as a regular topic of study and discussion is needed now more than ever. Hence, continued investigations into Seljuk lustre wares and other historic and cross-cultural decorative objects are necessary for both the aesthetic inspiration they provide and their ability to inform us of our collective past.
List of Illustrations
1. Marie G. Luken, Islamic Art, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1965), 7.
2. Géza Fehérvári, “The Lands of Islam,” World Ceramics, edited by Robert J. Charleston. (New York: Crescent Books, 1990), 70.
3. Fehérvári, 70.
4. Fehérvári, 70.
5. Fehérvári, 42.
6. Fehérvári, 48.
7. Fehérvári, 48.
8. Fehérvári, 82.
9. Luken, 7.
10. Fehérvári, 73.
11. Fehérvári, 73.
12. Fehérvári, 82.
13. Alan Caiger-Smith, Lustre Pottery (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 59.
14. Caiger-Smith, 59.
15. Luken, 10.
16. Watson describes the three major styles as the “Rayy monumental,” the “Rayy miniature,” and the “Kashan.” See Oliver Watson, Persian Lustre Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 38.
17. Watson, 86.
18. Watson, 86.
19. Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani, “The Buddhist Heritage in the Art of Iran,” Mahayanist Art After A.D. 900 (London: University of London, 1972), 63.
20. Melikian-Chirvani, 63.
21. Sherman E. Lee, A History of Far Eastern Art, 5th ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994), 155.
22. Lee, 155.
23. Lee, 56.
24. Lee, 56.
25. Melikian-Chirvani, 63.
26. Grace D. Guest and Richard Ettinghausen, “The Iconography of a Kashan Plate,” Ars Orientalis 4 (1961): 38.
27. Fehérvári, Ceramics of the Islamic World, 128.
28. Guest and Ettinghausen: 25.
29. Fehérvári, 115.
30. Fehérvári, 115.
31. Melikian-Chirvani, 60.
32. Melikian-Chirvani, 60.
33. Fehérvári, Ceramics of the Islamic World (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2000), 118.
34. Fehérvári, Ceramics of the Islamic World, 118.
35. Fehérvári, World Ceramics, 85.
36. Fehérvári, 82.
37. Fehérvári, 85.
38. Fehérvári, 85.
39. Ernst J. Grube, The World of Islam, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), 73.
40. Grube, 73.
41. Walter B. Denny, “Women and Islamic Art,” Women, Religion and Social Change, edited by Yvonne Y. Haddad. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1985), 177.
42. Guest and Ettinghausen: 31.
43. Guest and Ettinghausen: 31.
44. John Ayers, The Seligman Collection of Oriental Art, Vol. II (London: Lund Humphries, 1964), 32.
7. Conflict as a Woman Artist: Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portraits - Noémi Mercier
Conflict as a Woman Artist: Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portraits
Women artists faced a double bind at the turn of the twentieth-century. Avant-garde movements were renouncing academic art institutions and creating independent societies and parallel exhibition outlets. The avant-garde was turning away from classicism and traditional fields such as history painting, and, in turn, glorifying direct experience and genres such as portraiture, landscapes and still-lifes. While these transformations, coupled with the birth of the women’s movement, allowed women greater access to professional careers as artists, rigid social roles and notions of femininity consolidated in late nineteenth-century bourgeois society increasingly restricted women to the domestic sphere and posited the categories ‘woman’ and ‘artist’ as mutually exclusive . The avant-garde artist had become the “male possessor of a uniquely creative identity,” naturally endowed with such prerequisites as individuality, originality and autonomy .
Women artists’ marginal and conflicted positions thus had to be carefully and constantly negotiated. How were those boundaries reconciled or trespassed in their work, particularly in their self-portraits? The process of constructing their own image as artists is an especially productive site for investigating the ways they grappled with tensions inherent to their identity at a time when dominant ideologies of essential femininity competed with new potentials for women’s emancipation. According to Borzello, it is precisely in the decades preceding the First World War that the conflict between women’s roles started to find an open expression in female self-portraits . Self-portraiture is all the more relevant given the ubiquitous presence of women as signs, rather than as producers of signs, in the history of art . The challenge is twofold for the female artist who must (1) present herself as a subject while (2) using the image of woman—the very symbol that has historically functioned to deny her subjecthood in dominant discourses. In other words, self-portraits can help us understand “how women do speak in a context where they are chiefly spoken” .
German artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), is a fascinating example of a woman struggling to construct her own image in early twentieth-century Europe. During her short career of barely ten years, she produced about 1000 drawings and more than 400 paintings and studies, including a series of self-portraits . She was an independent young woman determined to achieve recognition as a painter while juggling familial pressures and domestic obligations. Her letters and journals, which trace her lifelong efforts to reconcile the roles of woman, daughter, wife and artist, provide enlightening clues to understanding her self-portraits. My goal is not to pinpoint the chronological events of her life on specific self-portraits, but rather to present these works as a woman’s pictorial interpretation of a search for an identity marked by persistent ambivalence. I am interested in the “alien accents” in Paula Modersohn-Becker’s works – instances of the “double-voice discourse” in women’s cultural production which embody “both the social, literary, and artistic heritages of the dominant group and their own muted or inflected position within it” .
Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Life: An Overview
Born on February 8, 1876, Paula Modersohn-Becker grew up in a cultured and intellectual environment . At sixteen years of age, she moved in with relatives near London to attend a professional art school. Her father insisted that she complete a teacher’s training program to secure a more reliable means of supporting herself. From 1896 to 1898, her parents reluctantly endorsed her studies at the Berlin School for Women Artists. At the end of the course, she settled in Worpswede, where she rented a studio and took classes with a local painter. There, she met the man she would marry in 1901 – the painter and widower, Otto Modersohn .
The artists of Worpswede were joined by an anti-academic stance in opposition to the rigidity of the German art education system. Modersohn-Becker and two other female artists had their own studios in the colony. They worked and exhibited alongside their male peers and enjoyed relative social freedom. But although Modersohn-Becker found a congenial environment in Worpswede to pursue her artistic career, Modersohn-Becker gained scarce recognition from her peers. Her husband deplored in his journal in 1902: “No one understands her – no one […] No one ever asks about her work […] The fact that she is somebody and is accomplishing something, no one thinks about that” . The first public showing of her works, in late 1899, was judged harshly by a critic who strongly objected to the inclusion of three unknown women in the exhibition . Her ambition also irritated Otto Modersohn, who, although generally supportive and genuinely admiring of her talent, at times felt sorely neglected by his wife. The following diary entry reveals his sentiments: “Unfortunately, Paula is also very much infected by these modern notions. She is also quite accomplished in the realm of egotism” .
Modersohn-Becker felt disenchanted early on about the promise of companionship in marriage. She confided in her journal in 1902: “In the first year of my marriage I have cried a great deal… My experience tells me that marriage does not make one happier. It takes away the illusion that had sustained a deep belief in the possibility of a kindred soul” . The “spell” of Worpswede soon faded away. Her letters and diaries repeatedly refer to her feelings of frustration and alienation within the confined, “sensitive cocoons” of the colony. “I believe that I’ll grow away from here. Those with whom I can stand to speak about things close to my heart and feelings are becoming fewer and fewer” , she wrote to her parents only a few months after settling there.
Modersohn-Becker’s need for self-fulfilment, her longing for an “outer world,” an “external, active life,” and her insistence on the solitude required by true art prompted her to leave her domestic obligations behind and head to Paris for several months in 1900, 1903, 1905. She finally settled there in 1906 up until her death in 1907. In Paris, Modersohn-Becker painted, took art classes, attended the Exposition Universelle, spent time in museums and galleries and visited the studios of artists who impressed her. Her activities were audacious for a young woman of that time .
Modersohn-Becker was remarkably productive during the last two years of her life, a time also marked by an important personal crisis. When she left for Paris in February 1906, she firmly intended to separate from her husband, despite the humiliation of constantly having to ask him for money. Her friends and relatives’ incomprehension of her unconventional behaviour was particularly pronounced during this period. Her family supported Otto’s desperate attempts at reconciliation. They saw him as a martyr falling victim to Paula’s selfish ambition . Her pleas for indulgence were equalled only by her determination to live on her own terms. She wrote to her mother in September 1906: “Forgive the troubles I am causing all of you. I cannot do otherwise […] Do not take any steps; you can no longer stop me from what I am doing” . Paula eventually agreed to have Otto join her in Paris in the autumn of 1906 for one last attempt at a life together. Yet in September, she asked him not to come. Insisting on her need to pursue her goals alone, she changed her mind again only a week later. They spent the winter together in the French capital before returning to Worpswede. In early November 1907, Modersohn-Becker, then aged thirty-one, gave birth to a daughter. Soon after giving birth, on 20 November 1907, she suffered an embolism and a fatal heart attack.
Paula Modersohn-Becker is often considered a precursor of German Expressionism, although her oeuvre can more accurately be described as a personal synthesis of Post-Impressionist styles. In Paris she became familiar with the work of Gauguin, the Nabis, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Rousseau and Matisse. Her self-portraits are a testament to her exploration of a wide range of styles and a gradual simplification of form. Through subtle contrasts, they formulate Modersohn-Becker’s process of forging an identity for herself as a woman and artist. Modersohn-Becker integrates conflicting positions into a whole, which, in the end, reveals, rather than masks, its contradictions.
Modersohn-Becker uses none of the motifs typical of male self-portraiture in the early twentieth-century (figs. 1-3) . She never appears with any of the tools of the artist or in her studio. She is not positioning herself as a “special creative individual,” nor does she emphasise the distinction of her social class or the refinement (or marginality) of her dress and demeanour. She is no more interested in embellishing her physical appearance than in rendering it exactly, and in some instances she looks strikingly different from one self-portrait to another. She often painted herself in a full frontal position with her head slightly tilted. Her head occupies a central position above an equally weighty upper body. Her figure collides with the picture frame or seems to spill over it, giving her a strong physical presence, a sense of immediacy and involvement . In Self-Portrait with Lemon (1906-07), the harsh features of her firmly contoured face rest upon a “columnar neck” , while in Self-Portrait with Camellia Branch (1907, fig. 1), her well delineated, almost square-shaped torso has a stoic solidity.
While these elements point to the artist’s affirmation as a subject, this assertiveness is counterbalanced by a sense of remoteness and tentativeness, notably in the searching gaze she turns on herself. In almost all of her self-portraits, she stares at herself with dark, unusually large eyes . Her gaze is hypnotic yet introspective and distant. In Self-Portrait with Lemon, it seems at once detached and wary. There is a hint of anxiety in the absent stare of her Self-Portrait of 1903 (fig. 2) where she seems appears mysterious and lost in thought. The green, heavily scratched surface of her dress dissolves into the similar, crude texture of the background. She also seems strangely aloof in Self-Portrait with Camellia Branch. The hand holding the plant is unfinished, lost against a background of earth tones. InSelf-Portrait with Hand on Chin (1906, fig. 3), her eyes have a quizzical, tentative expression while her hand probes her chin in a gesture of uncertainty or interrogation – “unlike the withered, supportive hands of her peasants”  In the end, she loses part of her individuality in the stark physicality and bold simplification of her own form, especially in her late self-portraits. She has become monumental, impersonal and akin to the Roman Egyptian mummy portraits she admired in the Louvre (fig. 4) .
Instead of a coherent advertisement of her status as an artist (significantly, only the titles of these works indicate that they are portraits of the artist), we see the wavering gaze of self-scrutiny of a woman obsessed with the idea of “becoming somebody” and the wish to “create something that is [her]” . She insisted in a letter to her mother in 1899: “I have such a firm desire and determination to make something of myself, something that won’t have to be afraid of the sunshine […] To realize that the people closest to us disapprove of our actions is the source of great sadness. But we must remain ourselves, we must” . Alone in Paris in the spring of 1906, she exulted: “I am becoming somebody – I’m living the most intensely happy period of my life” . Only a few weeks earlier she had written to Otto: “I feel so insecure about myself since I have abandoned everything that was secure in me and around me” . As she hovered between a decisive commitment to her ideals and bouts of profound insecurity, her self-portraits seem to express the question recorded in her journal in February 1906, just after her separation from her husband: “ [ I ] am standing between my old life and my new life. I wonder what the new one will be like. And I wonder what will become of me in my new life?” .
Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Day (1906, fig. 5) is another moving portrait of Paula Modersohn-Becker that considers her self-image and future, as both a woman and an artist. In the midst of an existential crisis during her last stay in Paris, she paints herself pregnant at a time when, in fact, she was not pregnant. She inscribed the canvas with these words: “I painted this at age thirty on my sixth wedding day. P.B..” . This age had a special significance for her. In this painting, she confronts herself as a wife, an expectant mother, and the age she had set as her deadline to dedicate herself fully to painting . She seems to pause at the crossroads in this triangle of potential roles. It is one of the only paintings where she appears almost in full-length. Standing upright and dignified, she looks pensively at her naked upper body, one arm gently supporting her pregnant belly, the other resting upon it. She examines this fantasised self-image with the detached and questioning expression of an observer. As Frances Borzello points out, she is “introducing ambivalence in the mother and child self-portrait popularised in the eighteenth-century” .
Her writings strongly echo this ambivalence towards motherhood. It often appears in her writings as an awe-inspiring mystery , and, at other times, as a woman’s “single true purpose” . While she had categorically rejected motherhood in the spring of 1906, she changed her mind in September of that year, only six days after her ultimate break-up letter to Otto: “Also my wish not to have a child by you was only for the moment […] If you have not completely given up on me, then come here soon so that we can try to find one another again. The sudden shift in the way I feel will seem strange to you. Poor little creature that I am, I can’t tell which path is the right one for me” . But six months after spreading the “happy news” of her own pregnancy, she wrote to her sister: “[…] Don’t ever write me another postcard with words like ‘diapers’, or ‘blessed event’. You know me well enough to realize that I’m the type who prefers to keep the fact that I’m concerned with diapers away from other people” .
A consideration of Modersohn-Becker’s other images of maternity can shed further light on her interpretation of the theme in Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Day. Her late paintings of nursing mothers – naked, monumental, sensuous and enduring – echo the heroic life-giving force she described in her diary in 1898: “The woman gave her life and her youth and her power to the child in utter simplicity, unaware that she was a heroine” . They are images of “archetypal fertility” . TheKneeling Mother and Child (1907, fig. 6), for example, look like sacred beings in a ritualistic setting: the mother ceremoniously presents her baby, kneeling on a white circle surrounded by orange fruit. They are set against a simplified background of foliate icons of nature. In Reclining Mother and Child (1906, fig. 7), anonymous, decontextualised figures lie naked in an instinctive embrace.
Perry assimilates those images of maternity adorned with plants and tropical fruit to the “earth mother” appearing in the anthropological and scientific literature at the time, a “figure whose role in life was essentially that of childbearing” . Nochlin likewise identifies those elemental mother-child pairs with theories popular at the turn of the twentieth-century, which reduced women to their biological dimension and tied maternity to a primitive stage of human evolution. Modersohn-Becker “transforms the mother into a being entirely transcending time or place, a dark, anonymous goddess of nourishment, paradoxically animal-like, bound to the earth, and utterly remote from the contingencies of history or the social order” . Such images, Nochlin argues, “function as potent and vastly attractive mythic projections of essentialist femininity”  even “more reduced to pure function”  than Gauguin’s glorified Tahitian women which may have inspired them.
Modersohn-Becker’s representations of maternity, however, do not form the unified picture of motherhood that Nochlin’s critique implies. They reveal an undercurrent of ambivalence towards the subject that is also apparent in Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Day. Her mother-child embraces show little of the warmth or affection of Mary Cassatt’s mothers, for example; their physical intimacy is treated with emotional restraint, remoteness or severity . Their faces are obscured (e.g., Reclining Mother and Child). Mothers stare away from their children or blankly into space, their bodies closely united but their gazes disconnected. Their stoicism gives them a sense of patient endurance as much as it renders them unemotional and uninvolved (e.g., Kneeling Mother and Child). Earlier, she had painted a nursing Silent Mother (1903, fig. 8), without grace or pride and completely absent from the act of nourishment that seems to suck the life out of her plump breast.
Furthermore, the associations between primitivism and childbirth, popular within Modersohn-Becker’s circle in Germany, not only served to reinforce women’s natural childbearing role. Primitive art, as a gateway to mythical or original birth giving, was also the ideal metaphor for the avant-garde’s search for regeneration through artistic creation. At the same time, ‘physiological’ studies of the turn of the century stated that women’s actual procreative capacity drained so much of their energy that none was left for artistic activities .
So to come full circle to Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Day, Modersohn-Becker was perhaps not addressing motherhood as women’s “single true purpose” so much as envisioning new associations between procreativity and creativity, i.e., positing herself as both procreator and creator . What is she referring to when she writes about motherhood in her journal in 1901: “I’m not ready for that yet. I must wait a little while longer to be certain that I will bear glorious fruit?”  This artist, who repeatedly painted herself with flowers, fruit and plants, may have been referring as much to her artistic as to her biological fecundity.
Self-Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Day evolved into the Figure Composition of 1907 (fig. 9) in a stylised form more typical of her late self-portraits . She has a similar pose and expression of self-examination but the fruit she is holding in her hands has quite literally replaced her pregnant belly. The emotional and symbolic content is ambiguous, and the three figures seem to be involved in a mysterious ritual. The artist stands between two women in profile. One is offering her a flower, frowning and watching suspiciously, the other is clasping a fruit and looking up to the sky in fear or despair. The flat arrangement of figures and rhythmical placement of their arms give a frieze-like, iconic quality to the piece. With Figure Composition, Modersohn-Becker may be revising the dominant codes of primitivism, inserting herself as an icon into her own primitive, sacred language of creativity.
Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace: A synthesis
In Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace (1906, fig. 10), Paula Modersohn-Becker brings together, in a puzzling image, disparate threads of woman as earth mother, goddess of nature, notions of fecundity, primitive spirituality, and the controversial subject of nudity. The nude self-portrait best illustrates the problem of self-representation for women artists. Among traditional iconography, that of the female nude in particular undermines women’s efforts to portray themselves as subjects. According to Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, nudes in painting primarily becamefemale nudes after the late eighteenth-century, and from that period onwards, “woman is present as an image but with the specific connotations of body and nature that is passive, available, possessable [and] powerless” . To the male avant-garde artists of the early twentieth-century, significant, authentic art was rooted in male erotic energy; the female nude was thus the ideal prop to demonstrate the authenticity of their artistic vision. In the decade preceding the First World War, nude women were portrayed as “sexually subjugated beings” whose “bodily self-offering and spiritual self-defacement” denied their humanity, dignity and particularity, while serving to “assert the virile, vigorous and uninhibited sexual appetite of the artist” .
It is against this backdrop of depictions that Modersohn-Becker paints a strikingly different female nude where she grapples her position as artist/subject and body/object. It is described by some authors as a daring, unflinching confrontation of her own nudity, an image of disarming honesty that exudes inner power and quiet confidence. Indeed, this self-portrait is more akin to Modersohn-Becker’s steady, monumental peasant mothers than to the defaced, passive bodies painted by some of her male contemporaries. There is a forceful directness to her assertive gaze and broad, frontal body pushed up against the picture frame. This image is not just naked flesh; it is of a heavy, detailed head and a fully conscious mind. As argued by Carol Duncan, “rare is the image of a naked woman whose head so outweighs her body” .
On the other hand, the head and body seem strangely disconnected. There is an abrupt demarcation between the fleshy colour of the torso and the bluish hues of the neck and face. The head is so weighty relative to the body that they hardly seem to belong to the same person. To expand on Duncan’s remarks about the treatment of the body, the arms and hands almost seem contorted in their placement within the limits of the chest, so that she seems at once assertive in her pressing physicality and self-contained in her contrived pose . This is not a coherent image. Her reconfiguration of mind-body/subject-object dichotomies instead yields a juxtaposition of contrasts.
The flowers in her head and hands and the background of vegetation further complicate the image: the underlying association between woman and nature works against the representation of the artist as an agent of culture. The main influence on this painting has been attributed to Gauguin, whose paintings of Tahitian women (e.g., Tahitian Women with Mango Fruits (1899)) present breasts and fruit as twin metaphors for the female body as passive, natural terrain . In early twentieth-century avant-garde art, the “nude woman in nature” paradigm defines woman as a being indissociable from her biological capacity to procreate. She is dominated by instincts more so than man. Deprived of a civilised human consciousness, she is considered in opposition to male culture . In the vocabulary of primitivism, the notion of the ‘natural’ woman is further rooted in a mythical sense of the origins, in a primeval essence of woman. Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace clearly borrows from that vocabulary. Through the simplification of her own monumental form, Modersohn-Becker turns herself into an icon of nature and fecundity—an earth mother who recalls her naked maternities.
In Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace, Modersohn-Becker attempts to reconcile the multiple roles and meanings ascribed to women in early twentieth-century European art and society. She is earth mother and artist; elemental woman and self-possessed individual. She seems to jump out at the viewer while dissolving into a remote archetype. She is a “fully conscious and fully sexual human being,”  a nude female body and an agent of her own image. In 1900, aged twenty-four years old, she wrote in her diary: “I know that I shall not live very long […] And if only now love would blossom for me, before I depart; and if I can paint three good pictures, then I shall go gladly, with flowers in my hair” . Years later, she painted herself crowned with flowers, a maker of culture who remained a creature of nature.
The incomplete resolution of those terms in Self-Portrait with Amber Necklaceis evidence that Modersohn-Becker struggled to combine incompatible codes and meanings. As a result, “the elements with which [ she ] worked failed to coalesce” . It is tempting to conclude that works such as Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace are ineffective because they fail to transcend dominant codes of representation and are thus recuperated by them . However, tension ridden pieces such as Paula Modersohn-Becker’s self-portraits should be seen not as doomed attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, but perhaps as images of just that: duality and contradiction, as she navigates between the constructs of woman and artist, and finds herself unfit for any single, stable position. The interest lies not in the evaluation of the effectiveness or degree of resolution of those images, but in how their very inconsistencies, their “alien accents,” translate the conflicting discourses that define her as a woman artist.
Modersohn-Becker provides an early example of what Meskimmon identifies as a prominent feature of women’s self-portraits in the twentieth-century: “imagery which suggests the shifting and provisional nature of identity, rather than its unity or fixity” . In contrast to conventional forms of self-portraiture, understood as the “flat mirroring” of a static and knowable self, “these works have found visual modes for representing the ‘woman artist’, a site which in itself challenges any sense of a seamless, unified subject through its combination of contradictions” . In adopting the shifting positions I have been outlining in her series of self-portraits, Modersohn-Becker exposes a “multiplicity of ‘selves’,” and the way that these multiple, fragmented selves can only ever be resolved into a fractured, provisional whole which escapes as much as it acknowledges, traditional boundaries .
Modersohn-Becker’s writings are replete with conceptions of her identity as manifold and unstable. “ ‘What is complete? When is one complete?’,”  she asked in a letter to her sister in 1900. For her, moving through the stages of life was like shedding an old self and adopting a new one, in the same way that she wore different cloaks of identity from one self-portrait to the next. Upon returning to Worpswede in 1899, she wrote to her parents: “As I left Bremen behind, the very moment I abandoned the unpleasantness of my old ragged and shabby self, and the minute I buckled my green, homemade sack on my back and took off my jacket and my little fur cap, I became a whole person again and rejoiced in my humanity” . In 1904, while her husband was away for a few days, she played the part of the single woman, a former version of herself that coexisted with the newer married one: “[…] I am playing Paula Becker […] I’m feeling so marvelous; half of me is still Paula Becker, and the other half is acting as if it were” . Early on, she had the intuition that “becoming somebody” would be a continual and conflicted process that could not entail stable identification with a one-sided ‘Paula’, with either woman, wife, mother or artist. She captured it best in a letter to her parents in 1899: “And so the point of this letter is simply to assure you that I’m still your old Paula, even if a new Paula is on her way. And if this new Paula doesn’t please you, take consolation in the thought that there will soon be a time when the new Paula will be replaced by an even newer one. They come and go like the seasons outside. And it’s impossible to leave one out” .
List of Illustrations
1. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (London: Pandora, 1981), 44. For a further discussion of the evolution of the definition of the ‘woman artist’, see “Critical Stereotypes: The Essential Feminine or How Essential is Femininity” in Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology.
2. Lisa Tickner, “Feminism, Art History, and Sexual Difference,” Genders 3 (November 1988): 101-2.
3. Tickner, 156.
4. Tickner, 102.
6. Ellen C. Oppler, “Paula Modersohn-Becker: Some Facts and Legends,” Art Journal 35.4 (Summer 1976): 365.
7. Tickner, 102.
8. Gillian Perry, Paula Modersohn-Becker: Her Life and Work (New York: Icon, 1979), 2.
9. Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550-1950 ( Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976), 273.
10. Paula Modersohn-Becker, The Letters and Journals, edited by Günter Busch and Liselotte von Reinken, translated by Arthur S. Wensinger and Carole Clew Hoey (New York: Taplinger, 1983), 272-3.
11. Oppler, 364.
12. Ruth Bass, “Self-Portrait with Bitter Lemon,” ArtNews 83.5 (May 1984): 103.
13. Modersohn-Becker, 274-5.
14. Modersohn-Becker, 125-6.
15. Perry, 50-1.
16. Modersohn-Becker, 343-4.
17. Modersohn-Becker, 408-9.
18. Male artists used various “tropes” to define their status as artists. They emphasized their isolation, alienation or uniqueness. They portrayed themselves in marginal spaces such as cafés, bars or brothels. Their images of “dominant masculinity outside conventional limits” were a guarantee of authentic experience and genuine feeling. The nude female model was used as a prop for the artist both to align himself with marginality and to reinforce his own power. For further discussion, see “Emasculating the Tropes in Self-Portraiture” in The Art of Reflection: Women Artists’ Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century by Marsha Meskimmon (London: Scarlet Press, 1996).
19. Harris and Nochlin, 276.
20. Bass, 104.
21. Frances Borzello, Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 139.
22. Perry, 138.
23. Oppler, 365.
24. Modersohn-Becker, 413.
25. Modersohn-Becker, 140.
26. Modersohn-Becker, 395.
27. Modersohn-Becker, 388-89.
28. Modersohn-Becker, 384.
29. Modersohn-Becker, 343.
30. She in fact left her husband for Paris on February 23, 1906, two weeks after reaching her thirtieth birthday.
31. Borzello, 145.
32. She describes Christmas, for instance, as “a celebration for women in particular, because these tidings of motherhood go on and on, living in every woman…I bow down to it wherever I encounter it; I kneel before it in humility.” See Modersohn-Becker (1983).
33. About a young woman she had previously used as a model, she wrote in December 1898: “I had to draw her as a mother, had to. That is her single true purpose.” See Modersohn-Becker (1983).
34. Modersohn-Becker, 409.
35. Modersohn-Becker, 422.
36. Modersohn-Becker, 112.
37. Katharine Hoffman, Concepts of Identity: Historical and Contemporary Images and Portraits of Self and Family (New York: Icon, 1996), 87.
38. Perry, 62.
39. By contrast, according to Nochlin, K ä the Kollwitz’s etchings of working-class mothers illustrate the material circumstances which they are subjected to and thereby insert motherhood into its social and historical context.
40. Harris and Nochlin, 67.
41. Harris and Nochlin.
42. Stewart Buettner, “Images of Modern Motherhood in the Art of Morisot, Cassatt, Modersohn-Becker, Kollwitz,” Woman’s Art Journal 7.2 (Fall 1986/Winter 1987): 17.
43. Marsha Meskimmon, The Art of Reflection: Women Artists’ Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century (London: Scarlet Press, 1996), 139-40.
44. Meskimmon, 141-2.
45. Modersohn-Becker, 265.
46. Perry, 54.
47. Parker and Pollock, 119.
48. Carol Duncan, “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting,” The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in Critical Art History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 98.
49. Duncan, 92.
50. Duncan, 93.
51. Parker and Pollock, 119.
52. Duncan, 94.
53. Duncan, 93.
54. Modersohn-Becker, 195.
55. Modersohn-Becker, 121-23.
56. Meskimmon, 199.
57. Meskimmon, 92.
58. Meskimmon, 199.
59. Meskimmon, 95.
60. Modersohn-Becker, 190.
61. Modersohn-Becker, 125.
62. Modersohn-Becker, 331.
63. Modersohn-Becker, 140-41.
8. Manet: A fictitious account of the woman in Bar of the Folies-Bergère - Elda Pappada
Manet: A fictitious account of the woman in Bar of the Folies-Bergère
Elda Pappada is a recent graduate in Creative Writing. She has worked as a production assistant for a short film and a recent play showing at the Players’ Theatre in April 2005. She regularly participates as a volunteer for the Fringe festival and was a dramaturge for a school production in Our Country’s Good. Ms. Pappada is actively involved in her writing and is always eager to put her hand to new and exciting projects.
Who are the people we encounter in paintings? Why should we care about them? Painters may serve the same function as historical documentarians or narrators of fictional characters. Such is the evocative power of visual art. For this paper, I analyze the female characters in the painting, Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882, Fig 1) by Edouard Manet. Although my principle concern is with the woman behind the bar, I also touch on the other female characters within the painting. In doing this, and examining the iconography within the painting, I discover the general roles of women within the social culture in France at the time the picture was executed. In addition, I have composed a series of monologues spoken by the woman at the bar and inserted them throughout the paper. The purpose of this is to evoke a sense of what she may have said to Manet while he painted. Manet is prompting her to speak, but we do not see or hear him. Only the barmaid responds to his questions. The monologue will be inserted throughout the paper. Thus, we may provide conjecture as to the real character of the barmaid and deduce whether Manet represented her appropriately or not.
Edouard Manet was born in Paris, 23 January 1832, and died fifty-one years later.1 Manet believed in making an impression and a statement with his art. He did not come from an artistic family. His father, a highly placed official at the Ministry of Justice, was against Manet becoming a painter. With his middle-class upbringing, Manet was surrounded by a judicial bourgeoisie . He was a cultured youth who was raised to be liberal-minded. His work often provoked scandal, especially with regards to his Olympia (1863) and Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863). Manet was regarded as a wise rebel as well as the father of realism: “Manet painted what he saw, apparently without discrimination; but he saw what he expected to see, what he was on the look-out for, what he loved” . Manet was a man of the epoch and this is why he is considered the “painter of modern life” .
Late nineteenth-century painting was about what was popular, which applied to people, manners and entertainment . It was very popular to attend café concert halls such as the Folies-Bergère, one of the trendiest nightspots in Paris during the nineteenth-century. The Folies-Bergère was a beer-hall with music, circus acts, and other entertainments besides: “The Folies-Bergère […where] visitors take seats where they please, or promenade in the galleries, while musical, dramatic, and conjuring performances are given on stage. Smoking is allowed…”  The painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was first exhibited in the salon of 1882, and was one of Manet’s last major works . This is a modern painting because of its contemporary subject matter, mainly illustrating the social life that was considered popular. Specific things that were considered popular were trapeze acts (such as is visible in the mirror of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère), which were considered the latest entertainment of the time .
The principle character in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is the barmaid situated at the center of the canvas. Through recollections by Manet’s friends, it was discovered that the girl at the bar is named Suzon . Suzon is a young, fashionable female of the era. She has a voluptuous body and is dressed in tight fitting attire making her look older than her age. She has a nice round fresh face and is most probably employed by dint of her appealing appearance; tempting customers to approach and buy drinks from her. Her look is absent, weary, dispirited and, because of her outward gaze, she manages to intrigue the viewer.
Véronique. No, you’re mistaken, everyone here knows me as Véronique.
Suzon? No, no…Will you write that on the painting?
(seductively) I’m working to become an actress…I’ll be famous…My name will be popular…(whispers) Tell me, I need to know, what makes you want to paint me?
(disappointed) Oh. Is that it?
This is a very lively painting with plenty of action and energy even though Suzon looks as if she is tired, bored or both. Perhaps she has been working a long shift: “…[S]he creates her own spectacle, a form of self-entertainment that momentarily emancipates her from the job and perhaps gives her a sense of superiority to the crowd through her imaginative control…”  She has something on her mind. She does not look like she wants to be there, or perhaps to be standing behind the counter while the lively scene unfolds before her. Nonetheless, she is ready and alert and all about business.
Tired? Bored? (laughs) With all this action and glamour?
The café is so big, one can get lost with amongst these people.
Make sure your patrons see the painting. It’s good for publicity.
(pouts) oui ou non?
(the trapeze act attracts her attention)
That’s Olga, she is doing a special performance tonight. You should watch.
I call her Olga. I have a special name for everyone.
(laughs) Yes, but you don’t work here. Why don’t you watch?
(looks behind her)
What are you staring at?
(notices Olga’s reflection)
…Oh. You do see Olga.
(frowns) Are you painting Olga and me…at the same time? And here I thought I will be able to show off the painting to others…
Well, the more women, the better.
(shrugs) I agree!
(looks out at Olga)
I hope she doesn’t fall this time.
Suzon stands behind the bar, like a firm-rooted saleswoman with her hands decidedly placed on the marble counter, her arms open, waiting to receive, despite her facial expression being so stoical. She is interacting with the viewers. Her attitude encourages the viewers to probe deeper visually. Her body language informs the client that she is at his service. She is in control and knows how to handle herself, and how to address a client when the occasion arrives. Her gaze is neither seductive nor flirtatious. Suzon knows what her job consists of, “like the beverages for sale, she has become a commodity.” The marble counter has bottles of champagne, Bass Ale, crème de menthe, compote with mandarin oranges and roses in a glass. Suzon’s attire is store-bought finery, a product of optical and economical consumption, becoming an object like the bottles on the counter.11 The woman performing the trapeze act is likewise a commodity. The spectators do not seem to be paying much attention to her, but she is meant to please and entertain those who do take an interest.
Everything about Suzon and her surroundings suggests vanity. The combination of the mirror reflection, the flowers, and the worldliness of the place are standard features of the iconography of vanitas paintings, or remembrances of mortality . Suzon is wearing a locket and what looks to be a corsage on the front of her navy blue coat.
(places her hand over her locket)
This? Why, I always wear it. Important…? Jewellery is always valuable…
Only thing that doesn’t lose value…not like these flowers and…
Things are prettier when they are valuable.
But, I don’t own many things of value, nor do I need them.
In time, I will be able to purchase what I wish, if I wish.
However, Suzon does not appear affected by her surroundings. She gives the impression that everything is futile and meaningless. Her expression is resistant, as if she were wearing a protective mask shielding her from potential humiliation and disillusionment . There is no disillusionment for Suzon, she knows her job and that her youthfulness and sexual appeal are conditional and that she is a “representative of the enchanting life”  The enchantment in the painting describes a rather superficial aspect and not that which is real and important.
Everyone is always having a good time. You never see them enjoy themselves like this outside. Their different here, they treat me differently. There’s so much glitter…
What is real in this painting and what is presented realistically? It is affirmed that Suzon is surrounded by realistic objects pertaining to her work environment. But what about discrepancies such as the magnitude of the same bottles placed on the counter. Champagne bottles should be chilled unless of course they are empty and meant selection. The mirror doubles the objects in its reflection, highlighting the nature of mass production, and the sale of goods . “…[T]he guiding principle of modern display in department stores…was to make the merchandise accessible and close to the consumer senses” . Manet is showing the importance of commodity and how highly it is held within the culture. It is very telling of the owners’ marketing tactics that the bottles are placed on the bar, and that service is offered by an attractive young woman. A broad variety of bottles exemplify that the café-bar is a gathering place for diverse people, from all social classes, all partaking of the same products offered for sale .
Work where there is most demand. No sense any other way.
I have yet to be discovered so…I know nothing more or better than this job.
Need the money.
And, of course, there is the pleasure of serving people like you.
I’ve done other work, a little here and there. There is not much selection.
I already mentioned above that Suzon is solid and real, along with the objects near her atop the bar. But the world before her only exists within the bar at night. The Folies-Bergère, with all of its glitter, entertainment and décor, will be empty, and the crowds gone, like the beverages in the bottles, at the end of the night.
Behind Suzon is a gilt-framed mirror offering a reflection of the concert hall: “Mirrors, always popular in the décor of Parisian theatres and Parisian public life generally, lined the perimeter walls including the balcony level, where Manet has depicted his refreshment alcove […] The mirrors of the Folies were an integral feature of its ambience, mentioned often in contemporary texts […], tall mirrors’ behind the women working the refreshment counters reflected their backs and the faces of the passers-by.” Manet manages to seduce with the mirror, which serves to reveal the elements of enchantment and fantasy: “By aligning the counter and the mirror with the picture plane, the canvas almost pretends to be a reflection of our world, with the barmaid negotiating the interval between the fictional and actual realms” .
What about the notion of disillusionment? In this case, the mirror has become a source of revealing and distorting images particularly concerning the barmaid: “She appears as a signboard advertisement for the bar and its wares, also a sort of cut-out figure, an insert between the two domains of counter and mirror, flatter than anything else before, behind or around her” . Suzon is plumper in her reflection, making us question whether it is still her or someone else. But what about the action illustrated in the reflection? Who is the mystery man with the top hat? He is a well-dressed man visible only as a reflection. Perhaps he has softened Suzon with his charm, thus explaining her sudden warm demeanour. Perhaps this man is an employee and not a customer of the café.
There is no relationship on my part. Some men do not recall me,
everything will be an illusion in their head. The night is about expressions,
the moment, a phase, gone the next day and tried again the next night…
I don’t have to worry about being remembered…
(dreamy) Ahh, but to be remembered for a performance is something different.
The lights will be on me…
There is something magical. Do you not agree?
Suzon’s demeanour turns from cool to receptive once she serves the mystery man. Thus, her reflection reveals two aspects of Suzon’s personality. This duality can be understood as the feminine duality, between sex-object and nurturer. In the direct view of Suzon, she is alluring, seductive, and aloof. Manet places her importance as saleslady above that of caregiver.
Aside from Suzon’s beautiful dress, nicely coiffed hair, the lights, mirrors and entertainment, her appearance is not explicitly sexual. The roses in the painting , which have been referred to as symbols of love and beauty, give a personal touch to the scene. The fruits, traditionally symbols of fertility and sensual pleasure, surreptitiously seduce the café’s patrons . Hence, fruits and flowers are items which highlight the dual roles of women, based upon their repertoire of domestic life: “ [They] fulfill a decorative purpose, connoting, along with the image of woman near them, an older regime of domesticity deployed to promote sales” . Their presence highlights the nurturing character associated with mothers and wives, making women ideal for working in sales. By offering concern and aid to her clients, her service to the café’s clientele reflects that which she extends to her personal family. Inevitably, we witness Suzon accomodating the needs of her male clients.
If I have served you before, then I remember what you like to drink.
It is not a ploy for the job. I like the clients…
In France, women from different social classes were easy to distinguish. At the time the painting was executed, women were becoming economically independent and involved in the public sphere as workers. Wage-earning women came from the lower classes and worked outside the home. Other class distinctions involved women of the bourgeoisie. The petit-bourgeoisie were those who predominantly frequented the department stores and fashionable entertainment spots . Manet depicts these women in A Bar at the Folie-Bergère.
One of these women is shown looking through opera glasses. Her action is, in itself, unusual. Nineteenth-century etiquette required that women avert their gaze: “Women must avoid looking people in the eye, especially men […] this would be the mark of incivility and impudence” [25. A woman’s image and reputation could easily become tarnished if she did not comport herself accordingly. With regards to Suzon, what class of woman is she? One would speculate that she is a lower class wage earner. Furthermore, we are inclined to assume she is a courtesan, especially in the way Manet has portrayed her staring directly into public, both within and beyond the painting. Only courtesans took such liberties in exercising bold gazes . On the other hand, perhaps the bar is not such an egregious establishment if upper-class women are depicted frequenting the place and committing the same transgression as Suzon by openly viewing their surroundings.
I watch out for myself, always have.
I set the rules and boundaries, if any.
What about the other barmaids? What, you want to paint more girls?
Friends? Here? Well, I have my name for them…always have good times.
Some female clients are nice, but it depends upon the person.
You get to meet a variety of people. I managed to allow some acquaintances of mine to get a seat on the balcony. Their good girls… they have their regular spot.
The two fashionable women are both looking out into the crowd. Their gazes are neither provocative or sexual. Suzon’s gaze is similar, except that her employment requires her to boldly look at her patrons. The underlying difference between the two classes of women is that one is there for pleasure, and the other is there for work.
Manet has included an entertainer in the painting. The trapeze woman is famous and hard at work, but the spectators take no notice. We see this inattention through the aid of a mirror. The patrons are more concerned with being noticed in fashionable company than the actual performance.
Manet depicts wealth, class and the fashionable life. Suzon has the mirror behind her which refers to vanity. However, rather than look at her own reflection, Suzon gazes towards the viewer. This painting is an illustration of the female gender becoming more powerful in France: “Female roles predominate in the painting: the pyramid of brightly attired ladies in the gallery who observe the entertainment, the trapeze artist who provides it, and the monumental barmaid…”  In control, Suzon refuses to yield her gaze. She does not appear helpless.
The painting is an honest depiction of a young girl in her working environment. Women of Suzon’s occupation were pitied by people who viewed them as “victims of their elevated position, particularly those who worked in the cafés.” Moreover, women who worked in the cafés “grew old quickly because [they] had not only to suffer the fatigue of [their] employment, but also the inopportune advances of employer and customer” .
I know what people think…No matter where you work, whether in a boutique or here, we are exposed to the same thing. Why imagine, I’ve heard that actresses have a bad reputation. (pouts) Unfortunately, I will always be bad.
While Manet’s depiction of the barmaid remains vulnerable to public scrutiny, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère may well be a criticism of the way society expects its women to function according to the types of professions available to them. With resignation replacing submissiveness, the barmaid at the Folies-Bergère emerges as a self-conscious individual. Far from a mere object of the gaze, she stands, cognizant of her role, and ready to serve the next customer. She and the other women like her exist in this immediate environment. While the seduction of beauty, and, in particular, a woman’s beauty, has long been exploited as a tool for making profit, what is unusual about A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is the way in which the object being commodified appears aware of this fact. If she does not meet our gaze, it is because we come to her as strangers to her narrative:
I don’t plan on staying here long, I’m an actress, remember.
But it is alright now. If I didn’t work here, I’d be coming here for the shows, just like you.
Figure 1. Manet, Edouard. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). Oil on canvas. The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London.
1. Francoise Cachin, Charles S. Moffet, & Michel Melot, Manet 1832-1883 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983) 478.
2. Francoise Cachin, Manet: The Influence of the Modern (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995) 12.
3. Novelene Ross, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere: and the Myths of Popular Illustration (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1982) 15.
4. Ross, 33.
5. T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his followers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984) 205.
6. Clark, 244.
7. Ross, 1.
8. Ross, 77.
9. Cachin, et al., 478.
10. Richard Shiff, “Introduction,” 12 Views of Manet’s Bar, Bradford R. Collins et al., eds., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996) 64.
11. Shiff et al., 39.
12. Shiff, 172.
13. Albert Boime, “Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies-Bergere as an Allegory of Nostalgia*,” Zeitschrift fur Kunsrgeschichte (February 1993): 242.
14. Ross, 85.
15. Shiff et al., 27.
16. Ruth E. Iskin, “Selling, Seduction, and Soliciting the Eye: Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere,” Art Bulletin (March 1995): 29.
17. Shiff et al., 165.
18. Boime, 235.
19. Shiff et al., 40.
20. Iskin, 29.
21. Shiff et al., 119 & 172.
22. Iskin, 27.
23. Ross, 84.
24. Iskin, 35.
25. Iskin, 37.
26. Iskin, 37.
27. Boime, 242.
28. Ross, 84.