Gender and Race in Felix Vallotton’s The White and the Black, 1913

Les2Femmes-Félix_Vallotton-1913Ah yes, the familiar reclining nubile female nude of art history, frozen in time and laid out for our voyeuristic pleasure in a post- coital doze, cheeks ruddied from exertion or quixotic feverish dreams. We’ve seen hundreds of paintings of bodies like these, sometimes given biblical or mythological names with the sheer volume of the format granting some sort of universal permission to gawp and gaze at sleeping women through erotic goggles. But sometimes the best paintings suggest more about the spectator of the image rather than its subject. So as we look uninterrupted at this passive figure, we join the audience that was there first. In this case it is a black woman, arms folded on her lap, a cigarette cocked between her lips, its blunt ember edging dangerously close to all that exposed white flesh that could so easily be violated – with eyes, cigarette, or something else. And so we assume the gaze not of the white bourgeois European male for whom the history of art was practically invented, but a minority ethnic woman who is seen to be consuming all the visual pleasures that priviliged male archetype feels entitled to. Moreover, it casts that white default viewer as its unsettling polar opposite – a black woman whose agency is perhaps terrifyingly unmoored in post-abolition Europe in 1913. But still, the complexities around Felix Valloton’s La Blanche et la Noire continue to muddy our expectations of the reclining nude archetype. For embedded in this dyad before us is an Orientalist fear and desire for interracial erotic fantasy. So while the western eye bristles at being cast as the black ex- slave, this is tempered by the suggestion of illicit and transgressive relations between the two women.
I came across this image in Denise Murrell’s catalogue for the exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today- currently on show @museedorsayfrom @wallachartgallery . I’ll be talking about it this and other images concerning racial politics in this year’s Women and Art summer school @sothebysinstitute London .

Summer School Course on Art and Women




In June 2018 I’m running a two week course for Sotheby’s Institute in London around the theme of women and art.

I’ll be exploring the issues concerning the depiction of women in art, and women artists, from antiquity to the present day through an introduction to feminist theory and the gender politics of visual culture. This includes the circumstances of women’s historical exclusion from art academies and artistic patronage and the way in which international museums and collections in the 21st century are responding to the current interest and debates around feminism in politics and culture at large. The course will be taught by me, and also invited experts from the worlds of both academia and curating and will be a mixture of seminars at the Institute in Bedford Square, London and visits to galleries and collections such as the National Gallery and Tate Modern.

Everyone is welcome regardless of age or prior knowledge and qualifications.

For more information and to book see here.



The fear of the selfie


There is some lugubrious consternation in the press and twittersphere of late over the National Gallery’s decision to lift their ban on photography in the galleries. One of the chief concerns from thsoe who oppose the decision is the fear that the National Gallery will become ‘selfie-central’ and will detract from the studious atmosphere of contemplation and observation. This seems misguided and outdated to me. Galleries stopped being the sacrosanct spaces Grumpy Art Historian seems to think they are when they introduced branded coffee bars and boozy members’ evenings. Likewise, the artworks have been dethroned by the peddling of tea-cosies, tote bags, and even boxes of champagne truffles all imprinted with take-away versions of images from the collection. One could argue that these trinkets of mass cultural consumerism take the works in question out of the realms of quiet contemplation in a far more degrading way than a snap-happy observer posing and then posting on social media channels. While there are fears that this lift of the photography ban will invite a flood of selfie self-interest at the expense of the worthwhile work of art, the truth is that with or without smartphones, it was ever thus among galleries and visitors. But furthermore, this attitude puts artworks in an awkward and distant place of hallowed reverence, when in fact museums exist so that the works are engaged with and re-interpreted in contemporary ways. They need the selfie generation to buy coffee and tweet pictures of themselves reflected in art works because these are the arbiters whose snaps can invigorate and promote collections through people-oriented endorsements and not through pictures on tea- towels. Our eyes and brains will not devolve as a result of this route of engagement. Earlier this year Museum Selfie day positively promoted the snaps of gallery goers and by collating them under one hashtag created a body of work that is as creative, sensitive and thought-provoking as the original works themselves. Coming from a background as an educator in schools and galleries the concept behind the selfie (especially if it involves the mimicking of the characters or sentiment in the artwork) is a useful pedagogical tool to foster a deeper and more sympathetic interpretation of works, not to mention an enthusiasm and recall for them.
So, disgruntled dinosaurs of art history- what is it you are really afraid of here?

Filthy Feet: Dirt as Relic and Text in Seicento Rome


Filthy Feet: Dirt as Relic and Text in Seicento Rome

This paper on dirty feet in Caravaggio’s ‘Madonna and the Pilgrims’ and the relationship between dirt and representation in the city was published earlier this year by Dandelion Arts and Humanities journal in a special issue on ‘filth’, which brings together a wide range of scholarly articles on the topic. In my research on the foot and representation in early modernity I am continue to find the topic of walking a very rich area, especially Michel de Certeau’s seminal essay ‘Walking in the City’.