Judy Chicago at the Ben Uri Gallery. Beware some sexually explicit material which may (apparently) shock some people

It’s all over, bar the shouting.

Or is it? see here

From "Nine fragments from the Death of Venus (boxed set)" 2004by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

From “Nine fragments from the Death of Venus (boxed set)” 2004
by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

"Peeling Back" 1974by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

“Peeling Back” 1974by kind permission of the Ben Uri gallery

Both images very shocking, but perhaps most shocking is the text that accompanies the lower image:

“This is a print made from the center drawing of the Rejection Quintet, five works originally inspired by several experiences I had in Chicago; one with a male dealer, the other with a male collector, both of whom made me feel rejected and diminished as a woman. I decided to deal with my feelings of rejection and in so doing confronted the fact that I was still hiding the real subject matter of my art behind a geometric structure as I was afraid that if I revealed my true self, I would be rejected. In the first drawings I asked “How does it feel to be rejected?” and answered : “It’s like having your flowers split open.” In the last drawing I asked: “How does it feel to expose your real identity?” And answered: “It’s like opening your flower and no longer being afraid it will be rejected.” In this, the transitional image, I “peeled back” the structure to reveal the formally hidden form. What a relief to finally say: “Here I am, a woman, with a woman’s body and a woman’s point of view.

What I gained from the looking at the work of Judy Chicago and what I gained from the study visit seemed slightly at odds with each other. I was the only ‘Other’ student present, so anything I say will be very visible…

The general comments from the students revolved around how Chicago did the work, the craft of the images, whether, for example, she had sub-contracted some of the stitching. About how some of the work was very detailed and yet some of was somewhat looser, which suggested to some that maybe the finer detailed work might have been created, albeit under Chicago’s direction, by other craftspeople.

I too was looking forward to see how beautiful this work was, I had seen all of the work via a video produced for the show and had seen the ‘dinner party’ (which I know was a collaborative project, under Chicago’s direction) in a couple of video presentations. I wasn’t disappointed. The work presented was very good; I am no expert in stitching, fabric or textiles, but I felt that this work was of an extremely high standard. The piece “Birth Tear 1982” had a great deal of animated discussion over whether the stitching had been dyed, or whether she had actually been involved in the fabrication of the piece. The tonal gradations were extremely finely constructed in shades of red and pink with black (or a very very dark red). Everyone seemed very impressed with the craftsmanship of it. The general consensus in the “Autobiography of a year”, where Chicago seemingly poured out her emotions in, as the exhibition catalogue denotes, “140 small drawings” was that the draftsmanship was nowhere near as good, except for a few that depicted a cat (presumably Chicago’s own). That the images were generally about sex was not to everyone’s liking. One of the OCA tutors had led the discussion at the start about what the images perhaps referred to, about some of the references Chicago might have been accessing, ‘religiosity’ was raised a few times, though not wholly successfully; other, short, conversations surrounded some of the photographs about perhaps how the female form was somehow a thing to be worshipped, but it didn’t really come to any conclusion, or consensus.

The small number of students present did divide into two separate groups, but the gallery is very small, and the number of works were considerable the twin parties soon fell back into one group and after an hour or so we were encouraged to consider which of two possible alternative galleries we might all decamp to – one being a textile exhibition and the other a group a feminist artists. It all seemed a bit hurried.

I decided to ask about feminism and sexism. I wanted to try and get a feel of what the group felt about the work. The general consensus was that feminism was largely a non-issue, that the work had been done and that it didn’t seem to affect these students very much. What I felt we didn’t do, as a group, was to explore why Chicago did what she did and still does; after all if feminism is largely a trope of the past what was the point of continuing to do the work in much the same way as she has been doing for several decades? That Chicago uses images that have the power to shock, combining graphic sexual imagery with a beguiling craft in such a way that still makes the viewer stop short isn’t a movement that has many adherents today. Chicago may be ‘out there’ on her own, but she is still doing it, some students wondered whether it might be her capacity (I wondered about need) for self promotion – to this someone added Tracey Emin’s name as someone who also, apparently, glories in self promotion ‘she knows what sells!’. I didn’t hear the same about Chadwick, though of course she is no longer with us.

That we, as a group, didn’t spend much time discussing why Chicago makes art at all was a disappointment to me. I expected to spend time looking at the craft. The focus when away from the craft dwelt on the sexual, if not (as was suggested) pornographic content of the work, but not why she felt she still needed to do the work in that way. I don’t think the group as a whole felt any need to discuss the reasons, the inspirations or the motivations in the work a great deal, which surprised me; this artist, and Emin, and Beorgois, and, perhaps especially Chadwick aren’t amongst many who are challenging the patriarchy of the world that we inhabit – this capitalist, consumer society in the West. As I said previously this group didn’t think there was a fight to continue, my own research, polling some forty or fifty women of different age groups, didn’t think, in the main that there is much of an issue today for women in society. And that disappoints and surprises me.

I had the fortune to spend about as much time again in the gallery with one other student who had also decided to stay and study the work. We discussed how Chicago’s work might seem to stuck in a time warp, that, as mentioned above, she seems still to be railing against the hegemonic dominant construction that appears to continue to increase it’s dominance over our lives. That maybe Chicago feels that she can’t move on because the cause that she continues to highlight through her work has a more acute relevance, has a resonance that will over a relatively short period begin to fully encroach on ‘developing’ economies and societies, such as India. It was a very useful conversation I found, and certainly the most fruitful of the day for me. Thank you Lucie, it was enlightening. P.s. I left your reference in!

I find it puzzling that the cause of feminism hasn’t apparently moved on a great deal. The artists like Chicago, Wilke, Chadwick, Spence, Emin and others have been unable to move the conversation onward. That activists like Fyn Mackay are represented as they are; why this sort of blog is required , and when I asked the same women about this quite a few more said “yeah, that happened to me all the time”!!

I thought the work of Chicago was both very beautiful and dramatic, that it provoked very visceral responses from me and the other students suggest that the work still has some potency. That it is seen a irrelevant to a lot of people, particularly women is a cause for concern to me. The fight for women’s rights isn’t over – this post contains some correspondence from 1909 suggests that we have moved forward, but by how far?

Feminism four

I’m starting to formulate an understanding of feminism – firstly I am unsure though whether it should be Feminism or feminism, or whether that matters at all. Secondly I think I may form other understandings of feminism, in that what follows is a singular distance travelled in one direction, there are, I appreciate, many more directions that I could and may travel.

Of course I had a notion of the position of a ‘woman’ in society – John Lennon expressed it as ‘prone’ – and for many years I had always took that notion at it’s simplest level, the woman ‘laid out’ for the male, supplicant, available, subservient, exhibited much as ‘she’ has been for centuries by artists, nude or semi-nude for the gaze of the male. These notions weren’t conscious, they had been implanted by conditional means that seeped into subconscious via a multitude of visual, cultural and, now I think political mechanisms designed to keep the quo in stasis. However Lennon’s statement could be read as women’s political position in the patriarchal society as that of “prone”. Prone, by gender to under achieve, by their ‘other’s’ standards; to come second (if at all).

Much of ‘art’ until the democratization of the creation of visual media was destined for the privileged classes; patrons commissioned art for various reasons, to deliver their aggrandized view of themselves as a statement, to ease their passage to a better afterlife and not least to provide visual imagery for private, onanistic pleasure behind closed doors. Much as ‘Landscape’s’ traditional aesthetics have been driven by those with the ability to enjoy those landscapes, other than those who were destined to view them as toil, the view of the supplicant female entered the public consciousness by the same means of travel. When museums and mass printing became available the available aesthetic meant that what was extant, as visual imagery, became the de-facto norm in the lower reaches of the class system.

I am also coming to the notion that in our patriarchal, capitalist, consumerist economy, the objectification of the female image serves to reinforce those same value systems that have kept the male as the dominant role, bread winner, politician, King, President, Major, God. It all points to the same place, about three feet off the ground in a fully mature male body.

Reading De Lauretis’ book “Alice Doesn’t – Feminism Semiotics Cinema”, was a struggle at first – the usual issues with semantics covering semiotics, Marxian theories etc etc – but after a while, and by essay three: “Snow on the Oedipal Stage” things started to fall into place, pennies started to drop, it seems that what I had taken for granted may well be conditioning; either of a social/cultural or of a political kind. That, for example, I have always found the shape of a breast a thing of beauty could be associated with the Freudian notion of an Oedipal reaction, but nevertheless I still find that curve a thing of beauty, the same beauty of curve that I can see in so many commodities – especially those designed for male consumption, which is perhaps why we see it so much in visual media. That the breast has been iconified in Western media, and particularly by American mainstream media, and hence the motion picture, however I’m not sure why it is that don’t seem to have the relationship with the breast that the ‘media’ seems to assume that should have. My relations with the breast have been normal as far as I know, I was breast-fed, along with my twin sister – “turn and turn about” was how my mother described us, swapping over to ensure we got the same level of feed whilst both feasting at once. My wife breast-fed both our sons and she was not one to scurry away and hide in some ‘feeding station’ to do so (but that is her relationship with the breast and not mine). Femininity and body issues are though a current concern of mine and in particular the breast; I am working on a project to do with breast cancer, my wife had it, my sister had it, my mother had it and one of our best friends recently died of it, so it is current. The notion of breast therefore isn’t anywhere near as sexual for me as I suspect it may be for a lot of other people – male or female. But I am conscious that it is, in visual media, a strong symbol of sexuality.

If we look at Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting, “Cupid complaining to Venus”, about 1525 Oil on wood at the National Gallery we can see two bodies, one naked one nude; one a cupid figure, the other a young nubile epilated beauty. This beauty, or her like, has been painted a great number of times by this artist for a variety of clients and it would be unlikely that these commissions would have been on public view and, probably, not in a public place within the privacy of their owners premises. This nubile model is stated in a pose as to reveal most parts of interest to a male only gaze. Provocatively lifting her arms away from her body, twisting her pelvis towards the viewer and inviting our view. Compounding this immodesty is her wantonness demonstrated by her complete disregard for the infant cupid figure at her feet. This wretched child is being attacked by bees, it has clearly disturbed a bees nest that it is now, for whatever reason, holding. The infant is looking upwards imploringly to the young woman for help, but our Eve is ignoring him. This child, this young boy, isn’t a challenge to the viewer, the woman clearly is performing for the viewer’s alpha male gaze – we have as a viewer no challenge from this infant boy, any sense or potential of maternal feeling is subverted by her apparent need to serve her viewers needs and desires, that those needs are likely carried out in privacy of a secluded place and in a singular activity is perhaps seen as ‘job done’.

Why then would Tom Hunter develop his own rendition of the image? The Cranach image isn’t a particularly classical study, it is one that has been constructed for very little purpose other than for arousal I suspect. Developing a constructed image that professes to subvert the notion of class, as Hunter has done before and since, could have been accomplished with a range of different pieces, not least by the work he did on the Dutch masters such as Vermeer.

Tom-Hunter-Girls-Sex-Act-in

Girl’s Sex Acts in Club:Court.Cop:’It can only be described as having Sex through Clothes’ reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter’

Hunter’s image, references the painting by Cranach the Elder and depicts another young and nubile young woman, but instead of associating her with the notion of motherhood, this young lady has the dubious pleasure of being associated with the male gaze’s vision of her – of a woman who is there purely for the pleasure of the male gaze, and one assumes the private pleasure thereafter. Hunter’s female has a fully-grown male observing her, perhaps pleading to her not for protection from the sting of the bees prick but for use of his own. This male’s gaze portrayed in the image is twisted and turned in order to get a better view, leaning forward craning his neck to peer upwards to her vagina, he has no interest in her breast, nor anything that accompanies her genitalia. She though only has eyes for us, She doesn’t recognize the man’s presence, her gaze is for us, the viewer that has expressed a desire to look at her, or perhaps for the viewer who is the ‘owner’ of this print of her, bought and sold. Could this though be a feminist vision where the viewer is reminded of consequence of his gaze, of his commodifying gaze that makes a product out of the subjugation of women? Or is it, this depiction of the naked and not nude, what De Lauretis has it in her introduction to her book Alice Doesn’t?… “Let’s say that this book is about woman in the same manner as science fiction is about the future….From the present state of scientific theory and research, the science fiction writer extrapolates and projects the possibilities that, were they to be realized and concretized into a social technology, would effect an alternate world; that future, then, being at once the vanishing point of the fictional construct and its specific, textual condition of existence, i.e., the world in which the fictional characters and events exist. Similarly here woman, the other-from-man (nature and Mother, site of sexuality and masculine desire, sign and object of man’s social exchange) is the term that designates at once vanishing point of our culture’s fictions of itself and the condition of the discourses in which the fictions are represented. For there would be no myth without a princess to be wedded or a sorceress to be vanquished, no cinema without the attraction of the image to be looked at, no desire without an object, no kinship without incest, no science without nature, no society without sexual difference.”

The road goes ever on.

Feminism three

I went to the movies today – tough life, but someone has to do it (actually I stayed in and watched videos). I had been thinking about Laura Mulvey’s text – written about here – about the place of women in the cinema, and I think because of the resonance of Mulvey and Mulray that I thought about Polanski’s classic take on film noire ‘Chinatown’. Before watching that I had thought about another film from around the same era and decided on Bob Rafealson’s ‘Five Easy Pieces’. The former being made in 1974 and the latter in 1970 and both being made around the time that the feminist movement was, maybe, at it’s height, where the rhetoric surrounding the role of women in society was perhaps at it’s loudest.

These are films that I’ve enjoyed for a long time, that they both have Jack Nicholson in I thought provided a connect between them, both characters on the fringes of society, neither married or in a long term relationship and both characters with sexual relationships which provide pivotal points in the narrative of the films.

Five Easy Pieces starts with a shot of Jack Nicholson (Bobby) driving with a backing soundtrack of Tammy Wynette singing “Stand by your man” and so I thought there would be a lot to consider – and I wasn’t disappointed. This soundtrack was part of the duality that painted the character’s multiple conflicts with his past and his conditioning that he was either running away from, or denying. The female lead was provide by Karen Black’s ‘Rayette’, a working class, perhaps described as ‘trailer trash’ and the ingénue to Nicholson’s macho role. Nicholson is situated at the beginning of the film as a ‘rigger’ on the Californian oil fields, in amongst tough men, manly, hard working, hard drinking, gambling, unreconstructed male. Black’s character ‘needs’ her man, needs him to look after her, to ‘love’ her, to be her ‘man’. This female character is only fully drawn by being with ‘Bobby’, she is childlike, looking for praise, to be stroked both metaphorically and physically, her body is for her ‘man’. Whilst Nicholson’s character is equally at home in sexual intimacy with other women, his independence is more important than fidelity, his horror at being told that he may have fathered a child with the ‘childlike’ Black character is graphically drawn. The controlling, phallocentric imagery of this film does take a turn when Nicholson’s ‘other’ is brought into sharp contrast both in terms of his past life and in his conditioned response to femininity. Robert Eroica Dupea (Bobby) we find hails from Rhode Island, from ‘old money’ from an artistic, musical family, his brother and sister are concert standard musicians, ‘Bobby’ is a classically trained pianist – there is a long link pan which habituates this family to a series of portraits of Chopin and Beethoven  – here is the stronger narrative struggle the film deals with – but I’m not looking at this aspect but rather looking at the interaction between his relationship with Black and the intellectual equal the Susan Anspach character who is at the family home where Nicholson returns, studying and engaged to Nicholsons character’s brother. Whilst ‘Bobby’ feels he can do without the clinging ‘Rayette’ he feels emotionally drawn to the Anspach character – she is able to converse at a level that the Nicholson character can identify with; but he still feels the need to seduce her and I wonder whether that is an expression of control or about possession and if so for narrative purpose or for societal purposes.

Chinatown though deals with an altogether darker subject. Incestuous rape. Nicholson plays a private investigator J J Gettes , snared into a family secret via a power play concerning big business, money and control. John Houston plays Noah Cross, the one time owner of all the water to Los Angeles the sale of which has made him very rich – but he has a plan to further develop that wealth and take another firm grip on the future wealth by again controlling the water supply to the wider aspect of the growing Los Angeles surrounds.

Noah Cross has already screwed the inhabitants of the city once, is still screwing the current inhabitants and plans to screw them over for generations to come. And his penis is at the heart of the film. We find out late in the film that Cross, some fifteen years or so previous raped the female lead Evelyn Mulray, played by Faye Dunaway as a fifteen year old, before the story in the film starts. Despite Evelyn being married to Noah Cross’ business partner, in itself a sort of incestuous relationship she self confesses to Gettes to having a series of extra marital relationships, situating her as a woman of low morals, she is bedded by Nicholson’s character and as she struggles to come to terms with any aspect of her life – not difficult in itself to understand given her circumstances – she turns to Gettes. Evelyn Catherine Mulray nee Cross has to pay for her crime of incest with her father, not withstanding she was raped, she also produces a daughter born from the rape, and this offspring is also the ‘cross’ that Mulray has decided to bare as her penance for her intimacy – she describes how she deserted the child but then sought her out and reclaimed her. However this woman is tainted, and her ultimate punishment is to be killed, to be shot at the end of the film as she is fleeing with her daughter after their father confronts them, wanting her daughter to pass her sister, their daughter to their father. The grandfather/father walks his daughter/granddaughter away from the scene of death, the victim remains the victim, the power retains it’s potency, JJ Gettes remains impotent to correct any wrong doings – the size of Cross’ power being so much larger then his.

Both these films can be potentially read as either feminist or anti-feminist, I can see ideas in them that could be interpreted either way. I think that the earlier ‘Five Easy Pieces’ can be more easily slotted into a feminist argument – Rayette only gets pleasure, sexual or otherwise by the good nature of Bobby, he is free not only to have ‘fun’ at home or away, but also to question his life, his position in the world, whereas Black’s character is part formed only until she is inhabited by Bobby’s omnipotence – if he is happy she will be, if he is screwing her she is happy, she will be fulfilled by his sated penis – he is never satisfied, always wanting more than she can ever give. Bobby isn’t satisfied with the Anspach character either, despite her obvious intellectual equivalence. Whereas ‘Chinatown’ is a much more obvious comment on the state on the gender relationships in contemporaneous America, about how the position of the male in society is all powerful, that the female is subordinate and however hard she tries to free her bonds her fate is sealed by the male. No wonder that the brother of Bobby describes their sister’s manner as penis envy – what else would there be to lust after?

So, how would I conclude? I think it is perfectly possible to read either film in a feminist way, and maybe in a post feminist way, but I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is to be aware of how the filmic structure and the contextual relationships of the era that the work was created and the norms that were culturally acceptable then have combined to present two really fine films but that indicate the prevailing gender relationships at the time of production. I was interested to see how the depiction of the female form was made, both of the female lead roles were fully formed mature adults, not the typical ‘teen-bodied’ silicon implanted bodies. These two women had breasts that seem to ‘hang’ normally, their hips were rounded not angular, I couldn’t count their ribs. I think that speaks another volume, but not one I propose to think about in this post.

Feminism two

RW

I am mindful that any position I take on this subject will likely have a number of holes in it. I am a male – the ‘other’ – in this respect, I am new to taking a considered position on this subject, though I have never thought of myself as anything other than a sympathizer to the cause, though I am also aware that that statement is steeped in issues in and of itself. So I shan’t take a position as such, other than to say that I feel that the position of women, though greatly improved over the previous half century is still woefully short than that of the man.

I have been reading some feminist literature, looking at women’s work that deal with these issues and am in the middle of a survey (non-scientific) of women’s feelings towards feminism and these all are starting to fuel the shifting of my perspectives on the subject.

Looking at the responses to my questioning of women that I have known, mostly for most of my life or theirs and some others whom I suspected might be able to provide considered responses I am not finding a universal acceptance that feminism is/was a wholly good thing, which surprised me. All of the women that have responded thus far have agreed that women’s position in society has improved, though feminism has brought with it, for some, some downsides.

This was offered by Tanya in New York as an expression of the normality of how things should/could be expected by the emancipated woman:

“…can your mother, wife, aunt, sister, daughter, friend…

go out without your permission?

can she get a job?

can she walk unmolested?

can she vote?

can she participate in the wider society?

can she study any subject at college?

can she work at any job she is qualified for?

can she marry who she likes?

can she choose when or if to have babies, contraception not just abortion?

can she sustain her own household should she wish to?

can she wear what she wants?

can she talk to who she wants?

can she do anything that  you can do?

can she look after herself  in her old age?

I can guarantee that even in our cushy western lifestyles all these things cannot be taken for granted.”

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list, nor a manifesto, but it serves as a stark reminder as to the norm’s that women have a right to expect and that these questions are asked is a testament to the distance yet to travel.

And from Sue:

“The development of feminism over the past few decades has been interesting to watch. There’s been quite an onslaught by the media I think, which has made it difficult to ‘admit’ to being a feminist. Most women see that as a term they don’t want to use about themselves. The ‘new’ feminism literature has focused more on the individual than the political I think – Naomi Wolf on The Beauty Myth and Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. This reflects a direction in society as a whole, I think, away from the collective/political to the individual. The good part I think is that there’s a reclaiming of the right to be ‘girly’ and wear high heels etc if we choose, which the old feminism tended to disapprove of. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is interesting too – on one level a terrible view of women’s sexuality being passive and masocistic, but on another showing a man taking a huge amount of interest in a women’s body and lavishing great attention on it.

Going back to your list of ways in which things have changed for women, I think clearly the pill and domestic labour-saving devices such as the hoover have had enormous impacts on women’s lives. Old-fashioned discrimination in the workplace has gone underground and is not so blatant, but is still there as I know from the stories I hear from women. The numbers of women in senior management is still dire and the debate about whether we should have quotas is still ongoing. So in some ways the striving for equality hasn’t got very far. On the personal level, there’s still a lot to be done in changing men’s attitudes to the women they live with, I think. 2 women each week are killed by their partners or ex-partners in the UK – I think that’s really shocking. And even this week in Delhi there is uproar over the rape and deaths of women. I’m heartened by the publicity given to sexual abuse scandals recently here as I hope that will make it ok for more women to come forward about these things and less of a blind eye will be turned. So maybe things are improving.”

And another view, which seems to both be anti and sympathetic to feminism in the same paragraph. I had heard from another source that feminism isn’t the cause that it once was, that it’s fight seemed to be over and that people (I suppose women) assumed that the message was implicit in their everyday lives.

“My view is that Feminism as a movement is irrelevant today and even in the past I am not convinced that it helped women. Feminists were, in my opinion, associated with do gooders and lesbians and was not easily associated with the real world of work. Having said this perhaps the antics of burning bras and chaining themselves to garden rails brought the issues to the forefront. Those that did really progress the rights of women to be treated equally in the workplace I would not call feminists and some, notably Thatcher, did a lot to hurt the sexism movement.

In terms of where we are today we only need to look at today’s pay inequalities and the number of women in top management positions to see that things have improved a bit but not enough.”

Catherine talks here of sexual politics:

“Have just remembered that I haven’t mentioned anything about ‘sexual politics’ which was what the Womens Lib movement spoke out about and also the influence of the birth control pill.  The pill has given women more sexual freedom but can this mean they might say ‘Yes’ more often and be less discriminating and selective in a sexual partner? Does/can that lower self-esteem somehow?”

I wonder and have wondered for some time about the notion that if women have more than a couple of sexual partners that somehow demeans them but if men do then that somehow elevates them. I had honestly thought that this notion was outdated, that the sexual emancipation of women, about fifty years ago, had overcome the notion that a one-man girl was the ideal wife and that the ‘slapper’ was what the man looked for on a Saturday night. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe in a generation or two’s time this notion will be completely overwritten, that the notion of sexual purity for women and sexual experience for men are twin – though mutually exclusive – ideals for humankind.

Which leads me to Angela Carter’s “The Sadeian Woman” where she contrasts the two sister heroines, Justine and Juliette. The one, Justine being the embodiment of classic feminity of obedience and compliance, of subservience and with no ability to enjoy the act of sex, other than for the gratification of her husband, who is never to be, her virginity is her gift to her husband and even though it is forcefuly taken from her, she still believes that she is pure for her future husband as she hasn’t ‘given it away’. Sade never has her enjoy a moments physical pleasure. Whereas her sister Juliette adopts the male role in a completely phallocentric society – the Sadeian world is one where the penis rules, every successful character has a penis, and the bigger the more successful they are – even the few women that succeed  – have larger and larger pricks or dildos. In the Sadeian world the cult of the penis is everything and the emancipation of the female, I think this is how Carter has it, is through the power of the penis, over and above that of the castrated woman.

Therefore Catherine’s notion that the ‘easy’ women is less of a person (to herself or to society) because the world is still phallocentric, still in awe of the power of the penis, set in stage by it’s historical ability to impregnate the women with a seed, rather than fertilize the already extant egg within the womb. History has it that women were bearers, of the egg/seed/life provided by the omniscience of the male and that the women’s function was to deliver him – preferably a male – to continue the line.

Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” also centres on the position of phallus’ centrality in the visual world, how the narrative of the media, explicitly in this essay about the cinema, has the female viewed as under the protection of, guardianship of, the male, that the male predicts the look of the hero (as opposed to the heroine) or the lens. This notion performs the act that the male is the controller of the way in which the female is portrayed is only ever attempted to be subverted by the “fallen” woman, very few challenges to that notion are delivered in the visual media, and a ghastly end for the heroine is the usual solution. Some would say that the image of “woman” has perhaps tripped backwards in these modern ‘enlightened’ times. I’m still trying to find out.

I remember looking at Helen Chadwick’s “One Flesh” and being mesmerized at the ‘other’ nature of what I can only describe as the exultation of the difference of “womanhood”. The physical imprint of the baby child into the picture; the redness of the blood of the womb and of childbirth; the umbilical cord with it’s resonance of life giver; the primacy and power of the vagina as expressed by the Madonna figure pointing explicitly at the newborns genitals. And above all the naked vagina, adorned with jewellery in an image which is designed as an alter piece with the vagina situated above all – life giver, life receiver and more powerful than the penis it receives or delivers.

I took the picture of my friend some time ago. I like it and I return to it regularly and like a lot of imagery it’s resonances move around with the development of ideas. What I like about it now, or rather what I see in it now is the femininity of the image as it provides the soft curves and breast but also the central space, which I have always enjoyed about this photograph, now seems to represent the womb and perhaps provides whatever power it has today.

To be continued.

references:

“The Sadeian Woman” Angela Carter published by Virago ISBM 0-86068-055-X

“Visual PLeasure and Narrative Cinema” Laura Mulvey, “Film Theory & Criticism” seventh edition OUP ISBN 978-0-19-536562-7