De Anima- Johan van Mullem






I recently wrote this piece for Soho gallery Unit London for their forthcoming exhibition and sale of Belgian artist Johan van Mullem’s mesmerising ink images.

‘Seeing Faces’

It was the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who suggested that ‘the soul never thinks without a picture’, but how might we picture the soul itself? Looking inside the body is an easy endeavour made possible by X-rays to MRI scans that perceive shape, volume and processes beneath the surface of things. But despite this technology of imaging, seeing the soul or indeed the essence of a person always remains elusive – even more so in an age where our identities are judged by carefully self-edited digital images on social media streams.


At first glance some of Johan van Mullem’s works even resemble this type of machinic seeing inside the body. Inky pools of colour conjure up sonographic or thermal imaging and suggest movement, process, flow, in short the animation of something. Some resemble nebulous vapours, others cross-sections of jewel-coloured geological specimens. In this they perhaps first bring our attention to the elemental matter that all bodies derive from. Often faces emerge from these lithic clouds, not fully distinct, but more half- perceived, like when looking at the surface of the moon, or finding a face in the knotted bark of a tree trunk.


Van Mullem stresses the automatic process of creating these works, they are images that are built up from layering oil-based ink onto un-primed boards and he insists that there is no starting point, and no known individual subject, which makes the works firmly reject any categorisation as portraits. Instead, finding faces is what we do as humans, to naturalise and make sense of the things that we behold. It even has a name, which is pareidolia. And this impulse to see faces in inanimate patterns is a way of processing what we perceive, but might not have the faculty to fully understand, such as the enigmatic workings of the human soul.


In this collection of works entitled ‘De Anima’, van Mullem contributes to mankind’s long enquiry into trying to make sense of the inner world of the human spirit, a conundrum that has perplexed philosophers since the seventeenth-century. It was in this period that the face was thought of as a window into the workings of the soul, as an external surface that registered the inner motions of consciousness and sensations, from pain to joy. But this collection reveals that it is not only faces that provide entry points to an abstract other world of the spirit flow – other works suggest highly expressionistic landscapes of colour and light, inspired by the artist’s childhood in Tunisia.  As a collection they resonate in beautiful chaotic force fields mirroring the elemental chaos and flow of time that we emerge from, that takes shape as much in human and spirit form as it does in landscapes.


Van Mullem’s work often invites comparison to past artists who explored the psychological intensity of the human condition through their painterly studies of faces, for example, Goya and Rembrandt. But this again might reflect an impulse to pin these works down into a system, through references to an art historical canon.  Better, and more destabilising perhaps to embrace what these works offer, which is an exploration of the chaotic, unfathomable beauty and darkness beneath the surface of the individual and the world. While we might seek a certain calmness in establishing order in the messy personal web of our own interior sense of self, these images prompt us to consider the emotional world within the body that cannot be formally voiced, and where structured language fails to express.



Autumn Exhibition Talks at Black’s Soho



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This autumn I’m doing a series of talks to coincide with London’s major exhibitions, and am hosting these in ‘The Den’ in Black’s Club in Soho, with breakfast and coffee on Tuesday mornings from September to November. The space is cosy and relaxed for a salon style atmosphere and there will plenty of opportunity for informal discussion alongside the lecture.

I’m doing four talks, starting with Georgia O’Keefe, Dorothea Tanning and the Language of Flowers on 20th september,which explores not only these artists who are currently on show in London but also how these modernist women challenged the tradition of flower painting as a stereotypically feminine past-time. I’ll also be talking about  one of my favourite topics which is still-life painting and the range of political meanings and symbols behind seventeenth-century flower painting, as well a look at Cy Twombly and other twentieth-century flower paintings.

The next talk is on Caravaggio and Beyond, on 11th October and takes a look at the dark arts of Caravaggio and how his influence has been felt not only by the subsequent generation of European painters but also in Neo-Realist cinema of the post-war period and by contemporary artists and fashion photography. The National Gallery exhibition opening in October promises to be a blockbuster and I discuss what is it that makes Caravaggio so universally appealing at this moment.

November sees two talks, one on the 15th Nov looking at Rodin and Dance to coincide with the Courtauld Gallery exhibition devoted to the artist’s late sculptures exploring movement. I will also be considering the relationship between dance and art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from Degas’ depictions of the dark underworld of the Parisian ballet, to Matisse, Chanel and Picasso’s involvement with the Ballet Russes. 

The last session is on 29th November and is a special end of year double bill looking at two themes, the first half will look at Abstract Expressionism to explore the themes and context behind the Royal Academy’s autumn extravaganza. The second half will cover a subject that I’m thrilled is being well represented this autumn which is the Feminist Avant Garde, to coincide with two shows, one on 1970s photography at The Photographer’s Gallery, and the second is a look at the agitational work by the Guerilla Girls, on show at the Whitechapel Gallery.

All sessions run from 10am-12pm at Black’s Club on Dean St. in Soho and include a buffet-style breakfast of coffee, pastries, granola and yoghurt plus an in-depth lecture and discussion with images, that is both informal and informative. This is also a chance for non-members of Black’s to experience the environment of one of London’s iconic private members’ clubs.

Cost per morning is £60, or bring a friend and get two tickets for £100. This includes breakfast, the lecture and handouts to take home.

To book a place please email






Mitch Griffiths ‘Realisms’

I really enjoyed the process of getting to know the work of British artist Mitch Griffiths in preparation for the catalogue essay I wrote for his current exhibition at the State-Hermitage in St. Petersburg.  With my background in writing about Caravaggio during my PhD research, I was asked by the Halcyon Gallery to consider Griffith’s work in relation to the past painters of large scale narrative oil paintings whom he references explicitly in his images such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens.

These are some extracts from the essay, ‘Mitch Griffiths: Real World as Image and Image as Real’, Halcyon Gallery and State Hermitage Museum, 2016


Like much contemporary art, Griffiths’ work explores 21st-century consumerism and alludes to a sharp anxiety that art is no longer a possibility because commodity culture – especially technological items such as the smartphone, and corporate branding – is so aestheticised that it provides an alternative to experiences delivered by older cultural enterprises, such as paintings. Griffiths’ canvases resemble the altarpieces of the past in the service of religion as much as his images resemble the billboards and magazine spreads of today in the service of market capitalism. Critiques of the utopia promised by advertising have been manifold since artists engaged with the visual aspects of commodity culture in the 1950s, for example in Pop Art and through the Situationist movement of the 1960s. In particular, the philosopher and Marxist Guy Debord identified a colonisation of all social life by the images of advertising and the mass media, observing that ‘all that once was directly lived has become mere representation’ and stating that life in consumer society has been downgraded from ‘being’ to ‘having’. Griffiths returns repeatedly to this colonisation by brands of all social life and embodied life. For instance, Commercial Gangster (Fig. 8) is literally branded by the commodities he consumes, which inevitably consume and own him. The expression of these brand logos in the form of tattoos here is particularly compelling; after all, the tattoo is a mark that is read on the surface of the skin, but it is also indelibly absorbed by the body. Likewise in 21st-Century Boy, in which a Christ-like figure wearing a halo of credit cards in place of a crown of thorns is tattooed with the Coca-Cola logo, but he additionally bears the lacerations of self-harm. Like his own emotional malcontent, the brand has a place inside and on his body and has entered into his very bloodstream. In doing this, Griffiths draws attention to the crossover between the production of fine art in the traditional medium of oil paint and the aesthetic presence of advertising and corporations. Perhaps we are even made aware of the supreme illusionistic accomplishment of oil painting, in that it can imitate effectively both the flesh of bodies and the graphic design of brand logos with fidelity to the original index.

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In referencing Dutch still-life painting and the grandiose manner of past history paintings, Griffiths borrows from the visual language of images that have already earned their place in the canon of art history. They are works that – falsely or rightly – command esteem on account of their inclusion in the world’s most illustrious museums, and thus we feel obliged to look and pay attention. The reality of the current refugee crisis seems to be that not many people are paying attention to their needs. Images of reality as conveyed through the news are somehow just not sticking. Griffiths has converted scenes of trauma into a different sort of image: one that borrows from the authority of the past to make us look again, with curiosity and respect as opposed to indifference. Once again, by translating the reality of everyday events into a self-consciously constructed image, in The Things they Carried Griffiths points to our faith in the reality of images and our relative blindness to real life.


New blog: Women in the Picture

I’ve started a new blog called Women in the Picture which I hope to develop into a collection of essays for publication.  The first post is a short essay on a painting by Berthe Morisot of her pregnant sister looking out of the window.

Berthe Morisot (French, 1841 – 1895 ), The Artist’s Sister at a Window, 1869, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

I started this blog of images because of late I find myself in a position where I talk about women in images for much of my work as an art history lecturer, even if the starting point is on the surface something quite different. Having trained as an art historian at University College London I came in contact with the work of feminist art historians such as Tamar Garb, Griselda Pollock and Lynda Nead, which without doubt changed my critical perception of the world, and moreover, the world of images that we inhabit sometimes unquestioningly.

In particular I have recently been teaching courses and giving lectures that address the issue of gender in images, whether that is the depiction of women in the media, or in the traditional canon of art history, where many of the problems in the perception of women’s bodies start. I wanted to devote a blog to analysing and deconstructing images of women, from all moments in history in order to think about pressing issues of gender politics both past and present.

You can find the new blog here.


The V&A museum’s new show Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear reminded me of this article I wrote for Glass magazine back in 2010

sophia corset

The story of lingerie is the story of our relationship with the human body. Or, more essentially the female body, one that society has sought to tame and control, dress up, with parts covered, parts accentuated. And who can deny the alluring thrill of those whispers of silk, satin, chiffon, and nylon that quicken the pulse and retain the heat, shape, and scent of the body. Brassiere, teddy, corset, camisole, stockings, suspenders, baby doll; lingerie has an arsenal of delicate contraptions that wield much power. Lingerie is duplicitous. It tells lies about what’s underneath, it hurts, marks and punishes as much as it does favours, and of course, if it does its job properly, it doesn’t stay on the body for very long.


The term as we know it was introduced in the 1850s from the old French word for linen; ‘linge’, and referred to the chemises that were worn as a layer between the body and exterior garments, including the  most evocative item of manipulative underwear which is the corset, (which takes it’s name from the Latin word ‘corpus’, meaning body). The task of this garment has forever been to manipulate and reconstruct the body, nipping in the waist to doll like proportions in the quest for the perfect hourglass figure. It was like this that aristocrats were rib-crackingly bound and starved of oxygen, Georgia belles like Scarlet O’Hara fainted in the hot sun of the deep south as did their Victorian counterparts, and swooning into some chivalrous arms became a matter of course.

The corset as we know it was an evolution of the severe and ubiquitous Elizabethan ‘stays’, a stiffened bodice, like an exoskeleton that in very name implies that the female body was too feeble to hold itself upright and required support. Actually putting on the garment itself required such assistance that such items and elegant bodyshapes were originally the preserve of the aristocratic before lingerie became more democratic.


The perversity of the corset is that despite the pain and restriction, its hold on the female body has never really been loosened. After a brief rejection in favour of the androgynous Art deco silhouette in the 1920s, with thrilling flashes of silky camiknickers and coloured garters with every Jazz age high kick, the  sculpting, restrictive but oh so sexy corset returned  as the uniform of Playboy bunnies and in the form of the ‘waspie’ that was essential for achieving Christian Dior’s New Look in the 1950s. Enter the Hollywood bombshell; Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell’s curves; brazenly feminine in a glamorous post-war world of engineering that adapted to lift, separate and inspire the MadMen silhouette of  conical bras and girdled hip that swaggered in kitten heels in every Manhattan office high rise.

Elsewhere on the big screen, Raquel Welch set the barometer for animal print’s enduring sexual allure in that bra and briefs in One Million Years BC, cutting a fine balance between glamazon and barmaid.


As sexual politics and issues of gender equality took focus in the 1970s, the cultural evolution of lingerie evolved in an era of extremes. In one camp the feminist movement burnt their bras, dismantling the symbols of female constriction and chauvinism while the other embraced an unbridled sensuality which still charges the retro fantasies of contemporary fashion campaigns today.  Sarah Moon’s powdery soft focus in the 1972 Pirelli calendar references 1930s decadence and the speak easy bordello while Guy Bourdin’s notorious 1976 catalogue for  Bloomingdales entitled Sighs and Whispers, elevated lingerie to an art form in scenes of satin-edged eroticism that is both surreal and smouldering in equal measure.


The 1980s and the protagonists of punk found that all too cloying of course, and lingerie emerged as a weapon of rebellion. Like the 1950s beforehand, austerity and recession produced an unapologetic, sexually overt aesthetic to celebrate counter-culture and get back to the earthy delights of the body. Punk girls wore bras on top of their clothes, combined with heavy boots, denim and leather as did Jean-Paul Gaultier when he reinterpreted the tea-rose girdles of the 1930s to create Madonna’s iconic Blonde Ambition look.

Eleri Lynn, Curator of Fashion at the V&A museum suggests that it was this trend in punk culture that informs the position of lingerie as part of our fashion lexicon today, when considering the current catwalk trend for underwear as outer-wear. She suggests that these origins lie ‘in the punk movement when Vivienne Westwood subverted overtly feminine symbols like corsets and bras and turned them into aggressive statements of empowerment.’


Silky slips as dresses, bras over blouses, and corset references on everything from T-shirts to party dresses have become staples of the current fashion trend as seen with designers from Marc Jacobs to Dolce & Gabbana and Bottega Veneta. In fact, John Paul Gaultier’s 2010 collaboration with La Perla has created a collection based on nude and black items that recall the irresistible Betty Page whose Southern girl innocence was tinged with just a little touch of bondage and resulted in explosive sexual allure. Just the right uplifting cocktail for right now when the coffers are empty and recession is nigh.

Lingerie is so much a part of our lives that it’s no wonder some brands became established household names. You’d have trouble finding a woman who didn’t own a Wonderbra in the 90s or indeed, a man who hadn’t slipped into some Calvin Klein boxers. Agent Provocateur designers Joseph Corres and Serena Rees received an MBE for services to fashion and contributed to a renaissance for all things burlesque and cabaret, creating fantasy worlds of sequinned nipple tassels and glamorous authority figures, granting women the liberty to fulfil their inner kinkiness without compromising on style and decorum.

A woman’s lingerie drawer constitutes a whole wardrobe in itself, and like any clothes, a cast of different characters she wants to be on any given day.  As Christian Dior said in 1954 ‘Real elegance is everywhere, especially in things that don’t show…Lovely lingerie is the basis of good dressing’.

Motherhood and the Academy

A version of this article will appear in the Summer 2016 edition of the St. Paul’s Girls’ School Review magazine.
Four years ago I found myself happily gestating my PhD research in art history at UCL, as well as my first child. What I didn’t expect was that one of the first universities to pioneer equal academic opportunities for women should in the twenty-first century provide so many obstacles to a new mother trying to obtain a higher degree. On the one hand these impediments were administrative and bureaucratic, for example any mothers who took a period of absence from research automatically fell into the category of ‘interruption of study’ as there was simply no option in the registry for ‘maternity leave’. This was despite the generous provisions for maternity pay by the bodies that fund doctoral research. The practical repercussions of this were devastating to my work- it meant a suspension of my UCL password and my rights to access the library, to consult on-line academic material, and even enter parts of the university. As a young mother it seemed that I was literally shut out of the ivory towers of the academy, but on an ideological basis it seemed that there was an even more urgent issue to confront, one of the apparent separation of the maternal and intellectual life and the implicit incompatibility of one to another that was suggested by the university’s discrimination. I was reminded of a since destroyed mural of ‘Modern Woman’ painted by Mary Cassatt in 1893 for the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbina Exhibition and Fair in Chicago. It depicted contemporary women plucking fruit from the tree of knowledge and science and passing it on to a younger generation. This and the barriers I was encountering in the university system made me think about the responsibility women undertake in order to create the next generation, some of whom will be academics and leading researchers, and how in doing so they should not have to sacrifice their own place in the academy. Despite progress in gender equality it seemed that we were still daughters of Eve, bound by our reproductive role and seemingly punished for an appetite for knowledge.
Disillusioned and frustrated I reached out to find other women in a similar situation, who had become mothers during their postgraduate careers. The response was encouraging and together we formed a group called Motherhood and the Academy (MATA) to raise awareness and put pressure on the university to reconsider how they provided for, or discriminated against maternity. In one event we formed a sit-in with our children, another was a pop-up play area in an exhibition space. Once our voices were heard I am happy to say that necessary revisions to policy and access have been made but academia and the rituals of the academic career still have a long way to go before mothers and the family are truly welcome.

A Girl is Half-Formed Thing (Eimear McBride)

Eimear McBride’s debut ‘A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing’ could be a familiar encounter; an Irish writer experimenting with language in the modernist tradition of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, the story conveyed in fragments through the unnamed ‘I’ of the narrator’s stream of consciousness.  The familiar archetypes of inter-generational misery are there;  sexually abusive uncle, abandoned mother, violent patriarch.  And then there’s the nightmarish portrait of Ireland with its dry spuds and the tyranny of spiritual orthodoxy.

The fact that McBride spent nine years struggling to get the work into print suggests that some publishers may have found it too derivative, or perhaps some found it too challenging with its broken syntax. But this painful portrait of a young woman’s life blighted by her brother’s brain tumour does something alchemical that distinguishes it from the obvious genealogies of Irish modernist writing.

For the prose implicitly conveys rather than explicitly narrates the salient details of the story and does so in sensory terms; through descriptions of smells and touch, through articulations of pain both mental and physical.  In this way the language oscillates between inside and outside, from the internal voice of the narrator and the wounded brain of her brother versus the abuse meted out to them by the outside world that calls them ‘useless’, ‘spastic’ , ‘slut’.

The fragmented syntax is both torturously acute and evasively opaque in describing events and sensations. This book will be remembered because it exemplifies how the language of ourselves and others defines and undoes us, but moreover how it ultimately fails to make sense of the bleak horror of pain.


A version of this article features in the August 2014 edition of the Architectural Review

It was his son who described Gianlorenzo Bernini, as ‘stern by nature, rock steady in work, warm in anger’. Born in Naples in 1598 and heralded as the next Michelangelo by the age of eight, to all accounts Bernini ostensibly embodied the stereotypical haughty hot-headedness of the Southern Mediterranean. He is a man around whom a powerful mythology has been sculpted and his reputation, at least among his immediate predecessors, is easily discernable from the lengthy and eulogizing accounts by his primary biographers. These included the amateur artist and gossipy raconteur Filippo Baldinucci alongside the scholar Domenico Bernini, Gianlorenzo Bernini’s last, eleventh, child.

Knighted at the meagre age of twenty three, Bernini assumed the moniker ‘il Cavaliere’ as well as friends in high places such as the future pope Urban VIII, Maffeo Barberini. Through these channels he became accustomed to the sycophantic rhetoric of the age; especially from his influential friend, who is famously recorded to have said; ‘It is your great good luck, Cavaliere, to see Maffeo Barberini pope. But we are even luckier in that the Cavaliere Bernini lives at the time of our pontificate.’  This friendship spanned over two decades and is one of art history’s greatest ever love-ins between artist and patron, and certainly the most influential on the fabrications of seventeenth century Rome.  A portrait bust of Barberini sculpted during his pre- papal days is testimony to both their friendship and Bernini’s wit.  The ‘speaking likeness’, despite drawing on the classical tradition and sculpted from chilly, inanimate marble still manages to convey a filmy patina on the cardinal’s complexion and the straining buttons over his robust chest belie a fondness for a life lived as if it were one long, good lunch.

Bernini had a predilection for extremes of the flesh, which ranged from the masochistic to the sadistic. He is reported to have undertaken experiments on his own body to guarantee an authenticity of expression in his sculpture, whether burning his leg to understand the contortions of torture suffered by St.Lawrence, the Christian martyr roasted on a grill, or plunging his hand into flames in front of a mirror to render the silent scream of a damned soul in hell.  Both of these acts might seem unnecessarily thespian were he not also predisposed to inflicting acts of grevious bodily harm when enraged. Bernini broke his brother’s ribs for conducting an affair with the lovely Costanza Bonucelli (Bonarelli)  before sending a servant to slash his paramour’s face to ribbons with a blade.

Despite this taste for violence he lived his daily life in an odour of piety, visiting mass every evening at the Jesuit church of il Gesù alongside the suitably militant Jesuit order. But while his focus on the piety of the inner life is reflected in his devotion to St. Ignatius Loyola’s meditational text the ‘Spiritual Exercises’, as a sculptor he is known for his rendering of marble into flesh so tantalising it’s palpably uncomfortable. Who can easily forget the robust hand of Pluto sinking into the pearly cushion of Proserpina’s thigh, a scene of base sexual assault turned into sublime admiration for the sculptor’s craft, not to mention  the provocative jouissance that ripples through ‘St. Teresa of Avila’?

Perhaps it is easy to suggest that this irrepressible preoccupation with the body extended to his architecture. The anthropomorphic arms of the oval piazza redesign of St. Peter’s became a symbolic gesture of an anxious Catholic church embracing its flock and clinging to those in the fold, while the new use of the ovoid shape and interpenetrating spaces created a different three dimensional experience for the body in architectural space, and one that deviated from the strict Vitruvian geometry that had underpinned Renaissance architecture.

If Bernini’s triumphant reworking of St. Peter’s and his contributions on the inside such as the ‘baldacchino’, ‘Cathedra Petri’, ‘Scala Regia’ and papal tombs can be seen as his greatest legacy, then his work on the building also prompted his greatest gaffe.  Bernini designed two towers that were to flank Carlo Maderno’s façade of the church, but no sooner had the foundations been set that they began to topple. Art history has perpetuated the belief that this was a spectacular fall from grace for the architect, one that saw the brightest star being shut out of Eden, and freed the stage for Bernini’s main rival, the prodigious Francesco Borromini. , According to some sources, Borromini was the scorned and uncredited genius behind the twisting towers of the baldacchino which rose like a canopy over the subterranean tomb of St.Peter at the crossing of the gargantuan basilica.

Truth is, despite the assumption that Bernini spent a period relegated to the wings for the remainder of Innocent X’ s papacy,  he still  designed the ‘Four Rivers Fountain’ during this period and enjoyed various commissions from aristocratic and foreign patrons, including a spell at the French court of Louis XIV in 1660s. He comfortably took centre stage again during Alexander VII’s papacy, which saw him involved in the large scale architectural adaptations of Rome including the disembowelling and dilation of the medieval innards of the city to make way for the grand processional spaces such as Piazza San Pietro.

By far the most lucky thing for Cavaliere Bernini was that he lived within the period of great ‘builder Popes’, hell-bent on restoring Rome’s cultural capital through architectural projects and magisterial urban planning, all the while anxiously attempting to spurn the threat of Martin Luther’s new Protestant faith by casting the Catholic faith triumphant in the masonry of the city.  Rome became a stage set for processional pomp and stimulating the senses, and Bernini delivered designs which implemented the dramatic contortions, undulations and elevations characteristic of the Roman Baroque style.  These aimed for something of an intoxicating embodied ecstasy in the beholder as a reminder of Catholicism and Rome’s supremacy when it came to souls.  In this regard Bernini’s work as a sculptor gave him an advantage when designing buildings which heightened the perception of space as lived through the body in three dimensions; the power of negative space, and his experiments in combining painting and sculpture to complement architectural form. It is for this, the ‘bel composto’ of elements that he is remembered and revered, and to him the later conception of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (that which breaks the aesthetic borders between real and imagined space) seems made for.

Bernini’s blousy burial in Santa Maria Maggiore was his ultimate rendering of the Baroque conceit. In tucking his tomb just under the high altar, close to the relics of the Holy Crib, and in close proximity to the Salus Populi Romani portrait of the Virgin by the hand of St.Luke, Bernini lay claims to the posthumous function of his body and bones in making Rome holy, as well as aligning his hand with that of the first Christian artist, St. Luke. Sadly his reputation for crafting philosophical encounters with mysticism and illusionism did not universally endure into the eighteenth century,  and Joshua Reynolds would dismiss him his nothing more than a cheap sorcerer.


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?

Baroque Breasts

I’m fascinated in revisiting the debate over bared breasts in the Swedish National Assembly which was sparked late last year by the decision to remove a painting of the goddess Juno from the parliamentary rooms. While the first explanations for the dismissal of the topless goddess claimed awareness and sensitivity towards Muslim guests, Susanne Eberstein, the deputy speaker,  confessed that the real issue at stake was a feminist one;

“It’s tiresome (looking at) a bare-breasted woman when I sit at public dinners with foreign guests. I think it feels a little hard to sit there with men who look at us women.”

Tellingly, the initial parliamentary line was that racial sensitivity was the motivating factor, rather than be upfront about the real reason- that pictures of women, whether page 3, lads mags, or the history of the female nude in European painting are all part of the same patriarchal control of women’s bodies through the perpetuation of a certain type of image, in which women appear, naked, for the visual consumption and viewing pleasure of a male viewer.

Both the mechanism of high culture, as well as the omnipotent machine of mass media have co-opted images of women to create female archetypes of sexual availability and entertainment  and this process is so entrenched that it seems as normal to see a scantily clad or nude woman in a sexually provocative pose on the cover of a magazine, as it as on a bus stop, adorning the hoarding of a building, or in a collection of old master paintings in any respectable institution. Where it is not normal to see women without clothes on is in the workplace, a space from which sexual display and consumption and erotic entertainment are excluded, for obvious reasons.

The decision to remove the painting was answered by a predictable shower of insulting missiles by the online gynophobic community,  where said deputy speaker is judged as  jealous of the breasts in the painting, and deemd another (ugly) disappointment of the no-fun whinging feminist brigade.

Many commentators derided the decision, using the by now extremely tedious platitude ‘political correctness gone mad’, one comparing the paintings removal to the withholding of some of Rodin’s more sensual sculptures (including The Kiss ) from an exhibition of the artists work at Brigham Young university campus in Utah in the late 1990s.

But establishing the difference here is vital not just for validating the feminist concerns over the power of images in the workplace or in public, but for the current campaigns targeting the real harm that is being inflicted by the portrayal of women in the media.

Brigham Young university’s decision not to display the palpably erotic examples of Rodin’s sculpture, (for reasons of upholding dignity on campus) was fuelled by religious fundamentalism – the university is run by the Mormon church and requires a pledge of abstinence from non-marital sex from all students.  Schroder’s bare-breasted Juno does not invite a meditation on the human condition or the ecstasy and torture of physical love, as Rodin’s sculptures do but presents a naked body to leer at from a position of proprietorial dominance. It is an expensive piece of erotic titillation for a wealthy patron.

Sweden’s decision to respectfully remove a nude painting of the goddess Juno is underpinned by the recognition that the display of women’s naked bodies is a matter of sexual prejudice in a context where women are professional equals with the same agency  as men for making decisions about government, and the acknowledgement that the tradition of European oil painting is not innocuous in its power to shape archetypes which have the potential to threaten and undermine that balance.

This is not a prudish denial of the sexual beauty of the body,  nor a call for a Bonfire of the Vanities.  It is a different matter entirely and raises a point which we as art historians must continue to engage with – hat art history is as much to blame as lad’s mags for the normalization of the female body turned into spectacle for consumption and the perpetuation of the politics of the male gaze.

But it’s just a painting, right?  No one gets hurt, or do they?

We have a tendency to consider paintings of the past as inert;  in the era of the digital, immediately rendered image painting is too distant a material to seem linked to the real presence of a body – but imagine the difference if this were a photograph of a topless woman cavorting in a field.

This short film on Beauty by Rino Stefano Tagliafiero reminds us that with with even just a little animation all of those un-troublesome, canonical, two- a- penny nudes to be found in every major city’s art collection seem uncomfortably sexual, vulnerable and exposed.

John Berger’s analysis of the tradition of the nude and sexual politics in the seminal TV programme Ways of Seeing still hits the nail on the head more than forty years later.  One of his summary points about  the visual dynamics of gender in the history of Western art is as follows:

‘Men act, and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”  Watch an excerpt here.

I recently attended a debate on the democratization of art history in the media hosted at the inaugural View Festival of Art History and asked why in forty years nothing similar had been approached or embraced in broadcasting or publishing, surely the route to more democratic would be to revisit art history from this Marxist/ feminist perspective.

The short  and disappointing answer was that  there hasn’t been anyone comparable to the genius of John Berger who has come along since. Arts programming in the UK seems to be resistant to deploying a female voice to explore the history of culture, and was recently targeted by feminist writers such as Kathy Lette, who called for a female narrator to present the remake of the epic BBC series ‘Civilization’, which aired in 1969  and was written and presented by a suited and booted Kenneth Clarke.  His journey with the viewer through the Dark Ages to the refulgent glory of artistic achievement and flowering of humanity in the thirteenth century cast in stone the paradigm of the television art historian telling the story of art that was painted, written and narrated by the ‘dead, white man’.

Although the symbolic annihilation of the intellectual faculties of women in broadcasting and media is now diminishing, female historians often seem to be rolled out to present typically feminine angles to history and art history, addressing themes such as the domestic, or the story of courtesans, often assuming a gossipy style in relaying of the ins and outs of the bedchamber while the grand annals of culture are reserved almost exclusively for the male voice of history.

But women beware women; for an example of everyday unveiled sexism and prejudice, merely read Anna Baddeley’s blog post for The Spectator and ensuing comments about the validity of women presenting a series on civilization if they were prevented much from contributing to it. Oh, ok, that makes absolute sense.

I have digressed. Women are socialised from an early age to comply with stereotypes which are presented both in media and ‘high art’ and cultural representations, which consequently are perceived and tolerated because they are fashioned as being normal. Yes, hoards of female gazes devour Michelangelo’s David, as if he were a Renaissance Chippendale stripper, or linger over a full page spread of the equally heroically proportioned and de-robed David Gandy or objectify the tanned torso of the Diet Coke guy. And yes, men do suffer from  societal pressures enforcing an idealised body image (and bank balance.)

But the tradition of the male nude in Antiquity from which all of the above examples are cast was about heroism, virility, the poetry of the body, and nudity as a type of external armour, rather than an exposure of the body for consumption and critique.

When examples of art try to explore female sexuality from a similar point of celebration, petty fears about public decency are invoked as can be seen in the  recent removal of this painting by  Leena McCall from the Mall Galleries in London. 

Feminist artists and historians have been critiquing and addressing the display of the female body in representational art for decades. One of my first art history lessons with the great feminist Professor Tamar Garb covered Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe which I had claimed immediately and naively to ‘love’, as young art enthusiasts are prone to do. But when we were asked to recreate the paintings composition, the penny dropped. Two men, fully clothed, eat lunch and talk among themselves while a totally naked woman sits on the grass beside them, her garments discarded. Without actually stripping off, the mere thought of how it might feel to sit in front of the class with no clothes on, exposed to a crowd of gazes scrutinising my body taught me that paintings are always political.

This is no call for a neo- Mary Whitehouse  censorship of anything fun, sexual or saucy. The question is where it is appropriate- so that an appetite for pornography can be adequately and freely fed legally through made for purpose channels and not next to CBeebies magazine in the local supermarket. The same goes for frothy and sensual painting which is designed to titillate and flatter the master of the owner-spectator, and tease out envy in his friends who saw but did not own the body on display.

But a truly equal society will not lock these works away, nor censor them, but recognise the power of images in shaping our relationships with ourselves, our self-perception and acceptance of what appears to be normal. A truly equal society will raise consciousness to teach our young how women’s bodies have been used and the strangeness of that phenomenon, the disparity between how we are seen and how we are educated to be.  A truly equal society will educate about a darker time in the history of the sexes, where women were consumed as objects or facilitated the status of powerful men.

Yes it has ever been thus, but that is too much of a feeble platitude to stomach, because what has not ever been thus is the widespread access to education and careers, and yet the never decreasing pay gap between genders, the continued sexual violence against women, institutional sexism and the fact that young girls with their anxieties are helpless prey to the irresponsible assaults of advertising and media.

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