Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tilting The Scales

    Catlett is one of a number of American women artist, both white and black, who have attempted to create appropriate images of historical images of historical and allegorical figures to symbolize their struggle for equality,in the area of race as well as gender. It would be nice to be able to say that the works that the pioneer members of this group produced are dazzling masterpieces, sudden manifestations of repressed genius, but this is not the case. Instead they tend to be worthy, honourable attempts to say something necessary and different, which are all to some extent frustrated by their adherence to the artistic conventions of their time. 

    Of the two sculptors whose work illustrated here, Harriet Hosmer(1830-1908) is probably the best known. Her Zenobia was exhibited in the international Exhibition held in london in 1862. She was one of a group of American women sculptors - nicknamed the white marmoreal flock - who lived in Rome in the nineteenth century. Her choice of subject and her presentation of it both have things to tell us. Captive women had great appeal for the nineteenth - century audience. Another American sculptor who was living and working in Italy, Hiram Powers(1803-73), had previously scored a huge international success with his Greek Slave, shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, also held in London. Both artists worked in marble, in the conventional academic style of their period, but there is nevertheless a great contrast between their two captive figures. Hosmer's is a historical personality - Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra (d. after 274 AD), who led a revolt against the Roman Empire. She is fully clothed, whereas Powers' statue is nude and represents an anonymous victim of the Greek War of Independence, then still vivid in public memory.

    Hosmer's sculpture, though never as notorious as that of Power, did attract a good deal of public attention. Part of this fascination, however, was due to the claim made in the press, notably in the Art Journal, that Hosmer could not have made it herself, but must have relied almost entirely on assistants. Hosmer thought that the attack was prompted by her gender, and contemporary evidence shows that this was the case. In later life Hosmer was identified with the women's rights movement, but even earlier, with Zenobia, her choice of subject - a captive ruler - offered a comment on the condition of women in general.   

    Hagar, by the black, and also partly Native American, sculptor Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844-after 1911), who also lived and worked in Rome, carries a similar burden of comment, simply through the choice of subject.  Hagar was Abraham's Egyptian concubine - harshly treated by his legitimate wife, Sarah- who fled into the desert and was succoured there by an angel. Later she gave birth to Ishmael, who has become the type of the outcast. But, while the subject hints at rebellion, the style is once again tamely academic. Recent reactions to Lewis' sculpture indicate the difficulty of finding any kind of middle ground in dealing with work of this type. Too much emphasis on her racial background in dealing with work of this type. Too much emphasis on her racial background and her gender have the effect of trivializing her ambition, which was to be seen not as some kind of strange phenomenon but as a sculptor working on equal terms with the other sculptors who surrounded her. When Lewis talked about her own background she tended to stress her Native American ancestry rather than her African heritage, and she made a number of sculptures on Indian themes, most of which are now lost. 

       The Awakening of Ethiopia, by another black woman sculptor, MetaVauxWarwick Fuller (1877-1968), who belonged to a somewhat younger generation, is more directly concerned with the theme of black liberation than Lewis' Hagar. A young African woman, wearing the headdress of an ancient Egyptian queen, is shown emerging from the wrappings of a mummy. The image reflects the desire to link contemporary African-American cultural endeavours with the prestigious past represented by pharaonic Egypt. Though Fuller was older than most of the male members of the Harlem Renaissance, this work in particular became emblematic of the resurgence of African- American art which took place in the 1920's, and, despite its somewhat unadventurous style, retains strong symbolic value today.

       For all their evident inadequacies, these sculptures can be regarded as genuine forerunners of the feminist art movement that arose in the United States in the 1970s. One major parallel is the concern with actual content. While the artist who created this movement raged at the oppression of women, making works which were cathartic because of their emotional violence, they also sought to celebrate women's achievements, long hidden by history. The culmination of this effort was the massive installation The Dinner Party created by Judy Chicago (b.1939). Presented in the form of a triple Eucharist, which singled out 39 famous women who had altered the course of human history - but also found space to mention numerous others - the work made a point of using skills that have been thought of as specifically female, such as stitchery and china painting, as an integral part of the presentation.

       Chicago, even more than predecessors such as Hosmer, ran into criticism for the ambitious nature of her enterprise. many male viewers, and some feminist also, took offence at the nature her imagery, which seemed to place the emphasis on the physical differences between men and women - the plates at her Dinner Party were inspired by the form of the vulva - rather on the inequalities imposed by the social context. Chicago has always said that her primary aim was not to stress difference but to celebrate women's achievement in the face of all odds. The Dinner Party is now recognized as being both a key event in the history of the women's movement and also a defining moment in the history of American art. It also signalled the return to content, long in abeyance since the triumph of Minimal Art in the late 1960s, and a new willingness to reconsider the role of the decorative. A number of male artist, such as the Los Angeles Angeles painter Lari Pittman (b.1952), have acknowledged the influence it had on their work.


Judith Weingarten said...

Great post. More about Hosmer and her Zenobia statue at
Zenobia is back in America

Many good wishes for 2009!

Arts Heart said...

Thank you for that info Judith i enjoyed reading and finding out more about Zenobia. great post too i must say.