Polly Warrack takes on the presentation of women art.
Over inter-semester I settled down to watch ‘We’ll Take Manhattan’ on BBC3. It was a feature length dramatization of the infamous relationship between David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton, and the trip to New York which changed the future of their careers, fashion photography and British style. It was engaging, stylishly presented and a delight to watch. However, if spiderman has his spideysenses which start tingling when danger is near, than I have my feminist radar to detect misogynist thought. This varies from an uncomfortable twitch, the sort provoked by the recent Virgin Atlantic advert where the only females involved appeared as air hostesses whilst men were cast as pilots and executive clients, to full blown outrage. Full blown outrage tends to be provoked by a lecture on Rodin or Gauguin, or someone criticizing Caitlin Moran.
On this scale ‘We’ll Take Manhattan’ scored a response of irritated muttering. This is because despite being a tale of great social change, Jean ‘the Shrimp’ Shrimpton was reduced to the role of signifier. She was a stand-in for the Swinging 60s, the birth of the supermodel and the opposite of the voluptuous aristocratic women who were seen near the beginning of the programme. She was defined by her physical features and her relationships with men to become a type. Whilst David Bailey back chats the editors at Vogue and expresses his desire to capture something ‘alive’, Jean remained the silent representative of his goal, soon to resign her name to the new ones of ‘supermodel’, ‘gamine’ and ‘the sixties’.
To me this seemed to represent the relationships of models and artists throughout time. Where David Bailey had Jean Shrimpton, Rosetti had Lizzie Sidal and Degas had his ballerinas. The artist exposes the model to the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer because we can look without being seen. We do not engage with the model, but with the artist. The model is merely the signifier, or middle man, of this relationship. The model is pre-seen; the artist has already determined how we will regard what has been painted.
For example, if we look at Lucien Freud’s painting of Sue Tilley, called ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ then we do not see an individual woman as though she stood before us. Instead, we see what Freud experienced in her presence. We can sense the imposing nature of her fleshy body. She is both vulnerable in her state of slumber, but intimidating as she seems ready to wake at any moment and expose the viewer, displacing the shame of nudity to us. She is all of these things, and yet none of these things for it is Freud’s gaze which cast her in this role.
More often than not it seems that this relationship of artist and model seems to take place between a male artist and a female model. The Guerilla Girls, a group of radical feminist artists, asked on a poster in 1989, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” and found that 85% of the nudes at the Met were women, while only 5% of artists represented in the museum were women.
I do not necessarily argue for the abandonment of male representations of women, that would just be silly, but I implore the discontinuation of female types. In ‘We’ll Take Manhattan’ the big bad Vogue editor only accepts Jean Shrimpton when an even bigger and badder Vogue editor declares her ‘beautiful’; the pinnacle of female types. This seems massively unfair to me, but still seems to echo through the editorial pages of glossy magazines today as women are hoisted onto pedestals of what is fashionable and beautiful. Mind you, being a red-haired young woman I must be a femme fatale and thus hell bent on the destruction of the masculine creative spirit. I shall let you know how I get on…
Image 1 – Shipshapeandbristolfashion
Image 2 – Mo Pie
Image 3 – Rosta József