WOMEN IN THE PICTURE
What Culture Does With Female Bodies
By Catherine McCormack
In “Women in the Picture,” the author, scholar and art curator Catherine McCormack confronts the inexhaustible matter of women as objects of attention, in Western visual art and elsewhere. She’s not the first: The female self-image has long been fodder for critics like John Berger (“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”), Sigmund Freud (cf. “the castration complex”) and the film theorist Laura Mulvey, who wrote in 1975 that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”
McCormack continues these lines of inquiry, contemplating the various familiar, circumscribed shapes the female figure has been forced to take on the canvas: dead, floating Ophelias; endless sacrosanct Madonnas; denuded women of leisure; persecuted wives; coquettish nymphs and wrathful deities — fetishized and tragic all. Yes, McCormack says, women sometimes peer; but at least within the canon, they are mostly peered at.
This is the author’s second book after 2019’s “The Art of Looking Up,” a survey of classical ceiling art, from the azul tiles of the Iranian Imam Mosque to the Medici frescoes in Italy. Her more polemical follow-up is as incisive and provocative on the subject of motherhood as was “Matrescence and Maternality,” a two-part exhibition she guest curated at Richard Saltoun Gallery in London in 2019 and 2020.
“Women in the Picture” opens with a rather pedestrian encounter from the author’s own experience. On a visit to the National Gallery in London, her infant child bouncing on her hip, McCormack is approached by a male stranger, who tells her, “I wouldn’t look too deeply into the symbolism in this one.” She is gazing at “The Story of Griselda,” a 15th-century triptych whose central focus is “a longhaired woman surrounded by a lot of men in tights and a menagerie of animals. In the painting, men talk a lot.” Fleeing the stranger’s “tedious ‘mansplaining,’” McCormack finds no refuge around the corner, where she sees hanging another Renaissance painting of “a woman on the ground with her throat pierced, oozing blood from her jugular and with a deep gash on her forearm, her wrists already hooked with rigor mortis; her high round breasts and gently curving stomach egregiously exposed.”
Such archetypical figures, branded into the collective consciousness, order the book’s chapters. Venus, befittingly the first, is especially engrossing, her range of poses encompassing the celestial (“Venus Coelistis was thought of as a pure and unearthly body of a woman which stimulated thoughts about divine love and the beauty of the soul”) and the earthly (“Venus Vulgaria was the earthbound Venus associated with fertility, sex, procreation and the beauty of the living world”). The chapter “Maidens and Dead Damsels” implores us to query our own responses to Titian’s painting “The Rape of Europa.” “Do we share Europa’s desperation?” she writes. “Or do we quicken with the thrill of conquering her?” A stellar section called “Monstrous Women” asks if “Medusa was originally a Black African deity from Libya … a question that classics scholars have wanted to shrug off and undermine.”
However, McCormack’s analysis snags on pop culture. She recounts public disagreements over female pubic hair, from celebrities to Cosmopolitan polls (“the female body is gripped by societal expectations about hairless pubic regions — expectations that are codified by the smoothness of Venus images”); menstrual politics on Instagram, which censored the poet Rupi Kaur in 2015 for posting a photo of herself lying in bed, her sheets and pajamas stained with menstrual blood; and Kim Kardashian’s 2014 Paper Magazine cover, a glass “perched on her anatomically impossible (photoshopped) butt.” The relitigation of these issues reads as an attempt to be “topical,” which feels unnecessary given the timeliness of the work overall.
“Women in the Picture” mounts a sensitive and probing critique of the motifs, the preordained poses and affectations of the female figure in art. If feminism aspires to render itself obsolete, McCormack’s project too yearns for a future when critiquing such postures — the flayed victims, the temptresses and the sexless “mammies” — will no longer be necessary. For now it is.
The article was originally published in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/08/books/review/women-in-the-picture-catherine-mccormack.html