Wednesday, May 27, 2009


My friend Viola is a talented ceramacist. Not, I should mention, a potter--she doesn't use a wheel. Her art is unique and organic (not to mention wonderful), but she hasn't thrown a pot in years.

The other day she met a new member of the studio where she makes her art. They got to talking, and he mentioned that he had a dealer and was doing very well. (She later verified that via Google.) Now, like many artists (and bloggers), Viola is ambitious about her art and was immediately intrigued--and interested in how she might be able to network with this guy.

As they talked, he told her that he was putting together a group of artists and wondered if she might want to join? Of course she was interested, but--being a person of fierce integrity--she made sure to show him her work first. They talked for a while and agreed that her work really wouldn't work with the rest of the show--but, the guy asked, could she throw some vessels for him? And it gradually dawned on Viola that all he wanted was her to make a lot of vessels for him to paint.

I find it strangely apt that this--let's be fair--clueless tool would want her to make vessels for him. (Presumably narrow-necked for maximum--never mind.) I won't belabor the obvious: that for centuries women have been seen as nothing but vessels for men--convenient receptacles for them to empty their important, creative work into--a holding pen for their serious ideas to gestate.

You don't have to be a radical feminist to see that the idea of women being the non-creative side of birth as being a bit skewed.

Viola turned him down, for reasons both practical--she's far too out of practice to make pots quickly with the quality she'd want--and personal: the guy was being completely exploitative of her. Because she's quite capable of making her own art, thanks, and has no desire to be this guy's vessel.

But hearing the story from her made me think about art, and my art (if that's what I'm doing here is), and women in art. My favorite painting in the entire world is Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass):

It hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and I always make a point of visiting it whenever I'm there; the canvas is enormous, and the vibrancy of the light--it never comes through in prints--is astonishing and always makes me smile.

But as much as I love this painting, being who I have become I can't help but notice that it sums up attitudes towards women that sadly weren't abandoned to the 19th century. That is, the only two roles available were the the object of the artist's gaze--the nude woman in the foreground--or supporter, like the woman who is bathing in the background. Both fundamentally passive roles; how few of the works of the great masters show women doing anything other than, perhaps, resisting the rape of an overly amorous Olympian?

Of course, you can go another layer. The nude woman in Le dejeuner sur l'herbe is Manet's longtime model, Victorine Meurent (though in an early example of Photoshopping, that's her head on a more voluptuous model's body.) Meurent was the model for Manet's notorious Olympia, and that painting's shocking subject--it certainly seems to depict a courtesan--led people to conclude, wrongly, that she herself must have been a prostitute.

In fact, she was an artist, and a successful one at that--she exhibited several times at the Salon des Artistes--although only one painting of hers is conclusively known to survive. In later life she was inducted into Societé des Artistes Françaises. She called herself an artist until she died.

I think of Victorine Meurent--the famous half smile, head tilted up in disdain or arch condescension--knowing that the gaze of the Great Man was falling on her and not demuring; bold, passionate yet tempered, willing to fight for her art and even sacrifice her own image in order to get the training she needed. I think of this Object who dared to be her own Subject, a woman born too early, perhaps, and yet still remaining as an enigmatic reminder that history is not always what They tell us it is. I think of her, and Viola, and vessels and painters, models and sculptors. And I write.


  1. that painting is a favorite of mine as well, and has been since i was a pre-teen...when i later found myself looking at it (and manet) in a feminist context, i was confused and excited and wary--the power in her gaze, the violation of the fluorescent-like light, the awkward frankenstein composition. i don't know what the work's strangeness amounts to (damn did i copy that flat style of his when i started painting) but it was a secret fascination of mine that i have recently realized is shared by a lot of people. looks like i have to start reading up on this. thanks for the post and for your writings here, they are appreciated.

  2. Fascinating post! I'm an art student and a bit of an art history nerd, and I've always had a great love of those old classic female nudes.. but I, too have been finding that I see them in a different light now that I'm older. I do have to wonder, as the Guerrilla Girls said, do women have to be naked to get into a museum?

    I never knew those things about the model, and that's so interesting. I wonder how many more stories like that there are to find.