I will be using Girselda Pollock’s ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’ chapter from her book ‘Vision and Difference’ written in 1988 and Carol Duncan’s 1973 essay titled ‘Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting’ to explore the male perspective prevalent in Art History. The man’s viewpoint has a range of implications on the formal execution of art, the subject (women) and its portrayal in art, the interpretation of (women’s) art and ultimately the experiences of women and therefore their art. As Pollock focuses mainly on the period of Modernism from 1867 – 1891 while Duncan scrutinizes the Vanguard painters of the Die Brücke and Les Fauves movements before World War I, this provides two consecutive periods in which we can examine the gender bias.
The experiences of men and women and their implication in art
The idea of freedom in the Modern city of Paris was inspired by the anonymity a man experienced in crowds, where he was at leisure to abandon the bourgeois moral codes, unleash his “covetous and erotic” gaze and partake in “cross-class sexual exchange[s]” (Pollock, 67, 79). This was sharply contrasted with the risk a “lady” was subjected to if she was merely exposed to anything amoral by society’s standards, as “seeing was bound up with knowing” (Pollock, 78). In her book, Pollock quotes from French historian Jules Michelet’s ‘La Femme’ demonstrating how damaging it was for a woman of a certain class, to go out unaccompanied in the evening. The implication was that she was a prostitute or at least of shady moral standing. This highlights how removed women were from subject matter depicting nightlife, which dominated Modernist painting, for example, Manet’s ‘Un bar aux Folies Bergère’ (1881-2). In the Modernist era, since women were confined to private spaces like dining rooms, drawing rooms, bedrooms, balconies/verandas and gardens, it is logical to assume that this is why they painted more domestically situated scenes (1988).
In Vanguard painting, Duncan describes the concept of freedom taking on a slightly different nuance. It is still a male privilege but has more to do with the individual freedom of the artist as an energetic sexual force expressing itself through innovative techniques, formative qualities, use of media, and of course, the literal subjugation of the female nude in his work. Duncan points out that for women artists such as Expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker, but to a certain extent all female artists, the challenge is still to master our own image in order to counteract the continuously insidious dehumanization of it (1973).
Investigating formal executions in art
Referring to T.J. Clark’s writings, Pollock illustrates that there are primarily two types of women depicted in the Modernist paintings of Renoir, Manet, Degas and Guys: “La fille publique” (woman of the street) and “La femme honnête” (the respectable married woman). The portrayal of each type was carefully staged by the use of various formal painting elements. Pollock compares the manner in which Modernists painted promenading, honorable ladies “decorporealized” and without much distinction between their clothes and bodies, with women painted for “visual and notional sexual consumption” (73) whose bodies were revealed and erotically accentuated by drapery (1988). Duncan also meticulously uncovers the intentions behind the formal decisions made by The Symbolists, like Edvard Munch, who painted muted, dark femmes fatales, emphasizing their sinister presence with skull-like features and flowing clothes and hair. She also unravels the use of intense colours, gestural brush strokes and compositions of headless, fleshy nudes, in subservient, sexually available positions almost literally at the artist’s feet, the younger Vanguard artists utilized to assert their dominance, control and sexual virility (1973). She quotes Fauvist Vlaminck as saying:
“I try to paint with my heart and loins, not bothering with style.” (Duncan, p. 306)
Women as a subject and their portrayal in art
Pollock reminds us of the numerous, seminal works of art, including Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’, whose subject is situated in a brothel. The superiority of the male painter (and the assumed male audience) evident is over the subject’s class as well as gender (1988). Duncan goes even further by attributing the painting with being the ultimate manifestation of all the alienating female stereotypes preoccupying Western male artists, namely: the devouring femme fatale, the primitive woman who is instinctive, uncultured and foreign, as well as the “primal mother-whore” creature which appears:
“…decadent and savage, tempting and repelling, awesome and obscene, looming and crouching, masked and naked, threatening and powerless.” (Duncan, p.305)
Pollock juxtaposes the portrayal of female social debutants in paintings by Cassat and Renoir. In ‘La Loge’ (1874), Renoir’s garish subject appears to coquettishly take pleasure in being on display, whereas Cassat’s later painting of the same name (1882) shows a couple of young girls who look uncomfortable, stiff and awkward, one of which is actually hiding behind a fan. Cassat’s black clothed figure in ‘A l’Opera’ (1879) also rejects the notion of being on display, as public places were “policed by men’s watching…” (Pollock, 75). She twists away from the onlooker and avoids eye contact through the act of “watching” someone else through binoculars (1988). Duncan, on the other hand, compares the depiction of women, often portrayed by Vanguard artists as mere stimuli to their own sexual sensations and devoid of any individuality, to the diverse women of all ages in the works of their contemporary female artists like Suzanne Valadon, Sonia Delaunay and Paula Modersohn-Becker (Duncan 1973).
The interpretation of (women’s) art
Pollock insists that the role of feminist art historians is twofold: to recover unknown or neglected works of art created by women and to deconstruct the established, gender biased systems in order to analyze them appropriately. The “natural” patriarchal perspective of art history can no longer be accepted as a universal one, of which women are a subsidiary component. Women’s artwork cannot be judged on the basis of assuming biological gender differences and ascribing qualities of “femininity” to it, without considering the contrasting social and economical experiences of men and women. Pollock includes a quote by Irish art critic George Moore who says of painter Louise Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun:
“… she has created a style… by investing her art with all her femininity; her art is no dull parody of ours; it is all womanhood – sweet, gracious, tender and wistful womanhood.” (Pollock, p. 83)
Pollock stresses that, apart from the necessity of avoiding the projection of stereotypical notions of femininity onto art produced by women, the individuality of the creator must be acknowledged in its examination. Women should not be dismissively grouped together as they do not all share the same experiences or intentions (1988).
Freedom has been a lofty notion perpetuated in art history as a universal claim of the intrepid artist. Pollock and Duncan both oppose the universality of this “truth”, specifically in the realm of women artists. They argue that women have been subjected to a long history of confinement physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. They compound this idea by analyzing predominant views, the imagery of art produced and the social contexts of men and women during the period of 1867 to 1905.
In my opinion, topics discussed in this essay are still relevant today, as many cultures continue to physically and mentally limit the development and choices of women. Even in so-called progressive societies, women internalize many of the sexist views deliberately perpetuated historically, as stereotypes remain a constant in the omnipresent media. The discourse of art is presently less gender biased, however, I believe (especially in my own work) that the challenge of reclaiming an autonomous representation of the female figure, remains an ambitious issue.
Carol Duncan, ‘Virility and Domination in Early 20th century Vanguard Painting’,
The Aesthetics of Power. Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 81-109.
Griselda Pollock, ‘Modernity and the spaces of femininity’, Vision and Difference:
femininity, feminism and the history of art, London and New York: Routledge, 1988, pp.50-90.
 An important aspect of the differences between men and women, not discussed in this essay, was the economical one. Respectable women did not earn money and therefore were dependent on men for their needs (Pollock 1988).
 Duncan discusses how the Vanguard artists’ male supremacist ideas were a reaction to the Suffragist movement and its implications (308). Pollock also talks about how men colluded to maintain their freedom by stigmatizing women who ventured out into public spaces (69).