13 Aug 2021

What culture does with women's bodies

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 13 August 2021

When she became a new mother in 2017, British art historian Catherine McCormack began to see depictions of women by "male artist geniuses" such as Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani in a new way.

Around that time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was being petitioned to remove Polish-French artist Balthus' controversial painting of a prepubescent girl, Thérèse Dreaming and the MeToo movement had broken.

"Women en masse were questioning the sexualisation and the normalisation of sexualised women’s bodies in the public sphere and the expectations on them.”

McCormack was compelled to cast a critical eye over degrading portrayals of women in paintings, advertising and music. The result is her new book Women in the Picture: Women Art and the Power of Looking.

Catherine McCormack

Catherine McCormack Photo: author photo © Marzena Pogorzaly

Presenting historical paintings of women in distress without any context - such as The Story of Griselda which hangs in London's National Gallery - is problematic, McCormack says.

“What we see in that image is a woman being abused, being stripped naked, and being psychologically abused and then reinstated into her own home.

“What’s not on the accompanying interpretative materials is the fact that this story and that type of painting with its dimensions is made for a domestic interior. So presumably something like that could have been given to decorate the domestic rooms of a bride or a young fiancée.

“I think once you explain those conditions, when you stop talking about the details of the mastery of the artist, then you start to reframe what those images are connected to.”

Art history has often aggrandised the idea of a ‘lone male genius’ without considering the politics or context of the image, she says.

The Rape of Europa by Titian, painted ca. 1560–1562

The Rape of Europa by Titian, painted ca. 1560–1562 Photo: (c) 2019 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

“Like The Rape of Europa by Titian, which is a very famous painting, printed on tote bags and toiletries and cosmetic bags and posters and postcards.

“I think that sort of image is celebrated for its frothy sensuality, its stylistic beauty … without thinking about what it means to have an image that is normalised of a young Middle Eastern woman who is abducted to be raped by a male god in an act of forced and violent reproduction.”

Dr McCormack says it may not seem like it, but the implications of these works hanging in art galleries seeps into our everyday lives - from magazines, music videos, and advertisements.

“I think by changing the way we see the art of the past we can both give more credence to some of the fight or battles that women are having against gender oppression and injustice.

“There’s a very definite connection between the normalisation of how women’s bodies have been eroticised in our high arts and how that echoes in women’s bodies are consumed in certain manners in our fast-moving culture.”

Dr McCormack doesn’t necessarily believe removing all these works is the answer, but talking about how to include women artists today and historical repression is a necessary step, she says.

“Thus far, for the past 2000 years, the works of cultural production that we have revered and that we have put our faith in and have defined our sense of beauty, history, of taste, value, heroism have been produced by male cultural producers.

“I think that’s given us a very one-sided depiction of culture.”

Art appreciation is often viewed as a form of leisure, and some people may be uncomfortable with scratching that surface, but there is now a tectonic shift underway in how we view art history.

“The huge ruptures of social movements, such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter and the momentum behind those, have made it impossible for the academy to stay stuck within its traditions.”

*Dr McCormack is an independent curator based in London and a consultant lecturer at Sotheby's Institute of Art.