Study day on May 11th to explore the ways women have portrayed themselves in art.
Arrestingly, Carole began her lecture by asking us to think back to our morning routine: “What made you choose your clothes? How did you want to present yourselves?” These questions were designed to make us reflect on the way artists, especially female artists, have presented themselves and how they might have been affected by their ‘audience’.
We all know the social constraints and prejudices that have barred women from education and self- expression for centuries, but who dared to present themselves and how was a path made for women to be acknowledged as artists? It was fascinating to think about the very earliest of examples of women’s portraiture. The first acknowledged piece dates from 1453. In Renaissance Italy, Maria Ormani, an Augustinian nun from an elite Florentine family, finished the page she had created in the illuminated manuscript of a breviary, with a small self-portrait at the bottom of the page framed in decorative scrolls with the words ‘Maria scripsit’ to lay claim to her artwork. This now seems an act of brave self-confidence. It would not have been possible without her wealthy connections.
A recent exhibition at The National Gallery brought us the work of the seventeenth century artist, Artemisia Gentileschi. Not only was she a prodigiously talented painter, but she also used her artwork to challenge the predatory nature of males, drawing on her own traumatic experience. Daringly in ‘Susannah and the Elders’ she portrays the men as lecherous oglers on female beauty.
Without formal education ,how did the trail blazers manage to develop their talent? Artemisia’s father was a painter and she studied in his studio. For many years family connections were the only way for females artists to establish themselves. Finally, in the nineteenth century women were allowed to attend art courses. Even then, nude figure painting was not permitted, and female students were segregated from males. With this atmosphere of repression and prudishness, it is remarkable that we have any female painters of note. However, better education for women and casting off the shackles of domesticity have allowed women’s art to flourish. Self-portraiture, Carole showed us, was often a means of displaying the artist’s skill and claiming, as Maria Ormani, the right to self-advertisement. Women in the 20th and 21st centuries have built on the brave pioneers of the past.
In recent years, female artists have continued to paint not just decoratively, but politically as well, keen to present intimate female concerns to a public and challenge the audience. Freda Kahlo and Tracey Emin have boldly exhibited their very personal experiences in bright colours and shocking detail, following on from the example shown by Artemisia.
Members of the committee contributed dishes for a delicious lunch, after which we were invited to engage in some artwork ourselves. We all commented on the deep, contented hush that fell on the room as people set to work with pencil, paper or iPad to create a portrait or self-portrait.
What a good day we had! Huge thanks to Carole for suggesting the topic and sharing her research in such a well-structured and fascinating lecture.
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